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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 287 | Junio 2005
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Central America

Our Constructed Image Of Central American Migrants

Our research and studies on Central American migration sculpt an image of our emigrants through the issues they deal with, what they say, what they fail to mention and what they choose to stress. In so doing, we are promoting national policies. We are responsible. We thus have an ethical responsibility in the work we do.

José Luis Rocha

Central America is exporting increasing numbers of emigrants. The intellectual production related to these migration flows and the vicissitudes of both their male and female protagonists is part of a struggle to construct a dominant perception of the migrations and migrants. Researchers—often driven by a given political position—chisel out concepts, scatter data, conceal certain issues, prioritize others and modulate their rhetoric seeking the most persuasive tone to define the complex migratory phenomenon, which is riddled with interests, prejudices, ideologies, insights and myopia. Their commitment to specific causes and groups means that their efforts to mint defining concepts are ultimately a political investment.

Migration researchers: Perception sculptors

The predominant conception of migrants sees them as banking on the possibility of assimilating, achieving economic insertion and cultivating a new identity. There is pressure for state policies aimed at migrants to correspond to the image of migrations produced by social actors. The perception of the impact of migration on the economy, culture, ways of life and other aspects condition the opportunities migrants will find. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas stressed this correlation when he stated that the willingness to politically integrate economic immigrants depends in part on how native populations perceive immigration’s social and economic consequences.

This thesis can be extended mutatis mutandis to the countries of origin and transit. In the case of the former, the image we choose to construct of emigrants could have them banking on the chances of government backing, the willingness to negotiate bilateral treaties in their benefit (including agreements on temporary workers), the exploitation of remittances, migratory amnesties and the training of migration officials, among other policies, programs and agreements. In the latter case, meanwhile, we would likely have them banking above all on the possibility of reducing the risks during the journey.

The researchers of this reality are like sculptors of perceptions. What room is allowed for political commitment in the intellectual production about migration? Might researchers be able to help dissolve the pejorative and fallacious clichés about migration? With a more political interest, are there perceptions that do not fully capture the benefits of migration and, in contrast, play up their adverse effects? And, finally, what can we do to reduce the inadequate perceptions to their minimum expression?

Abundant studies on remittances: One-way economistic interpretations

Central American research on migration tends to be thematically segmented according to the interests and mandates of the institutions financing and/or producing them. The specific studies on Central American migrants by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have focused on family remittances and their potential for activating so-called “productive” investments. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLA) has also stressed remittances, but has extended its interest to other issues, such as migratory policies, migrant flows and their demographic effects.

Studies on remittances normally aim to quantify their volume and their impact on the receptor households’ investments, with the aim of encouraging the region’s governments and private sectors to create programs for family and community investment, savings and housing loans, along the lines of the 2-to-1 model. This model is based on one central government dollar and one local dollar for every dollar migrants send back earmarked for public works in their municipalities of origin. The issue of reducing remittance transfer costs is less mentioned, but is growing in relevance.

Most of these studies are done by economists, based on macro-statistics management and surveys that focus on restricted “laboratory” areas selected for the large numbers of migrants they emit and their very high poverty levels.

With respect to remittances, the financing organizations have shown little interest in either the viewpoints of other social scientists such as sociologists and anthropologists, or other methodologies such as life stories, focus groups or in-depth interviews, even to attempt to get at the real chances of implementing the proposed policies.

The result of such studies on remittances has been a series of otherworldly and essentially unidirectional economistic suggestions—about money going from the country of destination to the country of origin. They ignore the vast range of functions and significances of the migratory economy, two-way relations that imply a certain communications pattern and certain effects, the emergence of nostalgia-guided consumption, the redistribution of power quotas and functions of family unity, and many other substantial transformations derived from the use of remittances.

The right to emigrate and the criminalization of migration

Contradictory interests can be seen in the research of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Its Guatemala office financed and published a series of research pamphlets on a wide range of issues: follow-up to the Regional Migrations Conference and the Central American Commission of Immigration Directors, temporary migration, migrants and production, international conventions on migrant rights, etc. Several of these studies emphasized the human rights of migrants and defense of the right to migrate. One produced by the Inter-American Human Rights Institute even elevated this right above all other considerations, including national security and governance.

