Ruth Behar is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. A writer, cultural anthropologist and modern nomad, she has lived and worked in Spain, Mexico and Cuba. She caught up with Tank to discuss her approach to understanding identity, immigration and the search for home in today’s global era. Her most recent book, Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys, explores these ideas in relation to her own life and background.
Portrait: Gabriel Frye-Behar
Tank I’d like to start by asking about how your background has informed your work.
Ruth Behar I was a child immigrant, so I became a traveller before I understood the meaning of the word. I was born in Cuba and came to the United States with my parents when I was five. I have an early memory of being dropped off at an American public school and left to sink or swim. Unable to speak English, I was placed in the “dumb class”. I was just a child, but it was humiliating to me. I worked hard to learn “good English”, even imitating a British accent as I grew older. My parents always struggled with English. They had a hard time being understood, so I became their translator. Knowing I could navigate between different languages and different cultures nurtured the traveller in me. My first journeys were from Spanish to English and English to Spanish. Once I was old enough to pack my own suitcase and set off on my own adventures, where I most wanted to go was to Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve spent long stretches of time in Spain, Mexico and Cuba. I feel a passion for the Spanish language that runs deep. Part of my ancestry is Sephardic, so Spanish also comes to me from that heritage. I wonder sometimes if I learned English a little too well and that’s why I’ve spent my life trying to reclaim my native tongue, looking for opportunities to speak Spanish, but knowing I will translate all my experiences into English.
Tank What are the meanings of travel today?
RB Travel means different things to the immigrant and the traveller. Immigrants leave an unsatisfying or violent home in search of a new home elsewhere that will offer opportunities for advancement and a safe haven. Travellers leave home voluntarily, hoping to return to the same home with an enlarged sense of self and their own place in the world. One large category of travel is travelling to forget one’s everyday life, which often entails travelling to a beach on a faraway coast or a distant island. The Club Med vacation comes to mind. But you can travel for the purposes of forgetting and not go near a beach, instead visiting museums, old city centres or ruins, or you might go on a safari or climb a mountain. The other large category of travel is travelling with the weight of your personal history upon your shoulders. This is travel that is about remembering, travelling to return to a place you or your family abandoned in the past, travelling to get to know a place associated with your own heritage. Sometimes this form of travel is very melancholy, if it involves going to visit spaces associated with the suffering and loss of your family or community. In addition to these forms of travel, there is travel that is neither about forgetting nor remembering, such as travel for business, where you are moving through places without leaving footprints, without forming any deep attachments. And finally many of us engage daily in travel that feels almost unconscious, a form of sleepwalking, the travel we call commuting, getting from one familiar place to another, with eyes half-closed.
Tank And how do we understand exile?
RB Exile in the classic sense was a punishment – a person or a community was sent out of their native land and forbidden from returning. I think of the Sephardic Jews being banished from Spain through an edict of expulsion in 1492. Or the Cuban independence leader José Martí being cast out of Cuba by the Spanish colonial government and taking up residence as an exile in New York, where he planned the war against Spain.
In our time, exile tends more to be a personal decision made by individuals who flee their native country for political and ethical reasons and vow not to return until the system they abhor has ceased to exist. There is also a poetic sense of exile, a sense that you don’t fully belong anywhere, a sense that the search for home is ceaseless and unending. This idea of exile stems from the expulsion from Paradise, but also from our modern mobility that leaves so many of us feeling adrift.
Tank How has the migrant experience been changed by digital technologies? How does this change notions of home, and indeed migration or movement itself?
RB A hundred years ago, migrants communicated by handwritten letters that could take weeks or months to arrive. In many cases, their departures were permanent and they never again saw their families. They found out about the death of loved ones back home through a letter that often arrived after the funeral. A goodbye was a goodbye forever. Travel was uncommon and expensive.
The ease of air travel, which we take for granted today, was inconceivable in the past. Digital technologies, especially email, Facebook, Skype and the cell phone, have radically altered the migrant experience. The abilities to stay in touch virtually and to travel back and forth easily have turned the notion of “home” into something more portable. Home is less a fixed place on the map and more of a floating presence that people carry with them. A pixelated copy of the beloved appears on a computer screen or a cell phone and you feel you are no longer so far away. You can stay connected at a distance, dropping anchor in a variety of places and not losing touch with family and friends in your country of origin. The amount and degree of migrating and travelling that we are witnessing in our age is unprecedented. There are so many people moving about the world in every direction. It’s mind-boggling to think about all the travellers in airplanes crisscrossing through the skies and all the migrants who are on foot or taking to the sea to find the home of their dreams. Today there are many women migrants. That’s an extraordinary shift. We have typically associated women with the rootedness of hearth and home. I find it curious that the women migrants I know are making maximum use of digital technologies, especially Facebook, to stay in touch with family and friends. I’m not sure if this is due to guilt, or a need for connectedness, or just the joy of being able to be self-revealing on the internet, but it’s a pattern I’ve thought striking.
Tank Do concepts like “home” retain a sense of meaning in an increasingly nomadic age?
