Displaced Labor: Q&A with Faranak Miraftab

How does global capitalism affect workers and migrants? In what ways do global labor migrants alter the new communities they settle in? How do these workers navigate space and place as they attempt to articulate their lives in America and abroad?

These are some of the questions Framing the Global Fellow Faranak Miraftab explores in Global Heartland: Displaced Labor, Transnational Lives, and Local Placemaking, available for purchase from IU Press.

Miraftab draws on ethnographic research in Beardstown, Illinois; Mexico; and Togo to analyze a space that is often overlooked in scholarship on globalization. Tracing the global processes that produce displaced workers and the social relationships that maintain them, she offers a fresh perspective on place and placemaking.

Miraftab also collaborated with Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis, who tell a story of Beardstown through videography. In act three “Moving Flesh” professional actors perform selected transcribed interviews conducted with West Africans, Mexicans, Detroiters, and Beardstown locals from the book.

Zach Vaughn: One of your sources mentioned that Beardstown wasn’t the America they anticipated before immigrating. What sort of America did they imagine? 

Faranak Miraftab: A participant in one particular focus group shared how he thought he would arrive and have a fancy life. Others agreed and mentioned how they didn’t picture such hard manual labor.

ZV: What do you think led to these beliefs?

FM: For many, the America they imagined was mostly from television and movies. Their imagination was shaped by places like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

ZV: You referred to the “re-articulation of collective memory” in Beardstown as labor migration reshapes the populace. How does the town’s history of prejudice and discrimination toward African Americans factor into this process?

FM: While the collective memory of slavery, lynching, and discrimination won’t easily disappear, the arrival of new racial and ethnic people has sparked a struggle for belonging. These changes have started a long, hard process to renegotiate racial relationships.

ZV: Friction is a persistent idea throughout the book, especially with regards to sporting events and celebrations. How do these help with this process of re-articulation?

FM: What started as immigrant-only events have slowly brought in new generations of locals. For example, the soccer teams started with Mexican immigrants but are now racially and ethnically diverse. The schools also contribute to this changing citizenry.

ZV: What are some other ways intercultural interactions have played a role? in mediating the frictions between different immigrant groups?

FM: More and more landlords are Mexican, and they facilitate housing for recently arrived African immigrants. Mexicans also bring extended family with them more easily than Africans. This allows them to offer home-based childcare, for which many Africans have a need. These are conditions of little choice, but the groups find complementary relations.

Community mural (Photo by Ryan Griffis. Flickr Creative Commons)

Community mural (Photo by Ryan Griffis. Flickr Creative Commons)

ZV: How are such complementary relations different from the idea of reciprocity?

FM: Reciprocity suggests a choice to swap, while complementarity is more like filling in weak areas. In this context different immigrant groups have a pressing need to interact with each other outside the workplace. Through this they get to know each other in situations that are more likely to overcome tensions created and encouraged in the workplace.

ZV: How have tensions of public life (work, etc.) affected those of private life (home) when we consider issues of gender roles?

FM: The participation of women in the workforce doesn’t necessarily change the gendered roles, it might only add to previous responsibilities. Arlie Hochschild called this creation a “second shift.” The more dramatic and intense nature of work has created more urgency in renegotiation of gender roles. For example, many of the men and women I spoke with stated how they had to change the old patterns of domestic responsibilities. Africans did what most working parents of young children do; they worked different shifts to minimize childcare costs. Shared childcare also led to a change in men’s participation in domestic chores like cooking and laundry. These aren’t dramatic changes, but the pressures they faced justified rethinking gender roles in order to move ahead.


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