I am interested in how marginalized groups of people like indigenous peasants, deportees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants struggle for rights and resources, against the odds. I look at how these groups make sense of the systems that oppress them. I also ask what conditions and kinds of support might help them gain more leverage. I am deeply concerned with gender, especially the ways ideas about gender can be used as instruments of control – and of resistance. Most of my scholarship focuses on Mexico, Central America, and migrants from those countries to the United States. I have worked in Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico and with Oaxacan migrants since 2004 and at the US-Mexico border since 2017.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston, which was predominantly white and far from Latin America, both geographically and socially. But I was concerned about social justice from a young age. Both my parents are active in local politics. As a high school and college student, I spent several summers living in rural villages in Latin America, through Amigos de las Americas. That experience inspired me to think critically about the place I grew up and to keep learning more. I have since had the privilege to live and work in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and especially Mexico. Through these experiences, I also became fluent in Spanish.
My earliest research in college and graduate school was about the global reach of the Zapatista Movement, a group of indigenous activists in Southern Mexico fighting to defend peasants from the harms of neoliberal capitalism. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatistas became an important face of the global Left. I was inspired by their message, but I was also concerned about the power dynamics between the Zapatistas and their outside supporters. I began to study the relationships between members of this movement and their sympathizers from foreign NGOs. I showed that the Zapatistas were able to demand “downward accountability” from some outside groups by creating circles of supporters whose legitimacy hinged on meeting their demands. Between college and graduate school, I also served as a research assistant in a study of the barriers to building peace in Colombia and ran a service-learning program in the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico.
My first book, Undocumented Politics (California, 2018), began as my doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. The book focuses on how undocumented, Oaxacan migrant communities confront a process of globalization in which they are economically marginalized and politically excluded. I look at these politics both in the United States and on the Mexican side. The book emphasizes how place, or local political contexts shape the process of migration, migrants’ approaches to struggle, as well as relations of gender. It also shows how resistance is a process: built in the interplay between the places migrants go and the places they leave behind.
Now that I live near the border, the “global” inequalities I sought to understand in my youth play out visibly within minutes of my house. My current research is rooted in my home at the border and is designed to support the urgent needs of asylum seekers, deported migrants, and the organizations that advocate for them. Together with my students, I am trying to better understand the impacts of forced displacement, particularly deportation and US and Mexican state violence against asylum seekers. In my second book, Banished Men (in progress), I examine how the US carceral system channels deportees into marginal urban spaces in Mexico, instilling feelings of alienation. I also look at what conditions on both sides of the border may help deported migrants claim rights and resources.
I am also working to fight the ongoing asylum and humanitarian “crisis” created by border militarization. Together with several advocacy organizations, my students and I are running research projects designed to help migrants access asylum and services, and to inform legal action to protect the rights of migrants. Going forward, I hope to expand my research to look at how to build better spaces of climate and social regeneration, especially for people whose deep relationships with the earth have been severed by climate crisis. As the global climate exodus increases, this will only become more urgent.
I have two young children, who were born while I was a tenure-track assistant professor (I’m happy to talk about academic motherhood with anyone interested!). I hope that raising my children at the border will teach them firsthand about power and difference, and inspire a commitment to righting the racial and national injustices we can feel so viscerally in our region.
In all of my work, my goal is to identify on-the-ground ways to help end exclusion and oppression and help people build more dignified, humane lives. I also hope to reveal how the actions of people of privilege reinforce or alleviate inequalities and to highlight ways that “regular” people of all shapes and sizes can work at the local level to encourage social change.