In the regional sphere, however, the IOM has also financed case studies on the trafficking of migrants. These include abundant statements criminalizing migration, magnifying the real power and organization of migrant traffickers and making unfair generalizations by denouncing supposed links among migrant trafficking, drug trafficking and organized crime.

Such case studies serve the interests of those who want to control and reduce migration to the North, presenting it as illegal flows in which workers in the South have no right to participate. They divert attention away from the fact that the multiplication of restrictions on population movements in the countries of transit and destination are making migration
a gradually more risky and even lethal option, and seek to present abuses committed against the migrants by the traffickers as the main problem.

They proclaim the unquestionable right of nation states to deny entry to their territory to citizens from other countries and criminalize migration. Although written in the laconic, expeditious style of a police report, the dissemination of these studies by state officials helped propagate a perception of migration that stigmatizes the traffickers, an essential strategy in cutting the migratory flow.

Studies on women migrants

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has produced studies on the general situation of all Central American worker migrants, including women. These studies consider the volume of such migration in the countries of origin and destination, showing their weight in the labor markets and documenting the conditions for the exercise of their rights. Studies on female migrant workers include a study by Olimpia Torres and Milagros Barahona on “Nicaraguan migration abroad: An analysis from a gender perspective,” while a broad study by Abelardo Morales has covered the more general labor situation. The ILO’s interest in workers’ rights and gender provides a distinctive approach. Given the enormous number of migrant women working as domestics in Costa Rica, such studies offer an important contribution in a key area.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is another multilateral organization whose growing interest in migrants has been sustained over time. It has focused particularly on informing, awareness-building, raising the issue and offering valuable inputs and advice to policy formulators in a context in which population issues are not the flavor of the month among state officials. UNFPA has financed studies on internal migration, the volume and composition of international migrants, migratory policies and women migrants. Its studies aim to offer an overview, suggesting programs and forecasting tendencies. UNFPA still faces the challenge of conducting regional studies, something within its purview that it should facilitate as a UN organization.

The need for regional studies

Academics have produced a range of quite varied issues: migrant networks, cross-border communities, communication, emotional relationships, female adolescents, cultural changes, agricultural labor, etc., although much of this production has been limited by consisting of case studies restricted to small territorial extensions. The studies conducted by the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO), especially all those produced in its Guatemalan and Costa Rican centers, deserve particular mention.

Given the micro level of such work, it’s not possible to draw any general conclusions. They do, however, offer possible inputs for national migratory policies and explore new areas marked by very revealing themes, such as cultural and gender aspects. Although gender crosscutting has been more widely explored by US academics, as, for example, Sarah Mahler’s analysis of gender and power in transnational arenas, Central American academia is also beginning to use thematic combinations. One example was the article by Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla, “How Dollar Remittances Transform a Village,” published in envío in May 2000.

In all of the institutions mentioned, the regional challenge remains a pending issue. Mexican academics have studied this region more than Central American ones. As a rule, each Central American nation tends to study its own migrants, with the exception of Costa Rica, which is much more concerned about the many Nicaraguan immigrants in its own territory than about its few conational emigrants.

This fragmented, nationality-based treatment of Central American migration has only rarely been surmounted, and among those who have failed to do so are organizations whose multinational nature might have led us to expect a more complex geographical vision. It must be noted, however, that the possibility of conducting comparative studies among the different countries—such as US researcher Edward Funkhouser’s work on remittances in El Salvador and Nicaragua—is hampered by the fact that the different country offices of the research financing entities do not coordinate their activities.

Consultants, academics, journalists: Dependency, renunciation, divorce...

Whom have these organizations hired to carry out their studies? Most institutions interested in studies on migrants hire consultants, because that form of labor insertion coincides with their requirements: quick products according to pre-agreed dates and prices.

The consultancy market includes professionals highly trained in migration issues who are often more qualified than their university counterparts. But the financing organizations’ predilection for independent consultants often works as a displacement mechanism, activating and reinforcing emigration from the universities, with their best-trained intellectuals shifting to the more lucrative consultancy market. The universities contribute their part to that by imposing inflexible labor practices on their academics, with a teaching load, strict hours and administrative costs that put university researchers at a disadvantage compared to their freelance colleagues. The lack of financing and minimal free time have noticeably reduced academics’ interest in migration issues. In fact, the same factors reduce their interest in any effort over and above their most essential obligations.

