The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

March 2005 / No. 34

Cover Story: The World Economic Forum

Crossing the Border

Lourdes Arizpe, professor of anthropology, University of Mexico – Mexico

Arizpe, who studies both immigration and globalization, previously served at UNESCO

Lourdes Arizpe, professor of anthropology from the University of Mexico maintains that one must strike a balance between protecting cultural identity and promoting global citizenship.

“Today, we are seeing a revitalization of local identities, indigenous identities, religious identities,” says Arizpe, who studies both immigration and globalization and who previously served at the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Arizpe has worked mainly on migration and the cul­tural dimensions of globalization. From the very start, she was interested in how people who practice different cul­tures can relate to each other. After she was invited to become assistant director general for culture at UNESCO, she could see how the ideas about culture, globalization, global citi­zenship, and global civil society were working out in terms of policy and in terms of what civil society groups around the world were trying to do. Now she is back at the National University of Mexico; and his latest research is on the cultural impact of the migration of Mexicans in the United States, the impact both in the US and Mexico.

“The migration of Latinos has reached a threshold that they are creating a dif­ferent cultural impact in the United States,” comments Arizpe on the impact of Mexicans’ migration to the United States.

“We are witnessing a new phenomenon, that is to say the migration has reached a threshold where the impact that migrants are having on civil society is much larger than before.”

In Europe, for example, migrants are no longer going back to their home countries; they are staying in their host societies. It is very interesting to note that Mexicans, in particular, have not only kept their culture and cultural ties to the communities in Mexico, but have created a new culture, called Chicano culture, in California. They have created a new identity. The United States is being confronted for the very first time with migrant groups that are not melt­ing into the pot.

This, in the opinion of the Mexican University professor, is beginning to worry Americans. “Just look at the last book published by professor Samuel Huntington. An article that she published was entitled ‘The Hispanic Challenge.’ We are finding, then, that the cultural relations between migrants and receiving societies have become a major political issue.”

To the argument that in the US, people don’t want a diverse range of cul­tures but one American culture, she says Mexicans are integrating into the American society and as evidence cites studies of second generation or third ­generation Mexicans.

“But what is also happen­ing is that globalization is erasing national boundaries. It is also erasing the identity that people use to face globalization. Today, we are seeing a revitalization of local identities, indigenous identities, and religious identities. It is a very normal reaction of migrants to wish to keep their identity and rework it in different semantic terms in the host country, if they come from a home country with a very strong cultural history."

About the need for migrants to integrate into the culture of their new country, she says nation-states will always be there, and a nation has the right to define the terms of its citizenship.

According to Arizpe a coun­try like France has the right to ban women from wearing hijab (veil). However, she believes, the French officials must also make it possible for different regional and historical cultures to keep their identities. “It’s a question of finding the right balance between the national definition of citizenship and the identities of local people or immigrants, who want to keep their own cultural heritage.”

On the reason why “that middle ground” could not be found, she puts the blame on extremism. The extreme right wants to go back to a totally fragmented kind of society where each group defines their ethnic or religious identity in contrast to the other, she notes, adding that likewise the extreme left is demanding total rights for every ethnic and religious group.

Citing a concrete example, she says there is no problem in having Chicano cultural activities in the United States as the American people have always retained their original migrant cul­ture. “But it’s very different to say that education must be bilingual throughout all schools and universities. This becomes very, very complicated. In Mexico, where there are 62 indigenous peoples, it would be impossible to have bilingual education for every one of the 62 groups.”

From Arizpe’s point of view if we keep talking about a clash of civilizations or a clash of cultures, we are going to ensure endless warfare. “We need a concept that very concretely shows that we are all dependent on cooperation in a world that has to be sus­tainable. The only way to do this is to establish commonality. This has to be on the basis of thinking of our­selves as global citizens or as members of a global civil society.”

In political terms however, she admits, it is very difficult to define citizenship beyond the nation-state. In his opinion political philosophies have not advanced far enough and the actual juridical, legal and administrative structures that define global citizenship are still underdeveloped.

Arizpe thinks that people can easily identify with feeling part of humanity. Nobody was ever against the idea of being part of humanity, she sys, adding that this whole idea of micro-loyalties - toward families, toward ethnic com­munities, toward religious communities and now, as is happening in the United States, toward national commu­nities – was a “political process” strengthened only in the last 15 years.

Turning back to the 1970s when the idea of sustainabil­ity was put forth and people really embraced it, she says we are all bound up in one planet, and we have to learn to live together on that planet. “Everyone agrees with that idea. The next logical step would be global citizenship; however, in the last 15 years, we have had a countermovement that has been headed by those like Samuel Huntington, who espouses the idea of a clash of civilizations.”

Arizpe does not like the term ‘civilization.’ In anthropology, she says, this term was dumped in the 1960s. “To think that there is going to be this clash only serves to prepare people to think of themselves as part of a group that will inevitably clash with others. We are already seeing the effects of this kind of thinking around the world.”

On the impact agreements like NAFTA, GATT, the WTO and the EU project would have on all this, Arizpe says the European Union is trying to create a confedera­tion that will ultimately form a European society. On the contrary, she defends NAFTA as simply a free-trade agree­ment. "There is no attempt at all at creating an identity or a feeling of belonging to a larger regional entity, she comments. According to him, if the regional blocs do establish a political and social vision, that could become one “stepping stone” toward this larger idea of global citizenship.

“I certainly think this is necessary. We cannot function in a world that is globalized if there are only local or micro-regional societies. We need to think differently about this; we need to see each other differently.”


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  March  2005 / No. 34