A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Literacy in Motion: A Review of Susan Meyers' Del Otro Lado: Literacy and Migration across the U.S.-Mexico Border and Kate Vieira's American by Paper

Amy E. Dayton, The University of Alabama

(Published May 3, 2019)

The context for immigration in the United States has become increasingly fraught, with the Trump administration stepping up deportations, detaining and separating families and children, and recently, creating a federal task force that will review the documents of new citizens with a goal of pursuing de-naturalization where possible. The language surrounding these policy changes has embraced and amplified the rhetoric of crisis that has historically permeated discussions of immigration and language variation in the US. Many educators fear the effects of these new policies on our students and communities. This political moment has created an urgent need for scholarship that depicts the complex factors surrounding immigration, emphasizes the humanity and potential of immigrant students, and shows the effects of regressive policies on their day-to-day lives. Fortunately, the potential for this kind of scholarship is realized in two recent ethnographies by Susan Meyers and Kate Vieira. 

In her book, Del Otro Lado: Literacy and Migration across the US-Mexico Border, Susan Meyers traces the path of immigrants who have migrated from rural Mexico to the American Midwest, and examines her participants’ experience with schooling and literacy on both sides of the border. In the introduction, she describes the background and methodology of her study.  To gather data on how political and social trends affect individual lives, Meyers conducted fieldwork for four years. She spent one year in the field in rural Mexico, and made subsequent visits over several years. She conducted additional fieldwork in Iowa, where immigrants have formed an ex-patriot community, and she did archival research in Mexico City. Her data includes 75 hours of classroom observation and over 80 recorded interviews, which she translated from English to Spanish, and then transcribed. 

In the middle chapters, Meyers provides historical context on the town where she conducted fieldwork, and she explores her participants’ experiences in Mexican schools.  Because so many residents have emigrated, the town is marked by their absence. Nonetheless, migrant workers make an important impact on the town through the remittances that they send home. Acknowledging the violence that has plagued Mexico in recent years, Meyers notes that there were times she felt uneasy. Despite legitimate concerns about violence, however, she argues that “safety” also serves as a trope to control rural women, who have few freedoms and cannot leave their homes unescorted.  Her interest in the ways in which that community norms oppress some community members continues in her discussion of the Mexican school system. Teachers and administrators lament that many students leave school early; however, since secondary and postsecondary schools are mostly located in urban areas, students must leave home in order to attend. Upon graduation, they must remain in urban areas if they want to find white-collar jobs. Meyers argues that the Mexican educational system is simply not designed with rural students in mind. Since rural people already feel excluded by the system, they tend to look with suspicion on attempts to modernize and change the schools. Students and parents realize that pursuing higher education will require them to relinquish some of their community and familial ties.

Meyers pays special attention to women’s experiences. Most of her interview subjects have limited access to education due to their domestic responsibilities. Women who migrate to the US, however, tend to have more autonomy, even upon returning to Mexico, where they often pursue careers or entrepreneurial endeavors.  Despite the limitations placed upon them, the women “have drawn on each other and on literacy” in order to exert control over their lives where possible (92). For instance, Meyers tells the story of an elderly woman who, as a young woman, used letter-writing as a means to exert her autonomy in her relationship with her suitors. Fearing she would be kidnaped and taken as a bride, she refused to leave her home, and instead insisted that her potential suitors communicate through letters so that she could choose her mate. 

In the final chapters of the book, Meyers examine the ways in which her research participants exploit the power of literacy, while simultaneously resisting some of the ideological premises of formal education.  She focuses on the Mexican community in Marshalltown, Iowa to find out what happens to migrant families who work in the meatpacking industry. In American schools, children have more resources available to them than in Mexico. But US schools make more demands on them. The “literacy contract” of American education assumes that immigrants will assimilate quickly, organize their lives around the school’s schedule and testing requirement, and relinquish some of their ties to their home culture and language.  Despite the differences in school systems, Meyers argues that the US and Mexican educational systems share some rhetorical and ideological ground in their relationship to migrant students. In Mexico, educators criticize students for being driven by consumerism (as in, a desire for jobs that will allow them more purchasing power), while in the US, schools are frustrated by the slow pace of students’ assimilation, and critical of some students’ decision to leave school early to go to work. Meyers argues that the “literacy contract” offered by formal institutions often does not keep its promises to migrant students, either in Mexico or in the United States. The literacy contract suggests that schooling will be a path to economic opportunity, and to social and financial rewards. Yet Meyers shows that the benefits of formal schooling come with significant costs.

Meyers’ focus on gender is a strength of the book. I would have liked to hear the women’s perspectives on the lack of autonomy afforded to them, and about their everyday literacy practices. But in some ways these absences contribute to Meyers’ lines of analysis. Literacy—indeed, access to books or digital technologies for writing—is limited, constrained, and typically located at “school,” which makes it seem irrelevant to her participants’ daily lives.  Like the absent residents who have left for the US, literacy too can be found more in “traces” than at the center of the villagers’ life. 

