Drawing on a four-year collaborative research project of service providers and immigrant and mixed-status families1
, this article offers insights into sources of and systemic barriers to collective belonging, while also highlighting a model of critical community-engaged scholarship involving undergraduate students, which we call Community Initiated Student Engaged Research (CISER) (Greenberg et al. 2020
). The research project, “We Belong: Collaboration for Community Engaged Research and Immigrant Justice”, which took place from 2019 to 2022, focused on the lived experiences of immigrant and mixed-legal-status families in Santa Cruz County, California. It involved an interdisciplinary project team including faculty, staff, graduate students, 80 undergraduates, and 8 community organizations. The team conducted 5 focus groups and 77 individual interviews with social and immigrant service providers, advocates, and multiple members of mixed-status and immigrant families. The research project was designed to generate new, locally actionable knowledge to strengthen a county-wide coalition providing social services to immigrants while training and mentoring first-generation undergraduate researchers in critical community-engaged research.
We argue that the CISER model and its participatory approach helped build trust with and include a vulnerable and hard-to-reach population to investigate difficult and often-sensitive issues that have been under-researched. ”Belonging” was collaboratively and strategically selected as the overarching theoretical framework because it allowed the collaborative research team to identify key forces, institutions, and mechanisms leading to social, economic, and political stratification or exclusion, as well as how such forces and mechanisms are subjectively and viscerally experienced by immigrants themselves (Yuval-Davis 2006
; Evaristo 2017
). We also chose a “belonging” framework as an assets-based approach to draw out the myriad of ways interviewees and communities, although vulnerable, nevertheless resist exclusion and themselves create spaces, networks, and ways to promote and enhance material, cultural, and emotional forms of belonging (Bissell 2019
Overall, we found—across both service providers and immigrant family members—six key factors that were the most common and consequential for belonging and/or exclusion, including the existence of places/spaces and social networks in which interviewees felt belonging or exclusion; levels of economic security/insecurity; access to education; legal immigration status; access to health services; and opportunities for youth and young people to build community. Through our use of in-depth interviews and focus groups, we also demonstrate and highlight how complex and interconnected these aspects of belonging and exclusion can be. For example, exclusion experienced due to a lack of legal immigration status (a form of political exclusion) had far-reaching effects on interviewees’ job prospects and thus their experiences of economic, health, and housing insecurity (forms of social, economic, and spatial exclusion). Complexity is also demonstrated in constructions of belonging through exclusion. For example, in the face of multiple exclusions by dominant groups and institutions, immigrant family members and immigrant service providers nevertheless came together to create a sense of community, group identity, and cultural pride (Abrego and Schmalzbauer 2018
). Methodologically, we also found that the collaborative and participatory CISER process had tangible benefits (beyond the research findings) for community partners and undergraduate researchers.
Belonging is useful as a concept for studying immigrant populations because it combines a structural analysis of social and political institutions with a subject-level analysis of identities and emotional attachments (Evaristo 2017
) defines belonging—at the individual level—as fundamentally a sense of emotional attachment: “about feeling ‘at home’… and about feeling ‘safe’”. However, as she and others note, belonging cannot be reduced to individual or psychological attachment, but offers a broader connection to the social and physical world (Zayas and Gulbas 2017
). As John A. Powell notes, “‘belonging’ connotes something fundamental about how groups are positioned within society, as well as how they are perceived and regarded. It reflects an objective position of power and resources as well as the intersubjective nature of group-based identities”(Powell and Menendian 2016
). Attentive to its dynamics, Yuval-Davis provides a comprehensive, three-level analytical framework to address both subject-level belonging and the more structural “dirty work of boundary maintenance”, or the ways belonging is produced and reproduced in particular ways to particular collectives or places (Yuval-Davis 2006
The first level of analysis is that of social locations, or the level of group boundaries often drawn and made consequential at broader, often societal scales. Here, social boundaries—along lines such as race, class, nationality, age group, and profession—can reflect various social locations and categories that have certain positionalities along axes of power, reinforced by various institutions. While there are a myriad different categories, some boundaries are more meaningful or consequential than others, depending on specific historical, political, and social contexts. Finally, overall, social locations are constituted intersectionally and along multiple axes of difference. Thus, an analysis of belonging at the level of social location requires investigating, under particular historical conditions, the interaction of different types and saliences of social divisions that help define the power relations among different members of society. Other scholars similarly focus on this level of analysis, pointing out the importance of institutions and mechanisms that help enforce and reproduce boundaries of belonging and not belonging. Prilleltensky’s ecological model of psychological “levels of well-being” emphasizes the importance of institutional, organizational, and communal actors contributing to or inhibiting individual belonging and well-being (Prilleltensky 2012
Scholars focused on immigrant belonging have highlighted key boundaries, actors, and institutions at the level of social location that are particularly salient for migrants. Gonzales
