Interview with Kristin Yarris (University of Oregon)
conducted by Dora Sampaio, October 2018

Kristin Elizabeth Yarris is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon, where she also co-directs the Center for Global Health. She is the author of Care Across Generations: Solidarity and Sacrifice in Transnational Families (Stanford University Press, 2017). For further information click here.

S: Could you tell us about how you first came to study ageing and mobilities?

Y: I came into the study of age and migration unintentionally. As a public health graduate student, I first went to Nicaragua in 2002-03 to assist with medical outreach in underserved communities as a translator. In that capacity, I was often frustrated by my inability to adequately translate the cultural meaning of embodied complaints expressed by people seeking medical care – that is, I could translate, from Spanish to English, what people were saying, but I didn’t know what was meant by certain complaints. This was particularly true for expressions of embodied distress and pains (dolores), such as dolor de cerebro (“brain ache”). That experience led me to design a masters-level research study exploring the meaning of this particular embodied idiom of distress among women in a rural region of Nicaragua. What I found was that that the significance of dolor de cerebro for midlife women, women of “la tercera edad” (the third age, or grandmother generation) was explicitly tied to the outmigration of their adult daughters (from that Nicaraguan community, most women emigrated to Costa Rica to work as domésticas). In short, it was my interest in the social determinants of women’s embodied distress that led me into studying migration.

S: What are your thoughts on ‘ageing across borders’ in the context of your work and experience?

Y: I have so many thoughts about this – so I wrote a book about them! I’m interested particularly in how women of the grandmother generation become carers for (grand)children after mother outmigration, how they experience caregiving, and how intergenerational care may be a resource for the wellbeing of families divided by borders. At the time I was conducting the ethnographic research that is the basis of Care Across Generations, I found scant academic attention to themes of intergenerational care; instead, grandparent caregivers were often overlooked in earlier research on global care chains. Having done this research, and coming to understand the value of intergenerational care both as social reproductive labor and also as cultural regenerative practice, I feel as though I must always apply an intergenerational perspective to studies of migration. Such a perspective helps reveal the significance of care in transnational families and in transnational migration more broadly. Another thought I’ll add is that my research with grandmothers in Nicaragua shows that, even when not themselves “mobile,” members of transnational families in origin (home) countries are central actors in migratory processes. This is to say, that we should be cautious not to let a focus on “mobilities” blind us to the ways in which non-movers are also caught up in the cultural, social, political, and economic transformations of global migration.

S: Your research has dealt with issues pertaining to transnational migration and global mental health. Could you tell us more about how these research interests inform your current work on intergenerational care?

Y: There are many intersections in the ways in which I’m thinking about mental health, migration, care, and intergenerational perspectives. One of my ongoing research projects is a study of experiences of patients and family caregivers at an outpatient psychiatric hospital in Mexico. There, I’m interested in how family caregivers (“informal” carers, in the biomedical perspective) play a central role in supporting the mental health of relatives suffering from mental distress.  It has become apparent through interviews and fieldwork I’ve conducted at this hospital that many patients have personal or family experiences of migration (largely to the United States), and that these migration experiences shape their understandings and experiences of mental distress. I am still analyzing data from this ongoing work, but the frames of gender, kinship, care, and migration will be central to the ways I interpret and write about this work. In another, local, project, I’m working with a refugee resettlement coalition in Oregon, exploring the motives of volunteers who assist (care for and care about) refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. An emergent theme is how care in this migratory context is shaped intergenerationally – namely, by volunteers’ past family experiences of migration or resettlement to the United States. In this case, I am finding an intergenerational perspective imperative for understanding the care proffered by volunteers, or informal humanitarians, who aid refugees and migrants in politically hostile climates and whose carework is therefore central to creating belonging or a form of “citizenship from below”.

S: Your book Care Across Generations: Solidarity and Sacrifice in Transnational Families (Stanford University Press, 2017) offers a fascinating account of the role of grandmothers as caregivers in Nicaraguan transnational families, delving into critical issues of gender, inequality and intergenerational care. What is the main message of the book and what are the main questions it raises?  

Y: I think I’ve addressed this above, so to be brief here, in my view, the main message of the book is that we can’t understand transnational migration or transnational family life without thinking across generations; in other words, we must broaden our analytical view beyond the nuclear family or parent-child relationship to consider caregivers in transnational, intergenerational networks, and how the care they proffer is essential to social reproduction and cultural regeneration. A set of methodological questions my book has me considering include the need for more longitudinal research, following families over time, to see how migration and care are reconfigured in future generations; perhaps we also need to consider historical approaches to access the significance of care and migration in previous generations. Another set of questions relate to the role of gender in intergenerational care – in my study, I had limited access, for instance, to children’s fathers, or to grandfathers – this has to do with gender and kinship relations in Nicaragua, as I describe in my book, but I do think it is important to examine how men engage or do not engage with carework in transnational families, perhaps through more purposive sampling of grandfathers. Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning the current political crisis in Nicaragua and its impacts on migration and transnational families. Members of families I work with in Nicaragua who had previously told me they had no interest in migration have, within the past year, as a result of political violence and upheaval, been forced to move, sometimes taking children with them to Costa Rica or the U.S., sometimes leaving grandmothers behind. I want to follow up with these grandmothers and talk with them about how they see migration in the current context in relation to migration in the past, and their perceptions of the impacts on their families across borders.  Finally, by situating care within the context of Nicaraguan cultural and political history--specifically, by situating care alongside the related concepts of solidarity and sacrifice -- my book suggests that we continue to attend to care in local, cultural, and historical inflections, problematizing and historicizing care through careful (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!) ethnographic research.

S: We see a growing interest in research at the crossroads of ageing and mobilities, namely in relation to care. From your expertise, what key issues and concepts do you think can be further developed within and beyond this intersecting field?

Y: In addition to some of the themes I’ve identified above, I think we need to continue to theorize continuities and reconfigurations of gender and care across generations in migratory contexts. I think we might apply intersectional perspectives to examine hierarchies of care (and also, hierarchies of migration and deservingness), as they are shaped by gender/race/ethnicity/age/national origin, and other social markers of difference. From my U.S.-based perspective, the current anthropological fascination with care is often focused on care circulations within medical or healthcare contexts, which provide only one analytical entryway for theorizing care. I want to keep my analytical gaze focused on social care, the ways opportunities for care are socially and politically structured, and how the absence or withholding of care operates in political spaces, rendering some people worthy or deserving of care, and others not. In other words, I’m hoping to hold my work on care alongside my work on citizenship and belonging – I think there are very fruitful conversations to be had at the intersections of these fields.

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