Re-Inventing Identity in the Borderlands: From American DREAMers to Returnee English Teachers in Mexico

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Laboe, Amy, Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Hoffman, Diane, School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the lives of undocumented immigrant youth, former DREAMers, who have become adult, transnational returnees to Mexico after being pushed out of the United States in the time period between the failure of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education Act for Alien Minors Act) and the establishment of the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). At a time when return migration to Mexico was outpacing the arrival of new Mexican immigrants to the United States, these DREAMers found themselves caught up in a wave of voluntary and involuntary returnees during the 2010s. This ethnographic case study of six such returnees, who grew up attending U.S. schools and later became English teachers in Mexico, examines experiences of belonging, identity formation, and teaching pedagogy in order to render an emic perspective of their lived experiences, but to also explore the production and expression of culture within the teaching practices of transnational educators.
Through iterative analysis of three virtual interviews per transnational teacher, including a focus group, and the two interviews each for three non-migrant English teachers in Mexico, Holland et al.’s (1998) theory of figured worlds emerged as a strong conceptual framework from which to present a thematic interpretation of the participants’ identity formation from both their early lives in the United States to their adult teaching lives in Mexico. Within their shifting figured worlds, the border functions as a cultural tool or hermeneutic of the self that acts as a literal and abstract force playing a powerful role in how others perceive them and how they see themselves. Over the course of their lives, the border operates as a reflection of their societal positioning in both the United States and Mexico, moving from a site of rupture, to one of contention, and finally to a space of coalescence. Ultimately, being an English teacher in Mexico provided the kind of authority and space within which they could find ways to challenge political, cultural, and linguistic ideologies that have continually positioned them in ways that have set limits on their identity formation and restricted their belonging. For them, teaching is therefore a site of bridge work. As nepantleras, (Anzaldúa, 2012), they have found ways to bring together their two inner cultural worlds as they challenge both social and political norms in Mexico, thus rendering the border into a malleable tool of the self.
This study builds upon previous studies on transnational migrants to and from the United States and Mexico by looking more deeply into questions of national belonging and identity formation for 1.5 generation DREAMers who have returned to Mexico in their adulthood. With a much larger number of transnationals moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past decade, studies like this one contribute to our understanding of how static, nation-based notions of identity and belonging are becoming less and less relevant to millions of people who find their lives constrained within them. This study thus shows how such ideologies, rooted in pre-globalization mentalities of nation-states or nationalism, ultimately restrict our capacity to expand conceptualizations of culture, language, and identity as they are rendered into being and enacted by transnational actors. This work also demonstrates how transnational actors’ perspectives and ways of being are shaped in response to the shifting cultural and political landscapes, and in this case, how they formulate and enact their pedagogy and practice as educators in local, cultural settings in Mexico.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Transnational migration, DREAMers, English Language Teaching, Identity and Belonging, Borderlands, Return Migration
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