) argues that for many Latino immigrants to the United States, their immigration and/or citizenship status—being either “legal” or “illegal”—acts as a kind of “master status”, a particular social location or boundary that trumps or dominates all other statuses (such as age or gender or race) in determining an individual’s general social location. Legal status is, in fact, so consequential for immigrants that some scholars argue that US immigration laws can lead to “legal violence”; in other words, “serve as legitimating sources for the harmful treatment of immigrants” (Abrego 2015, p. 265
). Thus, being a non-citizen and an undocumented migrant under such circumstances can produce fear and anxiety among migrants, and increase their vulnerability to exploitation and other forms of exclusion (see also De Genova 2002
). For many immigrants, the nation-state and its institutions as arbiters and enforcers of citizenship status are particularly powerful gatekeepers and determiners of belonging and well-being. Other state institutions at regional and local levels are similarly consequential, although they can vary significantly in terms of their capacity and willingness to enforce boundaries. For example, when comparing Latina migrants in Montana and California, Abrego and Schmalzbauer
) argue how place and local-level conditions can dramatically affect the salience of legal status in terms of the well-being and belonging of immigrants. They demonstrate that key local institutions, such as schools, social service agencies, medical clinics, and local organizations, can play pivotal roles for migrants, despite one’s legal status (see also Gonzales 2016
). At the local level, social networks and community-based organizations (CBOs) can deeply influence immigrant belonging. For example, community organizations can play an intermediary role in helping support and provide access to education, mental health, and legal services (Rusch et al. 2020
). Similarly, local public employees can determine the outcomes of government programs and access to related benefits or sanctions (Lipsky 1980
). Finally, community organizations and immigrant social networks can help build social capital, and assist immigrants in managing the challenges of daily life, helping them formally and informally find work, navigate social services, and access resources and information for themselves and their families (Menjívar et al. 2016
; Gomberg-Muñoz 2017
The second level of analysis is more at the individual level and focuses on identification and emotional attachment (Yuval-Davis 2006
). Here, the focus is on the interaction of socially determined boundaries of social location and the process of boundary-making by the subjects themselves. At this level, “identity” is both individual and collective, and there is necessarily both a cognitive and emotional element. Yuval-Davis
(2006, p. 202
) emphasizes that identification and belonging are particularly dynamic, and at the subject level, it is a feeling and desire, namely “always a combined process of being and becoming, belonging and longing to belong”. Belonging at the level of identity is also performed and collective, connected to repetitive practices—such as participating in cultural or religious events—in specific social and cultural spaces. It is important to note that belonging in terms of social location must be differentiated from belonging in terms of identification and emotional attachment; while the two levels are connected, they are not identical, and these differences highlight the dynamic processes of boundary or group-making, as well as the struggles of groups to resist externally defined boundaries and exclusions, as well as the internalization of such forced constructions. This second level of identification and emotional attachment helps make room for agency and boundary making, and struggles to define “belonging” by subjects and groups themselves.
The third level of analysis of belonging is ethical and political values, or how social locations and constructions of identity are valued and judged. It is here that Yuval-Davis focuses on the “politics of belonging” or the “dirty work” of defining the political meanings of “us” versus “them”. Her analysis of belonging, here, is akin to the work of other scholars of social boundaries, who focus on the salience of boundaries, their permeability, and how—and by whom—they are produced and reproduced (Wimmer 2013
; Lamont and Molnar 2002
). For Yuval-Davis, who focuses on the politics of belonging for immigrants in Britain, the focus is primarily on the politics of citizenship, or who is “deserving” of full membership. As she notes, “contemporary debates on the politics of belonging surround the question of who belongs and who does not, and what are the minimum common grounds—in terms of origin, culture and normative behavior …what is required from a specific person for him/her to be entitled to belong, to be considered as belonging, to the collectivity” (Yuval-Davis 2006, pp. 207, 209
). Through these “politics of belonging”—while some actors and institutions help reinforce boundaries and exclusions of immigrants, other actors and organizations can work towards a “fully permeable politics of belonging” or the ability of some, such as immigrants, to create their own sense of belonging, while also becoming accepted as full members of the broader group (i.e., “citizens”), deserving of the full slate of both rights and responsibilities (Yuval-Davis 2006, p. 213
). Others hoping to understand the immigrant experience in the United States in order to better assist them have similarly noted the need to examine the multiple levels of belonging and the dynamics of such politics: “Efforts to welcome immigrants and give them a chance to establish roots, therefore, while they must understand the consequences of federal level immigration policies, must also centrally consider the complex local level realities within which immigrants navigate daily life and produce meaning” (Abrego and Schmalzbauer 2018, p. 16
). This article seeks to examine one such case of “local level realities” and the ways that immigrant families and providers of services navigate and help construct particular local politics of belonging.