The main problem facing both freelance consultants and university researchers, meanwhile, is that they have to adapt to different bosses in order to remain in the market, charging very favorable prices. They have to tailor their products to the funders, accepting themes, censure, dissemination mechanisms, time periods, nuances, tones and approaches. They have avoided certain aspects of labor dependency—being subjected to a given space and timetable—only to be landed with an accentuated ideological subjection. Some jump from one theme to another, changing emphasis and reconfiguring their thesis with chameleon-like aplomb. They lose sight of their role in building up the perception of migrants and relegate their political potential.

Renunciation of their work’s political influence is displayed above all in the fact that academic researchers and consultants are not disseminating their own studies. There is a growing divorce between academics and journalists, and opinion pages have been almost totally abandoned to non-specialists. At the very best, the studies are presented at forums to the already initiated and converted, then shelved. Journalists rarely have the chance to construct their own point of view around the academics’ findings, and academics are increasingly reluctant to descend from the pulpit of the Alma Mater to the pedestrian pages of a newspaper. Have they forgotten that Marx and Keynes alternated the production of their macro-theories with journalistic advocacy?

The interested and the negligent: Uncritical repeaters of clichés...

Another audience for the researchers’ work could be their academic peers, but there is a double lack of incentive for Central American intellectuals to publish in scientific journals. First, the academic public is not the main target of our products, and we have to respond to the immediate paying client, who has little interest in any points that might be scored in the academic field. Second, it is hard for most academics to access the acclaimed academic journals. The most prestigious ones are in the industrialized countries and many of them are written in English, so those of us who can’t speak the language currently in vogue in academia are excluded from the methodological instruments, financing and materials—new articles and books—that would help us situate our arguments within the context of recent debates. The result of all of these factors and tendencies is that little is known about the research of Central Americans on migration.

The origin of academic segregation was revealed by social scientist Walter Mignolo, who explains that the ethno-racial and epistemological foundations of colonial power and colonial differences clearly influenced the geopolitical distribution of the world and consequent distribution of scientific work. As a result, the First World became the area where sociology and economics were studied, while political sciences were mainly attributed to the Second World and the Third World became primarily the domain of anthropology. In addition to being part of the Third World, Latin America was also part of the Spanish-speaking world when Spanish was no longer an academically hegemonic language. In line with this tripartite division of the world according to areas of study, our continent was considered a place where culture was produced, but not scientific or academic culture.

This combination of financial dependency, lack of access to updated and qualified information, minimization of intellectuals’ political role and academic segregation has led to avoidance of taboo subjects, repetition of old clichés, no methodological innovation, the narrowing of interest to politically convenient and fundable subjects, abandonment of perception-sculpting, and uncritical—hence highly dangerous—reception of certain concepts and positions. This, in turn, has led to the dissemination of erroneous perceptions about migrants, molded to the interests of some and negligence of others, with those interested disseminating certain points of view while the negligent either repeat them out of convenience or fail to question them out of indifference.

The false dichotomy of productive vs. unproductive remittances

Let’s look at just three of the most successful views about migrants, which need to be exposed to the light of criticism. First, analysts have often blessed and repeated the distinction between productive and unproductive remittances, in which the latter are more frequently referred to as remittances used for consumption, subsistence or simply for family well-being—devoid of the adjective “productive” that might lend them a little dignity and get them included in policy texts.

Once a concept has been set rolling, it’s not so easy to stop it. In fact, it is quite common for it to be repeated by many people, as using it demonstrates that one is au fait with the issue and can correctly employ the technical jargon. When those of us who research migration explain what we’re working on during forums and conferences, there’s always some international agency representative just waiting for the chance to ask, “Have you thought of researching productive remittances?”

The FAO and the IDB are very interested in productive remittances. They regularly organize forums on this highly attractive theme and have even gone as far as to propose the need to reduce the cost of sending remittances, which is a notable advance. But they never mention the need to guarantee migrants’ human rights, if only to ensure a greater volume of remittances—productive ones, of course.

