Reclaiming Victimhood

Updated: Aug 5

When searching the words, “migrant mother” into Google Images, one is sure to discover Dorothea Lange’s (1936) famous, perhaps even infamous, photo from the Great Depression. Meant to resemble the resilient strength of mothers, and their enduring struggle, the photograph served as a marketing tool and emblem for government relief programs aiming to relay to its supporters and taxpayers, exactly where, and to whom, their money was going. A depiction of perseverance through desperation, “Migrant Mother,” helped shape, and continues to shape, America’s definitions around motherhood, gender norms, citizenship status, and, most crucial to this work, victimhood. In recognition of the recorded violence against women within detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border (Gutierrez, 2021), a rise in the feminization of labor (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003), and with 41% of the world’s migrants consisting of families (Migration Data Portal, 2021), this question of how media is portraying the migrant mother (and of which demographics) is especially relevant. Of equal importance is the story of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement in how they represent a larger women-led initiative of reclaiming victimhood and confronting a white-washed view of motherhood. Resulting from such, and through a lens of visual anthropology, as well as guidance from cyber-feminist theories, this research explores two main questions: 1) how are migrant mothers portrayed in media? and 2) how is the example of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement challenging this image to reclaim it as their own?

Whether through photograph or film, the way in which people are represented in media, conjures often simultaneous and contradictory connotations. While in efforts of “making and preserving” the human experience, many artists cannot escape the reality of their own subjectivity in that “his [or her] view of the [subject]” is “impose[d]” on one’s work (Mead, 1995, p. 3, 7). Thus, there is innate bias that convolutes truth and instills hierarchies of power both to the creators, subjects, and audience. So, while a photograph or film has the power to spread awareness and foster change, as Lange’s (1936) “Migrant Mother” claims to do, it also has the harmful ability to silence and mis-represent.

This is why when Lange stated that her subject “…seemed to know that [her] picture might help her… [that] there was a sort of equality about it,” the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, responded, “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture” (The Art Assignment, 2019, 2:25, 2:55). For while Lange described the mother as a migrant who “had to sell her tires for food,” in actuality, Thompson was not a migrant, but of Cherokee parents, and never once sold her tires (The Art Assignment, 2019, 5:16). Lange romanticized the situation into some nostalgic and historical memorandum of the Great Depression; and undermined both the direness of poverty and Thompson’s personal experience.

Such a stark contrast within Thompson’s and Lange’s respective relationships to the visual, highlights Timothy Asch’s strong emphasis on avoiding “the distance tended to turn people into objects” (1992, p. 197). It is the responsibility, Asch claims, of the researcher, or artist in this case, to assess their own motives and ask “whether [they] are working with [subjects] for legitimate reasons or simply personal gain;” and not to view them as something of obscurity, but rather of commonality (Asch, 1992, p. 197). Perhaps Lange meant well and truly believed there was “an equality about it;” but as visual anthropology suggests, assumption is not tolerated (The Art Assignment, 2019, 2:25).

Theories of visual anthropology, therefore, strive for reflexivity to amend these ethics. They confront “the difficulty of reality” in recognizing that their positionality “brings about a change of thought and a new mode of seeing in the beholder” (Golec, 2021, p. 38). Theories demand that the credibility of a film’s content be dictated by the filmmaker’s most honest and collaborative display of a subject; and that it is proven to both audiences and contributors. Visual anthropologists must solidify their voice as one that should be listened to and trusted, while working to form a platform from which their subjects can speak for themselves. In building dialogue between and amongst those captured and those doing the capturing, a piece can more effectively mimic that which is closest to actuality.

With this, as I engage further with the following question— how mother migrants are portrayed in media— it is crucial I identify my own positionality. I am a white middle class, American cis woman, of a near undergraduate level of education. I recognize that my privileges in race, nationality, gender, class, and education influence my approach to this research and distance me from the many forms of oppressions I am studying. Even in my efforts to reconcile intersectionality, my analysis may have been limited by my privileges— to which forces me to shift my lens around the migrant experience of mothers and women in victimhood. In order to more accurately do so, I began by first reconciling terms of “mother” and “migrant” separately; and then, after, joining them in conversation.

