Migration is one of the most relevant contemporary issues, and its complexity suggests an interdisciplinary approach. That is the premise of an international conference being hosted by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies September 29-30. “A Hundred Years of Migration (1917-2017): Stories of Caribbean Exile and Diaspora” convenes 22 renowned scholars in the humanities and the social sciences from universities across North America and the Caribbean.
The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.
The itinerant cultures of the Caribbean are meant to launch a larger discussion. The conference seeks to extrapolate from the trends and themes that emerge from an examination of migration within the Caribbean context to the global stage. “We’re trying to use the Caribbean as a case in point,” explains conference co-organizer Anke Birkenmaier, “to approach other regions of the world and see if the paradigms that we’ve developed for one region might apply to other regions.” (The other conference co-organizer is Vivian Halloran, professor of American Studies and English.) This ‘critical area studies approach’ is unlike previous models, according to Birkenmaier. “That’s a term that’s actually been coined here, at SGIS, at the Center for Global Change,” explains the associate professor and CLACS director, “and it is something that we very much believe in.”
The critical area studies approach is borne out in the conference keynote, which will compare dynamics within two island states a world apart. In her talk “Terripelagoes: Archipelagic Thinking in Culebra (Puerto Rico) and Guam,” Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, professor at Rutgers University, will not only compare far-flung locales but use the disparate disciplines of literary theory, history, and anthropology to examine migration in both regions. Martinez-San Miguel’s range is representative of the breadth of the conference, during which six panel discussions will feature speakers from linguistics, literary and cultural studies, history, sociology, anthropology, Africana and diaspora studies, and public policy.
While laying the groundwork for the study of critical regions worldwide, the conference centers on the Caribbean – from Haiti and the Anglophone West Indies to the Spanish-speaking islands. The centenary of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 provides a milestone from which to review migration, exile, and diaspora over the long term. The law, which granted U.S. citizenship to those born in Puerto Rico, ushered in an era of liminality for the territory and its people, which conference panelist Jorge Duany refers to as one of “blurred borders.” Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens and were free to travel back and forth, creating constant migration flows. But Puerto Rico still has limited representation rights, and limited access to self-determination.
The conference opens with a roundtable discussion of the act, featuring a range of Indiana University faculty members – Maurer School of Law Professor Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, Associate Professor of History Arlene Diaz, and IU School of Education Associate Professor of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education Carmen Medina.
Although the political status of Puerto Rico, which is not a sovereign state, differs from that of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other entities, the phenomenon of migration—whether elective or compulsory—is a fact of life in the Caribbean. People leave their homeland because of political persecution or economic necessity, but also forge transnational lives by choice – a complexity suggested by the conference subtitle “Stories of Exile and Diaspora.” Additionally, as a counterpart to the thriving Caribbean diaspora in the U.S., the islands host a substantial contingent of Europeans, who have the means to make a second home there. In her own talk, Birkenmaier will focus on films by Dominican directors who explore “the tension between a local population that can be very poor and has little access to the outside and economies that are much larger and allow for leading transnational lives.”
Along with the “culture clashes” of such encounters, and the suffering of those exiled from their country, Birkenmaier suggests that migration to and from the Caribbean over the last century has also yielded substantial economic and cultural benefits. Many Puerto Ricans, and a newer generation of Cubans, she says, claim a diasporic identity, “which tries to be more celebratory of a bi-cultural identity.”
Scholars of the Caribbean have been writing about transnationalism for at least the last two decades, notes Birkenmaier, so their work is seminal in the study of an increasingly globalized world. Which is why the stories of the people who come and go from these small island communities might have implications for a world where so many people are in flux. “We want to show that interconnected economies and societies are a part of modern life.”