Identities of Migration

A Narrative-based Approach to the Studies of Social Representation

by Débora Costa (Author)
©2020 Thesis 230 Pages


This book reflects upon the main methodologies used in the studies of representation in the context of migration to suggest new alternatives in which narratives are regarded as part of the corpus. The book looks at social and linguistic representations shared by Haitian immigrants in Rio de Janeiro, through short narratives. The results are part of different identity projections. This book provides data that helps in the development of new methodologies in researches about representation and integrates them into identity studies. The analysis of the information shows that representations change during the migration process and that identities assumed by the subjects contribute to maintenance or changes in these representations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction: Identity, Representation and Narratives of Migration
  • 1.1 Theme
  • 1.2 Objectives
  • 2. Haitian Immigration in Rio de Janeiro: Sociohistorical and Linguistic Context
  • 2.1 Haiti and Migration
  • 2.2 Haitians in Rio de Janeiro
  • 2.3 Policies for Social Integration of Immigrants in Brazil
  • 3. Economic and Political Aspects of International Migration
  • 4. The Negotiation of Identity and the Creation of New Social Representations in Narratives of Migration
  • 4.1 Sociolinguistic Representation
  • 4.2 Identities
  • 4.3 Cross-Genre Narratives
  • 5. The Migration Report: Context of the Interviews and Analysis of the Narratives
  • 5.1 The Context of the Interviews
  • 5.2 Social Networks of Haitians in Rio de Janeiro
  • 5.3 Methodology
  • 6. Dynamics of Migration in the Narratives of Haitian Immigrants
  • 6.1 The International Rural-Urban Migration Movement (RUM)
  • 6.2 The Self-Sustaining Dynamics of Migration
  • 6.3 The Relationship between Push and Pull Factors in the Dynamics of Migration
  • 7. Representations of Migrations
  • 7.1 Primary Representations
  • 7.2 Counter Representations
  • 7.3 Linguistic Representations: Multilingual Repertoires and Plural Identities
  • 7.4 Representations of Alterity
  • 7.5 Representations of Space: The Hybridization of Public and Private Domains
  • 7.6 Metaphorical Representations
  • 8. Frames, Forgetfulness, and Silence as Spaces for the Construction of Identities
  • 9. The Dynamic of Representation and the Negotiation of Identities: Methodological Perspectives for Examining the Narratives of Migration
  • List of Figures
  • List of Charts
  • List of Tables
  • Bibliography

1. Introduction: Identity, Representation and Narratives of Migration

“Te aprendo ao fácil, Zé Mariano, maior vaqueiro, sob de vez contador. A verdadeira parte, por quantas tenhas, das tuas passagens, por nenhum modo poderás transmitir-me. O que a laranjeira não ensina ao limoeiro e que um boi não consegue dizer a outro boi. Ipso o que acende melhor teus olhos, que dá trunfo à tua voz e tento às tuas mãos. Também as histórias não se desprendem, apenas do narrador, sim o performam: narrar é resistir.”1

Abstract: This chapter introduces the context of the research and gives an overview of the concepts I use in the book. Interdisciplinary theories are the only means to understand the complexity of the processes behind each migratory flow. I propose an analysis of migration from a linguistic perspective centered on the interpretation of narratives. The analysis involves the fields of political science, history, human geography and sociology. Identity is fluid and dynamic, an object under continuous reconstruction. Social representation, on the other hand, is a collective thought built inside social groups. I use the technique of construction of biographic narratives about migration for a proper understanding of the representations entangled in the process of identity negotiation. I preferred not to use surveys or structured interviews in the corpus. The narratives are a special locus for interpreting both negotiations of identities and social representations.

Keywords: Identities; Representations; Narratives; Haiti


In the short story Entremeio – Com o Vaqueiro Mariano, written by Brazilian author Guimarães Rosa, the narrator takes an expedition trip to the lowlands of Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso, to discover the animals of the area. The narrator, who is an educated person from the big city, asks a cowboy friend to tell him stories about life in the lowlands. The conversation, which is centered on minor narratives about cattle handling, is abruptly interrupted by the researcher, who tells his friend the accuracy of the stories can never be ←15 | 16→proved, for, according to him, there are things an orange tree cannot teach a lemon tree and an ox cannot tell another ox. The text is part of the project which would later result in Guimarães Rosa’s masterpiece The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. It was the result of a trip took by Guimarães Rosa and the poet Manoel de Barros – who is actually the cowboy Mariano in the story - through the countryside of Brazil. In a dialogical structure, the text presents a series of reflections on the act of narrating, exemplified by the art of materializing intense, different words and opening spaces where fact and fiction are intertwined. It also shows the incompleteness of the discourse concerning truth and the relationships stablished by the narrator to communicate emotions and reality to a foreigner interlocutor, who despite the cultural and social background differences, still tries to grasp the narratives with the intense truth of suppositions.

