Transnational Practices in Immigrant Families

Catherine Compton-Lilly, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, and her students Jieun Kim, Erin Quast, Sarah Tran, and Stephanie Shedrow report on the literacy practices exercised by a group of immigrant families.

Over the past few years, my research team has been working with a group of children from immigrant families as they move through school. Here, we report on data from the first three years of our project as the children progressed from kindergarten and grade one into grades two and three. As we visited families and talked with them about their literacy practices, we learned about online literacy practices that involved reading, writing and viewing. The families in our study came to America from around the world immigrating from China, Korea, Morocco, Nepal, and Mexico. In this column, we focus on the resourceful ways in which these families use digital media in their daily lives.

Reading and Viewing Online
Some of these online practices are receptive, enabling participants to read and view texts that originate in different parts of the world. Digital technologies including the Internet, cell phones, computers, and tablets— technologies involving various modalities including sound, image, animation, and communication (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007)—are key platforms for transnational communication. We observed family members engaging with gaming systems, the Internet, streamed movies, and television programs from around the world, which revealed how immigrant family members generated and negotiated meaningful communication across local and international spaces.

When we asked family members about their reading practices, several parents claimed that they did not read very often, but they also described a vast range of digital literacies. Mrs. Li, for example, reads on her Kindle Chinese newspapers and “electronic magazines” in English including Time, and she provided her son with an online subscription to National Geographic because “We don’t have the physical paper [copies].” Mrs. Hernandez, Felipe’s mother, follows events in Mexico by reading online Yucatan newspapers, listening to Mexican music, and watching Mexican movies and telenovelas (soap operas). During one interview, she interrupted the conversation to report that she had just received a forwarded tweet from India Maria, a famous Mexican actress reminding Mexicans in America to remember their roots. Elina’s Nepali father reads magazines and newspapers online almost every day, including personal finance articles on BBC online and in both newspapers from Nepal. Liz’s mother uses television to access information from her home country of Korea: “I search [the] Internet and I read the reviews and I check [the] contents of books…then I choose what I need.” Significantly, these families access current information from around the world. This was particularly important when family members worry that mainstream American news is incomplete or partisan. As Mr. Li reported, “Fox News is pretty biased, so I don’t really trust them.” He described a recent debate between he and his eldest son about freedom of the press in America. It was an Internet search that resolved their disagreement.

Communicating Online
Technology has enabled people in immigrant families to access information, track events, and engage with popular culture from their native countries. Newspapers, magazines, television shows, and movies allow immigrant families to stay informed about issues and to participate with popular culture from their native countries. These receptive practices are often embedded in social and communicative relationships as parents in immigrant families communicate with family and friends around the world.

For the Roland family, digital technology provides important links to family and friends in Korea. Mrs. Roland routinely displays family photos on her Korean blog, and her web page features texts written in both English and Korean. Mrs. Roland writes about her “life in America” and reports that her friends in Korea love reading her posts. Mrs. Li uses QQ International, a global instant messaging site that she describes as being “like a Facebook.” She uses it to write about her children and the Chinese college students that they regularly invite to their home, and notes that she has been posting on the site for a while: “I like to write. [The] other day I checked [and] I already wrote like about 40 or more [posts].”

In Adam’s Moroccan American family, technology provides an important link to Adam’s father who was denied re-entry into the United States during the first year of the study. Adam Skypes with his father almost every week and, as Mrs. Barami’s English has improved, she increasingly uses Facebook to communicate with friends and family and uses Craigslist to shop.

Lili’s mother, Sara, uses digital photographs to teach her children about Mexico and introduce them to her family. She explained, “My family send me pictures always [and I say to the children] look, look, this is this” or “here is I, where I sleep” or “this my room” or “this is my garden.” She reports that her relatives post videos of her small town on YouTube, which she shares with her children. Sara speaks longingly of her hometown, saying “all my memories are in Oaxaca.”

When we learned that Lili and her family had not seen their relatives in Mexico for several years, we arranged for the family to participate in an international Skype conversation. After some difficulty with the technology, an image of Sara’s three brothers and two sisters-in-law appeared on the screen. As they came into view, they waved, smiled, and call out “Hola!” Much of the hour-long video conference focused on Sara’s three-year-old nephew whom she had never met. Various family members held framed photographs up to the camera for Sara and her family to see.

The adults that we worked with demonstrated a rich array of digital literacies related to information, social networks, and entertainment. While these practices can be described as either receptive (e.g., reading online newspapers, viewing online movies) or communicative (e.g., posting pictures on social networking sites), these practices actually overlap: accounts from newspapers are referenced on Facebook, and communication with family members inspire adults to seek out news reports and watch movies that are popular back home. While immigrant families are often depicted in limited ways (i.e., as being unable to speak English, as being illiterate), the immigrant families in this study consistently demonstrated resourcefulness and creativity as they found ways to use technology to stay in touch with people and to keep abreast of issues in their native countries

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