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Nationality or Transnationality?

When we migrated, we may have to change language, perhaps our nationality, but does our race also change? How is the nomadism that characterizes people today?

In the present-day globalization context, migrating characteristics are very different from the 20th century and even from the beginning of the 21st century. Today it is not enough to consider the concepts we already know to define a nationality, race, or ethnicity. How does one identify a person born in one country but spent half of his or her life in another or spent a decade studying or working in different continents? How do you redefine race or ethnicity when one changes countries of residence?

We talked with Dr. Jorge Duany[1], director of the Cuban Research Institute and Anthropology professor in the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University, who is not only a contemporary nomad himself but is also an expert on this topic. His Anthropology and Latin-American Studies training has led him to focus on the Caribbean migration from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic and narrowing his interest in cultural identity, racial relations, and transnationality. From his personal and academic perspective, Dr. Duany can help us reflect on nomadism as we see it today.


We live in a world where migration creates a hybrid mixture and challenges traditional concepts of identity, nationality, and nation. How do we rethink the place where people are born, the citizenships one acquires, etc.?

Historically, we have to remember that terms like race, nation, and ethnicity have been very entangled. Traditionally they were considered alike, and only recently have they been delimited, although even in the academy, they are confused again. For example, I belonged for several years to an academic journal called Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, and the keyword was ethnicity. Still, if you look at what has been published for ten years, many works are technically on racial issues.

The subject of race and ethnicity is problematic for many reasons. For example, in Puerto Rico, if one looks at the island’s census, one can see that the vast majority describes themselves as white; in the year 2000, it was 80.5%. Some colleagues who study races in Puerto Rico have pointed out that it would be a Scandinavian country if this statistic were correct. According to the local definitions of race, Puerto Rico’s population defines itself as «white,» which are more flexible than those used in the United States where one is white or black according to the rule of what traditionally called «a single drop of blood.» If you have African ancestry, you still consider yourself African American no matter your appearance. For Puerto Ricans who immigrate to the United States, Hispanics, and people from other regions, it is a trauma to be reclassified as non-white.

The Cuban and Dominican cases are peculiar too. The vast majority of Cubans consider themselves white—not black, nor «other.» We’d have to specify if they see themselves as Latinos or not, which is another question in the census, but another discussion. I think this explains why most Cuban-Americans vote for the Republican Party, even though Trump’s politics have been quite hostile towards non-white and Latino people. 

For Puerto Ricans who immigrate to the United States, Hispanics, and people from other regions, it is a trauma to be reclassified as non-white. The migratory process turns and questions the traditional notions of ethnicity, race, and nation, especially when they arrive in the United States and come across very different ideas and practices. El proceso migratorio convierte y cuestiona las nociones tradicionales de etnia, raza y nación, sobre todo cuando llegan a este país y se encuentran con ideas y prácticas muy distintas.

In the Dominican case, there are two issues worth pointing out. The first one is that almost no one is black in the Dominican Republic, not in the official classification system. Everybody is Indian, but not in the ethnic or racial sense of the word because it refers to people with dark skin and not to a connection to an indigenous past. The transformation of Dominican migrants in the United States is also very peculiar because their concept of Indian, light Indian, dark Indian, Canelo Indian, there are many adjectives to name themselves, automatically becomes non-white. Those Dominicans who claim to be Indians in their country cannot adopt the label of «American Indian,» it would not be very legitimate to define themselves as «native American.» They immediately began to call themselves African American or Latino. So I think that each of the three cases illustrates, through different paths, that the migratory process turns and questions the traditional notions of ethnicity, race, and nation, especially when they arrive in the United States and come across very different ideas and practices. 


Miami is a city that has the particular feature of being one of the three main points where Latinos have settled: California, New York, and here…

By the way, I studied in New York and California after briefly passing through Chicago, so I have that experience, mainly as a student. I have also taught in other parts of the United States. I have never felt as comfortable being a foreigner as I have here in Miami. I am an American citizen, but I feel I am an outsider either way. In Miami, many people come from other parts of the world, and more than 70% of the population is of Latin-American origin, mainly Cubans. Still, there is also a significant number of Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Colombians. Almost all Latino groups in the United States are represented here, except Mexicans, who are not seen as much in Miami as they are in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. You will see many Mexicans in rural areas where agricultural communities come from Mexico and Central America.

Miami has the characteristic that nobody is from here, maybe except for the African-American population, which is very old. If one looks at Miami’s history, one will see that those who built the city, who were the workforce, were African-American, who mostly came from the Bahamas, and their descendants. That African-American population that has been here for 4 or 5 generations is probably the only one entitled to feel native. Then there are non-white Hispanics, the «anglo,» a bit uncomfortable, but that is how Miami’s people use it, a minority of 10-15%. And we must also distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish people. Jewish Americans, who’ve been here since the ’50s, could also claim to be natives because they have been here a long time, and are also geographically gathered in Miami Beach and have political and economic power. But even they are mainly immigrants.

