Faculty Highlight: Soledad Álvarez Velasco
Professor Soledad Álvarez Velasco is a social anthropologist and human geographer whose research analyses the interrelationship between mobility, control, and spatial transformations across the Americas. She investigates the intersection between undocumented global south-north and global south-south transit migration, border regimes, the formation of migratory corridors across the Americas and the migrant struggle across these transnational spaces. She combines a multi-scale and historical analysis with multi-sited ethnography and a digital ethnography based on a migrant-centered perspective to reconstruct migrants' spatial and temporal trajectories. In her research, she foregrounds the Andean Region as a key space for understanding the dynamics at stake in the transits of Latin American, Caribbean, African, and Asian migrants to reach the U.S., or other southern cone and Caribbean destinations. Her work also analyzes the impact of the externalization of the U.S. border regime across the migratory corridors of the Americas, the movement of unaccompanied and undocumented migrant children, as well as the dynamics of transnational migrant smuggling networks operating across those transnational spaces.
She was a Assistant Professor at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany (2021-22) and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Houston (2020-21). She holds a PhD in Human Geography from King's College London. As of January 2023, she has joined the University of Illinois Chicago as an Assistant Professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and the Department of Anthropology. At UIC, she will teach courses on Global Migrations across the Americas; Latin American and Caribbean Border Regimes; Mobility, Control and Space: The (Trans)Formation of Global Migratory Corridors across the Americas.
Prof. Soledad Alvarez-Velasco Interview Heading link
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an Ecuadorian, a social anthropologist, and a human geographer. I have a very interdisciplinary background, with my training starting, primarily, as a sociologist. I did my undergraduate studies in Ecuador, and then I studied social anthropology in Mexico, and then I finally did my PhD studies in London at King’s College. So it has been like a journey across disciplines, across social science disciplines specifically, and I think it has been really useful and very enlightening for me in terms of my work.
For more than ten years through my education, possibly a bit more, I’ve been researching migration. That has been the focus of my interests, my intellectual and political interests, in terms of analyzing how people across our continent travel across borders and reach the destinations where they aim to be or where they have to dwell. So my focus has been transit irregularized migration, meaning people that arrive to the Americas, coming from diverse locations, from Asia or from Africa to a lesser extent, but also from the Caribbean region and South America, and decide to set themselves into motion to reach their destinations, mainly the US.— which is a major destination across the globe, and of course, across the Americas. I’m also interested in how people move and they want to reach other destinations like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, or even destinations across the Caribbean. Since I began my education, I would say that my focus has shifted, and now it’s much more neat in terms of understanding how migrant mobilities control dynamics and how they’re in tension and how those dynamics are constantly shaping and reshaping our space.
Due to my field of research being so big and complex, I’ve limited my focus even further to unpack this triad of mobility, control, and space in three particular migratory corridors that connect the Andean region
How did you become a social anthropologist? And how did you come to your research interest in migration?
So, like I mentioned earlier, I am an Ecuadorian mestizo and coming from a country like Ecuador, I think that it’s impossible to not be shaped by migration. My country is a country that has been defined by migratory waves since the late 1970s. You cannot understand the sociocultural economic and political configuration of Ecuador without understanding its own migratory history. As I grew up and came to be conscious about migrations in the midst of the second wave— the second migratory wave of Ecuadorians moving to Europe and the US. This led into the 2000s when a very deep socio-economic crisis in my country propelled this massive mobilities in which more or less than a million Ecuadorians left the country in a frame of time of two, three years. So that was like a sort of exodus for small countries.
That has been a key element in my understanding and in my research– and even in my own migratory experience. My first migratory experience was when I was a little kid, about four years old, as my mom migrated to study in Brazil. I was very young when I already embodied migration and I had to learn how to read and write in Portuguese— which was a challenge. And, then, to return from this place that had come to be my home but it was not my country anymore; it was home but not the country where I would stay. So returning to Ecuador was also very difficult. I then left for Mexico for education, and later to the UK.
That’s part of how my research has been situated by my knowledge and my experience of migrating, and why I arrived at the topic of migration. To connect what I was saying earlier about growing up and becoming conscious of Ecuadorians leaving the country, I recall many stories about Ecuadorian boats sinking across the Pacific Ocean nearby—on the Colombian coast or Guatemalan coast. Hearing those stories caught my attention.
