Carrying objects, reproducing home? Revisiting transnational object circulation through my fieldwork in Ecuador
by Paolo Boccagni
(1.) Migrants’ cross-border connections, including those that aim to reproduce their homes both physically and symbolically, are substantiated by a variety of objects that travel with migrants themselves or on their behalf between different locations. An increasing number of studies, at the intersection between migration, everyday life and material culture, highlights the need to take these objects in earnest. This is a familiar argument for all of us who did fieldwork between the opposite ends of the same migration corridor. Even too familiar, I recently realized, as I was moving back to Ecuador for fieldwork in Quito and Cuenca. Exactly like in my previous field visits, and like in those of many more ethnographers, my suitcase was half full with all kinds of (migrant) parcels. Part of what I aimed to do in Ecuador, i.e. home visits to places I had already seen before, had just to do with bringing along small gifts from Italy. And as a habitual carrier, I could have hardly figured something more “natural” than these objects. When someone travels there, or gets back from there, packages will also travel, for free or not. That’s how things go – full stop. Or maybe not, when it comes to the study of homing?
(2.) As I got back in touch with my Ecuadorian friends and informants in Italy before leaving, the protocol was clear. Objects were just popping up on their own, as my departure date would approach. Even the words that went together with their appearance were less for asking permission than for rehearsing a well-known ritual. Visiting the families of my friends or acquaintances in Ecuador would also mean carrying objects there. End of the story. On “my” side this was a matter of obligation (what a friend or a good person is expected to do), no less than self-interest (where a parcel gets in, the carrier has more chances of doing the same). On “their” side it was just common practice, whenever people would come and go. The issue, if any, had at most to do with decency (“I’ll give you something, but not too much… one kilo or so … I know so many have already done the same!”). Nothing exotic or bizarre here. Rather, a very mundane and predictable transnational connection – albeit one strongly relying on trust (from their side) and on the need to preserve reputation (from mine), all the more so when the parcel was in fact a bunch of banknotes.
(3.) Is this a private matter on which I have no right to write?, I wondered now and then looking at the plastic bags I was carrying along.
YES!, I replied to myself – if this means to disclose the identity, tastes and preferences of any sender or receiver. Or put differently, to lack respect towards an important facet of a transnational moral economy that says something of people’s intimate relationships, or of their ideals in this regard. Or even only to overburden with theorizations what is essentially an ordinary and unreflexive practice. NO!, I also (and simultaneously) thought. No – as long as I would resist any gossiping or orientalist stance, focusing instead on the objects as means for circulating emotion, expectations and other unwritten and ambiguous messages.
Following the latter view, I’ll unpack some instances out of what the objects in my suitcase were: black bags, very much resembling black boxes that called for caution, respect, even ignorance. No point in taking or showing pictures, which would anyway portray just anonymous and well-wrapped bags, equal to a million more. Yet, as everyday as they were, they did mean something to those involved with them and, in a different way, to me. Well enough for a HOMInG post, as an exploratory take into questions that call for more discussion and publications.
(4.) As I was travelling from Italy to Ecuador in early February, I realized that a good share of my luggage – leaving aside some dozen papers I would have hopelessly liked to read – consisted of the following:
– five wrapped-up sets of clothes (mainly shirts and t-shirts);
– two small bags full of medicines (one of them including some toffees too);
– three pairs of children shoes;
– one fancy moka machine;
– some cash (less than 100 dollars overall).
On my way back I carried along, mostly from the same receivers now turned into senders, the following items:
– three pieces of panela, a sugar cane sweetener (“so much more expensive here!”, commented the person who unpacked them together with me);
– two small bottles of vitamin tonic syrup, in one package with some coca- and arnica-based medicament (itself the fruit of a long walk among farmacias, together with the senders);
– a bag with two shampoos and five chocolate bars – “it does not taste like this in Italy”, as “the milk in Ecuador is different!”, the receiver said;
– a bag with one skin moisturizer (“You can’t find this one here – I’ll sell it!”, exclaimed the receiver), three small bottles of coconot essence and two packets of powdered ajì (“This is for him to cook”, she soon added in an assertive tone, pointing to her husband).
In spite of my own declarations at the airport check-in, I discovered the contents of most of these “return” parcels only afterwards. That was once my Ecuadorian friends in Italy wished to open them up with me. It was not always so easy, with their non-migrant counterparts (some of whom I had never met before), to look trustworthy enough not only as a sender, but also as a confident or a guardian of their privacy.
(5.) Now, does the above list matter as anything else than a proof of my need to jot it down, before losing parcels along the way?
