Chapter 5: Defining home: creating a sense of local identity

There is a practically universal tendency in our human species to categorise and categorise ourselves, to classify everything that surrounds us and, in the same way, to generate social classification groups, of which we consider ourselves, or not, members. In this way, we tend to define ourselves as belonging to a particular social category by differentiating ourselves from other existing ones; in short, to a constant construction of our collective and individual identities.

Masters of consistency

In the construction of the identity of a people, of a group and even of an individual, various elements intervene, all of them forms of expression of that identity. Andrés Barrena speaks, among them, of “…differentiating linguistic features, folklore, elements of the landscape or ecology, ways of life, stereotypes and attributions, history, monuments, collective rights, etc.” (1985: 95).
In this constant construction of identity we find important processes such as migratory mourning and the process of uprooting and rooting in the host country, community and municipality. These processes take place continuously and to the extent that we are able to carry out the migratory mourning, we will become positively rooted in the host municipality. It is essential to take into account these aspects, which can be facilitated by host groups and associations, NGOs and the local authority.

Globalisation has produced two major phenomena related to identity. On the one hand, processes of social homogenisation through the extension of a particular economic and cultural model, and on the other, the plurification of ways of being through the multiplication of information. This double process, which is complementary, has a singular impact on and due to transnational migrations.

The condition or definition of the immigrant as a stranger reigns in Western societies, articulating social, economic and political discourses on difference, but the social sciences have been showing us for several decades that being an immigrant is not an inherent characteristic of certain individuals or collectives, not even when they move and settle in countries other than those in which they were born; being an immigrant is a social category. That is to say, the condition of immigrant is a social construction. We cannot extract recognisable and truthful characteristics, qualities, structures from this category. Being an immigrant does not entail a way of being, a culture, a collective behaviour, an identity; the process of the configuration of the immigrant is complex and contingent, it depends on many factors, such as who constructs this category, in what context (spatial- temporal-historical-historical-political-cultural) and with what intentions (if there are intentions). Being different, in the case of immigrants, is a relational and bidirectional construction that is expressed and constructed when one arrives in the receiving society, regardless of whether the stereotypes that seem most obvious in the objectification of migrant subjects are not fulfilled. At the same time, in the context of globalisation, identity is increasingly complex due to the plurality of possible identifications and to situations of intercultural coexistence, in which a whole series of constrictions intervene when it comes to self-identifying ourselves and identifying others. Globalisation, which has brought into contact individuals who previously did not even know of each other’s existence, has made it possible to create diasporas of groups that have dispersed throughout the world, who migrate rather than immigrate and who thus make identities increasingly variable and complex, although in some sectors they still seem homogeneous (Wieviorka, 2004: 23-24). It is important to pay attention to the processes of adaptation, (re)construction and (re)formulation of migrants’ identity (cultural, religious and ethnic) when they settle in a new society.

Collective identity and local identity 

Social psychology (Turner, 1990; Tajfel, 1984) has taught us that we define ourselves in opposition to other people and other collectives, so that collective identity is unthinkable without otherness. In multi-ethnic contexts, this otherness is reinforced by social interaction, so that in translocal spaces, symbolic or real conflicts will arise between different collective identifications and social categorisations.

For Enrique Santamaría (1994, 2002), the receiving society considers the immigrant as an individual belonging to a specific, differentiated group and who, by belonging to that group, carries a whole series of cultural, social and religious characteristics inseparable from his or her own identity. The non-EU immigrant is defined by his or her belonging to the migrant group (ethnic minority according to Santamaría), never by his or her individuality. This ability to identify themselves individually is denied them, firstly because they have to justify their presence in society, legitimising it through work, and secondly because they belong to a specific group that defines them and obliges them to have particular and previously defined relations with the rest of society. Being different, in    the    case    of    immigrants,    is    a    relational    construction    that     is expressed when they arrive in the receiving society, regardless of whether they do not comply with the stereotypes that seem more obvious in the objectification of migrant subjects. It is important to highlight this difference between being a migrant and being different because neither difference nor cultural, social, religious or personal distance has to be an intrinsic characteristic of migration. When we refer to the construction of identity, the receiving society describes a series of traits that are intended to be objectives of the autochthonous identity, but also of the migrant identity. In the same way migrants point out certain traits that participate in the formation of collective identity, that is, of their collective being (regardless of whether or not they coincide with the definition of the native population – and even with that of other migrants belonging to the same ethnic group or nationality), which are (re)edited in the receiving society. According to Pérez-Agote (1994: 317-318) the foundation and maintenance of collective identity has to do with generational passage and with certain social and sociological mechanisms. The social elements refer to clearly visible and detectable social institutions (family, peer groups, educational system, religion and church, associative world, business, intellectuals, media and political parties); the sociological elements refer to a second level of abstraction as they are rather inferable processes than detectable institutions (leadership and elite systems, intergenerational relations and social conflict).

