Homing and ethnographic revisits: a few notes back from Pasaje, Ecuador
by Paolo Boccagni
I was back to Pasaje (El Oro, Southern Ecuador) last February. This was only a brief ethnographic “revisit” (Burawoy, 2003) of the place where I had done the bulk of my PhD fieldwork between 2006 and 2009. Being there again after more than ten years was an unsurprisingly rich, contradictory and revealing experience. Not so dissimilar, in some ways, from that of a number of returnees.
Over the last decade, under correismo, Ecuador has changed significantly in a social, political and economic domain (e.g. Meléndez and Moncagatta, 2017), including most visible aspects such as transportations and urban infrastructures. No wonder these changes would be visible in the semi-rural, non-tourist bananera town in which I had stayed in late 2000s, following the migration chains of the Ecuadorian women and men I had first met in Northern Italy.
Part of the perceived change, of course, had to to do with the perceiver: what a ten-year distance means in the age and life course position for myself and my pasajeño informants, friends and hosts. Each of them has his/her personal and family history. Reading their present circumstances as simply “better” or “worse” than the past ones would be an oversimplification. That said, it was quite impressive, for a weak social media user like me, to see the same faces suddenly older than the images I had retained in my memory (and vice versa, I suppose, for them with me). Recovering everyday proximity after years-long distanciation is not straightforward, even only perceptually – and even for an occasional visitor like me. Asides from practicalities and mutual fine-tuning with people and places, my revisit also re-opened issues of reciprocity, and of “giving back”, for which I still have no clear responses to give.
In most respects, however, I traced a remarkable sense of continuity between then and now. This had not just to do with obvious aspects such weather or language. Many more things felt very much “like then” in the ways and contents of my ordinary interactions with people. I had a sense of the same old story being rehearsed, for instance, whenever a returnee or an Ecuadorian “living abroad” (the common wording for migrant) would reveal that, after a while, the need or desire to counter-return (i.e. go back to Italy or Spain) was greater than the pleasure of staying. Likewise, and despite all forms of urban renovation or even gentrification (new malecón, new market, better paved streets etc.), there was mostly continuity between my memories (and my fieldnotes and pictures) and what I could see out there in city scapes, including the sound-, taste- and smell- ones.
More fundamentally, there was continuity in the silent and concrete backdrop of migration as a public secret: one being materialized anywhere, except the main square, through a variety of incomplete or anyway “salient” new houses. The perception of an extravagant and structurally incomplete house-scape had been there from my very first day in Pasaje (Boccagni, 2014). Therefore, what some literature calls remittance houses made for an easy mnenonic bridge with the past. More important, these houses aim to be a bridge between Pasaje and a variety of people in immigration countries, through the lived experience of those who built, owned and (sometimes) inhabited them. Put differently, these houses are the embodiment of the all too practical significance of the issues HOMInG deals with for a number of Pasajeños, and million people in the same condition worldwide.
Perceived (dis)continuities, however, were only the most superficial and impressionistic aspect of my revisit. At a micro level what really mattered, and is not prone to generalization, was the degree of perceived and objective discontinuity in the life conditions and prospects of the people who generously hosted me. There was much more, in my privileged status as a guest, than the opportunity to get a sense of their home routines and cultures from the inside. For sure, being there as a guest rather than as an ethnographer already put me in a privileged position, relative to what I would have done just with home tours. Still more important, however, was that my hosts translated their hospitality into much more than a (comfortable) room: sharing meals, hanging out together, having very long chats, taking part in their whatsapp calls with their kin in Italy. All of this would occur in what was indeed a transnational space of reference: one being materially embedded in Ecuador, but embracing Italy and the common acquaintances there, as a matter of shared memories, mutual updatings, omnipresent gossips. In all of these respects, and besides the inherent pleasure (and demand for reciprocity) of these encounters, being there gave me rich material to connect past biographies with present and future-oriented ones.
At a more theoretical level, the point of my revisit was to challenge through the fieldwork my previous ideas on transnational engagement and homemaking, as well as on “home circulation”. In fact, my field was constituted by the time span between there and now, and by the occasional interactions that dotted it, rather than only by single visits. Both fieldwork and textwork would then call for several moves in time, then & now, as much as in space, here & there. While I will elaborate more on this through the next steps of HOMInG, some preliminary insights from my revisit are worth mentioning here.