It does, I believe. Not for the objects in themselves, though. Rather, and more intriguingly, for the wealth of stories and emotions the objects reveal and elicit between (and across) “here” and “there”. Most of these parcels were first the excuse, then the lever for rich conversations with my counterparts. The materiality of these objects was not just a way to embody the presence of the absent ones. It was also, as I was there, an anchor for our common tales and recollections. So much easier to prop words and emotions on something specific, tangible, which clearly pointed to the other side – a place, often a house, where someone had prepared the package for me to carry it over. Someone that often had, in the past or present life of my friends, a weight I could hardly imagine.
(6.) All of these micro events, in which I was only an incidental appearance, were as many elementary ingredients of migrant transnational homemaking – a recursive pattern of cross-border transactions involving words, symbols, pictures and emotion, no less than objects. Not always a linear or a consensual endeavour though: what is sent from one side does not necessarily meet the desires, expectations or needs of those who receive it (and will probably reciprocate the gift, with the same ambiguity). Nonetheless, most of the objects I saw did seem to hold a distinctive and personal meaning to senders and recipients. Whether the meaning had to do with affect, nostalgia, taste, or the sheer need to save (or gain) money is a different matter, which would call for more analysis.
(7.) Having said this, I realized that the packages in themselves were hardly ever the most important thing, whether for those who exchanged them (in the moral economy of their transnational connectedness) or for me (as units of analysis). For sure, some objects, such as medicines, had also a major practical value. However, most of the others seemed to matter less than the practices associated with them: asking for (or giving) a favour, recollecting some shared past life experience, or contributing to some needs, desires or aspirations that the “counterparts” had (or that the senders thought they should have). In all of these respects, the social interactions that led to the choice of a particular object and those that followed its delivery were more intense, stimulating and thought-provoking than the things as such.
In short, what these objects are is less interesting than what they do – as a symbolic, and sometimes instrumental resource to reproduce a sense of commonality, sometimes of home (in the Spanish sense of hogar), in spite of the mutual distance in space and time. In any case, a future-oriented sense of mutual acknowledgement, or even commitment.
(8.) To recap: objects to connect people in so-called transnational social fields matter and deserve more research, although – or actually because – they are so ordinary, customary or simply private that migrants may hardly mention them (unless with really good interlocutors – read: good ethnograhers!). Objects matter, however, for what they mean or are expected to mean between senders and receivers, not for an inherent or necessarily symbolic value of their own. And they matter even more upon some critical and ephemeral moments: when people think of what a good gift could be like for a dear one living far away; and then whenever the object lying in its “new” house elicits the memory of somebody and somewhere else. Importantly, there is nothing exotic, extraordinary or inherently ethnic in such a process. What the process engenders is rather a variable degree of materialized emotions and recollections, most visibly when transnational parcels are stored (on one end) and wrapped up (on one the other), for the powerful emotions, memories and aspirations they condense, embody, display.
(9.) What will happen with these objects afterwards is not necessarily as significant, besides being out of the purview of an ordinary ethnography. Once objects have ended their travel, their social life may end up to be very normal. As normal as the homes of migrants and their counterparts try to be, as time goes by, and as the emotional disjuncture of migration tends to lose power. Although some things, possibly travelling from elsewhere, still and stubbornly act as reminders of the “other side” that migration has opened up for someone, while leaving life routines almost intact for most others.
 For a recent overview see M. Povrzanovic-Frykman, Transnational dwelling and objects of connection: an ethnological contribution to critical studies of migration, Journal of European Ethnology and Cultural Analysis, 1(28-45): 2019.
 While discussing this during fieldwork, Luis E. Pérez and I came out with an exploratory typology of the meanings and functions of the objects circulated through migrant transnational mobility. This adds up to four categories: 1. Objects of practical / instrumental use, including hi-tech products, which apparently do not “say” much of migration as such: TV sets, fridges, PCs, mobile phones, etc.; 2. Objects that somewhat symbolize the place or circumstances where people live, on either side of migration, with the implicit expectation that they be kept with care and work out as reminders of those on the other side, or of everyday life there; 3. Objects that may have a symbolic significance to the eyes of an outsider, while turning out to be “mere” souvenirs, on the same level as any sort of paraphernalia from wherever; 4. Cases in which migrants or their counterparts have actually no interest in sending or receiving objects. This, in turn, opens us to further questions, since what is not sent may say as much or more than what is sent.
I’m grateful to Luis Eduardo for sketching out this typology, which will be central to some future and joint HOMInG article on object circulation, given the significance of this topic for migrant transnational homemaking.
Photo (by Paolo Boccagni): a mural in calle Augusto Bolognesi, San Isidro, Lima – February 2019