2. Materials, Methods, and Context
For the “We Belong” project detailed here, the research team employed a novel, critical community-engaged method, called community-initiated student-engaged research (CISER). The CISER model builds on a public scholarship approach, combining collaborative campus-community partnerships with the training and involvement of undergraduate students, particularly those from under-represented groups with lived experiences concerning the social issues being investigated (Greenberg et al. 2020
; Fine and Torre 2019
; da Cruz 2017
). Our study went through rigorous ethics review by the Human Subjects Review Committee of the Institutional Review Board at UC Santa Cruz and received full approval for two separate protocols (UCSC IRB Protocol #3639 and Protocol #3567) pertaining to our two study populations: immigrant and mixed-status family members and immigrant service providers, respectively.
Our community-initiated approach begins with listening to our local partner organization. In this case, our founding partner organization was the Thriving Immigrants Collaborative, based in a primarily immigrant-serving community group, the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB). CAB is steeped in the daily work of addressing local social and economic challenges through a network of non-profit resource centers and advocacy strategies. In these years prior to our project, activists and providers in these networks were organized to address rapidly changing federal policies, and were especially concerned about a lack of systematic data on immigrant families of mixed legal status, a vulnerable population who are often hesitant to respond to government researchers and thus deemed “hard to reach”. As our community partners expressed, the lack of data, including census under-counting, meant that these families were often overlooked and underserved. Furthermore, changing policies and other contextual factors during this time were impacting the organizations that served immigrants, as well as the workers within them who were members of immigrant families themselves. Notably, in 2017 and 2018, communities and organizations were thrown into upheaval by pre-dawn ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in neighborhoods that broke down doors and windows. Between 2017 and 2020, rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the elimination of existing residency for many Central American residents under Temporary Protected Status destabilized lives, families, and communities. In 2019 and 2020, the announcement of new “public charge” policies (later ruled inadmissible) kept mixed status families from accessing services or resources. In this context, organizations worked overtime to respond in new ways. For instance, in North County, there were no legal aid services for immigrants; in South County, these services were underfunded and overwhelmed by clients from surrounding communities and counties. The We Belong Collaborative was formed in this context. As community engaged researchers, we created a design that aimed to improve publicly accessible, useful data on a significant and under-represented part of our county, and to contribute to coordinated efforts for a more inclusive, healthier county.
The CISER approach also trains and involves a large number of undergraduates, in part to help to scale up data collection. Data were collected by faculty- and graduate-student-supervised teams of undergraduate student researchers enrolled in upper-division classes in field research classes or participating in internships at UC Santa Cruz. In addition to the diverse students who gravitate toward the undergraduate research courses and constituted a significant portion of the research, we chose to recruit student researchers who were themselves from immigrant and under-represented backgrounds (our public university is one of the few Research 1 universities in the United States that is also a Hispanic Serving Institution). Thus, the majority of those who participated and who helped develop the instruments, conduct and transcribe the interviews, and participate in the analysis identified as Latinè and a significant portion came from mixed-status families and/or had a Spanish-speaking background. Students who attach with the Latiné immigrant community find that their differences in positionalities, upbringings, and disciplines are critical assets for building on the themes of belonging and not belonging among providers in Santa Cruz County. Through the CISER process, students transition from colleagues to compañerxs, developing aspirations of placing immigrant families’ voices at the forefront of research (Anzaldúa and Keating 2002
). Our students are also from across the state of California, and while a majority are first-generation college students and identify as Latiné, few are actually from the immediate surrounding community. Thus, for many, their participation in our collective project has, in itself, helped create a sense of “belonging” and connection with both fellow students and with the local Latiné community. Our reflexive approach, attentive to who researchers are, how they are perceived, and how their positionalities impact the research process, helps address Small’s
) concerns for “de-exoticizing” marginalized groups and Rios’ concerns for “de-colonizing the White space” of research (2015). It also follows May and May and Pattillo-McCoy’s
) “collaborative ethnography” approach to developing diverse research teams with different positionalities and “minimal distance” between researchers and research subjects to allow for smoother access, ensure linguistic and culturally competencies, build trust, and garner richer data (see also Enriquez 2020
