It took me three generations to reach a migrant’s ‘home’
by Luis Eduardo Pérez Murcia
When looking at people’s attitudes towards home and home-making practices, the places they inhabit become critical fieldwork sites. It is not only because neighbourhoods, houses and rooms constitute places for dwelling but also, for some, a ‘home’. By observing individuals’ attachments to those places and the ways they interact within them with both other human beings and the material space itself, researchers may gain a better understanding of people’s experiences and aspirations of home.
Gaining access to those places, which are considered by some individuals a ‘personal retreat’, a ‘sanctuary for the family’ or simply a ‘private space’, is often full of methodological challenges and ethical concerns. The reasons why a researcher wants to observe a person within his/her own domestic space are sometimes difficult to explain and perhaps difficult to understand for a person we just had met. Potential research participants may ask themselves about the researcher’s motivations to conduct the interview in their personal space rather than in a public café or library. Indeed, we as researchers may struggle to draw a line between our need of understanding people’s attitudes towards home and homemaking practices and becoming intruders.
Drawing on my experience in collecting life histories with Ecuadorian and Peruvian migrants in Manchester, London and Madrid, this post describes three main strategies I have been employing to negotiate access to migrants’ domestic spaces in the field. It also discusses the benefits of such an engagement in understanding migrants’ attitudes towards home and homemaking practices. The post ends by suggesting that one’s opportunities to reach a migrant’s domestic space are largely shaped by the context-specific circumstances in which we meet them.
‘If you are a friend of my friend, you are welcome to my place’
I met Paola in Manchester in April 2018. Our meeting was enabled by what Korac (2009) would call co-ethnic networks. When starting to identify research participants in Manchester, I asked within my British-Colombian networks for Ecuadorians and Peruvians acquaintances. Paola, an Ecuadorian with Spanish passport, was introduced by a Colombian couple. When I asked her to set a place for an interview, she just said ‘If you are a friend of my friend, you are welcome to my place’. I could not imagine a better way to start my fieldwork in Manchester. When I arrived at Paola’s place, she already had an idea of the person she was expecting to meet. She was aware of my nationality and had a general idea about my previous research project at the University of Manchester. This sense of familiarity set the whole environment to conduct a first four-hour interview in which I gained a very rich understanding of what Paola means by home and her homemaking practices. I was welcome to have a look at her living room and kitchen and invited to share traditional Ecuadorian food cooked by Douglas, her partner. While sharing the food, I did learn that Paola was the first person in her entire family who had taken the risk to leave Ecuador for Spain. I was just in front of what Bakewell, de Haas and Kubal (2013) label a pioneering migrant. I learnt that by working round the clock, Paola was able to collect the money to bring Douglas, at that time her boyfriend, to Barcelona and they both started a new chapter of their lives away from Ecuador.
Sharing food in Paola’s domestic space was also an opportunity to understand the role of traditional Ecuadorian food in her homemaking practices. After working several years in the hospitality sector in Barcelona, Paola and Douglas opened an Ecuadorian restaurant in Barcelona. ‘This place quickly became home for Ecuadorians and other Latinos in Barcelona’. The restaurant became not only a business for the family but a place for displaying Ecuadorian and Latino culture, identity and sense of friendship in Spain.
Following the financial crisis in Spain and a short return to Ecuador, where Paola struggled to feel at home, she brought her family to Manchester. There, she started to cook Ecuadorian food for Ecuadorian students. I was invited by Paola to observe her while selling food for Ecuadorian students in Piccadilly Gardens and Whitworth Park. These were unique opportunities to investigate the role of food in the reproduction of Ecuadorian identity and culture in Manchester. From that engagement, I learnt that Paola was central in the Ecuadorian students’ feelings and attitudes towards home in Manchester. ‘Paola does not only bring food to us, she brings a piece of Ecuador too’, said one of the Ecuadorian students. A British student who was sharing the picnic with her Ecuadorian peer just said, ‘that is incredibly tasty, this is my first time having Ecuadorian food […] I do not know her [Paola], but she is certainly doing a great thing for the Ecuadorians here’. I would have probably never reached these aspects of Paola’s life, especially the centrality of Ecuadorian food in her migratory experience and homemaking practices of Ecuadorian students in Manchester, if not for Paola willingness to share with me her domestic space and the places of the city that have become important to her.
Picnic with Paola, Douglas and Ecuadorian students in Manchester
Reaching a migrant’s domestic space through family ties
Migrants’ domestic spaces were also reached by using their family ties. I met Roger, a Peruvian salsa instructor with Spanish passport, in a salsa bar in Manchester. After being allowed to observe his class, full of Mancunians aiming to engage with the Latino culture, a first interview with Roger was arranged at the City Library. Then, after being allowed to observe further salsa lessons, Roger invited me to continue the collection of his life history in his flat. It was an opportunity to see all the material things – his musical instruments – which give symbolic value to Roger’s life. It was not only because the first interview he said ‘home is where I play and storage my musical instruments’ but also because a pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts and a guitar were the only personal possessions Roger had brought to Madrid when leaving Peru.
Roger playing his musical instruments in his salsa shoes
Following this emerging sense of friendship, I shared with Roger my ambition to explore in more detail his migratory experience by interviewing his relatives in Madrid. Roger just shared with me their contact details and thanks to the very positive way he spoke about my research to his family members, I was able to arrange a house/home visit even before landing at Madrid. I called Pilar and Limber, Roger’s mother and stepfather, respectively, to arrange the venue for the first interview and they invited me to their house. Pilar said, ‘Roger has told me you are working with Peruvian migrants, so, when do you want to come to my house?’