Narrating is not only a form of creating a space of manifestation for the voices of the past, but also a form of reconstructing and resignifying them. It involves a process of redefining identities by approaching the past through the lens of a present perspective. It should be done, as put by the cowboy, in a light manner and without making any sense. If one takes it too seriously, it will only give room to distress… In other words, narrating is resistance.

The epigraph of my book sums up the main concerns that encouraged me to embark on this research journey. I wanted to grasp a social reality through the lens of life narratives, as told by the research subjects, and open a space for reflecting on the identities and representations in these stories. The constant dialogue between the researcher and the narrator-character is my starting point. A dense, actual and soulful starting point which is at the same time an independent and efficient transmitter of feelings, crackling with warmth.

The narratives in this book are told by Haitian immigrants who undertook a journey to the state of Rio the Janeiro. They carry the marks of the past and the necessity of constructing a future. For these Haitians, the reconstruction of identities and the creation of new representations are complementary processes to become part of the local community. These processes are embodied through their stories.

The wave of Haitian migration to Brazil began shortly after the 2010 earthquake that struck the island and partially destroyed the country. By this time, Brazil led the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) to help the devastated country. Brazilian economy was booming and this turned the country into an attractive option for immigrants. At the same time, Brazilian government fostered immigration by adopting a politics of solidarity that granted Haitians special visas.

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At different points in history, some countries, such as England during the Industrial Revolution, received a large contingent of foreign immigrants concomitant with the increasing economic development, as showed by Massey (1988). Once this movement add to the communities new peoples from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, most developed countries have turned into more multiethnic, multicultural and transcultural societies.

Developing countries also follow this lead and are, consequently, becoming more diverse. As an example, Brazil, which was already formed by a long process of miscegenation, has received in the past years a range of Latin-American immigrants, such as Bolivians – especially in São Paulo – and Haitians in different states. As pointed out by Massey (MASSEY, 1993, p. 431), the emergence of international migration is a basic structural feature almost each industrialized country has in common. He adds that even during the time globalization was still a discussion, it was already considered a fact that countries which were still not part of this process would follow the same path in the future.

In Brazil, the first registers of migratory flow date back to 15302 to meet the demands of the colonial process. From 1540 on, Brazil faces a long process of forced migration through the Atlantic slave trade. When the Portuguese Royal Family arrives in the colony, in 19th century, migratory profile is changed by the increased number of Portuguese colonizers. Throughout the second half of the same century, Brazil will also receive other non-Portuguese European immigrants. These immigrants – most Italians – will mainly work in the coffee plantations in São Paulo, as an alternative to the 1850 Queiroz Law, an act which made the slave trade illegal. Germans, Poles and other Europeans were also part of this migratory movement in the second half of the 19th century. A couple of decades later, precisely at the beginning of the 20th century (1908), the first immigrants from Japan arrived in the country. Due to the fact that Japanese people were considered an inferior race by this time, Japanese immigration was quickly controlled by the Brazilian government and prohibited before the end of World War II. Non-Jewish Europeans were clearly privileged3 and this led to animosity already in the pre-war period, which was followed by the persecution of Japanese immigrants when the Second World War started.

←17 | 18→

After the war, Brazil entered a new development cycle and became again attractive to many foreigners, such as Lebanese and Jewish people. However, during the 1980s, which is known as the lost decade, the country faced a new political and economic crisis that led a considerable number of Brazilians to emigrate. According to estimates from the Itamaraty, a number of 4 million working-age4 Brazilians left the country during those years, usually to go to the United States, Japan and Europe. This flow surpassed the immigration flow of the same decade.

The opening of the national economy in the 90s preceded a decrease in the Brazilian immigration flow. The migratory flow towards Brazil includes, then, more seasonal European and North American migrants, which were employees of multinational companies. Searching for work, Latin American immigrants also arrive and are not always legally employed. Some of them are eventually targeted by entrepreneurs who hire them to work in slave-like conditions. Finally, a couple of years later, in 2012 e 2015, Brazil receives millions of immigrants from Haiti. They mainly settle in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Paraná and Santa Catarina.

