Susan Bibler Coutin, University of California at Irvine

Re/Membering the Nation

Mon, 02/16/2009
4:30-6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall
Event Category: 

Join us as we welcome Susan Bibler Coutin, Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and Professor in the Department of Anthropology to this week's LAPA seminar. She will give a talk on "Re/Membering the Nation," which explores the ways that war figures as both key moment and as a silence within accounts of origin, biography and national history. This LAPA seminar is sponsored jointly with the Program in American Studies, the University Center for Human Values, the Program in Latin American Studies, and the Department of Anthropology. 

Professor Coutin writes: My paper today considers the ways that war figures as both key moment and as a silence within accounts of origin, biography, and national history. The war in question is the 1980-1992 Salvadoran civil conflict, which produced a massive displacement such that one-fourth of the population of El Salvador is now outside of the country.  In the aftermath of the civil war, there are senses in which biography and national history become fused as the Salvadoran state seeks to reclaim its dispersed citizenry, and as Salvadorans who emigrated as young children seek to reclaim their own pasts.  These reclaimings both address and produce gaps– about violence,sacrifice, and betrayal.  For the Salvadoran state, biographies, published as accounts of "talents" developed in the exterior, are key to redeeming the nation, which has been stigmatized by war and gang activity. For émigrés who were born in El Salvador and raised in the United States, knowledge of a history that is simultaneously personal and collective promises to overcome the deep ruptures caused by emigration.  Émigrés' accounts are further motivated by a retrospective self-fashioning that is common in the U.S., a sense that individuals need to be able to explain their own becoming.  Such histories, however, are elusive, as emigres' parents' silences often leave children attempting to piece together partial stories, whispered accounts, and their own dim memories. Further, scholars and activists sometimes downplay the war's impact on youth. Juxtaposing state narratives, in which war and violence are often elided, with immigrant youths' accounts of their own histories reveals the ways that biographies disrupt as well as complete national narratives.

Susan Bibler Coutin holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology and is professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society and the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She also directs the UCI Center in Law, Society and Culture. Her research has examined social, political, and legal activism surrounding immigration issues, particularly immigration from El Salvador to the United States. Her first book, The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement (Westview 1993) analyzed how congregations that declared themselves "sanctuaries" for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees constructed a means and a language of protesting U.S. refugee and foreign policy in the 1980s. Her second book, Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants' Struggle For U.S. Residency (U. Michigan Press, 2000), analyzed how Salvadoran immigrants negotiated their legal identities in the United States in the 1990s, a period characterized by immigration reform in the U.S. and post-war reconstruction in El Salvador. Her third book, Nations of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship In El Salvador and the United States (Cornell University Press, 2007), considers how current forms of migration challenge conventional understandings of borders, citizenship, and migration itself. Nations of Emigrants is based on interviews with policymakers and activists in El Salvador and the United States as well as on Salvadoran emigrants' accounts of their journeys to the United States, their lives in the U.S., and, in some cases, their removal to El Salvador. Susan Coutin's current research examines the experiences of 1.5 generation migrants, that is, individuals who were born in El Salvador but raised in the United States. Through interviews with 1.5 generation Salvadorans in Southern California and in El Salvador, this project explores the power and limitations of nation-based categories of membership.