In Conversation with Mike Anastario, Author of Parcels: Memories of Salvadoran Migration

To start out the year, I’d like to share my recent conversation with Dr. Mike Anastario, author of the forthcoming book Parcels: Memories of Salvadoran Migration. Mike’s book is so timely, as migration from Central America to the United States has become a highly politicized issue.

An image of flags representing El Salvador and the United States of America

Mike has spent the last several years investigating the social memories of individuals from a place he refers to as “El Norteño,” a rural town in El Salvador heavily impacted by the Salvadoran Civil War, fueling a mass exodus to the United States. In Parcels, Mike describes two viajeros (travelers/couriers) who exchanged encomiendas (parcels containing food, medicine, photographs, documents, and letters) for people in the United States and El Salvador. In telling their stories, he explores larger social and cultural issues, including how US actions and policies have impacted many Salvadorans and current migration patterns.

Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Mike on human rights issues. Originally from Florida, he is now living in El Salvador as a Fulbright Scholar. Mike is a sociologist, writer, and teacher — not to mention an avid surfer, great listener, and good friend to the dogs he has met in El Salvador.

HF: Mike, great to talk with you, as always. Parcels is so many things at once — one big story, a collection of stories, and a sharp analysis of US policy and its impact. Why did you write Parcels?

MA: I was reading and listening to public discourse in the United States that was concerned with influxes of immigrants, including strategies that were focused on keeping migrants out. That discourse often criminalized and dehumanized migrants as their human rights were being undermined. Absent from that discourse, along with many of the popular retorts, was a deep reckoning of how the United States has played a role in structuring diasporic movements. I thought it was important to raise more consciousness regarding the ways in which the United States government has played a key role in shaping Salvadoran migration phenomena through the decades.

HF: Book dedications often reveal something interesting about a writer and their priorities. Why did you dedicate Parcels to all your former teachers, especially those who never learned to read or write?

MA: I think it is important to be conscious of where our knowledge comes from and who makes claims to it. As I conducted interviews and had conversations with various social actors (Salvadoran and US Cold War Veterans, migrants, corn farmers, and couriers), I was reminded that people from all walks of life have experience theorizing about the effects of larger forces on their everyday lives. I spent a lot of time talking with Salvadoran corn farmers about the past, present, and future. Corn farmers provided me with critical information that produced research leads. At the same time, several farmers who had taught me a great deal about transnational power had never learned to read or write. I don’t consider illiteracy a barrier to theorizing, but illiteracy is a barrier to conventional academic discourse. Dedicating the book to them was my way of both expressing gratitude and trying to remain conscious of ongoing epistemic power relations that remain deeply entrenched in academic discourse.

HF: You write about issues that are rarely discussed in the press, including the number of people who have died at the southwestern border, as well as how decades-old US-sponsored counterinsurgency efforts and US policy have influenced migration patterns between El Salvador and the United States. Why was it important for you to cover these issues, and why do you think the mainstream press is so reluctant to talk about them?

MA: Making the link between billions spent on US counterinsurgency efforts in Central America in the latter part of the 20th century and the fact that the US Border Patrol has cumulatively apprehended more than 175,000 non-Mexicans from the southwestern border and reported more than 6,500 southwestern-border deaths at the beginning of the 21st century is a somewhat complex story that doesn’t lend well to a consumable news bite. That said, not talking publicly about the unintended consequences of US counterinsurgency efforts abroad is one of the ways in which national forgetting is reproduced. When strategies that occupy public attention and national debate include keeping migrants out by spending billions of dollars to build a border wall, the link between those billions of border wall dollars and the billions spent on “aid” to places like El Salvador during its civil war are not the focus of public outrage concerning migration. I would expect this type of outrage in a democratic US nation-state capable of acknowledging and reconciling the complex effects of its previous interventions abroad. However, I think that at this moment in time, our social forgetting in the United States is so strong that we are prone to shortsightedness in how we develop public strategies on (and teach future generations to think about) issues like migration.

HF: In the book, you use the tool of memories — remembered and forgotten — to show how power can be elucidated or obscured. Memory is such an interesting phenomenon. Memories paint how we view ourselves, others, the past, the present, and the future. How have your own memories shaped your interest in migrant narratives?

