Gabrielle Oliveira Tells the Stories Between the Statistics

In 2016, 45 percent of immigrants to the United States were of Latino origin. Five percent were between the ages of 5 and 17. 1.1 million children under the age of 18 live with one Latin American immigrant parent.

But Professor Gabrielle Oliveira is more interested in the stories between these statistics. In Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and their Children in Mexico and New York, published this summer by New York University Press, Oliveira tells the stories of women who kiss their children goodbye, step out the door, and travel miles across imaginary lines, arriving in the United States with nothing more than a mother’s love and the hope of bountiful opportunity. Through empathetic language and comprehensive anthropological research completed at Boston College, Oliveira has become a voice for immigrant mothers across international borders who feel the strain of separation with every step they take away from their children.

While Oliveira is now an American citizen, she is no stranger to the disorienting effects of immigration—Oliveira was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil.

“For a long time, you don’t realize the limbo that you are in, in terms of your identity and how much you want to participate, and how much you feel like you betrayed a country, a land, a people,” Oliveira said.

While in São Paulo, she completed her undergraduate degree in international affairs at the Fundacão Armando Alvares Penteado. Leading up to her time as an undergraduate student, Oliveira had intentions of assuming the role of diplomat. She was prepared to live abroad, constantly immersed in travel and work. Oliveira admits that it was always unclear whether she would have the opportunity to settle down and start a family.

During her sophomore and junior years, she worked with a student-run organization that fostered an exchange program, bringing students to work in Brazil while sending students to other parts of the world. Oliveira soon realized that it would be difficult for her to commit to a position of diplomacy. Disclosing opinions is a crucial part of who Oliveira is—she could not come to terms with the idea of having to censor her words. This shifted the course of her career. She began contemplating pursing work within an international organization like the United Nations.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Oliveira worked in FGV Centro de Estudos em Sustentabilidade, a research center for sustainability studies. She conducted a research project that investigated microfinances within the favelas, or slums, in São Paolo. Her work focused on identifying trends surrounding how people would extract loans, invest money, and complete repayments. Oliveira was faced with surprising results, however, which shifted the focus of her research.  

Oliveira found that there was a correlation between maternal responsibility and timely payments. Women would be far more mindful of paying back loans and their businesses proved extremely stable as a way of maintaining a secure household. Unlike women, men would be consistent with payments up to the first two years, after which they would squander their money in alcohol and tobacco. These discrepancies led her to investigate gender roles within family units.

The research yielded interesting results regarding patriarchy. She said she found that on average, a man seemed to be extremely dissatisfied with the success of women within the household. Over time, men would grow resentful of a woman’s new role in the household and would interfere with her progress. This caused women to eventually fail to complete payments.  

Oliveira’s boss at the time encouraged her to apply to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs as it was one of the strongest programs in the country. After applying to numerous schools, she was admitted to Columbia University to complete an M.A. in international affairs, Latin American studies, and gender. Oliveira made the move to New York at the age of 23.  

She found herself dissatisfied with the lack of depth dedicated to certain topics within the courses. The short-term investigation of country’s policies was insufficient for her. She longed for more in-depth investigations into the complexities of distinct countries, instead of just the quick surveys she found in the classroom.

This led her to take anthropology classes, which sparked her desire to pursue a Ph.D. in this field at Columbia University’s Teachers College, upon the completion of her master’s.  

Oliveira continued her research in microfinance during the course of her time at Columbia. She spent her summers working with an international organization in Mexico called FINCA, a not-for-profit microfinance organization referred to as the “World Bank for the Poor,” where she focused on studying loans, primarily for women. While conducting her research, she became perplexed by the realization that families were comprised of mostly children and their grandparents.  

“I was thinking, where are the people in their reproductive age?” she said.  

Seemingly, the majority of parents had migrated to the United States—this notion intrigued Oliveira. Up to that point, there was a great deal of research on what the migrant experience looked like on respective sides of the border. There was a void in understanding familial connections through borders that had destabilizing effects.  

“I got really excited and inspired by this idea of looking at how families organize across borders,” said Oliveira.  

Oliveira conducted ethnography studies, which entailed asking the same questions to the same group of immigrants and children both in New York and Mexico over the course of three years. She was intrigued by the dynamic between parents and their children across borders, which instigated fieldwork in these regions. This would later become the voice of her recently published book, Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and their Children in Mexico and New York.

Currently working as an assistant professor at the Lynch School of Education, Oliveira shares her knowledge of and curiosity for anthropology with her students. After seeing the job posting, Oliveira saw this as an opportunity to bring anthropology to BC, which does not have a department dedicated to the field.  

“She’s brought a much-needed visibility to anthropology as a sort of important field that attunes us in education around the people and movement in the context … of all the work we do,” said John Wargo, Oliveira’s colleague and assistant professor in Lynch.

The current politics surrounding immigration has made it increasingly difficult to cope with the physical deconstruction of families. Oliveira noted that despite talk of high walls and rigid structures, families across borders vigorously fought to remain united—while they were not physically together, they were able to remain emotionally connected through technology.

“That doesn’t take away the pain of separation, it doesn’t take away the longing that children have for their parents,” said Oliveira.

Oliveira believed it was important to voice, within her writing, the experiences of these individuals as a family unit struggling to stay together against all odds, rather than as victims of immigration and education policies.

Upon further investigation, Oliveira saw that one of the underlying justifications for immigration was access to a better education. This is a central part of the narrative of immigration concerning a mother’s move across borders, which Oliveira spent a great deal of time and research on.

For Oliveira, the importance of education always extended beyond the confines of the classroom—education is not only about learning math equations or analyzing literary works, but about a narrative far larger than the institutions themselves.

“Gabby really sort of exemplifies and humanizes the social contexts of schooling, but also takes these huge abstract ideas and concepts like immigration and motherhood, and she amplifies the voices behind the condition,” Wargo said.

Oliveira noticed that in America, theories of education are generally concentrated within academic settings. The significance of education differs greatly from those in Latin American countries such as Brazil. In Portuguese the meaning of educação, or education, is concerned with the experiences that provide moral and social maturity.

“[Education is] a discourse for the betterment of children’s life,” said Oliveira.  

It was important for her to write a book rather than an article because she wanted the ability to tell the story of these immigrants from beginning to end. She hoped it would create a more profuse impact on her readers.

“You have to be really careful about how you speak about people because there is a power struggle, as well, of me being a professor at a university writing about the lives of vulnerable folks,” she said.

Oliveira sees recent immigration scandals as means to implant fear across the world. People will continue to fight for their families, however, and will work for greater opportunity at any cost. The dangers associated with immigration speak to the urgency that families feel for achieving a more stable life. One of the greatest misconceptions associated with immigrants is the idea that they either fully integrate themselves into society or fail to become part of this nation. The stereotypes that are associated with this are debilitating because they perpetuate that idea that those who are unable to assimilate will not succeed in this country.

“[Immigrants] are doing this this for the better future of their children,” Oliveira said. “This is not … the discourse of people being bad or trying to take advantage of the American system.”

One of the greatest misconceptions associated with immigrants is the idea that they either fully integrate themselves into a society or fail to become part of this nation. The stereotypes that are associated with this are debilitating because they perpetuate that idea that those who are unable to assimilate will not succeed in this country.

“Whenever I hear these discourses in education of this deficit narrative, for me it’s heartbreaking because the children often internalize [what they] don’t know versus what I know, what I can give and what I can offer,” she said.


Featured Image by Sam Zhai /Heights Staff

October 28, 2018