As we have seen, the process of adaptation and identity change in migrants is complex, and in this sense we cannot fail to consider support networks as a unifying and identity- generating element, both individually and as a group. Support networks have the capacity to    manage,    to    a    certain    extent,    migratory    cycles,    but     they     also provide group cohesion, that is to say, they enable the re-edition of customs and of those elements that make up the collective identity on a multidimensional level. They are not only important for administrative matters and those related to integration into the new society (understood in the legal sense), but they are also places for the reproduction and production of collective identity, where people talk about what is common, not only about difficulties, but also about cultural, recreational and day-to-day aspects (García, Ramírez and Jariego, 2001). Leisure time with friends and family can serve as an escape valve to feel comfortable, among peers, and in a context in which the dialectic of otherness does not come into play, especially in the early stages of immigration. But they are also moments of affirmation, in which one recovers one’s way of speaking, one’s way of laughing, one’s way of behaving in public; in short, customs that may not have an apparently important social or sociological relevance, but which for individuals become moments of group affirmation, regardless of the relationship with the receiving society (Álvarez-Benavides, 2011, 2013: 161-203; Pérez-Agote, Tejerina and Barañano, 2010).

Migratory mourning 

Grief is related to loss, but in life we are constantly gaining and losing things, so we are often experiencing situations of grief. The death of a loved one is one of the most painful losses, but there are many more losses that make us suffer and cause us pain: the loss of a job, the break-up with a partner, or the losses that must be faced associated with the migration experience.

Migrant mourning is thus the process of coming to terms with the losses associated with the migration experience. The main losses associated with migration are: language, culture, family and friends, status, contact with the ethnic group and land. 

These often lead to feelings of insecurity, stress, shame. Also, these losses generate feelings of anxiety, irritability or sadness that occur even at times when the person has achieved the goals he or she sought in the host country.

Over time, these feelings may evolve into ambivalent positions towards both the place of origin and the host country, which many describe as “living in identity limbo”. A situation that results in the paralysis of identity generation and life project and difficulty in making decisions; in addition, there is a sense of being trapped abroad, with hopelessness. Feelings of guilt for the people left behind are also aggravated. Not having family or friends close by means suffering and exposes us to certain risk factors such as loneliness due to the lack of community. The classic stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and learning. However, the reality is far more complex than this strict, linear categorisation. Most of the time the stages are intermingled, as well as their sequence; there are setbacks, jumps and repetitions that will depend on many other factors (places, memories, climate, current difficulties…).

To the classic stages we must add those of culture shock and acculturation (adaptation to another culture), which will play a key role in the migratory mourning: the honeymoon phase (idealisation of the new culture), the culture shock phase (confrontation with reality) and the phase of progressive adaptation. These phases involve strong emotional ups and downs. The stages will be repeated, as will the ups and downs, generating a kind of emotional swell during migration. If everything evolves favourably, if mourning can be worked through, the ups and downs will become less intense.

Grieving is therefore a process of restructuring and adaptation that involves suffering. A favourable process will result in the development of the person in his or her new environment. The elaboration of migratory grief implies the integration of the new culture, becoming part of it, without rejecting or forgetting our culture of origin. The role of institutions, NGOs, associations and society as a whole in generating mechanisms for the full incorporation of the migrant into the social fabric of the host country is fundamental for this favourable development of migratory mourning.

Conclusions and experiences from the local municipality in Mislata

The construction and reconstruction of individual and collective identity is one of the fundamental aspects of the migration phenomenon in the age of globalisation. In the process of migration, the individual tends to close in on himself more and more, renouncing the group, the social, the community; the information society connects us, but also isolates us. Along with this movement, we cannot fail to contemplate how the global society itself homogenises us, as some theorists of globalisation (Jameson, 1996; Anderson, 2000) affirm, through the extension of a model and specific cultural guidelines that make the particularities of the different societies disappear. It is true that this is a part of globalisation or a desire of neoliberalism, but globalisation has provoked other types of social events that are also born with the globalising process itself. Thus, one of the main characteristics of globalisation has been the awakening of new identities and new collective claims and, therefore, new forms of contestation.

Being a subject does not mean renouncing the collective, but questioning it from the point of view of what is relevant to oneself. In migratory contexts, it is possible to feel belonging to the migrant collective not in the terms in which this identity is constructed by the receiving society, but in the cultural, religious and ethnic elements that the social actor considers important. Religion, culture and traditions are re-edited, but far from tending towards homogeneity, they are interpreted in a subjective way. Participation in the collective also has to do with the idea of the subject, since it does not imply leaving social life, but finding in it the conditions for self-realisation and autonomy. The same is true of reception societies, which are per se heterogeneous, multi-faceted, diverse, changing, fluid and contingent.

One of the most positive ways of generating identity in the migration process is, precisely, to reconstruct a collective identity and claim it as viable, as legitimate, in the receiving society. This identity is new, but it is forged from traditional elements and new local and transnational realities. It is a chosen identity. Collective identity, like the mechanisms of social integration, arises from individual definitions, journeys and experiences that necessarily have a correlate in the collective.

Mislata is in a continuous process of change, growth and improvement, in an effort to build itself as a municipality open to all identities, respectful of all personal choices and inclusive of its groups and citizens. We believe that it is fundamental to define home as an expression of those elements that unite us as a community by sharing space and time. It is essential to understand the migratory diversity of the municipality and the wealth of profiles, cultures, languages and customs in order to be able to generate integrating synergies that build a sense of local identity. In this process of rebuilding a collective identity, the role of institutions, governments, NGOs and all those agents of change involved in the migration process will be fundamental. Nor should we forget the role of education as an engine of change to generate synergies of welcome, respect and integration in order to understand that the migrant is not different and is a human, social and cultural capital that adds to and enriches the host society.