Traversées de la mémoire

Last week was a blast. Together with my colleagues Lucie Bacon and Noémie Paté, the gathering we have been organising for a year finally happened in Marseille.

Migrations : nos voix, nos chemins de traverse, was thought as an encounter between sciences, arts and activisms. With minimal subsidies, hours of free work, and amazing support from local partners and the participants to the event, the gathering took place in alternative cultural spaces of Marseille, such as Equitable café, le Garage Imaginaire or Dar Lamifa, and drew photographers, creative writers, filmmakers, scholars, plastic artists, radio broadcasters, musicians, storytellers, activists and, well, just residents of Marseille and beyond!

On the first day of this event, we organised the screening of three – rather different – documentaries related to international migrations, followed by a debate with the audience. One of the selected films is Traversées de la Mémoire (2017), by Erika Thomas

Photographer Gérard Bloncourt shows his work to the camera.

Beside my obvious interest in the topic, the idea of taking thirty minutes to look at more “historical” immigration stories made a lot of sense. And during the debate, it was perceived exactly like that: it is necessary to take a break, look behind, and think about what happened before.

In general, Traversées de la mémoire is a well-polished, informative documentary film. It focuses on one particular group of people: those who were more involved in anti-colonial protests, in immigrants’ struggles and in general, the activists and the artists.

Traversées de la mémoire start at the archives, together with Vasco Martins and Marie-Christine Volovitch-Tavares. The audience was rather mesmerized by this meticulous archival work, and participants mentioned it in the following discussion. The space occupied by all the labelled folders give some “thickness” to the story, a proof that someone was there to testify, and that it happened.

The film also shows Gérald Bloncourt*, Haitian photographer who has extensively photographed the arrivals of Portuguese in France in the 1960s. His work is usually considered a substantial documentation of this migration wave.

Nevertheless, filmmaker José Vieira has something to say about this portfolio: once again, the lives of the Portuguese new comers is documented through its hardships: the slums, the mud, and wandering children. Vieira shows that he collected family shots that are festive, and document happy family events, where one cannot see the mud.  This also provokes reactions in the audience: the photographer does not necessarily need to document poverty to challenge the dominant discourse; and members of the group do not necessarily need to like the work of the photographer.

A last point tackled during the debate was that of collective action. This is something to research more in details, but there was some understanding that the close relationships between new comers permitted to organise more efficiently than in today’s fragmented environment.

Unfortunately, there was no one in the audience that claimed she or he could directly relate to the stories told. I wonder how this documentary was received by members of the communities: an avenue to further explore!

*Gerald Bloncourt passed away on the very day I wrote this post…

A chronology of Portuguese presence in France

Two weeks ago, I went back home to find that my book order came in! 100 ans d’histoire des Portugais en France by Marie-Christine Volovitch-Tavares was published in 2016, a hundred years after the first labour agreement signed by Portugal and France.

I think that was a great book to get acquainted with the history of this immigration – I was actually mainly recommended La dictature de Salazar face à l’émigration: l’État portugais et ses migrants en France (1957-1974) of Victor Pereira, but I just received a notification that it was on its way and I should receive it soon.

In any case, 100 ans d’histoire des Portugais en France is full of details, stories, portraits, pictures, newspapers’ articles and archives. In order to make some sense out of this material, I thought to draw a timeline.

First of all, that sounds easier than it seems! Like a good millenial, I immediatly refered this issue to my friend Google, which gave me a lot of online free options. I tried this: The problem is, if you do not have a premium, then the export is sloppy and rather hard to read.

I decided to resolve to excel. I put all the 1916 to 1975 year-data together. as a first step, and asked my second friend youtube a nice tutorial to create a timeline. Here is what I managed to do so far:

I still have some work to do: maybe someone in the crowd have had some good result and can share it with me?

In general, what strikes most in reading the timeline is the increasing presence of Portuguese after the 1960s: from 50,000 to 750,000 in just 13 years. That explains a lot about the demographic loss I wrote about in my last post. Surely, some people are the same! The less labour agreements came into force, the more undocumented entries were seen. And these undocumented exits and entries are hard to trace back.