Sculpting positive images: Pioneering, supportive, builders...

Without knocking the economic role of remittances, their other dimensions need to be examined as well. Remittances are rarely presented in their most human dimension: an impressive manifestation of family solidarity. Before being applauded and studied as homo economicus, remittance-sending migrants should be applauded and studied as supportive, nostalgic people, builders of communities and pioneers in different territories and cultures, or even as restless, dissatisfied souls.

These are some of the images that should be sculpted and that we should help disseminate, because they stress the more existential aspects of migration and would help reposition the economic dimension according to multiple relations. This would avoid attributing to migrants a calculating mentality that operates in the mental schemes of the analyst more than of those who, to quote the French thinker Piere Bourdieu, have repressed their self-interest and therefore refused to subject themselves to the principle of the economy.

Is there such a thing as an unproductive remittance?

In addition to excluding family investments in health, education and food from the category of productive remittances, as if an economically productive population wasn’t also a healthy, educated and well-fed one, the much-lauded but distorted distinction between productive and consumption remittances leads to policies that reinforce a form of neoliberalism that is more effective for being more underhanded.

This distinction presents as normal something that is nothing more than a sociopolitical (de)formation answering to a determined correlation of forces: the neoliberal political configuration stipulating that investment in health and education should be private. According to this discourse, remittances invested in health are unproductive because it is “natural” for a family—not the state—to invest in health. The only remittances that can be lauded are those earmarked for other areas, such as purchasing a tractor, because that really is an extraordinary investment.

In the end, the productive remittances concept means that international organizations would like to see the money emigrant relatives send back home cover the costs of provisions and medicines—the minimum threshold—
and still come in sufficient quantities to compensate for the hardly democratic distribution of credit as well as the non-existent insurance against natural disasters and inoperative disability and retirement pensions. That is the great paradox of remittances: essentially part of a tradition of solidarity and collective ethics, they are crunched into being an instrument to sustain a socioeconomic model—neoliberalism—underpinned by an individualist ethos that assumes the dismantling of institutions that implement actions of collective interest.

As with the issue of natural disasters once developmentalist thinking loses sight of the fact that disaster mitigation is not just about land use planning and suitable productive infrastructure, development economism reduces migrants to money senders, burdening their remittances with social functions that unburden the state and isolate them from the social conditions in which they are generated.

In this respect, it is worth recalling Bourdieu’s antidote to the a-historical vision of economic science: reconstructing the genesis of the economic agent’s economic dispositions, propensity to save and calculations. In this case, we’re talking about migrants’ inclination to send money home, understanding it as a socially conditioned event that cannot be explained by abstract economic theory alone, because strictly utilitarian calculations cannot account for practices that remain immersed in non-economic matters; above all, it cannot explain what makes the object of the calculation possible. In this case, it cannot account for the conditions that turn a migrant into a remittance sender.

Economistic reductions

Economist Karl Polanyi examined these economistic restrictions several decades ago, demonstrating how certain policies are privileged by exalting the mercantile economy and conditioning social transformations. Polanyi proposed that the social profile not be subordinated to economic progress. His idea was first to find the essence of historical coexistence and exchange to ensure that economic pragmatism not annul the essential values of human life.

According to Polanyi, the relegating of the primitive economy and its non-commercial coexistence to prehistory unconsciously led to “a weighting of the scales in favor of a marketing psychology, for within the relatively short period of the last few centuries everything might be taken to tend towards the establishment of that which was eventually established, i.e., a market system, irrespective of other tendencies which were temporarily submerged. The corrective of such a ‘short-run’ perspective would obviously have been the linking up of economic history with social anthropology, a course which was consistently avoided…

“The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only insofar as they serve this end.”

There are also “technological” and “social” remittances”

While the economistic reduction of the concept of remittances—of which the distinction between productive and unproductive remittances is just one manifestation—has been dissolved in other parts of the world, the more complex conceptualizations that reveal the existence of other kinds of transfers and their links to the economic dimension have barely reached Central America. Many Anglo-Saxon academics are currently basing their research on the supposition that remittances are not a monothematic package independent of context. Some social analysts have reformulated the definition of remittances to include elements that are not strictly economic.

