Published: April 1, 2003 By


[1]   Both the movements and the settlements of the tremendous populations who live outside their country of origin, estimated at 150 million, have been of worldwide concern, as displaced groups exert striking influence well beyond their numbers on the identities, economies, and politics of nation-states. Within the expanded body of research and knowledge about displacement that has accompanied the growing significance of the world’s migrant population, the concept of transnationalism has been one of the most prominent. In a seminal volume, transnational migration was defined as “the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement. We call these processes transnationalism to emphasize that many immigrants today build social fields that cross geographic, cultural and political borders” (Basch, Glick Schiller, and Blanc-Szanton, 7). Earlier observers of immigration emphasized rupture between “home” and “host” countries through models of assimilation and acculturation into the adopted country. Recent commentators on transnationalism on the other hand, stress not disconnection but continuity between the space of origins and the space of migration. They point to affordable air travel, remittances, phone cards, international couriers, dual citizenship, and the Internet as some of the instruments of “transnational migrants,” which make it possible for them, unlike for previous immigrants, to maintain close ties with the homeland and totranscend national borders and divisions. According to the transnationalist perspective, these uniquely mobile migrants constitute a “single social continuum” between here and there (Guarnizo, Sanchez and Roach, 369).

[2]   It is this idea of the continuum and its implications of borderless identity and belonging that I challenge in this essay through an exploration of gender issues in transnational, diaspora, and homeland identities in fictional and critical works. I suggest that in the rush to overhaul older theories of immigration and of geographically bounded national identities, many of the arguments for the possibility and advantages of transnational belonging tend to inflate the fluidity of transspatial interchange and identification. The assertion that “transnational migrants tend to merge into a single social continuum (that is, transnational social field), rather than separate their settlement ‘here’ and their communities ‘there'” (Guarnizo, Sanchez and Roach, 369) may be true for certain groups, for a certain period of time. However, while a certain elasticity of belonging and identification is undeniable, mobility itself, whether in the form of travels to homeland or a circular mode of living, does not guarantee a stable multiplicity of national and ethnic identities in the post-migration period.

[3]   What is often overlooked in transnational analyses are the divisions within communities of origin and migration as well as the struggles migrants and their offspring may face in terms of identity formation and belonging in multiple sites. Although gender is often at the heart of these divisions and struggles, the gendered nature of transnational identity and belonging is not as central as it should be to scholarly or mainstream transnational perspectives. A valuable if still small body of work by feminist social scientists seeking to change the terms of scholarship on transnationalism does exist (e.g. Hondagneu-Sotelo, Das Gupta et al.). This essay’s purposes differs from theirs however, as it focuses on implied but underproblematized issues of identity and belonging, the post-migration generation, and cultural production.

[4]   The majority of commentators overemphasize multiple cultural and national attachments as well as the seemingly unproblematic “back and forth” movements and travels, overlooking persistent ideologies of gender that present obstacles to the idealized continuum between “here and there.” In dominant, patriarchal definitions of ethnic and cultural belonging, women’s roles and relationships with men are often circumscribed and women’s access to cultural identity restricted. Thus, as I show in this essay, women who try to straddle cultures and nations, patriarchally defined, may find themselves evicted from both sides of the border, instead of availing themselves easily, as transnationalists imply, of multiple belongings.

[5]   The differences and divisions between national and ethnic communities in different locations are particularly sharp for the “one-and-a-half” generation at least partially raised in diaspora, and the “second generation” born in the “adopted country.” In the realm of cultural production, it is often the work of the one-and-a-half and second generations that most poignantly and fruitfully confront the dilemmas of multiple belonging and identity—think of only a few of the most prominent diasporic authors (also known as “ethnic writers”) such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, Ana Castillo, and Edwidge Danticat as a few among countless others who have introduced and redefined particular ethnicity and community for the larger, more dominant social world. Few studies of transnationalism take into account the pivotal social and cultural role of the children of the adult migrant, whose transnational ties differ from their parents’, and whose work often reveals the limitations around and divisions within so-called borderless communities. The cultural work I explore here is about this “in-between” generation.

[6]   To underline the centrality of gender to diaspora and transnational identities this essay also assembles analysis of creative work with an exploration of cultural and social scientific studies on displacement. Migration as a field has been almost exclusively associated with the social sciences and history, which have, in general, paid very little attention to the expressive cultures of the populations in question. And literary and cultural studies too, need to incorporate not only diaspora theories produced in the realm of the humanities, but also the findings of sociological and anthropological studies of diaspora and the transnation. Drawing together the insights of literary, cultural, and social scientific work will produce a more comprehensive field of migration studies, one that engages “the real people” as well as their cultural production. For, creative works play an important role in representing diasporic communities to themselves and to others, thereby helping shape diasporic identity and belonging, vital concerns for all students of migration, whatever their disciplines.

[7]   The main objects of study in this essay are issues of multiple belonging articulated in some of the prominent theories of transnationalism and diaspora, in the novel The Mixquiahuala Letters by Chicana feminist author Ana Castillo, and in director Indu Krishnan’s Knowing Her Place, a film on the Indian diaspora. Belonging, the practice and sentiment of membership within a group through national, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and other ties, tends to be deeply political, hierarchical, and contingent. As subjects who are often in a supplemental or adjunct relationship to reigning definitions of national, ethnic, and racial formations, women may face particular challenges in terms of diasporic belonging, with its implications of multiple associations, each of which may define femaleness in hierarchical and restrictive ways. In both the novel and the film, I examine representations of belonging in transnational experience and show how feminist narratives of migration problematize the idea of “transnational communities.” Feminist considerations of belonging, such as Castillo’s and Krishnan’s, invite us to think about transnational identities defined as much by denial of crosscultural identity to women as by proliferation of multiple identities and as much by division and difference as by connection and attachment.

