Oliva Espín

Workshops & Seminars

Women’s Experience of Migration

1. Gender Roles and Sexuality in Women’s Experience of Migration

Women’s roles and sexual behavior may be modified more dramatically and profoundly than men’s. For both heterosexual and lesbian women, the crossing of borders through migration provides the space and “permission” to cross boundaries and transform their sexuality and gender roles. However, this is usually not a smooth process, even for those women who seem to have acculturated easily to the new society.

Immigrant women’s regular wage work has an impact on gender relations. Employed immigrant women generally gain greater personal autonomy and independence. There is evidence that migration brings changes in traditional patriarchal arrangements. Many women learn to contest the patriarchal narratives of ethnic solidarity and thus, change the content of some of those narratives.

2. Gender Issues in the Immigration Crisis

Political and social concerns about immigration have reached a crisis point in the U.S. and Europe. And issues of gender have surfaced as one of the central points of the discussion. Legal measures in some European countries forbidding the use in public of certain items of clothing by women have become contentious. In the United States, although religious prejudices are very present, the main anti-immigrant rhetoric is directed at Mexicans. In a nation of immigrants, these newcomers are seeing as destroying the fabric of society. Prejudices, fueled by politicians and groups intent on creating fear of terrorist attacks, and dark tales about the purpose women may have to birth their children in U.S. territory, mingle with plights for women's rights and for religious freedom. Divergent positions distort each other in these discussions.

Immigration is not a new phenomenon in either Europe or the United States, but the level of acrimony seems to intensify daily. Immigrants seem to have become "the new enemy," rather than just productive members of society trying to make a better life for themselves at their children.

Although gender issues have always been central to the immigration process, they seem to have unprecedented salience in the political and social arenas. Women figure extensively in all discussions that involve reproductive issues as well as clothing. The emotional experiences involved in the process of migration become amplified by societal and political controversies about immigrant women.

3. Race and Migration

The interplay of racism and sexism on the process of immigrant’s identity development. Racism and sexism derive their strength from each other. The racial hierarchization of immigrants is also sexualized. The sexualization of “racialized” women, the perverse interest in the erotic “other,” in other words, the embodiment of gendered racism are deeply embedded in immigration policies and public responses to immigrants throughout the world.

My school in Havana.
My house during my adolescence.

Language Issues in Therapy

Language loss and its concomitant sense of identity loss and transformation are one of the most powerful components of the immigrant experience. Language–the forced learning of the new and the loss of the old linguistic community–is central to the migration experience.

Learning to “live” in a new language is not merely an instrumental process. It is not a neutral act. It implies becoming immersed in the power relations of the specific culture that speaks the specific language. Paradoxically, learning the language of the host society implies learning one’s place in the structures of social inequality. For adults, to speak with a foreign accent places one in a subordinate position within those power relations. For children, for whom immigration usually implies schooling in a language other than the language of their parents, this process involves a “creation” of their incipient identities as members of a second class group in the new country.

Issues of culture and family coherence come together is the question of language, particularly when different generations within a family have different levels of proficiency in the different languages spoken. The parents’ lack of fluency in the new language and the children’s lack of fluency in the “mother-tongue,” subvert authority in the family. The power of children is increased because they become “cultural brokers” while the power of parents is decreased because they depend on their children’s assistance to survive in the new world. The inordinate amount of power children may acquire because of their language proficiency can be at the source of conflicts over authority issues. It also magnifies children’s conscious or unconscious fears that their parents are now unable to protect them.

The living room in my grandparents' house.
The kitchen in my grandparents' house.

Women, Sainthood, and Power

What can Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Rosa of Lima, Edith Stein and others teach all of us, regardless of our religious background or gender? The usual trite perspective presents saints, particularly female saints, as obedient and unquestioning of authority; but a careful reading of their lives and writings present a different reality. These women were involved in the political and socio-cultural realities of their times. Their writings and life stories have provided inspiration for men and women through the centuries. This course focuses on the lives and writings of selected Latin American, North American, and European female saints, particularly their resistance and accommodation to authority and to normative women's roles as well as the impact of saints on the development of national/cultural identities. It will explore historical, cultural and ethnic perspectives, and political contexts of sainthood. Includes gender and feminist psychological analyses and critical examination of their lives. Implications for understanding gender and socio-political processes in 21st century U.S. will also be discussed.

Memory, Identity, and Narrative

This presentation focuses on how historical events and individual lives intersect to create autobiographical memory. The memories on which personal narratives are built are particularly important for people who have lived their lives in many places or who have lived through historical transformations such as the feminist movement.

Stories are essential because they permit moments of reflection without which actions and judgment would not be possible. I believe that life stories, although deeply personal, have important political and psychological purposes: They allow us to reinsert ourselves into the narrative that is history, to become a part of public world by participating in the process of its making, while we observe the development of our own lives and identity. Memory is the only witness to our lives. Reflecting on our memories and writing about them increases critical insight and engagement. The role of memories in the formation of self and identity, as well as the role of writing those memories in the preservation and integration of a sense of self will be discussed. Researchers have found that writing about emotionally laden events increases our T-cell growth and antibody response, lowers our heart rate, helps us lose weight, improves sleep, elevates our mood and can even reduce pain.