Lucía Isabel Stavig is a PhD student in Justice Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the intersection of representation, immigration, and citizenship among undocumented mothers in Arizona. She received her B.A. from New College of Florida with a concentration in Sociology and Latin American Studies. Her undergraduate thesis was on representations of indigeneity in the global human rights discourse and its effects on NGO projects on the ground in Chiapas, Mexico. Lucía is the proud daughter of a Peruvian immigrant mother and a working-class American father—both of whose worlds have been under and/or unjustly represented in public and academic discourses—which has inspired her to look and listen from the margins inward.
Through personal and research experience, I know that immigrant parents want to be a part of their children’s education. For them, access to a good education is one of the main reasons immigrants stay in the U.S. Consider, then, the irony that it is sometimes the lack of access to knowledge of how the USian school system works that stands between parents and being able to effectively advocate for their children in schools.
My mother emigrated from Perú to the U.S. when she was 35 to go to graduate school. Though she had class privilege, race privilege (she is considered white), a graduate degree and an American husband, when she started to have trouble with me in school, she was at a loss. We had just moved from Bolivia when I entered the USian school system. She was concerned with my English language skills (was I proficient enough?), but also knew that my first grade education in Bolivia had been more advanced than what the first grade in rural-suburban Florida could offer me. However, due to historic misunderstandings of how race, ethnicity, and history combine in places other than the U.S., school officials placed me back in the first grade and denied me language testing. This marked the beginning of my mother’s “education” in the USian school system.
Like other immigrant parents, my mother assumed that this decision was nonnegotiable and not subject to further intervention; but by the time my sister entered the same school six years later, my mom had learned the name of the game: be present in the school, volunteer, sit on committees, go to parent-teacher conferences, work with my sister and I outside of school to compliment (or complicate) the teacher’s work inside the classroom; she now knew that her presence—and her new found knowledge—had the power to protect and promote her children’s education.
This story illustrates the foundation of my current research with undocumented migrant mothers: that how the USian school system works is not always self-evident—and perhaps particularly not so for immigrants for whom education may be culturally and historically defined differently. For some parents roles of teaching and parenting may be so clearly divided and culturally engrained that migration to the U.S. may mean re-learning the operating logics behind familiar institutions (like schools).
In the case of Arizona, migration also means learning what Robinson (1983) calls the “calculus of oppression” that shapes their children’s experiences in and out of school. It is not just their immigration status, but their race, class, ethnic background and age that become impediments in a system and time that are ordered by high-stakes testing (which has been shown to disadvantage poor and marginalized youth), and dehumanizing anti-immigrant discourses that further marginalize and impoverish youth.
All of the parents I have spoken with thus far have experience with the education system in their own country (many of whom are from Mexico). Because of this, the idea of “re-learning” might suggest that they are replacing one set of knowledges with another. Instead, I argue that this “re”-learning is actually a process of adding to one’s institutional knowledge; it is an additive, comparative process—not a process of supplanting one knowledge with another. What this means is that many of the immigrant parents I have interviewed are engaged in building and shaping transnational repertoires of knowledge that constantly (and necessarily) question hegemonic notions of parenting, education, and the rights to space, place and belonging in both their home and host countries.
So far I have gotten to talk to almost a dozen mothers. Every one of them has contested the dehumanizing rhetoric on immigrants in general, and in Arizona in particular. Although some of them have done so publicly by going to marches, most mothers see themselves engaging in this contestation not in any politically conscious way—that is, not for politics’ or change’s sake—but by being “good” parents: parents who have the knowledge, skills, and capabilities to protect and guide their children through a school system that is not self-evident and a dehumanizing political environment. Yes, these mothers have dreams for their children; and it is these dreams that guide their desire to know and learn how the USian school system works by seeking out parenting classes, talking to teachers, sending their children to afterschool tutoring and Saturday school. It is not the desire to be more “American” or to assimilate, but the desire to retain their culture and their children and see both grow into the future. Thus, to parent is political, but not in the traditional sense of the term. Recognizing that the very personal process of being a parent is inherently political allows us as researchers to expand our notion of agency to include the everyday negotiations of power in parents and children’s everyday lives.
The implication of this kind of research is, then, the necessity of paying close attention to what people are up to and how they negotiate the institutions that structure their lives. For research practitioners, this means taking care that our representations are based on actually listening to what people (especially marginalized groups) have to say so that we do not constitute and represent them through the same hegemonic discourses that have marginalized them to begin with (Devadas & Nicholls 2002). If we do not take our positionality (and theirs) seriously, we stand to not only silence marginalized or subaltern people, but to reveal ourselves as part of the system of domination. This attention to methodology has allowed me to listen through my own hopes for change and social transformation (and the types of agency that might go with this) to listen to what these mothers find desirable and feasible. Rather than incorporate their words into my vision for the future or politics, this methodology is helping me construct a narrative to which others can listen and learn from these mothers the way I have. And together we can work for a world in which many worlds can fit and all dreams for a more just future can be realized.
 My methodology is heavily indebted to the Subaltern Studies group, as well as Peasant Studies, especially James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak . Both groups ask how we as scholars might do justice to what is being said and what we observe in the field rather than continually representing or re-presenting ourselves in our attempt to represent the Other. The subaltern studies group was a group of (initially) Indian scholars (including Guha and Spivak) who began writing in the 1980s from the position of colonized people. Essentially, they argued, history as presented in the history books does not consider the vast influence of colonized, marginalized and oppressed (i.e. subaltern) peoples in the making of history. They proposed that traditional historians had done a much better job of representing themselves—their beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews—than of representing history as a process of constant dialogue, crisis, tension, and resistance between elites and the subaltern (Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1988. Selected Subaltern Studies. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press). James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak (1983) shows how people without traditional sources of power (i.e. political position, money, or political connection) make demands of power in the everyday using the tools they do have. In James’s work on peasants working for large landowners in Southeast Asia, tactics included work stoppage, foot dragging, dissimulation, lying, calling upon the Lord of the land to acquiesce to demands for food, etc. through the moral economy that tied them.