Like Meyers, Vieira is interested in the contradiction between public beliefs about literacy and schooling, and immigrants’ first-hand experiences. In the introductory chapter of American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy, she explains that she did not plan to write a book about “paper,” but rather, began with the goal of studying the relationship between literacy and upward mobility (2).  When she asks her participants about their reading and writing practices, however, they respond by talking to her about the papers that shape their lives and determine the options (educational, professional, personal) available to them in the US: “In living rooms, parking lots, kitchens, and cafes, the documented and the undocumented alike spoke of papers with an urgent intimacy that conferred to me, as researcher, a responsibility to take them into account" (2). These papers include work permits, visas, passports, diplomas, licenses, time sheets, and more. In this insightful study, Vieira helps readers see that an item as mundane yet powerful as the material object of paper has been hiding in plain sight in recent studies of literacy. Describing her book as being in part a “social history of literacy,” Vieira looks at three dimensions of literacy: the material artifacts connected to it, the reading and writing of her participants; and the national/international infrastructures that give meaning to their writing practices and to the papers that govern their lives. Her study compares two groups of Portuguese-speaking immigrants—Brazilians and Azoreans—living in a Massachusetts town. 

The introduction and Chapter 1 set out the background and methodology, and explain how papers and literacy shapes immigrants’ lives and opportunities for advancement. Until the 1980s, most immigrants to South Mills (the fictional name she gives her town) were Portuguese-speaking Azoreans (from the islands off the coast of Portugal), who came in larger numbers until the 1980s and were mostly documented immigrants (and their descendants). As the numbers of Azorean immigrants declined, Brazilians began to settle in South Mills in a wave of undocumented migration. The Brazilian immigrants often have high levels of educational attainment and skills from their home country, but lack the papers needed to certify their credentials and to secure legal status as immigrants. Practically speaking, a lack of immigration papers means that some educational opportunities, loans, and grants are not available to them.  By contrast, the Azorean immigrants are mostly documented, yet have a persistently low level of educational achievement.  A strong community work ethic means that young people face pressure to take factory jobs rather than pursuing education. This path worked well for older generations, when factory work was plentiful, but is more perilous for younger workers, who face lay-offs and have fewer options for well-paying factory work.  

Chapters Two and Three compare the literacy practices of the documented and undocumented. Her participants’ literacy activities include: writing letters, filling out paperwork to help family members immigrate, studying and writing for the citizenship test, and writing testaments for friends seeking citizenship. Vieira notes that their use of literacy is mostly instrumental, but she doesn’t use this term in a pejorative sense. Rather, she points out that “[their] writing and literacy were not primarily about negotiating identity or political resistance. More pragmatically, the people I spoke with used their writing, in ways both passionate and agentive, to comply with larger bureaucratic systems. . . . No one presumed that papers or literacy defined their identities. . . . [Instead,] writing was seen as a socio-material tool" that could open up new opportunities or paths to citizenship” (81).  In addition to bureaucratic sites for literacy (schools, government), church is an important site that legitimized her participants’ lives—especially for those who are undocumented. One participant, for instance, is proud of having earned a missionary card; others write songs, religious poems, and prayers. 

In the last two chapters of the book, Vieira focuses on the young people in her community as well as the broader implications of her study. She compares pubic beliefs about literacy to immigrants’ real-world experiences. Whereas researchers tend to believe that language skills are a crucial factor in social mobility, her study suggests that other factors are as influential or more so: “Under the textual conditions of their marginalization, it was not English, but papers that more profoundly shaped their educational trajectories, migratory lives, and ultimately their writing” (114). In essence, it is the fact of being “without papers” that impacts their family lives, their chances for upward mobility, and their overall health and well-being (113). 

Vieira encourages readers to re-think and give more credit to so-called “strong text” or autonomous theories of literacy, which focus on literacy products more so than process and which consider literacy to have dramatic social and individual consequences. Although these theories have fallen out of favor with scholars who embrace a more constructivist stance, Vieira points out that for many of her participants, “literacy was experienced as its product, as strong texts with far-reaching consequences” (140). Vieira seeks to reconcile strong-text theories with constructivist approaches “by showing that migrant s experienced texts as strong. . . precisely because of the social contexts that imbued texts with power” (144). 

Taken together, these two books help us to better understand the social and political factors that shape migrant students’ lives and that provide the backdrop for their experiences in the American school system. These studies invite us to re-think the popular conception of literacy as a critical tool in the successful adaptation of new immigrants in the US.  Literacy, as Meyers and Vieira remind us, does not always keep the promises it makes, just as schools do not always adequately understand and meet the needs of migrant students, on either side of the border.  These studies challenge us to look more closely at these students’ needs, experiences, and backgrounds, and to find new ways of thinking about migrant students, who are not merely problems to be solved. In the scope of the research and their desire to understand the daily lives of participants, Meyers and Vieira offer fresh and urgently needed insights.