In the We Belong Collaborative, we decided on a dual approach that aimed to increase relevant participation in the project and to reveal different dimensions of immigrant experiences in our county. We combined the CISER approach with an asset-based community development approach that had been evolving as part of a small-cohort service-learning program at one of our university’s residential colleges (the Community-based Action Research and Advocacy or CARA Program of Oakes College). The CARA Program, designed to address the strengths and interests of first-generation students, developed a research method and a “power source and barrier” analytical system for a Community Mapping course (Kretzmann and McKnight 1993
; Mathie and Cunningham 2003
; Delgado and Humm-Delgado 2013
). These qualitative, multi-perspectival research techniques especially emphasize collective process, such as focus groups, participatory analysis cycles, and the ongoing improvement of instruments and analytical frameworks based on partner consultation. Our approach used the “mapping” methods to develop stronger relationships with provider and advocacy organizations throughout the county; to create interactive research−analysis cycles to maximize their expertise and raise the profile of the project over time; and to develop trust that would support broader community outreach and in-depth individual interviews with members of mixed-status families. In each phase, these methods were designed to connect project participants with each other in collaborative and empowering ways with community members and students so as to collect evidence of community cultural wealth by gathering immigrant counter-stories (Yosso 2005
In the first phase of research, we used individual interviews and focus groups involving front-line social service providers, led by our co-PI and undergraduate researchers. The focus group approach, in particular, was intended to support organizational networking, by bringing together people from advocacy organizations to share perspectives, to continually inform our understanding, and to be attentive to power imbalances between researchers and research subjects (Delgado and Humm-Delgado 2013
). We also chose to focus on local immigrant advocates and social service providers in large part because previous research has pointed to the importance of immigrant social and organizational infrastructure having critical roles in building social capital and fostering (or inhibiting) immigrant belonging and well-being (Abrego and Schmalzbauer 2018
; Bloemraad et al. 2020
; De Graauw 2016
; Cheong 2006
; Garcia 2019
; Gomberg-Muñoz 2017
) and partly because an emergent field of study emphasizes that the identities, practices, and experiences of the immigrant-identified workers who act as “cultural brokers” in these roles are part of the immigrant community story themselves, while influencing outcomes strategically for others (López-Sanders 2017
; Martinez-Cosio and Iannacone 2007
). We were interested in drawing out feelings, practices, and visions for collective action that might help illuminate patterns of generational and strategic change in our county. We sought participants who worked in a variety of roles and organizations and in different parts of the county; and we were attentive to narratives that might indicate immigrant providers’ and advocates’ sense of belonging and power at their organization, as well as in the larger community context. For example, besides themselves, how many Latinè employees or Spanish speakers worked at their organization or institution? How did they describe their job roles as well as their driving motivations? Over a two-year period, we collected 22 individual advocate interviews and five focus group interviews with an average of five advocates per group (26 total respondents—one focus group was conducted mostly in Spanish and another used translanguaging to bridge English- and Spanish-speaking participants). About 60% of the providers were female, representing both immigrant and non-immigrant identities. Our participants were lawyers, health workers, teachers, activists, organizational leaders, program coordinators, and more. Participation was, of course, voluntary, which eventually shaped our data to reflect a subset of providers that may have been more strongly motivated by advocacy and less constrained by other factors than the general provider workforce.
In phase two of data collection, the research team focused on conducting in-depth interviews with individuals from immigrant and/or mixed legal-status families, all of whom were Latiné (primarily of Mexican). Fifty-five such interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, depending on the preference of the interviewee. The demographic information were not collected for all interviewees—the pool included respondents identifying as first (22) or second + generation (7), with a variety of legal status backgrounds, from fully undocumented (12) to DACA (3), from Green Card holder (5) to US born citizen (13). Similar to the advocate pool, the family interviewees were mainly female (ca. 60%). We continued our asset-based approach, developing a modular interview guide that drew on a practicum course in Community Research. Attentive to reflexivity, interviews were conducted primarily by trained undergraduate researchers (primarily of immigrant backgrounds) and lasted 30 min to 2 h. Themes or topics discussed varied across interviews, depending on the experiences and interests of interviewees, but included pre-migration and migration experiences, childhood, family life, parenthood, experiences as members of a mixed-legal status family, belonging, integration, marginalization, transnationalism, politics/policy, legality/illegality, education, thriving, work/employment, experiences in local community spaces, and resources (material and social). Interviewees were recruited through publicly posted flyers, referrals from community partner organizations, social service provision events (such as food distributions, health, and COVID clinics), other public and organizational events, and through snow-ball sampling. Interviews were conducted one-on-one in person, over the phone, or over an online platform (Zoom).
