Arctic Interruptions

Mexicans in Alaska: Interrupting Expectations of the Circumpolar North

The following is part two of the second set of our ongoing Arctic Interruptions series. Edited by Sara Komarnisky and Lindsay Bell, this series challenges our expectations about the North and opens new windows on its life and history. The series will appear in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs.

On a cool, cloudy summer day in Anchorage, Alaska, the Mexican dance and culture group Xochiquetzal-Tiqun[1] was asked to perform along the route of a five-kilometre fun run. They thought there would at least be a stage—or a sound system. There was neither, only an empty parking lot. The adults in the group deliberated about what to do. After a quick vote, they decided to go ahead and dance anyway: “After all, we’re already in costume.” I stood by as the dancers got to their places. Someone backed up a Chevrolet Suburban, opened all of the doors, and turned up the speakers so that the dancers and runners could hear the music playing from the truck’s CD player. The youngest dancers, with girls in colourful dresses and boys in black pants, white shirts, and a red sash started dancing to a jarabe in the Jalisco style. As they danced, parents and supporters of the group chatted on the sidelines. One woman joked about how the runners would be confused by the scene as they jogged past, “They’ll think that they’ve run all the way to Tijuana!” The group erupted with laughter as the adult dancers took to the parking lot – women dressed in white lace dresses, dancing to a song from Veracruz.

Since I began working with people who move between Michoacán, Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska in 2005, the most common questions I am asked about my work are as follows: “There are Mexicans in Alaska?” “How do they get there?” and “What do they do there?” Moreover, the vignette above hints at a sense of anomaly and dissonance when “Mexico” and “Alaska” are brought together. The joke among Mexican dancers in Anchorage that the runners in a race will think they’ve run “all the way to Tijuana” evokes how there is something unexpected about a Mexican dance performance in Alaska.

To be honest, this is not too distant from my own reaction upon arriving in Anchorage to do fieldwork for the first time. I currently reside in Edmonton, but I grew up in the rural areas east of the city where my ancestors were Ukrainian settlers. Even though I arrived in Anchorage planning to do research with people from Mexico, I was still surprised to find a tortilla factory, over 50 Mexican restaurants, Spanish language Catholic church services twice each week, a television program Latinos in Alaska (produced by Telemundo in Alaska), a vibrant Mexican community of approximately 11,500 (3.6 per cent of the population of Anchorage, according to the 2010 census), the dance and culture group Xochiquetzal-Tiqun, and later, the establishment of the Mexican Consulate in Alaska.

The sense of surprise illustrates how Mexico and Alaska have been kept separate in the popular imagination and academic literature. Not just separate, but distant and fundamentally different from one another; far away both geographically and socially. Alaska and Mexico are produced as spatially and racially distant spaces, located at either end of the North American continent. Conventional wilderness narratives and sourdough adventure tales about Alaska do not leave much room for diversity in what it means to be Alaskan, aside from the White Settler European-Alaska Native dichotomy (Thompson 2008). Nation state processes of territorial boundedness and spatial fixing, evident in immigration law and the hardening of borders, enforces the division between U.S. and Mexico. Alaska is produced as a wilderness space, exceptionally separate, isolated, and geographically disconnected from rest of the U.S. Racial and spatial perceptions that have become mainstream within the United States about Mexican migrant-immigrants place them closer to the U.S.-Mexico border. And so, Mexicans in Alaska are interpreted as unexpected, odd — as people out of place.

To interrupt expectations about Alaska and this sense of separation, division, and boundedness between places and people in North America, my work analyzes the mobilities and experiences of place held by three generations of migrants who have been moving between Acuitzio del Canje, Michoacán, Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.A. since the 1950s. These people hold dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship or U.S. permanent residency and are able to move across the continent in a way that many Mexican migrants cannot. Based on 12 months of ethnographic research in both Acuitzio and Anchorage, and 10 years of engagement with people in these locations, I analyze the experience of Acuitzences (people from Acuitzio) at several levels: as they encounter frictions in their movements between Michoacán and Alaska; the practices of multigenerational family units who gain traction over time to build lives in both Anchorage and Acuitzio; the uneven and situated habits that generate a transnational class formation, and the ways in which Mexicans in Alaska re-conceptualize their senses of place by developing transnational identities out of the symbols and mechanisms of both nation-states. My analysis revealed that over time, these people have created a sense of orientation within a transnational social field. Both locations, and the common experience of mobility between them, are essential for feeling “at home.”