Discourses of Multiplicity

[8]   Until not too long ago, migration was seen as a largely unidirectional enterprise between two autonomous national spaces, with little overlap and circuitry between them. Newer considerations of labor and capital mobility have critiqued the bipolar understanding of human migrations, in which the homeland and the site of settlement were mutually exclusive in migrants’ lives and consciousness. There is instead an emphasis on multilocality in the formation of transnational circuitry–continuous movement and links between nations. Now, according to some commentators on transnationality and globalization, migration is bi-directional or circular, does not separate but unifies national spaces, and permits the survival of cultural forms and geographical attachments (see e.g. Appadurai; Basch, Glick Schiller, and Szanton-Blanc; Brah; Cohen; Guarnizo, Sanchez and Roach; Kearney; Mahler; Portes; Rodriguez; Rouse; Smith and Guarnizo).

[9]   In many of these newer discussions of migration, the terms “transnational” and “diaspora” have predominated as both descriptive and analytical categories, especially in sociological, anthropological, and cultural theories. There are slippages between these concepts, both of whose ascendance in critical discourses dates from the last few decades, though neither is a new term or phenomenon. While both, as concepts and fields, are too vast to cover and compare here, I am particularly interested in the discourses about dual or multiple belonging that recur in the conceptualizations of both transnationalism and diaspora.

[10]   Diaspora theories of the 1980s and 90’s attempted to rescue the heuristic concept from its former, predominantly Jewish significations as well as its association with disaster and separation. Most influential have been the works of cultural theorists such as Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and James Clifford, for whom “diaspora” came to denote, among other things, a productive multiplicity, and not only suffering and disconnection. Contrasting diasporas to immigrant communities, James Clifford has maintained in his influential article on the topic, “Diasporist discourses reflect the sense of being part of an ongoing transnational network that includes the homeland, not as something simply left behind, but as a place of attachment in a contrapuntal modernity” (311). In one of the leading works conceptualizing diaspora, Paul Gilroy uses W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” applied to the diasporic situation. There is a general sense that the double or multiple attachments afforded by diasporic modes and sensibilities lead not to disunity, diffusion, and treason, as nationalist discourses would maintain, but to a gainful multiplicity of perspectives, languages, and knowledges.

[11]   Recently, the emerging field of “transnational studies” has also emphasized “bifocality” (Rouse) and multilocality. More and more, “transnational” is used as an umbrella term indicating the multiple traversals of nations in practice and imagination so that for example, diaspora communities are said to be “transnational” in character. In general, sociologists and anthropologists who study the “new transnational social fields” differ somewhat from cultural theorists of diaspora in their approach, as they pay more attention to economic factors around migration as well as to empirical data. Still, there is quite a bit of overlap in current formulations of diaspora and transnationalism, including in analyses of multiple sociocultural allegiances formed across borders and the (often valorized) mobility of migrant/diasporic subjects. Basch et al. call “transmigrants” those “Immigrants who develop and maintainmultiplerelationships — familial, economic, social, organizational, religious and political — that span borders.” For these leading observers, “An essential element of transnationalism is the multiplicity of involvements that transmigrants sustain in both home and host societies.” (Basch et. al. 7, emphasis added). Others have furthered the definition suggesting that transnationalism “is understood to be formed by patterned, multifaceted, multilocal processes that include economic, socio-cultural and political practices and discourses that 1) transcend the confines of the territorially bounded jurisdiction of the nation-state; and 2) are an inherent part of the habitual lives of those involved” (Guarnizo, Sanchez, and Roach 370, emphasis added).

Mobility in Theory

[12]   Both the prevailing explorations of diasporas and transnationalism stress the undermining of the nation-state and its political and cultural borders by diasporic and transmigrant communities (Basch et al., Clifford, Brah). Above all, the “transgressive” features of diaspora and transnationality are stressed, wherein transnationals defy the restrictions of geography, citizenship, and nationhood. While certain observers (e.g. Ong) are careful to delimit the nature of the “transgressions” by diasporic and migrant publics, more have been rather celebratory about the liberating and indeed assimilatory potential of diasporic, migrant, and transnational communities and subjects. For example, Alejandro Portes conflates “transnational entrepreneurs” (e.g. Dominicans who establish factories on the island and travel back and forth to the U.S.), privileged transnational subjects, with other immigrants in his essay on “global villagers.” He suggests that U.S. anti-immigrant propositions are misguided, because “transnational entrepreneurs epitomize the very values commonly associated with success and achievement in America. Not coincidentally, the cities that have taken the lead in adapting to the process of globalization–New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco–are also cities of high immigration” (1996).

[13]   Because such recent discussions often position diasporic subjects and communities as triumphantly and subversively multilocal (as saboteurs of nation-states and monological ideologies), the image of migrants in recent discourses has changed from choiceless, “huddled” masses to groups bestowed by manifold options and boundless mobility, thanks to post-territorial economies and identities. Politicians, economists, journalists as well as cultural critics have argued that migrants are easily “at home” in more than one location, because they are able to “negotiate” a multiplicity of worlds and move frequently between the place of origin and the site of (im)migration in our global era of soaring mobility. Thus wrote New York Times journalists in 1998 in one of the three-part super-celebratory series on new immigrants in New York: “So fluid is the exchange between the homeland and New York that it alters both places. People move back and forth, money moves back and forth, ideas move back and forth” (Sontag and Dugger). As we can see, migrants are cheered on from many quarters: journalists and others who choose to ignore the perils of circularity draw attention to the privileged migrants, while the underprivileged are put on a pedestal by some scholars who position them as transgressive of nationalisms and political boundaries.

