Field Report: The Right Not to Migrate

Emilio Travieso, SJ, is a DPhil student in the Oxford Department of International Development working under Dr. Laura Rival.  He does research in partnership with grassroots organizations that are building sustainable, healthy, and just food systems. Below is the first in a series of reports from the field where Emilio will explain his work and its place in the larger Jesuit mission. 


The Right Not to Migrate

I never thought I would be researching food systems.  I have never been a "foodie," much less a farmer, and until recently the topic was not even on my radar screen.  So before I get into the details of what I’m doing (in my future posts), I want to share a little bit of background on the personal motivation behind my research.

Throughout my entire life, my “issue” has always been migration.  Unlike food systems, this issue came naturally to me.  I was born in Miami, Florida, a U.S. city where the majority of the population – including my parents – came from another country.  I grew up on a street where nearly every household represented a different nationality.  Inter-culturalism was a part of everyday life that we took for granted.

As a teenager, I began to understand the vulnerability of most of the world’s migrants and refugees.  I remember going to the beach with my family one day and seeing a makeshift raft on the shore.  The workers from a nearby hotel told us that it had just arrived from Cuba, with four people on it.  It was good news: empty rafts and the bloated bodies of those who had drowned at sea were common sights in those days.

It was the 1990s, and both Cubans and Haitians were arriving in large numbers and desperate circumstances.  Many Cubans were primarily fleeing the hunger of the “Special Period,” while many Haitians were fleeing political violence.  However, the Cubans were granted political asylum, while the Haitians were deported as economic migrants.  The blatant discrimination behind those disparate migration policies opened my eyes to injustice.

During my undergraduate studies in Boston, I became a passionate activist for various causes, including migrant rights.  At the same time, I deepened my relationship with the Haitian people, especially through a parish community where I confirmed my vocation to the priesthood.  Just after graduation, I joined the Antilles Province of the Society of Jesus, becoming a migrant myself to enter the novitiate in the Dominican Republic.  

Ever since then, as a Jesuit, I have always been missioned to work with migrants, particularly Dominicans in New York and Haitians in the Dominican Republic and Brazil.  Even now at Oxford, I minister to the Spanish-speaking Catholic community, and occasionally to the Portuguese-speaking community.  These communities, like all the immigrant communities I have been with over the years, are a great source of joy for me.

At some point in this process, though, I became weary from seeing the same situations, over and over. People who just want the opportunity to lead a decent life, having to risk their lives.  People who work hard to feed their families, being exploited.  People with great dignity, being humiliated.  And even in the most fortunate cases, the loneliness of living – and dying – far away from home.  

Little by little, I began to ask myself what it would take to change those situations that force people to leave home despite the costs.  I realize that poverty, environmental crises and violence are not going to disappear overnight.  In the meantime, somebody has to keep welcoming, accompanying, and defending the people who flee from those situations.  As for me, though, I have chosen to start investing my energy on the other side of that coin, by concerning myself primarily with the root cause of migration.

In short, my challenge as I see it now is how to guarantee “the right not to migrate,” as Catholic Social Teaching has defined it.  The concrete question this poses in places like Haiti is how to build an economy that is not only more productive but also more sustainable, inclusive, and democratic.  Of course, this is not unrelated to what goes on in places like the U.S. and England.  Ultimately, the issue is how we as a global society can rearrange our life together in ways that are more respectful of the poor and of the planet.

In discerning how to approach this challenge, I have been inspired by an image that circulates in some Jesuit contexts.  It is said that we should be like the giraffe.  Its long neck allows it to see far and wide.  To keep its balance, its feet must be firmly on the ground.  To pump blood throughout such a large body, it needs a huge heart.  

In that light, I chose to study food systems, a universal, complex subject which requires breadth and depth of vision.  I am doing fieldwork in specific contexts, to keep myself empirically grounded.  And rather than focusing on what’s wrong with the current system, I have opted for a hermeneutics of hope, focusing on initiatives that are trying to build better systems.

This is what brought me to Oxford to study with Dr Laura Rival, whose own research has inspired my project