All interviews and focus groups were fully transcribed in the language they were conducted, and those conducted in Spanish were translated into English.
Data analysis used a consensual qualitative research approach (CQR). CQR is an interdisciplinary, team-science approach that promotes the co-production of knowledge and solidarity across communities through deep reflective conversations on the differences in researcher positionalities (Hill et al. 2005
; Tebes 2018
). CQR helped connect research team members trained in different disciplines, including psychology, sociology, politics, education, Latin American, and Latino Studies, as well as critical race and ethnic studies. Team members were also able to draw on perspectives from their positionalities and upbringings, which related to the Latiné community through shared marginalized experiences. CQR thus helped facilitate the co-constructing of spaces that uplift and recognize the barriers faced by underrepresented and minoritized communities. The consensus process was most evident during codebook refinement and coding, when research assistants (RA) were trained to be reflexive about potential biases from their positionalities and be aware of differences, which influenced in-depth discussions while helping minimize the biases of any particular individual in the consensus-making process (Hill et al. 2005
). Consensus-based data analysis emphasized subjective interpretations of the participant stories through deep reflection and in-depth discussions before reaching a common understanding of the codes, themes, and patterns. This approach was efficient and structured, yet flexible, allowing for meaningful comprehension of the participant’s intimate conversations in relation to already written sources (Schreier 2012
The project’s development of six major themes grew from the coding and combined analysis of transcripts from focus groups and interviews with community advocates, organizations, and members of immigrant and mixed-status families. The data analysis team used rigorous, holistic, and consensus-based memoing and coding, combining frequency and thematic analysis with the assistance of qualitative data software (Dedoose). Student analysts engaged in a collaborative back-and-forth process. One team built an umbrella codebook to help document the breadth of experiences of mixed-status families of Santa Cruz County documented in individual interviews. Another drew on annual analysis of provider and advocate research to develop an “assets” and “barrier” system and six most common and consequential factors or themes that had emerged in that data related to belonging or not-belonging/exclusion. The two codebooks were then aligned to allow for an analysis of the patterns the two data subsets had in common.
This study is part of a larger community-initiated student-engaged research (CISER) project, We Belong: Collaboration for Community Engaged Research and Immigrant Justice. This research model is designed to include and examine the experiences of multiple actors in connection with immigrant communities and mixed-status families of Santa Cruz County (Greenberg et al. 2020
). As a result, our findings indicate that the inclusion of multiple perspectives creates an opportunity for identifying how we can better support and learn from immigrants navigating complex barriers that impact their physical and psychological sense of belonging. Our research findings support and expand upon existing literature by demonstrating how the inclusion of multiple perspectives, consideration of intersectional identities, and examination of various social locations and institutions can contribute to a comprehensive understanding of immigrant belonging. By identifying environments of hostility and exploring the ways in which immigrants facilitate their own conditions of belonging, we provide insights into how to better support and learn from immigrants navigating complex barriers to belonging in Santa Cruz County. In addition, our results reinforce and expand on Yuval-Davis’s
) “politics of belonging” to identify how social constructs such as citizenship status can provide forms of physical and psychological safety and security through inclusion or a sense of insecurity and exclusion among immigrant communities in the United States. Our findings align with the understanding that belonging encompasses both individual-level emotional attachment and broader connections to the social and physical world (Evaristo 2017
; Zayas and Gulbas 2017
). At the social location level, our study highlights that citizenship status, particularly for immigrant populations, acts as a dominant social location or master status that significantly influences overall social positioning (Yuval-Davis 2006
; Gonzales 2016
). Immigrants’ legal or undocumented status can produce fear, anxiety, and vulnerability to exploitation, affecting their sense of belonging and well-being (Abrego 2015
; De Genova 2002
In combination, by taking Abrego and Schmalzbauer’s
) Social Locations into perspective, we advanced in pinpointing environments of hostility that can inhibit one’s sense of belonging, while simultaneously highlighting how immigrants facilitate their own conditions of belonging on a personal, communal, and institutional level. Furthermore, our study emphasizes the role of institutions at various levels in enforcing and reproducing boundaries of belonging. Nation-state institutions, as arbiters and enforcers of citizenship status, hold significant power in determining belonging and well-being (Abrego 2015
). Additionally, regional and local institutions, such as schools, social service agencies, medical clinics, community organizations, and local organizations, play crucial roles in shaping immigrant belonging (Abrego and Schmalzbauer 2018
; Gonzales 2016
; Rusch et al. 2020
). These institutions can either facilitate or hinder access to resources, services, and support systems, affecting immigrants’ overall sense of belonging. We recognize the role of community organizations and immigrant social networks in supporting immigrants and helping them navigate daily challenges, access resources, find work, and create a sense of community (Menjívar et al. 2016
). In this respect, we concur with other studies that have similarly found that Latiné immigrants draw, and often depend, on the social capital of their co-ethnic community to help survive often-harsh treatment and structural forms of exclusion (Abrego and Schmalzbauer 2018
; Gonzales 2016
; Gomberg-Muñoz 2017
). Local public employees also play a significant role in determining immigrants’ access to government programs and related benefits or sanctions (Lipsky 1980
). With the support of multiple theoretical frameworks, we ensured immigrant experiences in relation to belonging were analyzed with the utmost consideration of their intersectional identities when navigating different places and spaces in Santa Cruz County.
