Migration and masculinity

For the last seven years, I have devoted my research to the study of migration, particularly to understanding transnational familial relationships; families that reside in different geographic locations but maintain close emotional bonds in spite of that distance. By looking at both ends of the migration circuit, I have gathered a broad picture of the challenges that migrant families have dealt with as they have become transnational. One of the many hurdles faced by these families is how to stay affectively connected despite being physically separated.

For decades, the study of migration revolved around macroeconomic theories, where migrants were perceived as individuals whose decisions to migrate were based predominantly on a cost–benefit analysis, which left aside the role of emotions at pre- and post-migration stages. In my Guatemalan study, I found that regardless of gender or generational identities, the emotional costs of transnational migration are profound. In much of the media coverage on migration, however, the emotional costs that this phenomenon has brought to migrants and their families has predominantly revolved around women and children, and has overlooked the male experience. During my fieldwork with Guatemalans in California, I found that rather than embracing rigid masculine identities, where men are unemotional, non-nurturing, and dispassionate, male Guatemalan migrants break down gender expectations by expressing typical emotions, such as sacrifice, love, anguish, and fear, that are culturally more associated with women.

For instance, the story of Daniel, a 28-year-old Guatemalan man who migrated to the United States, leaving his wife and 18-month-old son behind, contradicted culturally masculine expectations of being both emotionless and fearless. As Daniel expressed in his recounting, “I cried a lot, as much as I could; I tried to release all the pain that one might feel.” For many men, being separated from their families becomes an endemic, emotional pain, often reflected in their dreams. As another man expressed, “Sometimes I have dreams that I’m there [in Guatemala] and that one of my children falls down in a precipice and I want to grab his hand; and then I wake up, and I wonder, my God, what is happening there?”

This article looks at the testimonies of Guatemalan migrant men and their families to reveal the ways in which these families cope with the emotion of being separated from their loved ones. Glimpsing the lives of these families, particularly heard through the voices of the men, I elaborate on how migration offers an opportunity for men to reflect on their emotional relationships with family members, and how, in so doing, they have the opportunity to vent those feelings in a way that offsets some of the negative stereotypes often associated with rigid masculine identity.

By Veronica Montes on her article “The role of emotions in the construction of masculinity: Guatemalan migrant men, transnational migration and family relations,” published in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society

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