- Whatever the outdoor aspect of a house, the inside tells a different and more meaningful story – as long as one is inside enough. This holds both biographically, as a reference to the lived experience of particular places, with their affordances and constraints, facilitates people’s reconstruction and sense-making of their life histories and trajectories; and analytically, as being-in provides a novel lens on people’s biographical (dis)continuities and on transnational connectedness, but also on their ways of being in the public domain.
- Inside migrant houses there is much more than migration, and the influence of those al exterior works out at many different levels. In-door material cultures and the ways of using them lay their roots in family histories, prior to migration. Yet, domestic infrastructures, artefacts or routines do reveal migrants’ influence, often intermingled with other sources of cultural diffusion (television, social media etc.). Analytically speaking, the objects, spaces and ways of doing things that are most telling about migration can be grouped into three categories, based on their functions and meanings:
i. Matters and markers of taste and cultural capital: all those aspects (decorations, ways of using and dividing interior space, particular objects such as paintings, ornaments or plants) that articulate the tastes of those abroad and/or of their relatives in Ecuador, and thereby are specially attended;
ii. Technologies and affordances of progress: infrastructural resources (new household appliances or technological devices, material improvements, etc.) that have been made possible by remittances from abroad;
iii. Sources and embodiments of memory: all aspects of home cultures and routines (e.g pictures, special objects, particular corners) that evoke or purposefully remind about kin and other people living far away. Some of these memory-making objects are intermingled with pictures from the past, including portraits of other dear ones who passed away.
- Migrant new or better private spaces do not necessarily make the surrounding neighbourhood “better”, or perceived as such. It was very ordinary, among my informants in Pasaje, to complain about micro-crime, and to emphasize the need to protect their houses accordingly. No surprise with this, for sure. Yet, it was remarkable to find out, particularly for returnees, that their efforts in improving their houses had not necessarily led to improvements in the surrounding areas. Indeed, feeling at home inside could call for further isolation from outside – possibly, and contrary to a commonsense argument in the literature on remittance houses, to invest more in the interiors, while trying not to show off externally, for pragmatic concerns rather than for the lack of money. “I’m happy with my house but not with my neighbourhood” was a statement I heard several times – as if, once back, what was perceived like town-as-home, or neighbourhood-as-home, would actually scale down to house-as-home, at best.
- Transnational connectedness with abroad is a background potential, but what matters the most is everyday life here and now. It is a truism to say that infrastructures for transational communication and engagement are far cheaper and more accessible than in the past. Less obvious is that, among the people I met in Pasaje and in their dwellings, technologies of transnationalism do not occupy the central stage. Rather, they are selectively activated when desired and needed – for instance on special celebrations, for the weekly (ritual) call, or whenever issues of money arise. For sure, the cross-border circulation of a variety of resources, including remittances, exerts a remarkable influence. However, once the whatsapp call is over or the cash from abroad has been withdrawn, people’s life experience is practically and routinely anchored in Pasaje – not in Italy, Spain or wherever else.
- Migration is just one aspect of broader stories, conversations and life conditions. As the days were going by, I had to recognize that my need to search for traces of migration anywhere was dissonant with the lived experience of the people I was with. It was not a way of doing justice to it. While their everyday life revealed a variety of exogenous influences, these were not necessarily attributable to migration. More pragmatically, the life conditions, experiences and interests of “left-behinds” – close family members of my Italo-Ecuadorian friends – were not primarily defined by migration either. So much more was going on for each of them, as long as they would live in Pasaje. True, a history (to some extent, a culture) of migration was easily detectable there. Nonetheless, it was part and parcel of broader forms of social and cultural change. While a compelling case has been made for the “demigranticization” of migration studies (Dahinden, 2016), a parallel cognitive transition should occur in the study of so-called communities of origin. No matter how well-connected to those abroad, communities like Pasaje have a life of their own. A normality that goes on, day after day, even as it bears the signs of migrant housing investments, and is dotted by their visits “home” – often to find themselves, yet again, out of place.
Pic. 5: “No success in life can compensate the failure of home [hogar]: a public message for those “al exterior”?
Boccagni P. (2014), What’s in a (migrant) house? Changing domestic spaces, the negotiation of belonging and homemaking in Ecuadorian migration, Housing, Theory and Society, 31(3): 277-93.
Buroway M. (2003), Revisits: an outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography, American Sociological Review, 68: 645-79.
Dahinden J. (2016), A plea for the “demigranticization” of research on migration and integration, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(13): 2207-25.
Meléndez C., Moncagatta P. (2017), Ecuador: una década de correismo, Revista de ciencia politica, 37(2).