[14]   As a reader of both anthropological and literary-cultural criticism, I cannot but be reminded of modernist and poststructuralist figurations of “the nomad” when I am following the arguments for the new transnational mobility of the migrant, endorsed by both scholars and the mainstream media, albeit for different reasons. Migration or “migrancy” in the works of such scholars as Homi Bhabha, James Clifford (1992), Iain Chambers, and Rosi Braidotti is a normative ideal, and displaced people challengers of totalizing systems. This often cheerful perspective on “nomadism” does not attend to the vastly different contexts of actual conditions of wandering literal and figurative, the difficulty of movement for subjects and groups limited by their class, gendered, ethnicized, racialized, aged positions, the policing of crossnational and intranational space, and the unbidden migrations of the poor, to name just a few obstacles to felicitous mobility.

The Struggle with the Local

[15]   Silvio Torres-Saillant, a scholar of Dominican and Caribbean culture and literature, has lambasted the “transnationalists” who champion the bidirectionality of Dominican politics and populations, touting the influence of the diaspora on the island’s political system and the network of economic and cultural exchange. In an article entitled “Nothing to Celebrate,” Torres-Saillant shows that from New York Timesjournalists to academics, the cheering of the so-called “limitless mobility” of immigrants belies the specific struggles of the majority of this population by making it seem as though sheer mobility can heal economic and cultural hardships in the diaspora, or as if every immigrant is able to or willing to shuttle. Indeed, the maintenance of a transnational circuit through regular visits and investments in the old country is frequently restricted to those few whose finances and legal papers are in very good order. For the rest, mobility, rootlessness, or even multiple belonging, are not options.

[16]   Theories of contemporary transnationalism have been overly invested in exploring the novel, liberatory potential of travel and multilocality. Yet, displaced subjects struggle with the local in their journeys. Both “here” and “there” have particular social configurations, however shot through by globalization, transnational networks, or crosscultural exchanges. These configurations include pre-given, localized definitions of gender and race that attempt to exclude or damage diasporic identity. Diasporic populations, in their settlement and in their travels, must confront and renegotiate those localized patriarchal and racist structures that evict, for example, the Nuyorican from the imaginaries of both the Island and the U.S. mainland and the Chicano from the Mexican and the “American” imagined communities. Diasporic people may move between places and languages and recreate places and languages. Rather than an embarrassment of riches, however, these multiplicities are often the cause of resistance toward the migrant from “the local,” where “unofficial” multiplicity of languages, colors, and importantly for our purposes, gender identities, are rejected or viewed with suspicion. Despite the migrant’s mobility and influence in shaping communities in different sites and nations, “the local” persists, and confrontations, especially though not only, over gender issues between homeland and diaspora are inevitable.

[17]   Comprehensive studies of mobility and migration need to consider how communities with histories of displacement struggle with reshaping localized definitions of belonging, which are not necessarily transcended or subverted by transnational allegiances and movements. Although James Clifford privileges “hybrid, cosmopolitan experiences” in his well-known essay “Traveling Cultures,” in a later piece he underlines locality in a way that a lot more thinkers on mobility need to do. In his 1994 piece on diasporas, he writes” “the term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of political struggles to define the local, as distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement” (308). Because many theories of transnationalism have tended to deemphasize migrants’ engagement with the local, focusing on circuits rather than the myriad forms of dwelling, some view the two paradigms as oppositional. Torres-Saillant suggests that he sees his community as a diasporic, and not transnational one, suggesting, “whereas transnationalism is indifferent to community-building activities in the host country, the determination of a transplanted people to grow new roots emerges quite naturally from the diasporic perspective.” However, more recently, there have been cautionary articles by scholars of transnationalism who have pointed to the importance of “local constraints and social moorings” in considering “unboundedness” (Smith and Guarnizo 12). While few and far between, such formulations of displacement by Smith and Guarnizo and Clifford suggest that we pay equal attention to both localized activities and identities as well as to the translocal, traveling dimensions of belonging.

The Re-Encounter

[18]   Mexican America, north and south, is often viewed as a paradigmatic space for the transnation, precisely because arrivals and returns are so widespread. Yet, the “migratory sensibility” that critics make much of in discussions of Chicana/o identity can be equivocal, especially when we consider the complicated Chicana/o relationship to the nation-state of Mexico. The fictions of affinity and “rediscovery” are not many. In his essay “Mexico and Chicano Literature,” literary critic Bruce-Novoa reviews the Chicano representation of Mexico in such novels as Antonio Villareal’sPocho (1959) and Ernesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy (1971), finding that, often, Mexico is left behind at the beginning of the novel or loses its centrality for the U.S. lives of the protagonists. While Chicana/o literary production has been flourishing for decades, there are still relatively few fictional works concerned in a significant way with what Bruce-Novoa calls the “reencounter” with Mexico, the U.S.-born Chicana/o’s rendezvous with a space called home, which is not one. Ana Castillo’s 1986 novel The Mixquiahuala Letters is one of the few lengthy fictional treatments of the homeland-diaspora relationship, in which the multiplicity of belonging is problematized from a feminist perspective.

[19]   Ana Castillo, one of the most prolific Chicana authors, has created a literary tradition of her own, with a prose style distinguished by irony and sensuality. The alternative Bohemias she creates in her works are peopled by Chicana artists and drifters as well as “men with PMS”—“Pure Macho Shit” (1996, 15). Castillo’s prose and poetry fuse racial and sexual politics; many of her stories and novels are about “the battle of the sexes,” distilled through other differences of race and class.