Because of my background and my personal experiences, I spent a lot of my undergraduate studies asking and wondering about how people get to their destinations. How do they manage to traverse at least seven national borders from Ecuador to the U.S.? Normally, migration scholars and journalists are so focused on migration issues— we tend to analyze the Mexican dynamics or the Central American dynamics— but further south, there are multiple or other complex and equally violent dynamics around migration. That was also another question of my research: How do they manage to arrive here? When I arrived in Mexico to start my studies and my training in social anthropology, that was my research question. I want to understand how Ecuadorians get to Mexico and how they are able to traverse at least the Mexico-U.S. corridor.
With that question in mind, I went to the Mexican southern border and conducted my first ethnography. It was a six-month ethnography. I totally immersed myself in the dynamics of Mexico’s southern border. And that’s how I, of course, followed more than just Ecuadorians. It was a huge, complex, diverse, dynamic dive of the lives, the struggles, the solidarity, and the violence that migrants coming from Central America experience.
What do you enjoy about your field of study?
I enjoy going and conducting ethnographies. I think ethnographies are a way to inhabit the world because that is a way in which you open your gaze and your senses to life in its multiple expressions. It’s the way in which you encounter others— meaning other people, other languages, other cultures— others that teach you how to reflect, how you and them share multiple stories and sometimes we come from divergent spaces and places.
On the field, you also understand how unequal development materializes–the harshness of inequality, the perverseness of poverty, the perversity of violence. How violence exists and how it materializes in the bodies of multiple men, women, children, of multiple ages, diverse gender orientations, races, and classes. They arrive and continue to move and develop solidarity networks and strategies to sustain their mobility project, that, in a way, is a project to sustain their life. It’s not only that they want to migrate because they don’t have any other opportunities, it’s the way in which they set their life project and are able to fulfill it in one way or another.
The multiple people I’ve encountered through ethnographies as they were on the move are not simply migrants as an abstraction, they are subjects with histories, memories, and shared experiences. I would say that the most fascinating thing is how they have shared and taught me how they struggle, and the capacity of their struggle—- no matter what is going on in their lives, they struggle in a web of senses and politics in order to sustain their lives. It’s something you only learn by being there with them.
And the field is not an exotic and remote place, the field can be your own city, your own neighborhood. The Americas is traversed by migration, and migrants have recreated these spaces for centuries. You have to open your gaze and senses and your capacity to listen. On the field, you’re able to learn that migration configures you.
I know that you recently published an article. Can you talk more about that?
Yes! I’m part of a research network called the ZiF Research Network, which is a network of scholars studying border regimes in Europe—both the external and internalization of border regimes within national spaces and how mobility governance is changing society’s lives. Being a part of this network, I try to bring in a comparative perspective by focusing on what is going on in the Americas with these same regimes controlling mobility.
As part of this network, I published an article on migration governance called “An Unattainable Quest: Migration Governance, A Reflection from the Americas,” where I mainly analyze if such a quest of migration governance is achievable. Through the case of what’s going on in the Americas, because after the pandemic, there has been an intensification of the tension between migrant mobilities and control across our borders. With that in mind, I question if the 2018 Global Compact on Migration really aims to govern migration. What does it mean to even govern migration and is it possible to do so? Migration has an autonomous force by definition, but controlling people has been the aim of states since its inception. This article is a critical analysis of this “quest” seen from the eyes of the Americas, and the limitations regarding that
Are you working on any other projects?
It is important to know that when you research migration on the field, the migrants teach you that the only way to understand life is through networks, by creating networks. You cannot understand life without everyday networks. This is a key element in understanding my own work. I’ve been working with colleagues for the past years to create collective research projects with scholars across the Americas in order to understand that it’s very difficult to have an approach of mobility if you only analyze it from a nation state perspective.
One of these projects focused on migrant children and their migration across the Americas. It’s a comparative perspective to understand how children not only cross borders alone, or with own families, but also how they move internally and how they’re a part century movements, and how they’re being deported. Essentially, it’s aim is to understand how migrant children are a part of this complex dynamic of mobility. This was a project that was funded by the National Geographic Society; with their support me and a few other scholars created a digital humanities project called “Infancias en Movimiento (Children migration across the Americas).” The main focus of this project is migration and the lives of the ones that are taking care migrant children.
The other project is a digital humanities project as well, called “(Im)Mobilities Across the Americas.” It was a project that began during the pandemic with the intention to understand how tensions between mobility and control are changing space, specifically during the pandemic. I worked alongside 60 researchers from 21 countries across the Americas to analyze what was changing during the pandemic in regard to border control and migrant struggle. The aim has always been to work in collective transnational projects and these projects were deeply connected with migrant networks and organizations so that migrants’ voices were emphasized and placed first. Their testimonies, their way of understanding these struggles.