Miami has a very heterogeneous Latino population from different parts of the Caribbean, Central, and South America. There are so many Cubans in no other place in the United States than in Miami Dade County, more than a million. Compared to New York and Los Angeles, Miami has a more significant number of Latino businesses. Nowhere else in the country is Spanish spoken so fluidly and in so many places. Living in New York or Los Angeles, you can see that Spanish is spoken, but not everywhere and not always in public. Not speaking Spanish in Miami is a real problem; it is tough to find a job if you are not bilingual. For those who don’t live here, it can sometimes seem incomprehensible how this city works with such a mixture of languages.

You reminded me of somebody «anglo» I met one time who told me he felt like a foreigner living in Miami. The same happens to you, even though you are very assimilated to the United States; that feeling of being an outsider does not seem to be something that dissolves over time; it is something strange…

The term «assimilation» is another concept that people still use, especially in public debate. It surprises me how it still prevails in academic research. I prefer to avoid it because I think it means many different things to different people; it is better to talk about economic integration. For example, in a profession or business is when people will tell you they integrated. We can also speak about acculturation, which I do not use much but has a specific prevalence in Anthropology and Sociology to describe the adaptation and without loss of identity through time. For example, when one learns English, votes, actively incorporates oneself in the recipient society’s politics or clubs, that would be acculturation or integration. «Transculturation» is another possibility that I find interesting, or what is lately called «transnationalization.» Many of these processes could describe with the term transnationality, a concept a bit difficult to pronounce but that has specific practical implications that not everyone wants to accept.

Going back to my case, I was born in Cuba, but my Cubanism is second-hand because I don’t remember anything about that place.
My experience as a child was associated with Panama, it marked me, but I do not feel Panamanian. When I was nine years old, we went to Puerto Rico, which is when I felt more rooted. I went to high school, worked there for years after finishing my degree, got married, had children, made many friends, and many connections in the Puerto Rican academy. I didn’t feel completely Puerto Rican, neither I completely assimilate to that culture. I have often used the term «Cubarican,» which is not a commonly used term, but I got it from the «Newyorican» Puerto Ricans from New York. I think it describes hybridism, a mixture, half Cuban and half Puerto Rican. Now, coming to Miami, I’m going through a fourth stage, and I feel closer to the Cuban community because I have a lot more contact with them than with the Puerto Rican community, but I don’t pull apart from them either. So, I don’t feel assimilated. I don’t feel integrated into any of the places I’ve lived. In the United States, partly because I have only lived here for the last eight years; although I had studied and worked as a professor before, I always felt like a kind of passer-by. The feeling of a foreigner, or an outsider, is compatible with the idea that the place in which I felt more comfortable and rooted was in Puerto Rico.

That transnational identity that 21st-century globalization promotes is fascinating. Let us talk a little bit more about this concept.


I discovered the concept of transnationality when I was doing fieldwork on the Dominican community in New York, trying to understand that double phenomenon that the study participants, Dominican immigrants, mentioned in two ways. There is a clear distinction between here and there; they are not just two adverbs but two cultures, two tongues, two countries: the Dominican Republic and the United States. The idea of constantly moving between here and there captures what I would later, following other scholars, call transnationality. The term means a person that simultaneously feels part of and participates in two places, two nations, two languages, two cultures. Every day this happens more and more. In the ’90s, Dominicans would go to a phone booth and make a costly call to keep them in contact with their families every time they could. Dominican women kept raising their kids long distance.

Miami has the characteristic that nobody is from here, maybe except for the African-American population, which is very old. If one looks at Miami’s history, one will see that those who built the city, who were the workforce, were African-American

 Now everybody has a cellphone; the Internet exists, trips are cheaper and sent money instantly and less complicated. These are some examples of usual transnational practices among Dominicans but in other Latino communities. Therefore, a transnational identity is a constantly evolving and creative practice that combines elements from the original society and the recipient society.

If we talk specifically about identity, it reflects in the second or third generation on immigrants’ children who are usually bilingual. They speak Spanish and English, sometimes mixing both, using code-switching, but mostly Spanglish. They also identify as Dominican-American, with the hyphen in between, as Cuban-Americans do. Puerto Ricans don’t usually use «Puerto Rican-American» to define themselves. They only use it in moments when they want to accentuate their loyalty to the United States but call themselves Puerto Rican, even if they were born in New York or Miami.

Something that surprised me of that first study in which I applied the concept of transnationality was Dominicans referred to the Dominican Republic as «my country» and the United States as «this country.» That contrast between the demonstrative «these» and the possessive «my» revealed how they felt. I figured out they meant to say that they had come here to work but that someday they would like to go back to their country of origin, buy a house, save some money and rebuild their lives there; this was not their home.


That subjective feeling defines a powerful thing. And, what happens with back communities? What occurred throughout history that makes them keep living in such unequal conditions from others?


Trying to be brief, I’ll say that there were two processes closely related to racism. One was slavery, and the other colonization, which at some point, especially in the Caribbean, happened at the same time around five centuries ago. For hundreds of years, the idea of slavery, which was racist, and colonization, consolidated, which I also feel builds around a particular Hispanic notion of races that some people still celebrate as America’s discovery.