It was the perfect way to start my fieldwork in Madrid. While collecting Pilar and Limber’s life histories, I was not only learning about their migratory experiences but also gaining an in-depth understanding of Roger’s attitudes towards home in Madrid and Lima. By the time I interviewed Roger in Manchester, he raised the symbolic value of his family house in Madrid in his attitudes towards home. During the interview, Roger described in rich detail his room and highlighted the efforts made by his mother to keep this place intact for him. I was allowed to visit Roger’s room and saw many of the objects he had mentioned during the interview. By looking at his musical instruments, I was able to understand Roger’s strong attachment for Peruvian music and culture. Visiting Pilar and Limber’s domestic space became in fact an opportunity for confirming the value of music and musical instruments in Roger’s attitudes towards home. Pilar said, ‘I decided to storage all his musical instruments here, you cannot imagine how important is music for him’.
Roger’s musical instruments and a photo of his family in his room/home in Madrid
I have visited Pilar and Limber’s place several times and the sense of being welcome is just overwhelming. Roger’s room/home in Madrid quickly became my office when Limber and Pilar helped me to recruit new research participants amongst their neighbours in South Madrid. My connection with this family has made me think of when a research participant becomes a friend. Now, I spent time with the family and struggle to see if I am collecting data or just visiting friends. I feel inclined to think about the relationship I have with this generous people as spending time with friends. However, time for friendship becomes time for research when I turn the voice recorder on. When this happens, I feel myself like an intruder rather than a friend. It is a bit uncomfortable but when talking with them I do not want to miss a single detail.
Reaching a migrant home step by step
Reaching a migrant’s home, however, is not always a straightforward process. In many cases, it takes a considerable period of time. How long it would take primarily depends on factors such as where and how we meet research participants and the length of time we and they needed to build rapport.
I met Jessica in la Chueca, Madrid, in a fruit & veg store where she works. She happily accepted to take part in the research and was incredibly generous devoting her breaks at work to conduct interviews. They were set either in the common area of the market or in a café located close by. I mentioned the importance of spending time with research participants in their domestic realms, but she did not show any interest in conducting a follow-up interview in her family house/home. Being aware, as Jansen (2017) suggests, that being a man might makes the process of reaching a migrant’s domestic space more difficult, I did not insist in continuing the interview in her house. Although observing her homemaking practices in her domestic space is central for my research, I am aware that asking Jessica to visit her place could put at risk the incipient rapport we have been built during our first two interviews. An unconscious research strategy became central to understanding Jessica’s homemaking practices. During the interviews, Jessica raised the importance of her mother and grandmother in her attitudes towards migration and home and I shared with her my willingness to interviewing both of them. I was just so fascinated by the idea of interviewing three generations of a single Ecuadorian family in Madrid but my first fieldwork trip to Madrid came to an end.
Ethnographic engagement at Jessica’s place of work
Interviewing Jessica’s mother and grandmother and hopefully to conduct a house/home visit were set as key targets for my second fieldwork trip to Madrid. I was able to interview Jessica’s mother, Valeria, in my second visit to Madrid but again the interview was set in a café located in a shopping centre. The interview was an incredibly positive experience because I had the chance to connect the life experiences of two women whose migratory experience and attitudes towards Ecuador and Spain were shaped by a pioneering migrant called Gloria; Valeria’s mother and Jessica’s grandmother. They both highlighted how the decisions made Gloria shaped their migratory experiences and their emotional attachments to both Madrid and Quito. Interviewing Gloria, thus, became a very important goal for my research but I could not interview her because she was travelling.
Jessica and Valeria happily accepted to persuade Gloria for being interviewed for my next fieldtrip to Madrid. When discussing the venue for the interview, I was so pleased Gloria invited me a coffee in her place. She said, ‘I know you have been interviewing my daughter and granddaughter, so if you do not mind, I prefer to give the interview in my house’. I could not be happier with this invitation. I was not only finally meeting the family’s pioneering migrant, but also having the opportunity to connect the life experiences of three Ecuadorian women in a place, Gloria’s dwelling, they both described as home during their interviews. I could observe all the photos and memories they were talking about.
As a pioneering migrant, Gloria’s migratory experience is full of contrasting experiences and attitudes towards home. Finding a place to call home in Madrid while leaving her children back in Quito was described by Gloria as a period of permanent struggle. She stated: ‘at that time I never experienced Madrid as home. Home was left behind back in Ecuador. I wanted to stay with my children, but I could not. I knew I had to resist alone in Madrid while being able to bring them here and bring them a better future […] The day they arrived, I started seeing Madrid as a potential home’.
Gloria and her memories of home
Gloria’s house is full of memories. Every corner of her house tells us a history of the family’s attachments to both Ecuador and Spain. Symbols of the two countries such as Ecuadorian handcrafts displayed in a traditional Spanish flat talk about the experiences of three Ecuadorian woman who have made Spain their home. Ecuadorian handcrafts were carefully displayed in a handmade piece of furniture designed and constructed by Gloria’s recently died Spanish partner. Next to the handcrafts, Gloria displayed the first piece of cutlery they bought and photos of the precious moments she has shared with Valeria and Jessica. A coffee with the three of them is pending for a further visit to Madrid, but when interviewing Gloria and taking a home-tour in her house, I had the feeling I was sharing my time with three generations at the same time.
Bakewell, O., de Haas, H., Kubal, A., (2013). Migration Systems, Pioneer Migrants and the Role of Agency. Journal of Critical Realism 11, pp. 413–437.
Korac, M., (2009). Remaking Home: Reconstructing Life, Place and Identity in Rome and Amsterdam. Berghahn Books. New York – Oxford
Jansen, S., (2017). Interview with Stef Jansen, conducted by Aurora Massa. HOMInG Project, University of Trento.