Ethnography on undocumented immigrants in the United States of America

Seminar Paper, 2007

8 Pages


Leo Chavez, author of Shadowed Lives – Undocumented Immigrants in American Society and doctor in anthropology, has been working and writing about Central American immigration since 1980 (Chavez, vii). In Shadowed Lives, Chavez described and analyzed lives of illegal Mexican workers in Southern California, using anthropology “for challenging our assumptions about both ourselves and others in our world” (Chavez xii). The author covered, among other things, crossing borders, immigrant homes, migrant problems, families and networks, as well as working structures and processes living as an illegal alien in a foreign country. He was eager to explain phases of separation, transition and incorporation for immigrants when changing social status and environment in order to start a new life and undergo their territorial passage.

The following paper will discuss several topics relating to key concepts learned in class. It will examine emic and etic interpretations, problems of ethnocentrism, and the appliance of cultural relativism. Furthermore, it will highlight research methods and backgrounds with regard to the author and his field of study. Last but not least, the paper will provide several examples of social power and describe factors that impact relationships between individuals or groups.

Although Chavez ancestors came from Mexico, he was born in the United States. He is fluent in Spanish; however, Mexicans often regarded him as a so-called pocho due to his American citizenship and average, “pedestrian” Spanish (Chavez xii). In answering questions about immigration, Chavez used observations, data and interviews in connection with multiple ethnographic methodologies in order to capture the various lifestyles of illegal workers in the United States (Chavez 6). He did not concentrate on one single family or community but attempted to include a wide variety of people, informants, and participant observations. At first, Chavez faced the challenge to set up contacts with illegal immigrants since they were not easily identifiable and often lived like the average U.S. citizen. By establishing contacts to service organizations for immigrants such as the Centro de Asuntos Migratorios, Chavez stimulated the so-called “snowball sampling” and was able to introduce himself and, later, gain trust of many interviewees and key informants, “member[s] of the host culture who help the anthropologist learn about the culture” (Chavez 7, Bodley 9).

The author encountered a variety of denotations for undocumented immigrants, such as pollos, which means chickens (Chavez 15). From an etic point of view, chicken related to human beings would stand for cowardly behavior. However, immigrants do not think of themselves as cowards. The inside, or emic, perspective shows that pollo equals defenselessness and vulnerability, a precise description of every illegal immigrant’s condition since they cannot rely on support from the state. Instead, they have to fear arrest and deportation. Other etic understandings, such as the terms alien and wetback, are misleading as well and do not point out inside cultural meaning. Wetback, for example, relates to the fact that many immigrants wade through rivers in order to pass the border to the United States (Chavez 15). However, as the author mentions, large numbers enter the neighboring country crossing dusty hills (16). Consequently, such words are not only offensive to immigrants but also demonstrate a certain level of ethnocentrism, the “evaluation of other cultures from the perspective of one’s own – presumably superior – culture” (Bodley 15). Often, U.S. citizens do not know much about the culture of immigrants and show pejorative bias because those foreigners are poor, act against American law and sometimes stimulate feelings of rejection to the point of hatred and nationalist attitudes. Therefore, Chavez’ book showed right from the start how important the concept of cultural relativism is, the “understanding of other cultures by their own categories, which are assumed to be valid and worthy of respect” (Bodley 15).


Excerpt out of 8 pages


Ethnography on undocumented immigrants in the United States of America
University of North Florida
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ISBN (eBook)
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364 KB
Ethnography, United, States, America
Quote paper
Jane Vetter (Author), 2007, Ethnography on undocumented immigrants in the United States of America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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