[20]   The Mixquiahuala Letters is an epistolary novel of friendship and sexual politics told mainly through memories of a series of trips to Mexico about ten years prior to the letter-writing period. Teresa (or Tere), a Chicana poet and writer from Chicago, composes the letters to Alicia, a painter of Anglo-Spanish-Gypsy background whom she has met in Mexico when they were both twenty-one, in the 1970s. The novel has a playful, open-ended construction, in which a plurality of reading sequences and significations is offered, in a self-conscious Cortazarian fashion. The reader is invited to choose between the linear, “the conformist,” “the cynical,” and “the quixotic” modes of proceeding, as delineated by the author. Each choice entails reading a certain number of the forty letters in different sequences and with radically different endings. The author also offers the option of reading all the letters “as separate entities” and wishes the reader “Good luck whichever journey you choose” (n.p.).

[21]   The possibility of meandering through the text speaks to the displacements of the women that are at the heart of the narrative. The Mixquiahuala Letters is a novel of travel and migrancy that frustrates expectations of touristic, racial, and narrative fulfillment in the mother country. Mexico as place is a setting for the coming-of-age, origins, tourism, and battleground of the sexes all at once. For, the voyage to Mexico is motivated in part by a desire for wandering, or “vagabonding” as Teresa describes it, and in part by a quest for belonging and origins, all impossible to fulfill.

[22]   While displacement is the object of most travels, in her journey “home” the diasporic subject seeks to alleviate dislocation. But, in Castillo’s narrative, the “home” that the child of immigrants seeks to find upon “return” does not produce the sentiment of belonging. For, only certain kinds of women belong in the patriarchal definition of Mexicanness–the renegade-vagabond-wayfarer traveling women, such as Tere, do not.

[23]   As an activity and a literary genre, travel was long a male and Euro/American preserve, especially in the form of a masculine rite of passage, also related at certain periods to conquest and colonization. The few women travelers whose writings have drawn critical attention have been mostly Europeans traveling “South” in search of radical otherness (see Sidonie Smith). The twentieth-century genres of “road” movies and novels are still mostly associated with men and a few Euro-American women. Traveling women of color in life and in literature have been largely invisible; hence, it is no surprise that The Mixquiahuala Letters has not been acknowledged sufficiently as a “road novel.” The work’s uniqueness lies not only in its appropriation of this genre for feminism and for Chicana cultural identity but also in its revised form as a narrative of return to homeland.

The Native Tourist

[24]   Because the travel genre is so invested in discovery, while the trope of return involves recovery, the two discourses of journeying and homecoming often exist in a state of incongruity in the novel. The text is replete with descriptions of place and customs common to any book, fiction or nonfiction, based on travel. Although what Daniel Cooper Alarcón refers to as the “infernal paradise” tradition of exoticist and stereotypical representation of Mexico (he borrows the phrase from Malcolm Lowry) is not a model for the women’s voyage, the novel does bear the markers of a tourist narrative with which it struggles. Teresa constantly oscillates between the tourist and native identities, in the eyes of others as well as in her own discourse.

[25]   Like any tourist, Tere and Alicia set out to go to Mexico to escape and discover—though their escape is from patriarchy and not from the proverbial cold, gray North: Tere flees her husband, and Alicia her lover. They also want to discover (homeland and otherness). Like most written journeys, Tere’s is partially text-driven: “Books and curiosity gave me substantial reason to seek the past by visiting the wealth of ancient ruins that recorded awesome, yet baffling civilization. i [always in lower-case in the novel] planned a route” (52). For her, the past in another country is accessible through monuments, ruined and intact. In their respective works on collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora argued that the physical environment (Halbwachs, 156) and “lieux de mémoire” (Nora), such as archives and museums, recapture and maintain and “preserve” history and memory. As tourism frequently involves a quest for access to history, the monumental is a logical starting place. In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern remarks, “In modern Europe the history of Jews had no surviving physical landmarks. They had to internalize their landmarks and preserve them in memory in written and oral form, whereas in the Christian world the past was tangibly preserved in monuments and could easily be seen and reconstructed in the imagination” (51). The Mexican past and experience also, by and large, lack publicly recognized landmarks in the U.S., with the forbidding exception of the Alamo, restored and designed to convey the victor’s point of view and disseminate the image of the “treacherous Mexican” (see Flores). Mexico, on the other hand, offers history memories contained or produced by fabulous monuments of ancestral significance to Tere, both visitor and “native” to Mexico, the country that is a past.

[26]   The descriptive, whether about the present or past, is an important part of the novel as it would be in any tourist tale; the detailing of Mexican spaces visited are at times rather ordinary: Recounting their time in Mixquiahuala, Tere writes: “We had breakfast outdoors in the brisk air, bar-b-cued tacos (the freshly slaughtered lamb steamed to perfection in a hole in the ground), thick coffee in large clay pots, and geometrically round tortillas shaped by the hands of large, squatted women with soiled aprons. Their children played nearby” (25). There is no way out from the ordinariness of describing of a place first seen, the wonders of “the local.” In drifting through everyday as well as through monumental Mexico, the women cannot, in some respects, but be common tourists. At the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán, where “the inspiration was awesome”(62) Alicia proceeds to sketch, while Tere, the writer, “couldn’t respond as immediately with a poem and satisfied [herself] with the snapping of pictures” (62).

[27]   The tourist’s curiosity enacted in The Mixquiahuala Letters has its ordinary, commodified aspect, which contradicts Teresa’s need to be perceived as a native and not a backpacking U.S. American vagabond. The touristic discourse of the novel exists in tension with the anxiety of origins at stake for Teresa, which is pervasive throughout the text. Hers is a tourism informed strongly by migration (of her parents) and by memory. Yes, Tere likes to masquerade like any other traveler: “The truth is i like to get into my environment. i drink pulque in the pueblitos, mescal in Oaxaca, Cuba Libres in tropical regions and beer in the Southwest–when i’m with hardy company, like my tía Filo” (19). However, in Mexico, Tere’s compulsion of origins in fact goes beyond the touristic desire to “get into” the environment. Tere is in search of a mirroring effect that confirms her selfhood and origins, which she says are under assault in a racist U.S., where “dark skin and humble background had subjected me to atrocities” (68). In diaspora, under conditions of social oppression, it is often difficult to resist the imaginative construction of home and homeland as a stable and welcoming place–one that offers continuity, reinstates cultural memory, and restores the wounds of racist “atrocities” in the U.S.

