Diaspora, a dispersion of a population from a focal point to peripheral areas, is defined by Safran to hold the following characteristics: an inheritance of memories of homeland from one generation to another, a longing to return home, a feeling that one does not belong in his or her host country, and a collective memory which remains specific to an ethnic group. The concept is explored and brought to life via interview with Lorena, a migrant from El Salvador who maintains her sense of presence in her homeland through WhatsApp, enabling her to have weekly video chats with her mother back in her place of birth. This ethnography examines ways in which digital communication shapes and embodies the Salvadoran experience in the US.
The definition and characterization of diaspora is a dispersion, or scattering, of people from their places of origin to that of elsewhere, establishing their presence in areas outside of their ancestral origin. The spread of population from its center occurs through the process of migration, a physical movement of people from one place to another in search of better socio-economic opportunities and pursuit of freedom in their religious beliefs, political involvement, and cultural practices, areas which often become targets of persecution under oppressive regimes. The study of diasporic communities’ contact with their homeland serves as a crucial point of my ethnography, a practice which has become more instant and accessible using digital telecommunications, via weekly video chats. Moreover, the vicarious existence in the distant homeland, along with the remembrance and the passing down of its memories to later generations, has been recorded.
In the introductory paragraph of theories on diaspora, Michele Reis introduces Safran’s characteristics of a diaspora, establishing key points common in diasporic communities throughout the globe. Safran defines diaspora as a ‘core-to-periphery’ dispersion, retention and pass down of collective memories, lack of belonging in their new countries, a subsequent longing to return to their home, and a collective, ethnic awareness in the community (Reis 43). My ethnography focuses on the Salvadorans’ remembrance of and in touch with El Salvador via digital communications and the longing to return to their homeland, an examination which takes place via interview with Mrs. Lorena Vacaflor from Sylmar.
The idea to interview Lorena had occurred upon my observation of her video chat with her mother back in El Salvador. On a week to week basis, she uses WhatsApp, an online chatting app which has enabled her to remain in touch with her family and relatives back in home, her mother and her sisters. Due to its free accessibility, Lorena can transcend spatial-geographic limitations with mutual availability of Wi-Fi on both the caller and the recipient, with each other’s schedule of availability and time differences as points of consideration. With facilitating access to her loved ones, she is able to embrace her dual existence and belonging in her current home and her hometown, simultaneously establishing and strengthening such connections with weekly, regular calls (Menjivar and Moran-Taylor 93).
"My ethnography focuses on the Salvadorans’ remembrance of and in touch with El Salvador via digital communications and the longing to return to their homeland..."
Before the rise of direct calls and video chats abroad, the endeavor to reach an individual via telecommunication is a long, arduous process. Needless to discuss months and even years which takes letters and postcards to arrive back and forth between senders and recipients, the widespread access to a direct one-to-one call which we now take for granted, involves intermediaries who enable the connection.
In the early days of landline calls, a phone operator connects one call to another by adjusting landlines and cables towards the call destinations. In the case of Lorena, the reach to her family and relatives extends the process as she is directing her call to El Salvador. Due to international calls, her calling process includes an additional operator, following the steps of: 1) Contact the operator in the United States and let him or her know about who she wants to contact in her home country, 2) An operator in the United States contacts an operator in El Salvador and relays the message, 3) the operator in El Salvador phones the recipient and tells him or her to expect the call in a certain time, 4) the recipient arrives to the call station by appointment in order to receive the call, and 5) repeat the entire process if they want to have another phone conversation. With a mutual need to say much to one another, Lorena and her family often have trouble finishing what they want to say to each other, having to wait a long time as they have to save up to make another call, with each service ranging from $150 to $300.
She reminisces upon the emergence of long phones with antennae, a size which required a holder or briefcase to carry, in the 1990’s. The subsequent availability of direct landline calls, and wireless cell phones simplify the calling process to its great degree with phone cards. Despite such facilitation, however, Lorena admits that frequent calls were still unaffordable due to high costs of calls, an exacerbating case by the conversion of its currency from colones to dolares, an adoption of the United States dollars as a standard monetary value and medium of exchange. Gas prices hit the hardest as it followed the price standards of the United States dollar. The change of currency is most detrimental to those of the working class as the purchasing power of dollars is lower than colones. She speaks of her experience of conducting payments in dolares while measuring monetary values in colones, obligating her to constantly keep both of their values and exchange rates in mind.
Despite admitting how remittances help to mend difficulties of living with the lower purchase power of dolares, Lorena believes the inflow of remittances to be a mistake due to her personal experience with one of her people. As a personal favor to her cousin, she has once delivered $50 on a maleta, along with letters and gifts, a practice common when families reunite at airports in El Salvador and when they live far from each other (DeLugan 89). Instead of expressing gratitude, her cousin makes a monthly request to send remittances to pay for her apartment rent. Upon asking how she is able to pay before the remittance, she says, “I have saved up before,” confirming her belief that her cousin has lost the spirit of a thrifty and resourceful way of life, a value her and her siblings and her parents and grandparents practice. Similar to her dual attitudes, the Salvadoran government considers remittances to be both a blessing and a curse, praising its contribution towards its national economic development while expressing its dismay at people’s increased dependence towards the inflow, hence criminalizing the income from abroad and its contribution towards lowered productivity and diligence of its people from within (DeLugan 92).
"She speaks of her experience of conducting payments in dolares while measuring monetary values in colones, obligating her to constantly keep both of their values and exchange rates in mind."
Tracing back to Safran’s point of retaining collective memory and a longing to return someday, Lorena makes about 2-3 calls a day via WhatsApp. Along with increased convenience in reaching her family back home, she also praises the application for its free accessibility as it allows her to exchange memories of their days together before migrating without putting any compromise on the family value of resourcefulness. She says that her contact back home is not only an expression of her yearning to return to her homeland someday but is also a way to remember her roots and not lose that aspiration.
The retention of the memory of her birthplace also takes place as they reminisce upon days when time went slow and people took long walks and talked with one another, forming an intimate sense of community. The exchange and collection of letters back and forth also accumulates her retention of their past and recounts that they were written with depth and deliberation, adding to the sincerity and context of the times they were living in. Overall, her utilization of long-distance communication enables her to establish her indirect, vicarious presence in her birthplace, becoming a part of a transnational community whose characterization is by inter-regional communications, remittances, and visits, and in her case, her use of WhatsApp (Barvosa-Carter 266).