Labor History’s Transnational Turn. Rethinking Latin American and Caribbean Migrant Workers
by Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
Book Review of:
Deborah Cohen Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 201. 328 pp.
Leon Fink (ed.) Workers Across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 480 pp.
Julie Greene The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 475 pp.
Kathleen López Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 340 pp.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the anthropologist Michael Kearney explored the lives of indigenous immigrants living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Examining their cultural, emotional, and social ties in multiple locations, he opened the way for the study of what he called, in an article published along with Carole Nagengast in 1989, “transnational indigenous communities” (Rivera-Salgado, 2014: 27). Three years later, the anthropologists Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton (1992) called for a new approach to migration and settlement in an article titled “Transnationalism: A New Analytical Framework for Understanding Migration.” Building on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory, which looked at the unequal functions performed in a global division of labor by different world geographic regions, scholars interested in transnationalism criticized Wallerstein’s approach for its lack of attention to migrants’ historical experiences, their structural conditions, and their relation to hegemonic ideologies in home and host societies. Although it was not a novelty for historians to look at movements of people around the globe, they actively embraced this new approach because it offered a (re)interpretation of history through a transnational lens. Informed by the theoretical underpinnings of the cultural turn in the humanities and the social sciences, historians crossed disciplinary borders to question and challenge one of the key ideological pillars of the field of history since its professionalization: the nation-state.
The LaPietra Report, drafted by Thomas Bender (2000), established that “both the nation and the other historical phenomena we examine must be resituated in larger contexts because the movements of people, money, knowledges, and things are not contained by single political units.” According to Bender and other scholars, “transnationalism” was needed as an analytical category. As the Latin American historian Heidi Tinsman and the U.S. anthropologist Sandhya Shukla (2004: 1) suggest, “In a moment …
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Latin American Perspectives
July 2015 42: 117-122, first published on March 24, 2015 doi:10.1177/0094582X15577381