“Building bridges and tearing down walls”

through migrant resistance, resilience, activism, and world making

On February 14th 2024, SIMI organized the webinar Communicating Migration: Resistance, Resilience, and Activism. After opening words from Veronica De Sanctis, Project Manager at SIMI and moderator of the webinar, Fr. Aldo Skoda, Executive Director of SIMI and Professor of Pastoral​​ Theology and Human Mobility at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, mentioned the fears and divisions particularly prevalent in current media, wherein migrants and refugees are often used as merely a tool for creating divisions. To oppose this narrative, he stated that this webinar would address the other side of the mirror, by discussing how migrants resist this narrative and create their own. Four out of the eight speakers present were co-editors of Migrant World Making (Michigan State University Press, 2023), offering a recurring theme throughout the webinar.

After Fr. Skoda thanked all speakers, C. Mario Russel, Executive Director at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, discussed the legal context and framework of the migrant experience. He discussed how a lack of human rights based international/global governance sometimes forces migrants to become vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization. For example, international borders are today often used as a “no man’s land” – a zone of exclusion of international human rights obligations. Thus, he emphasized that it is critical to bring a human rights perspective to migration, with human dignity at the center of their journey.

Michael Lechuga, Assistant Professor at The University of New Mexico and co-editor of Migrant World Making, explores the role of narratives in his research, organizing our thoughts and our feelings about things, people, and places. These narratives are often based on the prevalent narratives of politicians and media, supported by current technology. Due to this, citizen paradigms are prevalent in the West, rooted in nativist/nationalist and racist assumptions about the migrants entering Western countries. Herein, Lechuga stressed the power of naming and narrating our own reality, rather than letting our reality be created for us. He gave the example of “Border Turner”, a resistance art installation at the El Paso by Rafael Hemmer, and an example of how technologies of divisions can be used to create a new space for new narratives, including migrant agency.

Sergio F. Juaréz, co-editor of Migrant World Making too, discussed migrant resistance through online activism, by examining the online discourse of the Coalition of Human Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Juaréz’ research shows that CHIRLA’s posts on Instagram are a form of Latina/o/x Vernacular Discourse (LVD). Juaréz argued that by resisting prevalent anti-immigration rhetoric and self-affirming migrant identities, CHIRLA constructs an online community and/or home through its online discursive methods. Moreover, by researching such migrant discourses on a local level, scholars are allowed to pivot away from research practices that devalue migrant communities and work toward practices that celebrate and uplift migrant voices.

Later, Arthur D. Soto-Vásquez, another co-editor of Migrant World Making, discussed the relationship between digital media, popular culture, and identity making. While we often like to believe that social media can challenge Othering narratives surrounding migration, Soto-Vásquez’ study showed that platform politics often constrain migrant representation. Social media representation even reinforces stereotypes and otherness of migrants. Posts often speak for others, and represent the “aesthetic of migrants” in a particular way, creating a gap between the social media user and the marginalized Other.

Julia Khrebtan Hörhager, co-editor of Migrant World Making as well, discussed how in Europe, media and politics also speak forothers, while not seeing or learning from migrants or refugees themselves. Hörhager and Veronica De Sanctis challenged this narrative by including the stories of migrants themselves in their research. From conversations with benerifiaries at Casa Scalabrini 634 in Rome, De Sanctis and Hörhager found that the migrants interviewed experienced a negotiation of identity: their old ‘I’ had to be recreated to a new hybrid identity in the new place of stay. The negotiation of their identity is challenged by the language barrier, the social demotion of migrants – seeing them as a “needy migrant” while neglecting the migrants’ personal identity and past -, and racism. Furthermore, their study showed that there is no universal formula of integrational success in Italy, the EU, or anywhere in the world. Still, Hörhager argued that this study encourages us to thus not speak for Others, but engage in a meaningful dialogue, stimulating migrant world making.

After this, Fr. Pat Murphy, director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, discussed the role of faith-based organizations within the migration phenomenon. He stressed the need for the Church and bishops to speak up about migration and protect all forms of life. In Fr. Murphy’s view, on the local level the Church’s role can still be a “hit and miss” when supporting migrants in their journeys. In order to bridge this gap, Fr. Murphy argued that: we “need to remind people of their immigration roots”; the Church should reach out to newly arrived migrants and welcome them in their communities; local churches should stimulate collaboration with faith-based organizations; and success stories need to be shared more often.

Lastly, Anthony J. Cernera, President and co-founder of Being the Blessing foundation and co-founder and team leader of the Refugee and Migrant Education Network (RME), gave the RME as an example of how networks can play a pivotal role in expanding opportunities for migrants. The idea of the RME came up during a conference in 2017, after a wish emerged for universities to work together on the issue of migrants’ rights. The Network now includes 150 institutional members such as universities and NGOs, 800 individuals, and several thousand connected people. The RME facilitates information-sharing, conversations, and gatherings, globally improving the education of migrant youth. Indeed, the RME shows that by working and changing together, we can actively expand the opportunities of education for migrants and refugees.

Overall, the experts present at the webinar urged us all to not let our narratives be created by prevalent discourses in the media in politics, but rather create dialogue with migrants themselves. Through migrant world making, open dialogue, and cooperation, an improved space of belonging can be created for migrants and refugees and the role of the Church and faith-based institutes can flourish too. As Fr. Murphy quoted from Pope Francis: “the roles of faith-based communities is all about building bridges and tearing down walls. Let this be our Lenten project”, calling to keep this mission in mind during Lent this year.

By Annemarijn Cozijnsen, intern at SIMI

Recordings of the sessions will be available here.