According to the BBC News5, the number of Haitian workers in Brazil increased from 814, in 2011, to 14.579 in 2013. During the same year, in Rio de Janeiro, the east side neighborhood of Curicica presented a significant number of around 250 Haitian immigrants living in the communities of Asa Branca, São Marcelo and César Maia6. However, the end of the construction works for the Olympic Games in 2016 changed the flux of immigration. A significant number of Haitians left the country, whether to go back to Haiti or to illegally cross the United States’ borders. Although the accurate number of Haitian immigrants who left Brazil by this time is not known, the peace keep mission in São Paulo, ←18 | 19→which had received more than 20.000 Haitian immigrants since 2010, reported to the Brazilian newspaper “O Globo” that, in 2016 the number of Haitian immigrants received decreased to only 350. If before 2.000 Haitians monthly entered Brazil, now the number of arrivals drastically decreased to 30 per month. While the immigration numbers decreased, flux of emigration increased and approximately 40.00 Haitians migrated to Chile.7

The complexity of the processes behind each migration flow can only be grasped through interdisciplinary theories. I propose an analysis of migration from a linguistic perspective centered on the interpretation of narratives of the theme. The analysis will intersect with the fields of political science, history, human geography8 and sociology. Massey also describes the importance of combining different areas of knowledge when approaching human mobility:

A full understanding of contemporary migratory processes will not be achieved by relying on the tools of one discipline alone, or by focusing on a single level of analysis: rather, their complex, multifaceted nature requires a sophisticated theory that incorporates a variety of perspectives, levels and assumptions. When it comes to international migration, popular thinking remains in nineteenth- century concepts, models, and assumptions. (MASSEY, 1993, p. 432)9

In the context of contact linguistics in Brazil, the research on migrants aims to find the linguistic results of interaction with the host society. The object of analysis is a mingling of aspects of code-switching10, code-mixing and language shift11(RHOBODES, 2015). The concept of heritage language12 has been recently ←19 | 20→used in researches centered on Italian and German communities of migrants in Brazil and in Germany (GAIO, 2107). The field of studies not only examines the linguistic results of contact, but also the language policies which were implemented or are still necessary for social inclusion of these immigrants13 (COSTA; PEREIRA, 2016), as well as the study of the processes of identity construction between host society and immigrants (HÖFLER, 2020).

The objectives of my research are intertwined with the analysis of linguistic materiality on migration. Thus, linguistic theories – especially the ones which address the concept of representations, whether social or strictly linguistic – are crucial for the analysis of the corpora. Concerning the methodology, questionnaires and interviews – structured or semi-structured – are usually the means to investigate these representations. Despite of that, I assume these questionnaires are not a sufficient source for examining the complexity of the phenomenon, once they do not leave much space for subjects to show different representations of the same object. I believe the relationship between interviewer and interviewee pose a significant influence on the results, even in unstructured cases. Hence, secondary elements during the interview cannot be ignored.

Representations are approached here as dynamic, volatile and variable phenomena, both in time – with the chronological distance between subject and the represented object – as in space, depending on factors such as the interview location, the intervieweeʼs representation about the interviewer and the recurrent tensions in recorded situations. For a proper understanding of the representations entangled in the process of identity negotiation I therefore use the technique of construction of biographic narratives about the examined social object (here, migration) and create a corpus without recurring to surveys and structured interviews. There are moments during these interviews in which the subjects recall memories of situations in their lives prior to their arrival in Brazil. I also take into account how they narrate facts in their lives exposing the ideas they had, while still in Haiti, about the upcoming migration. The illustrations they use for these narratives are a reinforcement of the theme’s representations. When subjects narrate their own stories they revisit the past and consequently access some representations of their displacement. This set of beliefs about their ←20 | 21→homeland, mobility, and expectations regarding life in the host society, which were collectively produced and disseminated before emigration, are called primary representations.

Once the subject migrates, he/she has to face all sorts of tribulations, whether predicted or not. This forces him/her to trigger a process of linguistic contact with the host society. The immigrant is then impelled to learn the local language ̶ at least developing oral skills ̶ and to learn about the different cultures and traditions. More representations about the migratory movement and life projects in the current society might rise from this experience. These are the secondary representations.

Secondary representations can be constructed based on a position which is the exactly opposite to the primary representations. I will name this as a counter representation. They can also be differently elaborated from the primary representations, but not necessarily in the opposite direction. Throughout this research, I will refer to them as new representations. A good example for these concepts is illustrated by the Haitian immigrants who live in Rio de Janeiro. The idea that Brazilians are friendly and open-minded is a frequent primary representation among them. Nevertheless, after they get to know Brazilians, some of them start to describe the host society members as jealous. This is a secondary representation similar to a counter representation, once it is the opposite of the idea that Brazilians are a friendly people.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Migration Haitian Narratives Identities Representation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 230 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 2 tables

Biographical notes

Débora Costa (Author)

Débora Amaral da Costa developed her doctorate in co-tutelage between Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil) and Europa Universität Viadrina (Germany) through PROBRAL II. Her areas of interest are migration, language policies, social representation, and language teaching. She is currently a primary education teacher at the Rio de Janeiro Department of Education, Brazil.


Title: Identities of Migration