The idea that slaves should perform the worse jobs, first in gold and silver mines and later in sugar plantations, was the foundation of the white, free population. That idea started at the beginning of the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean and then extended to the rest of America and was the pillar of the regional economic, agricultural exports. These centuries of white supremacy ideology, during which skin color was associated and still is associated with a specific type of work, result in mistreatment, discrimination, and racial prejudice as the main result.


What can you tell us about how things are regarding racial and ethnic differences and injustice in the United States?


Well, I can think of two ways to answer the question. One is, of course, the current situation in which we are living, especially what happened recently, in 2020, with the explosion of racial tensions in the United States, as well as in other parts of the world, which has to do with the reaction to abuse and police brutality. In addition to these latest events is the death of several African American people in the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement’s creation a few years ago. They have transformed much of the discussion, debate, and hopefully also public policy.

From a theoretical point of view, and this is the second way I can think of reflecting on the topic, I believe that the change of racial and ethnic relations study has moved in a promising direction in the last two or three decades because of the concept of racialization. When I started studying Anthropology, and certainly in previous generations, Anthropology was the study of skulls, of people’s physical characteristics. That notion could determine a person’s intellectual, psychological, or even emotional features, all through the kind of body and the phenotype. This old school of physical anthropology is out of date. Especially after World War II, that idea began critically questioned.

Years later, we can dismantle that ideology, which at heart is racist, racist in white supremacy, to understand better how the culture constructed those physical features, attributed meanings in a particular time and place, and how we have arrived at the moment. Even though the race is a social construction, it has practical consequences and can determine a person’s life or death. 


Disciplines also need to change their focus. What has changed to be going through a movement like the one happening today in the U.S and globally? Why does it come up today with such strength?


I think George Floyd’s death in May of 2020 was an event that went around openly on social media and was transmitted repeatedly that this was not an isolated instance of evident physical violence; it was the spark. We’d have to see the background of the situation. The murder was so transparent, so violent, so unfair has made people getting involved. Until that moment, people didn’t identify themselves with the problem, those that appear as white, that aren’t victims of the prejudice and racial discrimination as intensely as African-Americans in the United States and other places are. What has changed is the public opinion on recognizing this problem, the convergence of different ethnic and racial groups, including the white majority in the United States. That has been changing. Today it seems people are getting a bit tired of the protest, of so much violence, and it is not the same as in the beginning. But I believe that is the key to understanding the situation we are currently going through.


George Floyd’s death was the spark that ignited something when we were going through the pandemic’s first hits. Is it possible that that context affected this? The measures related to this virus that threatens, limit, and hinders us have reflected a future of great insecurity for all communities. And at the same time, leaders managed the crisis in ways that are not as liable as we thought. 


Yes, you are right. The pandemic and the racial crisis are linked. The coincidence of the public health crisis that we are still going through aggravated the racial problem. There is also a third element, the economic crisis, the loss of jobs, that disproportionally affects disadvantaged communities like blacks and Latinos in the United States. Three forces come together and make this situation even more severe. A fourth factor is that 2020 was a presidential election year for the United States after four long years of Trump’s presidency, contributing significantly to the climate of racial tension. I remember when Trump, then a candidate, announced his presidential campaign basically insulting and offending the Latino population, especially the Mexican people, accusing them of being rapists, criminals, and «bad people,» he said. Since then, the anti-immigrant discourse softened a bit, particular speeches have repeated, and a series of decisions. However, some practices have polarized the racial environment of the United States.


How do you envision the future? What would have to be the collective and political commitment for something different to happen?


I think several tendencies are positive. Black Lives Matter isn’t a movement of just African-American individuals, but it is a multiracial, multiethnic led by African-American origin people. The voices of many people of different ethnicities and races have joined in expressing the necessity of political system reform. I believe that is a step forward because up until 2020, it seemed only black people were affected by these problems, and it was only they who should protest and rebel.

On a more academic level, I think that these racial disturbances have called attention to the existing racial inequalities in universities, in schools, on the necessity of being more sensitive to the equal representation of white, black, and Latino students. There is growing interest in educating, investigating, and learning about the history and culture surrounding us, both in schools and universities; this is important because there have been conservative movements to eliminate these ethnic and racial programs. Let us review these premises in today’s world. Although I do not believe that Latino and African American studies programs’ interests will be overwhelmed by this crisis, they certainly attract much more attention than they had a few months ago.



Traducción Dolly Bell – Antonia Lorenzo

[1] Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, Dr. Jorge Duany previously had Interim Dean’s role in the Social Sciences Division and Anthropology professor in the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He was also president of the Sociology and Anthropology Department and director of UPR’s Social Sciences Magazine. He was a visiting researcher and was named professor in many United States universities, including Harvard, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the City University of New York. He got his Ph.D. in Latin-American Studies, specializing in Anthropology, at the University of California, Berkeley. He also holds a master’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Columbia.

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