Migration and Generation

Mette Louise Berg

Questions of migrant adaptation and engagement with their homelands are becoming increasingly important to migrants, their homelands, and the countries where they move. Yet our understanding of how migrants’ pasts impact on their adaptation where they resettle and how they relate from there to their homelands remains inadequate. In the West, migrants are all too often seen as ‘immigrants’ only, but every immigrant is also an emigrant, and brings experiences and memories embedded in particular historical contexts with them when they migrate and resettle.

‘The Exiles’ and ‘The Children of the Revolution’
In my research on diasporic Cubans in Spain I found that Cubans related differently to their homeland, to their new land and to other Cubans depending on when they had left Cuba. Cuba has undergone enormous changes since the middle of the twentieth century, and especially after the 1959 revolution, such that Cubans experienced ‘different Cubas’ in their formative years depending on when they were born.

This was especially true of Cubans who came of age respectively prior to the revolution, at the time of the revolutionary transformation, and amidst the economic crisis that ensued when the Soviet Union collapsed and Soviet aid and trade, as a result, ended. I have traced these differences as they manifest themselves in memories of homeland and belonging.

I argue that seen through a lens of migration trajectories, three clusters of ‘diasporic generations’ emerge among Cubans, each with a distinct way of remembering and relating to homeland, and with different material conditions both for leaving and visiting Cuba, and for staying in Spain. I have called these generations ‘the exiles’, ‘the children of the revolution’ and ‘the migrants’ respectively.

I argue that a generational approach is helpful for mapping the different ways in which Cubans experience and narrate home and belonging, and for appreciating the changing nature of home and homeland as moulded by context.

Harvard University event explores generational dynamics
Professor Susan Eckstein at Boston University found a very similar dynamic among Cubans in the US in her research and made a similar argument in her book on the Cuban diaspora there, showing how Cubans’ practices of remittance-sending and homeland visits vary between the different generations or cohorts of Cubans. We were both struck by the similarities in our research and wondered if our findings could be extrapolated to other cases of diasporas generated through political upheaval in the homeland.

We therefore organised a small workshop which took place at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute in late November at which a small group of invited scholars came together to discuss generational dynamics among a wide range of diasporic groups including, apart from Cubans, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Croatians, Eritreans, Greeks, Iranians, Liberians, Peruvians, Russian Jews, and Sri Lankan Tamils, in a range of countries of settlement.

Generation is a key concept in assimilationist studies, the dominant frame applied in social science studies of migration in the twentieth century. Migration studies within the assimilationist frame mainly focus on the US, assessing the adaptation of foreign-born and their off-spring where they resettle.

Building on the US adaptation ideal, the research has focused on the extent to which the foreign-born take on the language and culture of their new country, succeed economically, participate in new country political and associational life, and mix with native-born in their personal lives. Analysts have presumed that the longer migrants live in the US the greater their assimilation and acculturation, in that with years in the US migrants were increasingly exposed to the ways of their new land.

Children of migrants were assumed typically to know first-hand only their parents’ new country of settlement, not their original homeland. This mode of conceptualizing generation has been exceptionally successful in both scholarship and popular understandings of migration. Hence most people understand what we mean when we talk about ‘the second generation’ of migrants, and there is a host of assumptions about particular issues and predicaments faced by ‘the second generation’. Yet the basic assumptions of the assimilationist framework have been critiqued for being teleological, ahistorical and for obliterating migrants’ transnational engagements.

During the Radcliffe workshop we discussed the value of a different way of conceptualizing generation, in which historical context is foregrounded. We found that a historically grounded understanding of generation documents and accounts for aspects of migrant views and involvements that the assimilationist approach leaves undocumented and unexplained. A publication of workshop proceedings is in preparation.