The specter of surveillance: Navigating “illegality” and indigeneity among Maya migrants in the San Francisco Bay Area

Barenboim, D.

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Barenboim, D. (2016). The specter of surveillance: Navigating “illegality” and indigeneity among Maya migrants in the San Francisco Bay Area. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 39(1), 79–94.

Immigration , Indigenous , Law , Maya , Mobility

This article explores how indigenous migrants experience the sociopolitical and existential condition of “illegality” in the United States. Drawing on the experiences of Maya migrants from Yucat´an, Mexico, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that the specter of state surveillance and the threat of law enforcement produce a particular politics of (im)mobility for indigenous migrants. This local politics of mobility takes form through spatial tactics of invisibility and visibility. Tracing migrants’ tactical maneuvers through public space, I show how their relations to space, place, and movement alter cultural sensibilities of tranquilidad (tranquility), and further instantiate “illegality” as a site of exclusion. This analysis of the experiential effects of anticipated surveillance provides a deeper understanding of the power of the state to enforce migrant “illegality” even in cities that promise official sanctuary.

Main finding
Indigenous migrants exercise tactics of invisibility and visibility to produce moments of tranquility (ie. a fleeting sense of calm) amidst the specter of their illegality as subjects under fear of the constant threat of potential deportation. The author identifies three tactics of invisibility: 1) limiting one’s radius of movement to decrease chances of being surveilled, 2) avoiding public spaces during and after immigration raids, and 3) patterning street movements (to and from work) in a circumscribed and consistent loop to foster familiarity and create a heightened awareness as to better interpret signs of trouble (ie. the non-familiar). Still, some migrants simply never left their homes. Tactics of visibility were practiced via performances of a traditional dance called the jarana that honors village patron saints. These public events established tranquility and a collective sense of belonging with migrants seeing themselves as ambassadors of Mayan culture as opposed to illegal aliens.

Description of method used in the article
Drew on DeCerteau's concept of everyday tactics to trace the relationship between the migrants, space, and place. Applied a critical phenomenological approach to study the connections between political process and embodied practices of everyday life. Participant observation and conversation with participants considered "illegal aliens".

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