My work thus seeks to fill a gap in research on Alaska and the circumpolar North more generally, which to date has neglected to analyze spaces of ethnic diversity, like cities or resource extraction projects (Feldman 2009, Bell and Jackson this issue, Cater this issue). I attempt to add an understanding of the diverse experiences and conditions of migration-immigration in the North, expanding “Greater Mexico” (Paredes 1995) to Alaska, where Acuitzences have been living and working since at least the 1950s, and other Mexicans have lived and worked since the turn of the century. In contrast to the racialization of Mexicans in the United States as “illegal” (De Genova 2005; Stephen 2007), I add the experience of “legal” transnational migrant-immigrants who have more freedom to move between Acuitzio and Alaska. Moreover, I encourage a rethinking of the history of expectation (Deloria 2004) not only for Alaska, but for the whole circumpolar North.

Indeed, since I began working between Mexico and Alaska, people have come to me with stories about migration and immigration elsewhere in the circumpolar world. Had I heard of the large number of Filipino workers in Whitehorse, Yukon? Do I know the story of Jim Fiji, the Pacific Islander who boarded the wrong boat and wound up near Paulatuk in the early 1900s and went on to work for the 1917 Canadian Arctic Expedition?[2] My mother sent me a news story about Palestinian refugees in Iceland. All of these stories interrupt expectations about the circumpolar North and give insight into the multiplicity of trajectories that produce Northern spaces. In this regard, my findings relate only to a very particular transnational social field, produced by a small group of Acuitzences who live between Michoacán and Alaska. These findings cannot be extended to other mobilities and locations within the circumpolar North, and further comparative research would be required to understand those trajectories and livelihoods on their own terms, as well as how such “unexpected” mobilities change our ideas about the circumpolar North.

My own upcoming research will focus on mobility from Northern spaces to southern ones in North America as I trace the mobility of Northern people to southern hospitals for tuberculosis (TB) treatment, document the object lives of Aboriginal arts and crafts made in the “contact zone” of occupational therapy programs in TB sanatoria, and draw links to the wider Aboriginal art market and practices of museum collecting. The biographies of objects produced at TB hospitals and now held in museums contextualize the production, sale, and collection of such objects within larger processes of cultural exchange and interaction in Northern Canada and globally. Such comparative research will hopefully shed light on what is uniquely northern about migratory trajectories, transnational lives, and urban arctic spaces that connect Northern spaces with elsewhere. Such comparative historical research would reject the framing of Northern spaces as newly or surprisingly cosmopolitan (Binkowski 2014; Ridlington 2012; Warren 2015) and emphasize that North and south have always been interconnected, defined in relation to each other, and linked by a multiplicity of mobilities.

The emptying, frontier-making, and boundary-making practices that facilitate ongoing land dispossession and capitalist accumulation in the circumpolar North also make it so that diverse mobilities like Mexicans in Alaska, Filipinos in Yukon Territory, a Pacific Islander in the Canadian North, and Palestinians in Iceland become seen as novel, anomalous, and unexpected, but attention to such mobilities and the everyday global and translocal processes in Northern North America can interrupt those processes.◉


Photo: Xochiquetzal-Tiqun dancing in downtown Anchorage, 2010. Credit: Sara Komarnisky.

Footnotes

1 Xochiquetzal-Tiqun draws its name from the Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal and the word for “wolf” in the Athabasca Dena’ina language. They explicitly work to draw together Mexico and Alaska in their activities, as they explain on their website: “We got together in 2002 in an effort to honor and preserve our Mexican roots as well as to honor Alaska, the place that opened its arms to us and where most of our children were born or raised.”

2 See the following website: http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/cae/peo614e.shtml, accessed September 22, 2014. Thank you to Zoe Todd for telling me about Jim Fiji.

References

Binkowski, Brooke. 2014. Alaska’s Hottest Mariachi Band. The Atlantichttp://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/alaskas-hottest-mariachi-band/375924/?single_page=true, accessed November 17, 2014.

De Genova, Nicholas. 2005. Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. Durham: Duke University Press.

Deloria, Philip J. 2004. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Feldman, Kerry D. 2009. Applied Cultural Anthropology in Alaska: New Directions. Alaska Journal of Anthropology 7(1): 1-19.

Paredes, Américo. 1995. Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ridlington, Emily. 2012. The New North: Arctic Multiculturalism. CBC News North. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/the-new-north-arctic-multiculturalism-1.1260176, accessed November 17, 2014.

Stephen, Lynn. 2007. Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press.

Warren, Brooke. 2015. ‘I Am Alaskan’: The surprising diversity of the 50th state, through Brian Adams’ lens. High Country News. http://www.hcn.org/articles/alaskan-identity-through-portraits, accessed January 10, 2015.

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