Last spring, Adrienne Lim had an idea: As the current dean of the University of Oregon Libraries, she wanted to highlight the books written on campus, giving the university a chance to celebrate the faculty who contribute to its pool of knowledge. “The publication of a book is a major achievement for the authors in our community,” she told Around the O. “It represents a significant investment of research, investment, time and resources.”
Lim’s idea evolved into "UO Authors, Book Talks," a program being piloted this year to highlight recent books by faculty authors. On Thursday, associate professor of international studies Kristin Yarris kicked off the program with a talk on her recent book, “Care Across Generations: Solidarity and Sacrifice in Transnational Families.” Her book examines migrant families from an often ignored angle — the experiences of those left behind in their home country. In particular, her research uncovered stories of grandmothers in Nicaragua. These women stay behind to raise children while mothers make the perilous journey to find work abroad.
Yarris first arrived in Nicaragua as a translator for a medical brigade. Her job was to communicate ailments to the clinical staff but she often “struggled to put words around people’s complaints because they didn’t seem to map on to medical categories or diagnoses that I was familiar with.” One expression proved particularly difficult to translate: “el dolor de pensar mucho.” The phrase literally means “the pain of thinking too much,” but Yarris sensed “a greater cultural significance beneath the linguistic surface.”
Several years later, as an anthropology doctoral student, Yarris was still curious about this untranslatable condition. It didn’t fit neatly into western medical categories, but women often described it as a penetrating pain at the base of their skulls while worries spin round in their minds. Yarris returned to Nicaragua to research its roots. Through her field work, she traced “el dolor de pensar mucho” to the social strain that outmigration puts on Nicaraguan families.
The grandmothers of Latin American people traditionally receive care from their daughters, Yarris said. But when out-migrating daughters leave behind a “care slot,” grandmothers instead find themselves taking over the role of primary caregivers for their grandchildren; cooking meals, attending parent-teacher conferences and managing anxieties about their daughters’ conditions abroad. “Grandmother caregivers, although they themselves don’t migrate, find their individual lives and their family lives shaped by these processes nonetheless,” Yarris said.
She believes the sacrifices of migration are distributed across generations — even among those who remain in their home country. In Nicaragua, mothers sacrifice by embarking on a precarious, often undocumented journey to find work abroad and then remitting a large portion of their earnings back home; grandmothers sacrifice by filling in the “care slot” left in their wake; and children by losing their mothers and living by the exhortation that they must justify their family’s sacrifices with high achievement.
Yarris describes grandmothers’ roles in this equation as a sort of solidarity that is almost impossible to translate. It is “a form of moral action; standing alongside, as in emotional alignment,” potent enough to evoke el dolor de pensar mucho, she said.
“What I want to be able to say about solidarity is that these women do it at some cost to themselves, there’s a risk involved,” Yarris said. “It’s some sort of standing against the potential threat that transnational migration poses; to disrupt families, to force them into being separated.”
Bureaucratic obstacles exacerbated the challenges facing families in Yarris’ research. While she was conducting fieldwork in 2010, the average wait for a reunification visa for children of legal U.S. residents was eight to 10 years, according to Yarris. Canceled visits, mishandled paperwork and exorbitant legal fees frequently hampered the process. “It’s only gotten longer,” she said.
Today, Yarris advocates for reducing the cost and timeliness of obtaining family reunification visas in order to “help people feel a lot more certain about their future and reduce the likelihood that children end up moving in unauthorized ways as illicit migrants.”
Yarris’ talk illuminated her research process of those who stay behind during migration. The next "UO Authors, Book Talks" event will be held on Feb. 12 in the Knight Library Browsing Room. It will feature Kirby Brown, an associate professor of Native American literature, and his new book, “Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907-1970.”