[28]   Castillo’s Teresa returns again and again to Mexico to establish a sense of continuity and oneness with the people. The “single social continuum” described by observers of transnationalism is her ideal. For her, the past and memory, crucial to her identity, are not only monumentalized, as I suggested, but also racialized. She refers several times to “the Indian in me” (52) and to blood ties to the visited space. Of one lover, she writes, “we were drawn to each other by the Indian spirit of our mutual ancestors (54). Through cultural and racial mirroring in the homeland, the “atrocities” of class and race she has endured in diaspora might heal in the homeland. Reflecting on U.S. racism and on what it would be like to settle in Mexico, she surmises, “the children I’d have wouldn’t know that persecution…They would be raised in a land where copper-colored flesh was the norm…. Above all, they would have a sense of belonging” (68, emphasis added). Contrary to the multiplicity of belonging (both in the homeland and in the space of migration) that transnational theory proposes as available to immigrants, Teresa suffers from a lack of belonging both in the diaspora as well as in the homeland, as we will see. The bilingual U.S.-American child of immigrants, Teresa is seeking in her travels not only to enact a touristic quest for authenticity, but also a search for an authentic Mexican identity for herself that is racially and ethnically inflected. A nostalgic, maternalized reverie encapsulates the desire for a welcoming incorporation: “Mexico City, revisited time and again since childhood, over and again as a woman. i sometimes saw the ancient Tenochtitlán, home of my mother, grandmothers, and greatmother, as an embracing bosom, to welcome me back, and rock my weary body and mind to sleep in its tumultuous, over populated, throbbing, ever pulsating heart” (98).

Patria: the Distorting Mirror

[29]   However, when diaspora meets patria, all sorts of gendered distortions take place of collective memory and of the ethnic-and-racial-continuum ideal. In a diary entry written in the third person in Mexico City, Chicana author Cherríe Moraga reflects, “Mexico does offer a mirror of sorts. Put up to her face, it plays back the amusement park version. Her flesh distorted into proportions impossible to inhabit:güera/norteamericana/pocha /gringa /turista/hembra/sola/hembra/huérfana/hembrahembrahembra” (güera (light-skinned woman)/North American/pocha (derogatory Mexican word for Chicana)/gringa/tourist/female/alone/female/orphan/femalefemalefemale) (Moraga, 20). Moraga sees herself distorted in the mirror of the “native” Mexican who defines her, the diasporan, as an outsider, a tourist, an orphan (without a country). But, above all, the difference of the Chicana is gendered: hence the repetition of the word hembra, female.

[30]   It is the femaleness, of a particular kind, of the Chicana returnee and not her race or Mexican origins that come to the fore in the homeland. As clearly indicated in the above quote, Mexico City is “revisited time and again since childhood” and therefore very much on the map of a “transnational circuit” for Teresa’s family. Yet, Teresa’s adult experience in Mexico is one of rejection and estrangement. Unlike most travel narratives,The Mixquiahuala Letters presents the locus and period of drifting as one of almost relentless woe. Tere refers to “our miserable experience across that land” (124), which left Alicia “cring[ing] at the sound of the male voice” (65) and where “people … watched us slyly with unsympathetic notions of our vagabonding” (33). As women traveling “alone,” they are frequently treated as fair game and inadvertently get involved in dangerous situations with strange men. Few believe, despite their fluency in Spanish and Tere’s “copper-colored skin” that they are not North Americans.

Blue Jeans, Backpacks, and Loose Women

[31]   From the beginning, Teresa is dismayed that the local people do not recognize or accept her as one of their own. Leaving her husband behind in the U.S., she enrolls in a North American school in Mexico City to study Mexican culture. She quickly finds out that the school is quasi-fraudulent: “My shock bored a 3 inch hole into my native spirit; expecting to study with and under brothers and sisters only to find California blonds and eastern WASPS, instructors who didn’t speak Spanish. (Is it grazie or gracia)” (24, emphasis added). Worse, at the boardinghouse, the Mexican hosts eagerly catering to the U.S. clientele do not recognize Teresa as a fellow “native.” She wonders, “Didn’t they tell anything by my Indian-marked face, fluent use of the language, undeniably Spanish name?” (25). In the context of North American blue-jean tourism and her “free woman” demeanor, Teresa is indistinguishable from the mainstream “American,” which is ironic since she cannot claim “American” identity back in “America” as someone of “dark skin and humble background,” as quoted above. Similarly, Sr. Aragon, who runs the copperwork class, favors the blonde and rich students and dislikes Teresa: “i, with dark hair and Asian eyes, must’ve appeared like the daughter of a migrant worker or a laborer in the North (which of course, i was). i was nothing so close to godliness as fair-skinned or wealthy or even a simple gringa with a birthright ticket to upward mobility in the land paved with gold, but the daughter of someone like him, except that he’d made the wade to the other side” (27). Teresa is the wrong kind of Mexican at the boardinghouse and the wrong kind of American for Sr. Aragon to gain acceptance as a “returnee” to the bosom of Tenochtitlán.