Currently, I’m working on a book that will bring to light the work I’ve been doing for the past few years. It’s mainly my doctoral dissertation research. This book will, theoretically speaking, develop this triad concept of mobility, control, and space in order to analyze how Ecuador in the past two decades was reigned for its historical condition as a transit space towards the U.S. Even in pre-colonial times, Ecuador was a connecting hub for commercial paths of trade. Now it is a connecting hub between south and north. I’m exploring Ecuador since 2008 embraced open-border policies which became a magnet for migrants coming from all over the world, not only to move to the U.S. but to try and develop new lives in a country that apparently provided them guarantees and rights. For this book, I followed the migratory transit paths of 20 paths— 16 migrants coming from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Haiti and 4 Ecuadorian migrants who were deported from the U.S. and decided to recommence their transits by turning their own country into a transit space. I hope that this project will be finished this year.
I’m also working on a collaborative book project on Latin American and Caribbean border regimes. This is an editorial project I’m developing with scholars from Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S. and have collected chapters from each place. We’re hoping to look at how the changes of the Latin American and Caribbean border regimes during the past decade, especially as many of them are turning more anti-migrant.
What classes are you teaching this semester? What do you like about each?
I’m teaching two classes this semester— one with Anthropology and one with LALS. For Anthropology, I’m teaching Social and Cultural Theories which is a continuation of a core course for Anthropology graduate students. In this class, we focus on contemporary social theory and we analyze the changes social theory has gone through since the mid-20th century to the present. Some of the topics we look at include a critical view of anthropology’s origins and how it reinforces colonialism, abolitionist geographies, the emergence of feminism and its impact across the social sciences, the need to rethink technologies, and so much more. What I like about this course is that I’ve been very emphatical in bringing in different anthropologies from around the world. I love that the students are very engaged with this class, despite the material being difficult to grasp.
The other course I teach is LALS 291 Global Migrations Across the Americas. In the class, I want to emphasize that this continent has been shaped and reshaped by migrant mobilities for the past five centuries—that migration is not only happening now. This is a migrant continent, so we analyze concepts and theories to address migrations, control, and space in order to understand how this big space, the Americas, has been changed by migration. And we also zoom into case studies including the U.S., Mexico, Chile, etc. to see the past and present of this tension between mobility and control. With this course, we also analyze the new mobilities taking place— women, children, LGBT, African, Asian, and many more on the move. It is also important that we talk about the challenges posed by the environmental changes and the pandemic.
Since you’re new to LALS, what do you like about LALS so far?
I’ve only been here for three weeks, but I think I enjoy my colleagues the most. They have been incredibly welcoming and supportive. Being a migrant has multiple challenges, but it has been so smooth with the support I’ve been receiving. People are always asking if I need anything and they’ve been there for me. I also really love the students here— they’ve been very engaged in my classes and approaching me little by little.
I think the community that is this university is such a welcoming and safe space. It’s so diverse and, immediately, I felt a part of this space.
When you’re not teaching or researching, what are you doing?
I really enjoy reading novels. I love the way authors are telling you about the world through fiction, and in a way it speaks to the work I do— I’m also telling stories about the world. Reading more has definitely helped me write more creatively and it helps me disconnect myself from academic work which tends to be very rigid in the way we write. I think the only way to open your gaze into other worlds is through literature.
I also enjoy movies, documentaries of course, but also movies in general. I like theater too, but because of the pandemic a lot of that was gone; I’m looking forward to exploring Chicago’s theater scene though.
Finally, I love to cook. When I’m stuck on writing, or reading on social theory, or even getting ready for class, I love to cook as a creative experience. I love running and swimming too, but I don’t dare to run now while there’s snow.
Any book or movie recommendations you would like to share with students in the LALS program?
I highly recommend Argentina, 1985. I saw it in Ecuador a year ago, and it just won the Golden Globe award. I think it’s an important movie, especially since many Latin American countries have always been struggling against the state. Argentina, 1985 proves that with organization, political action, and grassroots organizations, as well as the role of anthropologies and the role of conscious and politically committed lawyers, we can change the direction of history. It was also a very touching movie because, in Latin American history, testimonies of people that suffered the violence of dictatorship was the basis of all arguments that the group of lawyers built. There were multiple things in that movie that were simply amazing for me– the movie itself and the role of forensic anthropology and the importance of testimonies in giving a voice to those who didn’t have a voice and who were affected by power. And it’s so near to our history, too, so it was very moving to watch. It was just amazing to see in a movie how if we organize ourselves, we can change the course of history.