Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 3, Issue 2
spring 2013
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Craig Canfield
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

Migrant City

by Alicia Schmidt Camacho


I came to New Haven in 1998 after a year in San Diego, where I had been immersed in the astounding traffic of the border space – border patrol vehicles parked at the KFC at the corner near my favorite café; Cameroonian soccer players hollered out from fields in Balboa Park; guayabas, avocados, and the reddest tomatoes gave up their fragrance at the Chinese-Mexican grocery store near my house.  I worked as a translator for an independent union that emerged from the Han Young factory in Tijuana to challenge the indifference of the state controlled labor organizations to the plight of maquiladora workers. These fledgling unionists sought solidarity from U.S. labor leaders who most often wanted simply to protect their national interests in opposition to the losses they’d incurred from free trade.  The movement was a reckoning with the intransigence of class and national power amidst the dizzying processes of global capitalist expansion. I learned a great deal from the frustrations of that moment and from the welders and chassis-builders who introduced me to their bordered lives. I was amazed by the contrast between the deprivations of the labor situation and the beauty of our environment. It is, in memory now, a year of the brightest sun and bluest skies I had ever enjoyed and of trips to beaches and picnics of fish tacos dripping salsa all over hungry fingers.  En fin, my days there were ones of plenitude, of sensations, of culture, of engagement with new forms of struggle across the boundary.

So I could not have been more astonished to find that New Haven easily, readily, and generously became home.  However pale the sun felt in comparison, the city seemed poised for new growth and change in its encounter with the folks from Bucaramanga, Guayaquíl, and Tlaxcala, whose sudden arrival in the northeast shadowed my own.  After a few abortive purchases at the Shaw’s on Whalley, I found a market on Grand Avenue where an old bodeguero found me cans of chipotle and dried jamaica flowers in his store room. He brought me back to search through his shelves with a solemnity reserved for sacred objects, and bagged them quickly like they were contraband.  Not long after, Guadalupe La Poblanita opened its first storefront at the bridge linking Fair Haven to the downtown, and I was in my element.  That spring, I attended my first community meeting devoted to the problem of driver’s licenses for unauthorized migrants and began to measure the strength of this small, and hidden, minority within the city.  In frequent gatherings in church basements and community centers, and, later, at City Hall, new migrants shared their aspirations for sustaining ties of kinship and culture across vast distances, defended their labor with honor, and insisted on their place in a changing civic order of this complicated city.

Since then, my teaching and scholarship have thrived on my collaborations with this migrant city. I am not so far from the San Diego/Tijuana crossing after all. The vibrant urbanism of New Haven – in its faith communities, unions, artists’ collectives, universities, and community agencies – has given me access to modes of civic engagement and collective action that would not have been possible in San Diego, Los Angeles, or Chicago, where the multitudes would have been too vast, and the political machinery too great for the kind of conviviality this city can create. Of course, it is just possible to reside and work in New Haven and never find your way into these spaces of encounter and exchange; but I have been gratified to find that my students and co-workers have never sought to remove themselves from the challenges this city – so rich and yet so, so stratified – can pose.  This year, I am teaching a seminar called “Latina/o New Haven,” where my students and I are crafting a narrative about this ethnic and migrant presence, tracing Caribbean diasporas, Afro-Latino dialogues, and hemispheric movements for indigenous, labor, and migrant rights.  The city comes to life in the classroom as a hive of human activity – from the most intimate spaces of residency to the abstract institutional forms of governance and commerce – and a relatively small place suddenly reveals its immensity and rich potential. It has been the highlight of my time here, and I am grateful for the students’ deep investment with me in our process of inquiry and discovery.
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