[32]   But the worst rejection of her multiple identities she experiences is in her sexualized encounters with men. All male eyes are upon them as Tere and Alicia arrive in town, drifting into the main squares sporting jeans, backpacks, and a dusty travel appearance. A world away from the proper sisters, wives, and mothers of the men they meet, they cannot but be perceived as gringas. When a questionable group of men ask Tere and Alicia if they are from the U.S., Tere reports, “i tried to laugh, as if the suggestion was ludicrous. How could they possibly think that? Couldn’t they see by our color that we weren’t gringas?” (166). Despite the multicolor, multicultural rhetoric deployed in the U.S., Tere’s own encounters with racism have made it clear to her that she is not a “real” American, whose definition is color-coded. Thus, it is another shock to be called a gringa, when that identity as American is not available to her in “America,” and traumatic not to be recognized as Mexican because of her failure to conform to the patriarchal definition of Mexican womanhood.

[33]   Travel turns into a constant struggle for acceptance. On different occasions, men try to guess their identity, never imagining the right one. Once, a group of men make them the object of a wager, several betting that they are gringas because of their blue jeans. The time is the ’70s, and blue jeans a global commodity, emblematizing Westernness and sexual freedom for women, interpreted as easy availability by men. Often, Tere and Alicia adopt masks. On one occasion, they pretend to be from a distant South American country (69); on another, when their safety is threatened, Tere assumes the identity of an anthropologist, and Alicia claims she is a proper woman from a Cuban family (97). Their passing involves an enactment of proper femininity as a survival tactic, in a Mexico that for them turns into a “lion’s den” where “they” wait to dismember women (84), especially when they are seen to be “liberated,” which “in that country […] meant a woman who would sleep nondiscriminately with any man who came along” (79). All the love affairs turn sour, the wealthy Yucatecan reneges on his engagement to Tere with a cold note. The war of the sexes is turns Mexico into a battleground; indeed, when Tere goes back to Chicago, she refers to her “battle-fatigued” body (100).

No Place Called Home

[34]   The women are no less oppressed by patriarchy and men in the U.S. Their love affairs there involve betrayals, suicide, and domination. Men even disrupt the pair’s friendship; in fact, the “cynical” reader would end the novel at the point of their betrayal of one another. (The “quixotic” ending would take them back to Mexico together.) Tere’s family also endorses the gender hierarchy to which men subject her. When Tere returns from Mexico to Chicago wobbly from the broken engagement to the wealthy Mexican who had promised her a life of ease, she goes to her mother. The older woman responds to Tere’s tears by colluding with the sexist perspective: Never looking up from her sewing, she tells her daughter, “You were married, divorced, been around, a veteran of various wars… How could you have expected him to take you seriously? Men like that, with status, money, use women like you for playthings” (100). Wordless, Teresa leaves her mother “without saying goodbye” (100). All the “homes” Tere and Alicia seek are dominated by patriarchal ideology, and all of them evict the young women.

[35]   Within the context of sexism and domination that the two friends contest while also trying to create their art and explore their sexuality, we see the operations of racist sexism/sexist racism at the level of the state as well as at the micro level of family and love relationships: In New York, where she lives, Alicia becomes pregnant and borrows the welfare card of a Puerto Rican woman to obtain a free abortion. The woman’s record shows that she has had five children; the nurse at the clinic looks disapproving; Alicia gets sterilized (126). The reference to the actual practice of involuntary and voluntary (a contested term) sterilization of Puerto Ricans on the island and mainland for several decades as of the 1930s serves to underscore not only the need for continual masquerade (here, Alicia is passing as Puerto Rican), but especially the eviction of certain kinds of women, no matter what their national and transnational status, from the national body politic: as in Mexico, “loose” (read unwed) women, who are also poor, do not belong. “The local” in both U.S. and Mexico resists being transgressed and persists in circumscribing female lives, identities, and belongings.

[36]   Castillo’s novel underscores the vagaries of transnational belonging from a feminist perspective. Homecoming for Teresa, fleeing patriarchy and racism in the U.S., is impossible; it is a site of failure. Tere falls short as a tourist as well as a native; for, patriarchal Mexican men reinstall the border between themselves and the Chicana. The men who judge them as improper gringas act as “symbolic border guards” (Armstrong cited in Yuval-Davis, 23) who define (Mexican) community and membership. The women’s mobility, dress, and “liberal” conduct potentially threaten and destabilize Mexican national identity, which depends on “virtuous [i.e. virginal] señoritas representing la patria,” as Tere puts it (82). Thus, Mexicanness as an overarching, transnational ethnic or racial category is subsumed, indeed cancelled, by its gendered character. Tere tries hard to pass, to dediasporize (Fung), become incorporated into the embracing bosom, and “to get into” the environment, with her copper-skin and her Native ancestry. But, transnational belonging and the ethnic/racial/cultural continuum across nations are thwarted. For, as a particular kind of woman, Teresa is excluded (as are other women like her) from the highly gendered definition of both Mexican and U.S. nationality and ethnicity. Thus, Castillo shows us that the elements of transnational identity that theorists find liberating, such as the multiplicity of belonging, the possibility of multilocal attachments, and the ease of frequent travel and returns, all of which are available to Teresa, are no remedies for patriarchally defined national identities.

At Home and Abroad

[37]   In overlapping though different ways, Vasu, the subject of Indu Krishnan’s 1990 film Knowing Her Place, is unable to find a secure site of belonging in either of her homes, India and the U.S. A part of the large body of creative production on the Indian diaspora, Knowing Her Placeregisters an important cautionary note about the gendered vagaries of transnational identities that are available especially, though not only, to middle- and upper-class Indians who settle and resettle several times or travel frequently between India the U.S. The film portrays a female subject who cannot reconcile her dilemma of belonging: the differences between her “American” self and history and her “Indian” self and history. No happy nomad or culturally flexible subject, Vasu experiences her biculturalism and bilocality as irreconcilable and oppressive. Although articulate about her problems regarding “knowing her place,” Vasu herself does not attribute explicitly her painful in-betweenness to gender issues. For her, the problem, which leads to her breakdown, is a cultural one: Is she Indian, or is she American? What the film itself reveals however is the gendered nature of the cultural conflict.