When attempting to define motherhood, there often derives a “biological” perspective, which is more accurately prescribed as a “social” paradigm (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 3). Caretaking and traditional gender norms support the belief that mothers (which equates “woman” with sex as opposed to gender) hold a moral obligation to their families first. A mother becomes the object of their baby as opposed to a person in their own right (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003). Quite in opposition is a feminist lens, which denies such faux biological terms, and rather views mothers as active agents and participants in the modern socio-political-economy (Gajjala & Mamidipudi, 1999).

Both understandings intertwine themselves within a larger complexity of worthiness: who deserves to be a mother and who is successful at it? Placed on women is this pressure to surrender their agency to that of their child. In order to align themselves under biological and social expectations, caretaking and homemaking, in addition to the well-being of their child, become the standards from which women’s characters, personhood, and capacity to mother, are judged. Such patriarchal qualifiers impose this test of worthiness as a means to perpetuate not only its own system of sexism, but those surrounding race, class, and nationality too. Mothers, in this context, are viewed as commodities and pawns in which power hierarchies fortify their positions.

Black women, especially, are targeted by this “worthiness test” as they are deemed undeserving; and Rebecca VanDiver (2021) discusses, in great length, how slavery facilitated this unjust image. With conditions that broke up and “separated families,” mothers were placed a literal distance away from their children, making caretaking “impossible” by terms of proximity (VanDiver, 2021, p. 18). As time passed, white society noticed this diaspora of families and the absence of black mothers to their children. As opposed to self-ownership in ties to slavery, their conclusion was not in recognizing the obvious disruption in the lives of families, but that “black women were [inherently] unfit for motherhood” (VanDiver, 2021, p. 18). In current times, one can trace the continuous tainting of black mothers to this legacy of slavery and the assertion of racist logic (VanDiver, 2021).

“Distant mothers,” which applies to modern women participating in a global care chain are also deemed unworthy on the basis of literal geographical placing. The global care chain operates under a process in which a rich urban woman hires another woman from a lower class, of usually migrant status and of color, to watch her kids; then that hired woman hires someone else, in her own city, to watch after the kids she had to leave (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 4). And the trickling down of motherly roles continues to be passed from woman to woman, filtering through other forms of oppression, outside of sexism.

But because American culture asserts “being present” as an essential piece to mothering, and migrant women are relying on other women to “be present,” they are viewed as failing mothers (Parrenas, 2012, p. 270). This is why as women (mostly white and of higher economic status) rapidly enter the workforce, the question of moral obligation gives rise to a phenomenon like the “second shift”— which can be seen as an effort by women not to lose their motherly credibility (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 5).

Women, in essence, hold two job positions— that of paid work and unpaid domestic and caretaking work— while men only hold one— that of paid work. Despite the reality that “working mothers are doing somewhat less housework” than in previous decades, “most men are doing only a little more” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 5). This imbalance still exists so that migrant and lower-class women complete the labor men refuse to. And this validates that a woman is still to be defined by her child, and not that of their own economic and career-related roles— that there is something “natural” and “biological” to this (Parrenas, 2012, p. 270).

A feminist argument to counter such is that economic contributions by women are not considered a form of caretaking like they are for men (Parrenas, 2012, p. 272). Often leaving their families in search of work in other countries, migrant women fill a labor void that white and upper/middle-class women leave, as they more rapidly enter the workforce. Unlike a man, whose providing for his family is seen as love, women are contained within stricter lines— with their monetary strives forward reckoning their mothering efforts, a step backwards. Under this societal assertion of “worthiness,” migrant women, often of intersectional identities of color, are “unfit” mothers.

Media too drives this image through its portrayal of migrants. In either negative and vulnerable circumstances or in positions of fearful security threats, the common depiction rests on commercialization and commodification. Sensational elements referring to negative emotions, conflict, and weakness, sell. But so too do crime-filled scenarios, submerged in fear and danger. These two storylines run parallel to each other and are only activated when useful to the majority’s narrative. Most evident is the example of the Trump administration who posed “alleged dangers” in the pushing of a “political agenda” (De Coninck et al., 2021, p. 2506). In such, migrants’ presence in media is thusly understood, as Ash would warn against, to be solely that of “personal gain” to its creator (Asch, 1992, p. 197).