Sandra Nichols, for example, stresses the importance of the knowledge, skills and technology migrants bring back with them, which could be termed “technological remittances.” And Peggy Levitt started using the term “social remittances” in 1998 to describe the spread of various kinds of social practices, ideas and values that accompany the migratory process. These perspectives demonstrate that emigrants also play a leading role in other events and are viewed from other perspectives that form part of a wide spectrum of migratory themes. But Central American research on remittances has very rarely taken up such approaches, some of which are not even so recent.

The fallacy of comparing “coyotes” with drug traffickers

The use of denigrating adjectives to describe migrant traffickers is common in the media, fashionable with certain state officials and sometimes reiterated by researchers. In some of its documents, the IOM has presented migrants as victims of illegal trafficking carried out by networks linked to drug trafficking and organized crime, hence similar to these other illegal activities and equally deserving of punishment. The supposition behind this approach is that illegal migratory flows are closely related to the worst kind of criminal activity and are only possible thanks to the worst kinds of criminals. Its manifest consequence is to justify repressive measures to control migration, under the pretext of controlling traffickers in migrants.

To sculpt an efficient criminalizing image of the traffickers, the descriptions need to be taken to an extreme and the events dramatized and associated with the worst-case scenario. As a result, the IOM report on illegal trafficking in Costa Rica says that “Illegal international migrant trafficking networks have been detected that both operate from South America to the United States and are organized to bring extra-regional migrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe into the region. There are also local networks, but the vast majority of these are linked to the aforementioned networks. The networks have access to hotels, disguised private houses that put up irregular migrants and provide them with transport and false documentation.” The report stresses that they are “criminal networks dedicated to the trafficking of migrants.”

According to the Nicaraguan counterpart report, “The Nicaraguan authorities point out that the phenomenon of illegal trafficking in people is closely linked to drug trafficking and there are important connections between traffickers in irregular migrants and drug traffickers. In many cases, the migrants are forced to transport drugs as part of the payment.” And it melodramatically emphasizes that “national and international networks trafficking in irregular migrants are growing and specializing with every passing day.”

In reality, while some traffickers do commit many abuses, such as robbery and rape, most “coyotes”—as the traffickers are known—operate individually and at a low cost. Many transfer kin and neighbors, thus offering a kind of community service. For the most part, then, reality does not correspond to the melodrama of the IOM reports and those who repeat them. The proliferation of the black myth about illegal migrant trafficking undoubtedly represents a partial victory for a certain anti-migration sector. But what does the relative indifference of researchers to the dissemination of this image demonstrate? That they are not aware of the negative effects of certain images? Or is it the financial conditioning of research studies, indicating that it’s only possible to reflect on topics that obtain funding?

The myth of nationalism

The reports on illegal migrant trafficking also fuel and reinforce the myth of nationalism. The criminalizing of illegal migrations, or even the mere classifying of certain movements as “illegal,” is based on the implicit supposition of a nation state’s unquestionable right to deny entry to migrants arbitrarily and massively. For many politicians and researchers, the nation is an unquestionable symbol and not a social construction with specific functions limited in time and subject to evolution. Unfortunately, and not by coincidence, the boom in international migration is coinciding with nationalist fever.

Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, who has endured the crossfire between Basque separatist terrorism and the Spanish state’s nationalist violence, has sought to unravel the foundations of nationalism. “Men permanently seek
a sense of our being alongside others, something that transcends the herd instinct and is more spiritually gratifying than the force of material needs. The most prioritized of our human aspirations is knowing we belong to a superior unit that is at the same time endowed with and provides meaning.”

The tension between citizenship and national identity was demonstrated in Central America during the eighties by the enormous volume of intra-regional refugees generated by the region’s armed conflicts. In certain countries ideological affinity—identity based on an ideological option—allowed very positive experiences in this sphere, as in the case of Nicaragua’s reception of Salvadorans. But in others, the myth of nationalism was imposed, setting national security against human rights. And this is the prevailing position among the Central American governments, giving rise to what Habermas calls “welfare chauvinism,” which heightens the conflict between the universalist principles of the democratic rule of law and the individualist pretensions of integrity of the ways of life in which one has grown up.