The second interesting “cloud” of data, is that of the institutional arrangements that changed with the intensification of Portuguese immigration: new offices, closer to the main residential areas of Portuguese, pressure towards the consulate, and after 1974, numerous official visits to normalise the presence of Portuguese, regulations for immigrants’ savings in Portuguese banks… etc.

What misses however here, is the meso-level, in between the big historical events reported, and the everyday stories and people’s portraits depicted in the book. I hope to find more about that in the other books transiting in the hallways of international post services!

The shrinking Portuguese village and its emigration politics

This week, and after a month of investigation, the mayor of the Italian village of Riace – the most symbolic of the villages that have developed an immigration policy – was arrested, and the immigrants living in the village will be removed

I first came across the story of Riace and his charismatic mayor last year, when I saw the documentary film Un Paese de Calabria. Two elements can be connected to the experience of the villages I aim at surveying during this research project: the demographic loss villages such as Riace have experienced during the large waves of out-migration decades ago; and the extent to which immigration has been central to the daily lives of the villagers. As a matter of fact, many remember being themselves or having family members being immigrants; and they remember helping smuggling immigrants – those experiences can be extended to the ones of villagers in northern Portugal.

From this month to August 2020, I will work on villages in the north-east of Portugal, located in the region of Terras de Trás-os-Montes, Guarda and Castelo Branco. As one can see on this map, the red markers represent cities that include more than 50,000 residents (such as Castelo Branco), the ones in green, more than 20,000 (such as Bragança), while the majority of the municipalities, in blue, are in fact villages with less than 20,000 residents.

Pre-selected municipalities for fieldwork – MigRural project

Once I figured what was the repartition of the villages and cities in these areas, I looked for demographic statistics. And I could not believe what I was seeing: all the region experienced a huge loss of population between 1961 and 2011, with some villages like Vinhais or Miranda do Douro losing two thirds of their residents.

I therefore immediately wonder if migration was seen as a viable option to attract new residents to these shrinking villages. The international immigration numbers are actually rather low (a few hundreds at most for a city like Bragança), so I looked at return migration. Even though I could not find (yet) numbers, I found this: the repartition of GAE – the municipal office in charge of supporting returning emigrants – in the areas I will study is incredibly important.

What I see, is that for each city and village marked, the yellow marker indicates the presence of a GAE in October 2018. How exciting to see the correlation!

Presence of GAE in pre-selected municipalities – MigRural project

There are obviously close to zero answers, and at least ten new questions now. But the relations between the demographic loss experienced the last decades, the emigration experiences of inhabitants in the region (directly or through relatives and neighbours), and the institutional network put in place today, are already interconnected and should be further explored.

Are Portuguese colour-blind?

At the end of September, I went to Entrecampos Municipality to get my residency. As I walk towards the building, a huge banner crosses its facade: Welcome Migrants: Lisboa sabe acolher.

I sent the picture of the facade to a colleague, and he replied sarcastically: “yeah, right”.

That banner resonnated with other sentences I heard before: that there was no problem of racism in Portugal, no movements against migrations, no extreme-right parties feeding on xenophobia. But… really?

As it happens, this is a whole “thing”. Portugal has built a narrative of “colour-blindness”. This narrative revolves around a so-called “Portuguese way of being in the world”, derived from the age of the “discoveries”, then the colonial empire, and later on (that is post-dictature and decolonisation), the diasporic lives of Portuguese immigrants around the world (see Almeida & Corkill, 2015; or Cunha, 2017). As a matter of fact, one in five Portuguese live abroad today, and as I stated in my previous post, ties with groups of Portuguese living outside of Portugal are not only family ties, but also exist through national institutions.

These many individual and national experiences of crossing the boundaries of continental Portugal – according to this narrative – have enriched the Portuguese people and enabled a more pluralist attitude towards immigration.

That seems nice indeed. But as much as our French Republican education seems relatively powerless when it comes to facing the terrible rethoric of the Front National in France, isn’t this narrative just as nice smoke screen too? If I look at how manpower is distributed in my faculty, at how residential patterns work in the city of Lisbon, or just listen to flat-hunting experiences (being a French or a Brazilian for instance), I cannot help but think: to which extent does the sentence on that huge banner at the municipality actually lead to freezing the debate?  