Based on the ability to assimilate, migrants are only seen through the perspectives of the “host societies” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 4). If there is a failure of proper integration, media, much like the white supremacist labeling of black motherhood, justifies why. And this uncertainty, often reclaimed by nationalist means to maintain a white, patriarchal, and capitalist system, rely on fear. This lens is gendered by that of “symbolic,” owed to women, and “realistic,” owed to men, fear (De Coninck et al., 2021, p. 2509).

Symbolic fear refers to when “the in-group’s religion, values, belief systems, ideology, or worldview” is challenged (De Coninck et al., 2021, p. 2509). Because women are termed as “cultural emblems” and even as “cultural police,” they, following this philosophy, have the power to destroy and breakdown culture, just as much as they have the power to create and maintain it (Winter, 2016, p. 1). This ability is directly linked to media’s silencing efforts of women.

Realistic fear aligns more closely to the beforementioned Trump Administration. These are “perceived threats to the in-group’s economic or material interests… [as well as] physical well-being” (De Coninck et al., 2021, p. 2508). With men gendered as more aggressive, strong, and violent, occupying jobs of manual labor and holding “breadwinning” roles, they carry with them an inclination of a “realistic” security threat (Winter, 2016, p. 1).

Migrant women, therefore, within a transnational context, face a specific juxtaposition that seeks to balance both this symbolic fear and mothering obligation of worthiness. They are somehow devoid of, and within both, “occupy[ing] simultaneously different and often contradictory subject positions” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 6). They are “breadwinners and caregivers, devoted mothers and national heroines, and global consumers and exploited workers” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 6). These opposing identities, that yield the migrant mother experience, are derived mainly from globalization and its “uneven development.”

A term coined by Kenneth J. Guest (2018), “uneven development” acknowledges that the benefits of a capitalistic world system are going to be shared as inequitably as the system that distributes them, are (2018, p. 21). Which, in our circumstances, is very inequitable: “over the last thirty years, as the rich countries have grown much richer, the poor countries have become—in both absolute and relative terms—poorer” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 5).

A point furthered in the works of Deborah A. Thomas and M. Kamari Clarke (2013), “uneven development” reveals that with the expansion of globalization comes the expansion of majority philosophies. Those in power are going to produce social, economic, and political structures that perpetuate their power; minorities must follow these systems by means of survival. The dispersion results in the “transmission and reproduction of deep social hierarchies and prejudices” that the trail of capitalism leaves behind (Thomas & Clark, 2013, p. 306).

This includes patriarchy. The First World inhabits this position of the “old-fashioned male in the family—pampered, entitled, unable to cook, clean, or find his socks” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 6). While Third World countries inhabit a position of the “traditional woman within the family—patient, nurturing, and self-denying” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 6). And this feeds heavily the beforementioned “global care chain:” as “first world women enter the workforce [it] pulls migrants… while poverty pushes them” (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003, p. 4).

Under the guise that feminism is winning, and that the rise in global capitalism is why, female migrant workers are silenced in their sacrifice. While roles like nannies, maids, and sometimes even sex workers, are “the bulk of the work that migrant care workers… do…,” the extent to which they are performed, is not properly represented (Parrenas, 2012, p. 270). They provide emotional and physical support to families, conduct the “dirty work of cleaning households” that other lower-class workers avoid, and suffer in often coerced positions of sex-work. It is a type of “emotional labor” that goes so far beyond “care” (Parrenas, 2001, p. 363).

With no citizenship status, the exploitation migrant women face cannot be confronted nor properly regulated— making them more suspectable to harm. Additionally, before being victimized under discriminations of citizenship, women are often victimized by prior violence— fleeing their homes to escape forms of domestic and sexual abuse (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 3). They carry a personal burden that a feminization of labor, and its “powerful representations of the larger inequalities of contemporary political economy,” enhance (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 4).

In cumulation of all of these expectations and realties around migrant women, and in response to my first question of how they are portrayed in media, women are pigeonholed into a trajectory of victimhood. In order to maintain a belief that migrant women are weak, vulnerable, and in need of pity, media only shows them in roles that validate that image. And while revealing circumstances for the purpose of help is not necessarily wrong, the purpose and intent by which it is done, often is. Currently, media attempts to produce emotionally charged forms of “help,” when the goal should rest in actualizing physical “change.” The “emotions [of mother migrants]… provide a taken-for-granted backdrop to stories of digital media” (Wilding et al., 2020, p. 640).