Habermas leans towards a concept of the state and law that is open to migration. He feels that the democratic right to self-determination includes the right to preserve the political culture, which constitutes the concrete context for citizens’ rights, but not the right to self-assertion of a privileged cultural way of life. In the context of constituting a democratic rule of law, multiple ways of life can coexist in complete equality. But these must be cloaked in a common political culture that in turn remains open to the impulses that might come from new ways of life contributed by immigrants. And that is possible because the nation of citizens finds its identity not in common features of an ethnic-cultural kind, but rather in the praxis of citizens who are actively exercising their democratic rights of participation and communication.

Efforts against xenophobia in Costa Rica

Nationalism is expressed not only in state and economic interests, but also in perceptions broadly disseminated among the bulk of the population. Fortunately, a group of intellectuals in Costa Rica—the only country in the region with a positive migratory balance—is producing anti-xenophobia studies, based on an archeological excavation of how that country’s nationalist self-image was constructed and what roles it plays. The work of Carlos Sandoval and Alexander Jiménez Matarrita are particularly important.

Sandoval’s research is notable for its methodological innovation. Combining research, action and the transformation of the reality being researched through the investigative-persuasion of those being interviewed, his work offers new possibilities for migration studies as well as research in general. His aim is to break methodological and discursive clichés, expose the sterilizing and pernicious function of those stereotypes and sculpt new images that could lead to a gratifying and enriching social coexistence.

We can play a vital role

Analysis of the created interests, apathy, dangerous repetition of clichés and new lines of research that are molding perceptions about migrants suggests—sometimes even requires—new inputsas part of the monumental challenge of changing the xenophobic, criminalizing, nationalist and economistic perceptions of migration. Research can play a vital role in changing perceptions and adjusting policies to changes in migration and its consequences. This will help focus attention on the appearance of new facets, theories, concepts, international commitments, policies in neighboring countries and those of transit and destination, and links among migration, statistics and other events, such as free trade agreements, natural disasters, decentralization, development strategies, etc.

The use of information from the Migration Information and Statistics System in Central America (SIEMCA), which is advised by the Latin American Demography Center (CELADE/CEPAL), is and will continue to be enormously useful. This program for storing, processing and analyzing data is an initiative of the different countries’ immigration departments and the IOM. It could prove even more useful if synergy can be generated with studies that use qualitative methodologies to examine testimonial aspects of migration in greater depth and apply theoretical frameworks that help transcend the mere factitiousness of the data. It could also generate information at the service of better causes than migration vigilance and control.

Seeking relevant themes and linking them to development

It is essential to identify relevant research topics to enrich national censuses and surveys and contribute to the design of migratory policies. Key issues for orienting the formulation of migratory policies include: labor supply and demand, the human rights of deportees and migrants in transit, and the adjustment of each Central American country’s legal framework to international conventions and protocols on the rights of migrants.

We researchers should fight for a migratory policy that encourages research linking development policies to migration; shows how migration is related to other economic, political, social and cultural events; transcends time and space limitations to reach more long-term conclusions rather than being restricted to the local sphere and a determined time; proposes non-controlling measures to deal with migration; monitors respect for migrants’ human rights; and adapts the concepts of experienced academics in this field.

“And now what?”

For this to happen, there needs to be greater financial independence and a more ethical conception of applying the social sciences that includes transforming research and action. Only then will it be possible to produce an agenda derived from a non-mercantile conception of the contents and findings of research studies. When we researchers present migrants with our findings, they ask, “And now what?” And when we do an investigation, the interviewees ask, “And what’s this for?” They demand a relatively immediate utility, influence and application of the findings.

Latin American intellectuals experience the demands of political commitment much more than academics from industrialized countries. That makes the possibility of replacing politically interested and socially perverse perceptions quite a challenge. It is the capacity and commitment to dismantle those perceptions and produce others—like ethical sculptors—that guarantees epistemological and political effectiveness. And at the heart of everything there will always be that question, that call to action: “And now what?”


José Luis Rocha is a researcher at Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.

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