[38]   Vasu’s history of immigration, repatriation, and re-immigration, is one that has not been acknowledged sufficiently in the histories of immigration conceptualized as unidirectional. Since well before the twentieth century, immigrants of all nations have strayed from the classic model of emigration followed by settlement and the relinquishing of homeland. From Italians to Caribbeans to Indians, many have returned to home countries and sometimes re-immigrated to the U.S. because of changing political and economic situations. Additionally, many children of immigrants are sent home to the extended family at a certain age, while their parents remain to work in diaspora. Vasu is a member of this different “one-and-a-half generation,” as someone who was raised in the U.S. and sent back to India as a pre-teen. However, unlike the migrants depicted in transnationalist discourses whose multilocality and mobility are painless, Vasu, even as an adult, experiences her biculturalism as a tremendous psychic burden. Having shuttled between India and New York from an early age, she does not rejoice in the multiplicity of her identities; quite the contrary, she believes it is the principal cause of her depression and suicide attempt. The film traces the roots of her breakdown, ending with her recovery through therapy and determination to alter her role in the family.

[39]   As the critic Lata Mani has observed, Vasu seems to erect a strict binary between her “traditional” Indian self and her “modern” American self, presenting herself as unable to choose between the two. Mani also suggests that the director Indu Krishnan colludes with Vasu in the inadequate explanation of her subject’s crisis as a result of an irresolvable cultural dichotomy. Yet, I think that while Krishnan does not directly contradict Vasu by pointing out to her or to the viewers that patriarchy is the central problematic, she does subtly expose the gendered nature of Vasu’s “cultural schizophrenia” without attributing false consciousness or illegitimacy to her subject.

Whose Conflict?

[40]   We learn Vasu’s story mostly from interviews with Vasu and her family members shot in India and in New York as well as from photographs and footage of Vasu at work and in the home and outside. Through voiceover, the director comments on her own relationship with Vasu and interprets certain episodes in Vasu’s life. The viewer learns about Vasu’s parents’ strict upbringing of her in the U.S., her access to partial acculturation through popular music and reading, and her trauma of moving to India at age twelve. Living with her grandparents in India, she is wedded at 16 against her wishes. She speaks with anguish about her futile opposition to this arranged marriage, which, ironically, takes her back to the United States. Despite the documented trappings of middle class life and benefits of education (we observe Vasu teaching a class of adults and view scenes in her comfortable home), she has serious difficulties: the marriage is a disappointment, and her relationship with her American children suffers from generational and cultural conflict.

[41]   “Conflict” is a key word in this family. Vasu says her conflict is borne of the multiple relocations and readjustments and as an adult her ambivalence regarding the compulsion to give of herself unceasingly to her two sons and husband. The males in her family however insist that the conflict of belonging is “all in her mind.” All three deny that bicultural identity and displacement may inflict suffering. During his interview, the husband launches into a monologue in which he dismisses the conflict of belonging: “a conflict is often perceived to be more serious than it really is…/T/he mind… exaggerates it.” Her older son Gopal says he’s both Indian and American, and belonging is not an issue– “I am what I am” he says, smugly quoting Popeye. In India, in conversation with her uncles and mother, Vasu recounts the estrangement between herself and Gopal, who, because of his unacceptably loose lifestyle, moves out and has to be maintained in a separate household, thus registering her family life in diaspora in anomalous terms.

[42]   While no one explicitly positions Vasu’s “conflict” and eventual breakdown in terms of gender relations, the interviews and the footage of Vasu’s extended family, arranged marriage, and domestic routines do direct us to think of her alienation in these terms. For example, Vasu becomes the documentarian while chatting with her grandmother in India, leading the elderly woman, through questions about her past, to reveal ill treatment at the hands of her own husband. With her mother, during the same visit, Vasu discusses the restrictions that the latter placed on her as a girl child growing up in Queens, New York. Moreover, there are many scenes of Vasu taking care of her New York home and kitchen, which leads the viewer to be aware of the extent to which the familial “conflict” that we witness involves Vasu’s invisible and unappreciated labor around food.

[43]   In a key and painful Thanksgiving dinner scene, we watch the nuclear family around the table. We know from Vasu’s voiceover reflecting on that day that she deeply resented the disregard and lack of acknowledgment of her work in preparing the elaborate meal. During the dinner, in which the family members seem awkward and distanced from one another, Vasu invites a discourse of cultural conflict when she asks what they would have done if she had served an Indian meal instead of the traditional American one. Gopal flaunts his “Americanization” by replying that he would have gone home and made spaghetti. Vasu’s laugh in response seems quite bitter. And during Gopal’s interview in his own apartment, where he is accompanied by an unidentified young woman, we watch him prepare a quick meal and reflect on his mother’s long hours of labor over food as not conducive to what he terms a “utility function” and ultimately as superfluous. Vasu may position the discord with her son as the result of absolute cultural difference, where she conceives of herself as an in-between figure (caught between traditional Indian and American) and of him as unproblematically American. Yet, these scenes underscore not simply the irreconcilable differences between American and Indian practices and values around food and other issues, but especially the male dismissal of women’s labor, devotion to family, and conflicts about self-sacrifice.