4.1. Interactions within Themes
Even though the results of this community-engaged research project are analytically categorized into the following six themes, spaces and places [3.1]; legal issues, advocacy, and criminal justice [3.2]; economic (in)security [3.3]; family, health, and well-being [3.4]; access to education [3.5]; and youth and rising generations [3.6], it is important to be mindful of the numerous and intricate connections between each of them. Our findings suggest that providers must consider the spectrum of inhibitors and facilitators of belonging to either change forces of not belonging or reinforce systems of belonging that impact immigrant experiences on a personal, interpersonal, and institutional level. For example, the theme “legal issues, advocacy, and criminal justice” can represent the job (in)accessibility due to work requirements, such as forms of documentation/identification. As emphasized by our participants, these requirements hinder immigrant communities’ access to employment. This barrier may lead to job (in)security, which then impacts a person’s economic in/security. These institutional barriers create a ricochet effect that transcends beyond one individual and can either negatively or positively affect a “families/communities, health, and well-being”–such as their experience with food, housing, health care, and family separations. While the barriers discussed above create an environment of non-belonging, immigrant communities have simultaneously created a sense of belonging through exclusion. For example, we found that a sense of community through group identity and cultural pride may be developed or strengthened in instances of exclusion from dominant groups. This response can then facilitate one’s ability to navigate environments/experiences of hostility. Immigrant experiences are not static and are, in fact, nuanced in their interconnectedness with inhibitors and facilitators of belonging. Gaining a deeper understanding of how and why immigrant communities respond to forces that either push them out or push them through barriers will provide a deeper consciousness for those who do not share intersectional identities with the immigrant communities actively navigating Santa Cruz County and beyond. The six themes are intended to be in conversation with one another, to understand that immigrant communities are actively maneuvering past multiple forces that impact their sense of belonging.
4.2. On Culture, Language, and Practices of Belonging
Some of the most impactful, ground-breaking, and hopeful findings of our study have yet to be formally coded, analyzed, and articulated. Still pending for further analysis are important themes in culture and language policy, identity, and practice. In many of the interviews and focus groups, participants identified cultural and language ideologies or experiences as barrier situations, but they also articulated important and empowering insights, intentional practices, and ways of being in the world as essential for creating community and making change for themselves and each other. Powerfully, participants shared stories and philosophies that illustrated a “culture of solidarity” within institutional spaces; as ways of brokering or responding and opening doors for others; and as ways of thinking and acting with each other as ways to be community on a daily basis and over time. It is clear that these arts of ”being and making community” are connected with people’s “sense of community”, as referenced in this article.
From the outset, all of our researchers were committed to drawing out cultural strengths and stories that emphasized community strategies for pushing back fear or prejudice, and building strength and the power to prevail and develop—as individuals, families, and communities. Among the most exciting aspects of the data as a whole is this potential to name these factors in new and useful ways.
Yet, we realized, first of all, that the dearth of information in our county about lived experiences of immigrant communities, especially during this critical time of policy-change, obliged us to follow through as soon as possible on our commitment to creating useful data. Second, as we coded, we realized that although these cultural strategies or dimensions of belonging and exclusion were pervasive and extremely rich, they were not easy to trace in existing literature or public discourse. For this reason and others, they were not easy to code.
