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Speaker discusses ties that bind Latin American immigrants in U.S.

by Cindy Weiss - October 11, 2005

As immigration from Latin America to the U.S. accelerates, the ties that bind the new arrivals to their Latin American home are linking them here, too, in micro-communities and networks built on mutual trust and solidarity, according to social scientist Charles Tilly.

Trust networks “shape the lives of successive immigrant generations,” but whether they constrict or promote assimilation is “a hotly disputed issue,” he said.

Tilly made his remarks during this year’s Robert G. Mead Jr. Lecture on Sept. 30.

Tilly is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University and an authority on long-term social processes. His talk opened the 2005-06 lecture series of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies in the Office of International Affairs

The endowed Mead lecture honors the late Robert G. Mead Jr., who taught Spanish at UConn for nearly 35 years and was once singled out as one of the 20 most influential Hispanicists in the U.S.

Mead, who retired in 1984, worked to encourage learning about Latin America throughout the educational system. Elizabeth Mahan, interim director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, told the audience that “if you talk to any Spanish or Latin American studies teachers in Connecticut today, they’ll have very nice things to say about Bob Mead.”

The Mead lecture also provided the opportunity to introduce the new Robert G. Mead Jr., Fellow: Emma Balbina Amador, a master’s degree student in Latin American Studies.

Tilly, who has written 12 books in the past 10 years, said the effects of trust networks among Latin American immigrants are seen in patterns of chain migration. Immigrants establish themselves and find jobs in the United States but regularly visit their home villages to celebrate important life events or to influence village politics.

They also remit funds to their relatives and friends back home, often through “viajeros,” intermediaries who move money and goods between the U.S. and Latin America.

Researchers have established that as much as 60 percent of the international monetary inflow into El Salvador and Nicaragua is due to remittances, he said, and 75 percent of all remittances to Latin American and the Caribbean come from the U.S.

“I do mean to challenge the popular images of immigrants as one-way travelers. Migration flows are serious business … for whole national economies,” he said.

In one documented case, men who had fled from the war in El Salvador to the Long Island suburbs later wanted to return home, where they had left behind their wives and children.

Their families depended on their remittance income, however, so the El Salvadorans would sponsor the immigration of at least one child before they left to ensure a continuing flow of family income from the U.S.

Chain migration patterns also lead to the exchange of cultural artifacts, Tilly said, so that T-shirts bearing the names of Massachusetts businesses, for example, may show up in a village in the Dominican Republic.

While trust networks introduce new immigrants to jobs and friends and help them take care of themselves in the U.S., the networks “also tends to confine them to niches created and inhabited by other immigrants,” Tilly said.

“Trust networks always erect tougher, sharper, us-them boundaries,” he said.

If members fail to help each other or if they make too many independent connections in their new home, they will be criticized and shunned by members of the network, he said. On the other hand, networks that adapt to the new community and form too many new connections may put themselves out of business.

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