Transnational Immigrant Youth Literacies: A Selective Review of the Literature

Transnational Immigrant Youth Literacies: A Selective Review of the Literature

Robert T. Jiménez (Vanderbilt University, USA), Caitlin Eley (Vanderbilt University, USA), Kevin Leander (Vanderbilt University, USA) and Patrick H. Smith (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8668-7.ch013
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This chapter examines transnationalism, social-literacy practices theory, the history of immigrant literacy in the United States, and an examination of central Mexican literacy practices. We then review and examine what is known concerning the literacy practices of immigrant youth living in the U.S. We define transnationals as individuals who participate in flows of people, ideas, capital and goods between regions. These flows are bi-directional, span national boundaries and are sustained over time. After examining historical and cultural influences on the ways that literacy is conceptualized and actualized in Mexico, we argue that all immigrant students, regardless of their ethno-linguistic backgrounds, bring to their host nations assemblages of information, ideology, and specific practices that we believe are full of either potential resources or possible damaging effects. Deeper understanding of these practices by educators provides a potential mechanism for bringing about desirable change or for maintaining oppressive racial and linguistic hierarchies.
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We begin with a discussion of transnationalism and what that could mean for literacy research. While the concept of transnationalism seems to have only recently caught the attention of researchers, one can find aspects of this phenomenon in many prior historical movements (e.g., previous waves of immigration or the bracero movement of the early 20th century, Tienda & Mitchell, 2006). What distinguishes the transnationalism of today from prior similar phenomena is the globalization of capital (Piketty, 2014) and grassroots reaction to global economic markets. The critical mass of persons described as living transnational lives and the complexity of transnational practices have led researchers to describe how current flows of people are shaping people’s economic, political and social activities.

Some definitions of transnationalism focus on the everyday practices of those most affected and posit that transnational immigrants live dual lives, speak two or more languages, maintain homes in two countries, and engage in continuous regular contact across national borders. Others emphasize transnationalism’s economic consequences and consider transnational immigrants as entrepreneurs who reap the benefits of globalized financial markets on an individual level. In this view, transnationals “deny their own labor to would-be employers at home and abroad, but become conduits of information for others” (Portes et al., 1999, p. 227).

Portes et al. (1999) stipulate that three conditions must be satisfied for something to qualify as transnational:

  • 1.

    A significant proportion of people are involved (i.e., immigrants and their compatriots in their country of origin);

  • 2.

    The activities of interest are stable and resilient over time;

  • 3.

    These activities are not captured by a pre-existing term that makes this new term (i.e., “transnationalism”) redundant.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Academic Literacy: Practices of communication that are used, assessed, and valued in classrooms. Academic literacy practices often require students to summarize, analyze, evaluate and compare, contrast and synthesize ideas and information from different sources.

Language Brokering: A practice engaged in by many immigrant youth who interpret and translate oral and written language for others. Typically, these language events occur as part of everyday life and involve the need for communication. Language brokering can occur in schools, hospitals, governmental agencies, as well as business establishments.

Social-Literacy Practices Theory: Refers to recurring activities, composed of bodily movements and actions, individual and group understandings, and interactions with objects. Barton (2007) referred to literacy as “ a set of social practices associated with particular symbol systems and their related technologies. To be literate is to be active; it is to be confident within these practices.”

Transnational: A term closely related to cosmopolitanism. Transnationals are individuals who participate in flows and movement of people, ideas, capital and goods between regions. In other words, transnationals have regular ongoing contact with others across national boundaries. These contacts can be in the physical or digital realms.

Digital Literacy: Practices of communication that are used via digital platforms and the Internet.

Remittances: Financial support provided by immigrants typically to family members who remain in their country of origin. These financial transactions most often require access to banking or other multinational financial institutions.

Mesoamerica: The region of central and southern Mexico, extending also into Central America south to Panama, that was influenced by indigenous groups possessing sophisticated forms of political organization prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

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