As a starting point or bookmark toward further analysis of cultural practices that shape belonging, we would like to note the pervasive importance of “language”. If legal citizenship is a “master status”, language is both a “tool of tools” and a meta-medium for many other community strategies. Part of the reason it is difficult to code “language” as a theme is that it is so pervasive, intersubjective, and unbounded. This data would require robust analytical criteria in socio-linguistics intersecting with both institutional and community resistance theory to guide inquiry into language as a multivalent field of social power. Similar to other “sites” where rituals of belonging and exclusion take place, language encounters operate on multiple levels of emotion and memory to construct complex identities that are always simultaneously about both (Plascencia 2012
). Stories of mistreatment, struggle, dedication, and overcoming related to culture and identity were especially noteworthy as examples of how exclusion from a powerful or dominant group can forge people’s identity of resistance and belonging to an excluded community.
Participants identified institutionalized language ideology (hierarchies), language policy, language identity as a proxy for race, racialized language incidents, and language access as barrier features, especially in schools and health systems. One of the most commonly identified experiences was an overwhelming sense of ignorance or empty space where awareness of world languages should be, which constituted de facto erasure of the immigrant experience.
Nearly welded to these stories, on the other hand, were stories of language strategy, resistance, pride, overcoming, learning, accessing, reaching out, bonding, and making new pathways—including their decisions to participate in our study—so that newcomers or younger generations would not have to suffer as they did. Unlike federal policy, language is one of the cultural arts within reach of ordinary people. Participants further made the distinction between the importance of linguistic competencies (such as skills in Spanish and Mexican indigenous languages), which not everyone can have, and the ways that people speak to each other when they are “being community” or “attending” a member of the public. These dimensions of the data have considerable potential for contributing to cross-sectoral studies on race, ethnicity, and inclusive policy, as well as community organizing practice. On a broader level, they could improve understandings of cultural practices as resistance and transformation.
4.3. Discussion on the Interaction between Family and Advocates
The results tell us detailed stories of belonging and the lack thereof, while also underlining the perspectives of immigrant families and advocates of services to immigrants. The outcomes can help us paint a clearer picture of the environment in which immigrant communities exist and act, and where advocates can step in to help immigrants’ sense of belonging. According to our data collection, advocates make sense of belonging in similar ways to the immigrant families; after all, some of them share similar backgrounds with the family interviewees. Yet, given their training and professional experiences, they speak about belonging in a community-centered perspective, in other words, they focus on community integration efforts. Advocates discuss belonging as very connected to the work of and involvement in community organizations. Advocates seem also to focus more on accessing housing, and thus on being able to set deeper roots in the community, as a condition to increase belonging.
From a bird-eye-view, our interviewees seem to be aware of the importance of access to specific systems that improve the quality of life and foster integration in the community. We can see how accessing food is equally mentioned as a central to feeling part of the community by both immigrant families and advocates. Besides being a human necessity, food is described by many interviewees as an integral part of immigrant culture and a vehicle for building belonging. Yet, our data show that, while focusing on similar themes, the immigrant families often discussed issues from a different perspective than the advocates. For example, both our groups of interviewees discussed how school curricula play a big role in integrating immigrant children through programs that can range from Spanish speaking classes to cultural events. On the other hand, our analysis shows that immigrant families were much more likely to discuss access to education as being central to their feeling of belonging, aiming at the root of the issue. This theme has often been linked with discussions about documentation status within immigrant families. As discussed in the section of our six major themes, having access to official forms of personal identification (such as a driver’s license) looms large in the lives of immigrant families. Across multiple aspects of life, from schooling to work, from housing to traveling, having documentation/identification makes the difference between having rights and being excluded. Several quotes from our interviewees show how a “piece of paper” can bring families and communities together, fostering belonging.