MA: Listening to memories of migration, for me, is part of my American experience. As a US citizen, I grew up conditioned to listen to migrant narratives. When I was a child my Italian nana used to tell me stories about Napoli during the Second World War. She transmitted her memories of food, homemade liquors, alternative expressions of gender she saw on the streets in Italy, the mafia, fascists, homicides, bombs that could destroy families and communities in the blink of an eye, and surreal stories about my ancestors. Her memories, transmitted to me as a young American, were couched in reminders that this is where my people came from. I was born an English-speaking gringo in the United States, but I always identified as Italian-American. That identification was fostered in the transmission of family memories. It is one of the many reasons I remain interested in collective memory.

HF: In the book, you go beyond memories. You describe the interactions between memories — the intangible — and parcels, which are tangible. How did the tangible and intangible in the stories you collected influence the other?

MA: I’ve been paying more attention to the ways in which nonhuman actors interact with collective human memories. In Parcels, I began collecting data by following parcels that were transmitted at high throughput across national boundaries, state security checkpoints, and delivered to kin separated by diasporic divides. Those objects were moved by and stoked memories, including (but not limited to) nostalgia. The movement of parcels also brought my attention to the treatment of couriers as they worked, which opened up a space for talking about occupational memories of their treatment by state security officials over the decades. So, focusing on nonhuman actors was an interactive starting point for me to begin examining dimensions and depths of rural diasporic remembering.

HF: While writing the book, you passed through international state security checkpoints with El Norteño couriers. You also served as a volunteer escort for the US government’s Central American Minors program in order to help refugee children reunite with their parents in the United States. How have Trump’s immigration policies affected your conversations with these and other migrants over time?

MA: Trump’s ascension acted as an external intervention that deeply affected conversations and initial perceptions of me in El Salvador. Many conversations began with people asking me what I thought about Trump, or what I thought about the xenophobic rhetoric that emanated from his speeches. Trump has brought public discourse surrounding immigration to a fever pitch in the United States, but absent from that rhetoric are critical questions regarding the ways in which US counterinsurgency efforts abroad have generated unintended consequences for the US taxpayers of today — the very taxpayers that Trump often appeals to. Discourse that criminalizes migrants offers listeners something to fixate on, as opposed to a critical auto-evaluation of how US governmental actions abroad and foreign policies stoke migration. Numerous undocumented migrants and their family members had something to say to me about these more complex renderings of migration phenomena. I tried my best to synthesize some of those concepts in the book.

HF: How have the US immigrant-detention-industrial complex and family separation policies begun to affect the collective memory of Salvadorans?

MA: In working with rural Salvadorans who have experience with state-sponsored violence, I am particularly preoccupied by what the US government is structuring for Central American children. I have listened to Salvadoran refugee kindergarteners describe their entry into the United States as something akin to experiencing prison. It is children who are not only seeing their parents subject to inhumane treatment by government employees, but it is children who are subject to these policies and complexes. Those experiences are already becoming some of the first collective memories of the United States for our future citizens and residents. The extent of the abuses and traumas that will remain in children’s earliest memories of entry into the United States reflect a parameter of who we collectively are.

HF: In the book, you note that there is no one person, presidential administration, branch, agency, department, or political party that is individually responsible for the silence surrounding violence and collective forgetting over time. What can we each do to improve the integrity of our collective memory, so that we have a clearer view of current events and the influence of policies and practices?

MA: This is a contentious issue. I am personally more interested in productive impulses that promote collective consciousness and action as opposed to strategies that blame, isolate, and risk further reinforcing the silos in which we already find ourselves deeply entrenched today. I personally think we need creative ways to not only disrupt silences, but to foster productive growth out of those silences. We need to pay more attention to Cold War Veterans, particularly those who experienced injuries, deaths, and trauma during their service to nation states during the Cold War. Incorporating Cold War Veteran narratives into national historic sites and memorials could alter consciousnesses and promote engaging dialogue. We can make strides in education by teaching students more about the history of US counterinsurgency efforts abroad, and opening up more discussion regarding the intended and unintended consequences of those efforts. In a nation where the majority descends from immigrant groups to North America, there is great individual value in engaging in open conversations and listening to the experiences, memories, and perspectives of our friends, neighbors, kin, academics, and politicians who identify as having Central American descent. We can promote memory studies among university students to educate the next generation of citizens, government employees, and institution-makers on the complexity and importance of memory to national governments. We can also teach students to use memory studies to inform program evaluations of US interventions abroad.

HF: Mike, Parcels is an incredible book — one that should be required reading for policymakers and students alike. While reading it, I kept envisioning a film patterned after the book. Thank you for writing Parcels, and for all you do.

Physician & human & animal rights advocate. Author of Phoenix Zones: Where Strength is Born and Resilience Lives.