In 1999, two cattle thieves were lynched in a small town in highland Peru. According to some townspeople, they were local criminals who had bullied, robbed, and assaulted people for years. When a crowd of people – including local officials – dragged them into a public square, beat them, and set them on fire, they got little sympathy. However, state authorities, who arrived after the fact to investigate the incident, arrested several people they thought were the leaders of the lynching. The local people rallied around their neighbors, and supported them in their legal defense.
They had help from an unexpected source – migrants from the town who had settled in the United States. Asuncion Flores, who lived in Silver Spring, Md., sent money home immediately and then organized a barbecue in her backyard, inviting people from her town who had migrated to the Washington suburbs. She collected several thousand dollars.
Ulla Berg, who has a joint appointment as an assistant professor of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean studies and anthropology, told the story of the town’s citizens, in the article, In Defense of Community? Long-distance Localism and Transnational Political Engagement between the US and the Peruvian Andes, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies in November 2008.
For Berg, the story of that town is a perfect example of “diasporic citizenship” – that is, people from a small, marginalized community retain their membership in that community, no matter where in the world they live. She has spent the last several years trying to understand what it means to be a citizen in a world amid increasing migration and mobility. “It’s very common for working-class or rural migrants to maintain close contact with their places of origin,” Berg says. “That’s because it’s harder for them than for urban, better educated people to be a part of mainstream American society. But they can still be part of where they came from and assert those connections.”
Modern communications media are important to that assertion, Berg says. In Flores’ story, the terrible news from home came in a phone call from her brother. She wired money home immediately, and then made calls and sent emails through her extensive network of relatives and friends in the Washington suburbs.
Other Peruvians use everything from audiotape letters (useful for people who can’t read or write) to home movies and webcams to stay in touch, and to influence events at home.
Berg is currently working on a book manuscript on media practices and transnational life among Peruvian migrants in the United States. As Berg sees it, the importance of diasporic citizenship is that people who couldn’t exercise full citizenship in their home countries prior to migration now exercise such citizenship from abroad, and make it easier for their friends and relatives remaining at home to do the same. Such people often have negative experiences of state power at home, and their identification and loyalty is to their local communities, not to the state.
Berg is also a filmmaker, and in 2003 she produced, directed, and edited Waiting for Miracles, about the Brotherhood of Our Lord of Miracles, a Peruvian Catholic brotherhood in New York City.