4.4. CISER and Student Involvement
In the Results section, we presented the six main themes that emerged from our analysis. We also underlined how the CISER approach, which brings together students, researchers, and community organizations, encouraged the respondents to share personal, meaningful, and rich stories. Here, we discuss how CISER, when mutually respectful and democratic, can deepen community–university partnerships, going beyond benefitting the researchers by stimulating the collection of more meaningful data that are also crucial for community partners as they work and organize towards community change. We also extended our critical partnership approach to our students, recognizing their unique expertise and knowledge, centering the marginalized, and involving them equally in all aspects of the research enterprise. The CISER process facilitated a deeper exploration of the relationship between place and belonging, allowing respondents to share personal experiences with the spaces they occupy. This approach gave a voice to the experiential subjectivity of the community, providing a safe interview environment that encouraged interviewees to share rich, personal anecdotes about their experiences with integration and belonging in Santa Cruz County. By treating language skills, cultural capital, and life experiences of students as well as research participants as key assets, CISER flipped the deficit script, building trust with the hard-to-reach populations our community partners serve and ultimately collecting higher quality data. The shared experiences between students and participants stimulated conversation and storytelling, forging durable and meaningful partnerships between the university and the surrounding community while addressing key local concerns. Not only do CISER projects support our community partners’ quest for justice, but student involvement in CISER also works towards achieving students’ own sense of educational justice, improving academic outcomes, boosting retention, and lifting graduate school attendance. Engaging in research with a cohort of peers and faculty mentors beyond the classroom also helps underrepresented students develop real-world skills and prepare for community-engaged work.
Student engagement facilitates the critical understanding of how systemic forms of oppression impact immigrant families’ experiences. Student inclusion promotes equitable representation and a Mestiza consciousness, a deeper understanding of how we, as part of immigrant communities, are affected by multiple layers of adversity (Torre and Ayala 2009
). Students that share immigrant identities foster growth-oriented opportunities throughout the data collection, data analysis, and writing process to further develop and uplift immigrant’s personal and cultural knowledge on facilitators and inhibitors of belonging. Student involvement following provider interviews elevates the humanization of our family participants through multiplicity and hybridity, the active participation and inclusion of different positionalities that promote diverse perspectives and opens the door to finding connections among difference for social justice and equity. Student engagement may lead to Choques
, a sense of uncomfortability due to disagreements in the interpretations of positionalities and experiences in relation to participants’ individual and familial journeys pre, during, and post-migration. Choques
fosters the opportunity to dive deeper into our most vulnerable selves to seek how and why it is that we experience social inequities on a spectrum. Student ability to develop a sense of strength through vulnerability promotes solidarity through self-reflection, connectedness across difference, and solidifying their shared ambition for a deeper understanding or conocimiento
of knowledge for and by the community (Anzaldúa and Keating 2002
). Students connected in their ties with the Latiné immigrant community and found that their differences in positionalities, upbringings, and disciplines were critical assets for building on the themes of belonging and not belonging among providers in Santa Cruz County. Through the CISER process, students went from colleagues to compañerxs, inspiring shared aspirations of placing immigrant families’ voices at the forefront of research. This intention created an opportunity of developing more fruitful results, with an emphasis on how forms of exclusion can either facilitate or inhibit a sense of belonging on a personal, communal, and institutional level(s).
Our study has both scholarly and policy merits. In terms of migration scholarship, our research on mixed-status families helps move debates beyond a focus on individual migrants and the documented/undocumented binary (Castañeda 2019
; Dreby 2012
; Menjívar et al. 2016
). It also adds to the scholarship on belonging (Yuval-Davis 2006
; Powell and Menendian 2016
), including mixed-status families, a broader sense of “citizenship”, and a stronger focus on students and youth (Gonzales 2016
; Rosaldo 1994
; Simonsen 2019
). In terms of academic significance for students, the CISER approach helps connect students (both on campus and in the community) to the research and public missions of the university. Combining research training with the connection between home and community enhances students’ skills, confidence, and self-efficacy, which have been shown to improve retention, graduation rates, and graduate school attendance (Mayer et al. 2019
). Our project thus solidifies linkages between research, service learning, and community organizations, leveraging campus–community partnerships toward social and policy change.
In addition to scholarly debates, policy and practice discussions closer to immigrant and/or marginalized communities have also focused on the importance of belonging. Our collaborative approach, which involved our community partners not only in identifying critical research questions, but also as equal partners in collecting and analyzing data, and communicating results back to the wider community, helps forge more durable and meaningful partnerships between the university and the surrounding community, while also increasing the public relevance and reach of social science research. This research connects to practice and policy, drawing on the linguistic, cultural, and research assets of our students (many of whom are first-generation and from mixed-status families) and our collaborations with community-based organizations to produce impactful new data on a hard-to-reach population. The team shared the outcomes of the study with key local policymakers and officials, community leaders, organizations, and to community members through accessible bi-lingual research products, public presentations, and locally sponsored fora. By helping to document the experiences of immigrant families and the immigrant-led organizations or immigrant advocates navigating and transforming conditions in our County during this period, We Belong sought to work in solidarity, and to preserve a record of the ways that daily experiences, practices, feelings and visions of ordinary people working to build social capital and a better life not only matter, but can provide examples of resistance and transformation.