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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“You wanted norte:” Central American Families and the Ongoing Trauma of Migration, Separation, and Deportation

  • Author(s): Rojo, Florencia
  • Advisor(s): Pinderhughes, Howard
  • et al.

Abstract: Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, and violence continues to be the primary driver of migration. With few options for legal entry into the US, Central Americans’ migrations expose them to additional traumatic events. Once in the US, Central American immigrants are subject to political, economic, and social exclusion after leaving countries torn apart by US-sponsored civil wars. Even in California sanctuary cities, despite perceived progressiveness regarding immigrant rights, Central American immigrants have long faced myriad challenges: discrimination, limited work opportunities, and violence. Although Central American immigrants in the US continue to experience extraordinarily high rates of exposure to violent events, few studies examine how past traumatic experiences affect immigrants’ daily lives and relationships once in the US—and how structural violence of daily life exacerbates trauma. This dissertation provides a sociological approach by connecting structural violence to trauma. In order to do so, this analysis centers on Central American immigrant families as a crucial site for examining experiences, ideas, and constructions of violence and trauma across place, space, and generations. Using in depth interviews and ethnographic observations in families’ homes and communities, the study applies grounded theory analysis to immigrant families’ collective experiences of violence, trauma, and im/migration—past and present. Ethnographic observations were carried out in 2017 and 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area sanctuary cities, and in depth interviews were conducted with 27 Central American immigrants. Additionally, this dissertation draws on ethnographic fieldwork from the summer of 2018 at a casa migrante (migrant shelter) in Central Mexico.

First, I reveal how changes in immigration policy, enforcement practices, and discourse at the federal level, shaped daily life for Central Americans at the local level, specifically, for immigrant families already contending with histories of violence and trauma, settled placed deemed relatively safe. Next, I examine the traumatic consequences of serial separations across generations of Central American families. Finally, I expand on previous research on in-transit migration, to argue the migrant condition is not spatially or temporally fixed, but rather a condition that extends beyond the migrant journey and away from the border. This project analytically synthesizes various forms of violence in the lives of Central American families by drawing connections between interpersonal violence and social systems, and between family histories and political histories, producing an innovative analysis of intergenerational and structural trauma.

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