[44]   While the patriarchal devaluation of women is certainly not a uniquely Indian phenomenon, we cannot go so far as to say that Vasu’s predicament is a universally female one. In Vasu’s case, gender and displacement issues are inseparable. In diaspora, women’s identity problematics are often tied up with the patriarchal assessments or condemnation of women’s bicultural or transnational identification. The dominant attitudes regarding bicultural identity vary within communities and even within extended families, depending on class, religious, and cultural values and experiences in the homeland and the country of migration. However, scholars have shown that in many conservative, middle-class South Asian contexts, second generation women are frequently obligated to opt for traditional roles interpreted more rigidly and entailing more restrictions and less contestation than in India (Das Gupta, Mani). Because the perpetuation of tradition is seen to rest on women’s shoulders through domestic roles, dress, rearing of offspring et al., young women are sometimes coerced to abandon what transnationalism may celebrate as dual or multiple identity and adopt instead “authentic” Indian identity in diaspora. However, “authenticity” is difficult to produce in diaspora and may meet with resistance from second-generation women, who seek multiple belonging as Indian and American. This may cause conflict not only with the older generations but also with second generation male Indians. For, the patriarchal rejection of multiple identity may also be perpetuated by Indian American men who “still go bride-shopping in India” (Trivedi) in search of an authentic bride, free of diasporic, multiple identity. Thus, even though second generation Indian women bear all the trappings of transnational lives, including multiple cultural and linguistic affiliations and participation in “ongoing transnational networks” (Clifford, quoted above), the conception of Indian womanhood in diaspora frequently involves a resistance to multiple belonging for women.

[45]   In this larger context, it is not difficult to see why Vasu does not feel enriched but diminished by her transnationality–she feels compelled to make a choice between identities and cannot echo her son’s “I am what I am.” It is not accidental that out of the four members of this comfortable, educated, middle-class family, it is only the mother who experiences this conflict. As Vasu, like so many women, feels obligated to shoulder the burden of tradition (Mani) and of representing Indianness, the assertion of multiplicity, as confidently Indian and American, would mean a denial of this responsibility to bear tradition. For, in prevailing Indian and American discourses, these two are mutually exclusive identities, especially for women. Perhaps because of this imposed dichotomization, Vasu is immobilized by the choices that are purportedly open to her. She is unable to connect and provide continuity for the different cultural contexts despite what seem to be regular return trips and multilocal experiences.

[46]   Vasu’s emotional breakdown is a result of her painful struggles with dualness, which are exacerbated by her nuclear family’s indifference. The males have a seemingly casual attitude toward dual cultural identity, which in fact functions to denigrate and perpetuate her dilemmas. According to her husband Raghu, who sees cultural conflict as something less than serious, it “probably does not matter that much which way you go…It does matter somewhat but I’m saying in terms of degree, it probably is not that important.” As Lata Mani observes, “Raghu feels no conflict, but then why should he? His passage to the U.S. has been relatively smooth, thanks to class and male privilege. Vasu’s benefits from her class position, on the other hand, are tempered by her femaleness” (34). To be more specific, Vasu has experienced marriage and displacement as extreme constraints on her agency. For, it is not only arranged marriage that has been imposed on Vasu. Decisions to migrate back and forth were also out of her control, as it is for most children who move after early childhood and, as a result, may experience disorientation and trauma. Not only does Vasu feel interrupted by multiple dislocations and early domesticity in the context of Indian patriarchy, but she has to battle also the cavalier, ostensibly “liberal” (Mani), male dismissal of this experience and of the effects of patriarchy on her as a multiply diasporized subject.

[47]   Vasu’s crisis is explainable not only by her diasporic situation, but especially by her position as a diasporic woman and caregiver in a family of males who disregard the causes of her distress. Vasu does shuttle between sites like the transnational subjects of scholarly and journalistic discussion, wearing Indian dress in Greenwich Village and South India, speaking different languages with confidence. But, her mobility and ability to exist in different spaces and cultural contexts come at a cost to her life. Only after hitting bottom does she begin to reconstruct her identity and ease the pain of bifurcation through therapeutic help. What Knowing Her Place articulates well is that cultural conflict and displacement are shot through with the gender problematics of the family in which the woman may be undervalued and misunderstood. The price of Vasu’s ticket, mobility and bifocality, is paid by the gendered trauma of displacement.


[48]   Despite their vastly different Mexican and Indian contexts, these narratives of circular migrations, travels, and returns reveal the importance of feminist perspectives on transnationalism. Because these works are composed from women’s and feminist points of view, they foreground women’s experience and gender relations and show that issues of gender are inseparable from questions of migration and belonging. As such, they are a challenge to transnational and diasporic theory’s overvalorization of multiple identities as readily available to all (im)migrants who maintain connections between multiple sites. In an article on women and nationness Deniz Kandiyoti observes that, “whenever women continue to serve as boundary markers between different national, ethnic, and religious collectivities, their emergence as full-fledged citizens will be jeopardized” (283). Translating her statement to this context, we might suggest that women’s identities as full-fledged transnational subjects are also jeopardized by boundaries erected by patriarchal definitions of belonging. The seamlessness of community and culture, idealized by both some diasporic subjects and transnational theories, is fractured by gender. The significant body of what I see as “diasporic gender work” in independent and experimental film, video, and writing has treated these issues from original, feminist perspectives. Bicultural, multilingual, and multilocal feminists, such as the directors b.h.yael and Mira Nair, and writers Sandra Cisneros, Aurora Levins Morales, and Rosario Morales, to name only a handful, have explored, since the 1980s, women’s agency, gender relations, the politics of belonging, sexuality, and feminist aesthetics in fast-moving, traveling contexts of migration and transnational links. It is the task of observers of migration to take their cues from such feminist narratives, of which Castillo’s and Krishnan’s are pertinent examples, in order to go beyond the interpretation of modern displacement as liberating and transgressive and to acknowledge transnationalism’s uneven outcomes for different populations.

Acknowledgements: I thank the anonymous reviewers for Genders, whose suggestions helped improve this essay.


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