By focusing on the structural factors of the care chain and in only recognizing “uneven development,” as opposed to productively challenging it, there is a lack of empowering potential. Because the subjects being recorded have no say in how they are displayed, they hold no agency over themselves or their own story (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 5). Migrant women are told the only conclusion is struggle and vulnerability— not strength and resilience— because it is all that is shown (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 4). The breaking of the transnational-capitalist systems, therefore, is not even considered an option for both migrants and citizens of their host society. Stories of victimhood written by those in power, must be reclaimed by the victims themselves in order to reshape social hierarchies. It is the narrative of weakness that coerces mother migrants into feeling weak— controlled by the perspectives of the powerful who believe it too.

Cyber-feminist theories offer a space from which this reclaiming of victimhood can be achieved. Holding the belief that women should “take control of and appropriate the use of Internet technologies,” such philosophies recognize that in doing such, there is a unique opportunity for self-empowerment (Gajjala & Mamidipudi, 1999, p. 547). Working through a common Western lens that technology is a great equalizer, helping to bridge gaps between social groups, cyber-feminists recognize media as an extension, and creation of, the global market. Embedded with hierarchies of power “in [its] very construction,” technology and its Internet culture, utilizes factors like language and software design to control accessibility and require a certain level of “digital literacy” (Wilding et al., 2020, p. 641).

Transnational motherhood and practices of “distant mothering,” hold unique positioning among this cyber-feminist conversation; they hold a reliance and dependency upon technology. Media and forms of communication serve as a comfort and backbone for many mothers who debate movement. Because global communication is the most connected and efficient it has ever been, women are better able to remain in close contact with their families they have left behind (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 2). And this potential to sustain social definitions of motherhood, while also obtaining new economic and feminist freedoms, justifies, and feeds, the global care chain— asserting women within a contradictory, and balancing-act, existence (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 2).

Yet even with this dependency on technology, migrant women continue to be silenced in media. Even when “attaining the level of education and ‘westernization’ required to become powerful within global structures,” they are filtered and limited by those vying to maintain a master narrative (Gajjala & Mamidipudi, 1999, p. 550). This occurs in both the literal absence of a voice in media as well as a falsely portrayed one, in which others speak for them. It crosses boundaries of victimhood and incorporates, once again, stratifications of race, nationality, gender, class, and education.

A great example of how power hierarchies can reshape the lines amongst media and migrant women, is a film uploaded by the New Yorker, and directed by Erin Semine Kökdil (2021). “Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me” is a twenty-minute documentary that “follows a group of women from Central America on an emotional journey,” during which “thousands of mothers” reconcile their “lost adult children who went north to escape the violence, both physical and economic” (Mackey, 2021). Engaging with the communities they pass, this “Mother’s Caravan,” by which they call themselves, share the lives of their loved ones in order to re-instill humanity and personhood. They shout, “Where are they? Where are our children?” while carrying pictures of their faces for strangers to identify (Kökdil, 2021, 13:18-13:20).

These women are the bridge within this intersection of migrant and mother, that demand a space of agency and action. In response to victimhood they ask, “Why do you assassinate us, when we are the seed of Latin America?” (Kökdil, 2021, 13:10-13:12). They address the injustice happening to them but place it within the context of their own experience and within the frame of their resiliency. They are utilizing their grief and anger as fuel— not a barrier in which they trap themselves and are trapped.

Another important takeaway from this film in allowing victims to speak for themselves, is its portrayal of hope. Distinct from pity, this sense of optimism in that their children will be found, is built upon the results of their actions. The women reveal that oftentimes, the venture for loved ones proves futile in the immediate future. But when children are sometimes found after “fifteen years of searching,” hope is never lost (Kökdil, 2021, 9:23). Such an outlook of themselves and their situation forces the audience to question their own. If victims do not pity themselves, do we even have the right to? If victims are not losing hope, should we? As viewers within a host society, Kökdil’s (2021) piece leads by example in encouraging us to step outside the framework of victimhood and practice listening to the victims themselves. By focusing on their narratives, our own will expand.