Moreover, this week, we had the chance to spend four long hours at SEF, the foreigners’ service, for visa purposes. Not a soul spoke English. And no one cared to explain what they would do with the lot of personal private data we gave out (including fingerprints, identification documents, bank account statements… and so on), as if the data management scheme approved earlier at the EC was unheard of in these services.

In the meantime, I started to dive into the critical literature that has focused on deconstructing this narrative of Portuguese cosmopolitanism. More thoughts to come!

On Portuguese emigration

After the panic, came a first little break-through.

I just started working on a new research project, after four years dealing with immigration policies in Israel. And I was very scared and panicked of how unfamiliar I was of the Portuguese context. But, everyday, as I open the newspaper Público, available in the common room where we have lunch and coffee, there is an article about Portuguese living abroad.

That sounds all too familiar!

As a matter of fact, in September 2018, two main debates around emigration make it to the first pages while I settle in Portugal: an on-going public debate on fiscal privileges for Portuguese (and their offspring) who return to Portugal (see for instance Pedro Góis’ column on the topic); and the return of 6000 Venezeluans who are Portuguese (or their parents or grandparents) to Madeira and continental Portugal.

The return of Portuguese emigrants suddenly resembles the one of Jewish members of the Diaspora, provided in the Israeli Law of Return. Either desirable because of their potential economic contribution to the country, or in need of help because of the vulnerability of the community in a tense political context (Venezuelan Jews too benefit from a special programme the last years in Israel), the emigrants come back to (re)integrate the nation!

Obviously, the steps taken by the Portuguese government are still small compared to Israel well-oiled return machine, but some moves are rather similar. After all, Portugal was the second country after Israel to adopt a law of return for Jews.

In any case, return migration is definitely embedded in nation-building, and re-interpreted in a more global world. Lucky me, back to nationalism, colonialism and neoliberalism. In a world of -isms, the returning emigrant is queen/king?

About MigRural

The project MigRural benefits from Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement n. 794030. I write it first, so it is written in the “cloud”, in the virtual eternal life of our data.

I took the decision of writing a blog, to document this two-year long research. It seems long. But it will probably be too quick! Nonetheless, even if time flies, I hope to publish regularly thoughts, revealing the on-going intellectual and scientific process of an individual research of the sort. This can include post-conference posts, to “trace” the exchanges and learnings, as well as abstracts of publications; reviews of books, key articles, news articles and audiovisual sources I read and watch along the years; and fieldwork related posts, such as photo galleries, field diary’s extracts and so forth.

The MigRural project addresses one of the mobility patterns affecting rural regions of Portugal: the return of Portuguese immigrants who reside or resided in France (one of the largest recipient of the Portuguese immigration until recently), to rural regions of the country.

The “semi-peripheral” position of Portugal, away from the European core, in-between different economic and migration systems (the Western European, Mediterranean and Lusophone systems), enables a ‘de-centred’ inquiry, which can reveal the more fragmented rescaling of power occurring in those rural regions. Within this semi-peripheral positioning, Portuguese rural areas could be doubly sanctioned as peripheral islands. Nevertheless, with this assumption in mind, new mobilities to these regions, such as return mobilities or immigration to villages and towns, as well as new economic initiatives, such as tourism, benefiting from enhanced communication and a cost differential, seem to challenge (at least partially) the marginalisation of Portuguese rural villages and towns.

The investigation will take place in the northern region of Portugal, close to the Spanish border. A first objective consists in understanding the extent and nature of return mobilities to those areas, which at the same time, produce and are the results of a revitalisation of decayed areas. Secondly, through this ethnography and fieldwork-driven project, I would like to extend the understanding of return mobilities, not only to first generation resettlement, but to ancestral and recreational return. With this framework, the complexities and dynamics of mobilities are made more acute. A third objective aims at deciphering ‘acts of homing’: they are foreseen as key practices to understanding the agency of those returnees in shaping the places they visit or inhabit, and participating in the production of places. Here, the ethnography will combine in-depth encounters with visual methods, in order to capture the traces, materialities, symbols and practices of place production.