RB It’s strange but yes, I think “home” is still meaningful in our nomadic age. While there is a lot of adventurousness and serendipity in how we travel today, it’s not all as random and haphazard as it may seem. Many go elsewhere to know how to come home. Or if we find a home elsewhere, then that becomes the place we call home. Even extreme nomads settle down at least for a period of time. Home can refer to a room, a house, a familiar street, a country. But home is never simply a place. Home is the people who nurture you and whom you nurture. Home can be your loved ones. Home can be a community in which you feel you belong. Home can be the friends you keep over a lifetime. For a writer, home can be anywhere that you can sit down and write your thoughts and feelings in peace. Home can be in a poem; home can be in a story.
Tank What are the limitations of the idea of the “global citizen”?
RB It is difficult, if not impossible, to be rooted everywhere and to go everywhere, to know the language, culture and ways of dreaming of all the people in the world. Distances between places have shrunk with the ease of travel, but true citizens have to be knowledgeable about the places where they reside. A global citizen might be stretched too thin to be able to contribute anything of value to civil society in any specific place. But if by global citizen we mean a person who is concerned about the world and thinks globally about the future of the world, I think that is a good thing. Ultimately it’s a matter of finding a balance between being global citizens who cherish a shared world and local citizens who have a sense of roots and are doing good work day to day in their smaller communities.
Tank I’m interested in the contrasts between typologies of global nomads – those who travel easily and effortlessly and those, like bidoon, who are stuck between.
RB I think it is one thing to have the privilege of being able to choose to be nomadic and quite another to be undocumented, stateless or homeless, and live in fear of losing the little bit of stability and rootedness that has been attained. Travelling freely as a global nomad is only possible for those who are privileged, for those who have some place to return to, for those who have others to fall back on if money runs short or ill health comes unexpectedly. Refugees or the bidoon don’t have those kinds of privilege. They are forcefully displaced; they aren’t travellers who are choosing to widen their horizons for the sake of pleasure or self-enlightenment.
Tank How does place have multiple meanings to different people?
RB This is a big question! I think there are places that are real and places that form part of our memory and dreams. How to account for all the potential meanings to different people? I’ll reply to this question as best as I can, which will be vaguely. A person can live in one place and long for another place through an entire lifetime. Which is the real, which the imaginary place? Every place is unique and unforgettable – with its own atmosphere, scent, light and mood. Every place has seasons, rainy and dry, or summer and winter, and a place feels different at different times of the year. But every place is also reminiscent of other places you have known. Inevitably you go searching for the same familiar things everywhere, whether it’s a coffee shop or a place to dance the tango.
Tank How is this affected by the opening of borders – as has recently happened in Cuba and Iran?
RB The opening of borders always makes it easier for information, goods and people to flow in and out. Hopefully the opening of borders in Cuba and Iran will bring about more peace and good will.
Tank What is your personal perspective on the opening of Cuba?
RB The recent restoration of ties between the US and Cuba is a positive step. It signals the end of a half-century of antagonism between the two countries and the possibility of more cultural and economic exchanges that will bring the world to Cuba, and Cuba to the world. I have supported bridges to and from Cuba for over 20 years and like many other Cuban-Americans who have longed for bridges, I feel we are moving toward a much-needed conversation and healing of wounds caused by ideological divisions. At the same time, I have to admit I cringe at the distorted and exoticised image of Cuba currently circulating in the media. And I worry about Cuba being bought up by those who are much too eager to invest there and how this might impoverish Cubans who cannot compete with the outsized wealth of outsiders. The poet in me aches for more depth, more heart, in the frenzied effort to engage with Cuba before it succumbs, as many fear it will, and becomes yet another franchise for Starbucks, McDonald’s and Home Depot. Yet I remain hopeful that Cubans will hold on to their culture as fiercely as they always have. I am also hopeful that Cubans who live outside the island will lend a hand to family and friends on the island as Cuba moves into the next uncertain phase of its history.
Tank How do you travel as an anthropologist?
RB I am a repetitive traveller. I go to the same places over and over. I did my first research in a small village in northern Spain. When I go to Spain, I like to return there, to see the place that took me in as a young woman at the beginning of my career. I remain in touch with people from the village and know there will always be someone – children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those whom I knew long ago who will still remember me. It is the same in Mexico, where I did research subsequently. There, too, I have returned many times to the town where I lived for several years.
I feel a bond to the people there, whose hopes and dreams continue to matter deeply to me. In the last 25 years, I have been engaged in a journey to reclaim Cuba, being there as a Cuban-American, a poet, a writer, an anthropologist. I often say that anthropology gave me a passport to go back to Cuba. Since anthropologists must dwell in the places they study and write about, I had to return to Cuba to see it and witness it with my own eyes and heart and mind. Every time I go to Cuba, I am in the presence of the ghosts of my past – I see yet again the building where I lived as a child, the streets my family walked in Old Havana, the synagogue where they prayed, and I hear the waves of the ocean that once lulled them to sleep. And for reasons I cannot explain, this makes me very happy. §