While “Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me,” utilizes the global market embedded in technology and “internet culture,” as cyber-feminists would uncover, the piece also proves that, despite inherent inequitable power hierarchies, technology has the ability to “subvert these [power dynamics] and foster dialogue and action” (Gajjala & Mamidipudi, 1999, p. 553). In highlighting visual anthropology and its attempts towards reflexivity, media, in the case of the Mother’s Caravan and adjacent film, is a bridge. And cyber-feminism promotes these “processes [by] which women negotiate their various roles, identities and relationships” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 7). Or in other words, grant women the opportunity to reclaim their victimhood.

A group known as the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement too showcases the Mother’s Caravan on their medium. But as opposed to utilizing an American space like the New Yorker, this organization is using their own. Ultimately embodying cyber-feminist theories, the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement not only creates a stage for their own voices to be heard but offers a platform from which others can do the same. On their site, which is women-led, co-founder, Marta Sanchez Soler, describes her group as “a web of relationships and contacts [that] bring together and promote the exchange of information and experiences of struggle” (2014). She writes how people in movement are “a permanent prey of neoliberal greed” and that “migrant brothers and sisters… lead the social movement for human mobility” (Sánchez Soler, 2014).

What she declares is a questioning of the system of nation-states— in which frames my second and final research question: how is the example of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement challenging this image [of a migrant mother] to reclaim it as their own? In addition to projecting their own experiences and stories, and allowing others too as well, the organization reminds viewers of the “sociality and intimacy in transnational[ism]” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 7); and that nation-states are a fictious concept to which migrants are “victims” (Sánchez Soler, 2014). She then takes ownership and asserts agency. In reference to issues at the U.S. Mexico border specifically, Sánchez Soler prescribes a “vital expression of bi-nationality” in that the harm inflicted is something that “concerns [them]… is directly [their] responsibility and in what [they] must be involved in… to fight together, without borders…” (2014). Through the Movement’s actions and words, they invalidate nation-states and instead move to those systems that liberate them. Studying them too forces a mindset that exists without a “methodological nationalism” and welcomes the potential of a more inclusive home (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 6).

Additionally, while migrant mothers struggle to find a space that accounts for contradictions, the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement provides it. With categories like gender, class, race, and citizenship status, and their intersections, of most importance to Sánchez Soler and her organization, their website focuses on “relationships, and following them "rather than assuming them” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 6). From this effort derives a series of balanced stories that illustrate, equally, themes of “suffering, separation, [and] loss, as well as empowerment and love” (Madianou & Miller, 2012, p. 3).

In a capitalistic system that seeks to tear apart families, the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement actively unites them. Community too, is a major way in which they combat dangerous titles of victimhood. For in community people find their strength and demand respect. They form a “mutability of being” from which humanity is placed above nation-state philosophy (Wilding et al., 2020, p. 653). In an interview posted on their website, a man comments on the danger of crossing the border and highlights the ridiculousness of nation-states: “We are going to continue forward. It’s not gonna stop us, this wall; people are always gonna a look for a way to cross the border” (Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, 2017, 0:44-0:50). People are going to move no matter what. And since nation-state legalities do not recognize this truth, the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement does. Proving, overall, that migrant women are not passive actors in their victimhood, but active agents in reshaping it.

With 85 years since Dorothea Lange’s (1936) “Migrant Mother” first swept the United States, my research questions— 1) how are migrant mothers portrayed in media? and 2) how is the example of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement challenging this image to reclaim it as their own— encourage a process of reflection upon how this image may have changed. Unfortunately, my research has concluded that media has retained its assertion of victimhood over women migrants; it has not changed. The storyline of struggle— and the weakness and vulnerability tied to it— continues today and is only of commodifiable use to a master narrative. Groups like the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement exemplify a process of reclaiming victimhood. By addressing the intersections of race, gender norms, class, and citizenship status, the platform offers migrants the chance to tell their own stories, and host societies the opportunity to learn how to listen and engage in productive change. Through their efforts, nation-states are invalidated in healthy and realistic ways; and lay the groundwork for future groups to do the same. Even though this harmful framework of victimhood still exists in media, through a lens of visual anthropology and cyber-feminist theories, it is evident that it is being challenged. And like the women of the Mother’s Caravan, we should not give up hope.


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