This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

Holiday Mountain Fun Park, Monticello, New York.

 

Holiday Mountain Fun Park, in the rural Hudson Valley region of New York state, boasts a number of rides and attractions that are colorful, if past their 1980s prime. The only one that registered for the group of eight 13-year old boys in our summer research program, however, was the go-kart track. The teens clamored through the turnstiles and into the metal cars. Bright mid-day sunlight glinted off the cars’ chipped red, yellow, green, and blue paint. Over and over the boys zoomed around the circular track, their faces beaming with grit and glee. Underneath the delight of watching them race, however, was the unavoidable irony that most of these adolescents would not be able to get driver’s licenses (Del Vecchio et al., 2017). An attempt to go through the teenage rite of passage of a driver’s license would possibly be their “first encounter with the restrictions of their undocumented status” (Gonzales, 2016).

It was the middle of a two-week photography storytelling camp, a participatory action research project with young people who are migrant and undocumented, focused on the impact of their relationships to place on their post-secondary decision making. We took photographs and talked about photographs as a way to explore the young people’s opinions of their communities and their plans for the future. Most of the teens hailed from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, and were living in the Hudson Valley while their parents worked seasonal agricultural jobs.  The research team and our community co-facilitators took the group on a fun excursion as a change of pace and reward for their hard work. Options were limited, so we settled on Holiday Mountain Fun Park, a 30-minute drive away along winding country roads.

When considering the ability of infrastructure to capture the imagination, I am transported back to the memory of this field trip. Watching the boys drive around in circles, moving fast yet not getting any place new, seemed to reflect their lived experiences. This made for a heavy scene, bringing to life Brian Larkin’s (2013) assertion that infrastructures “encode the dreams of individuals and societies” and imbue fantasy with real-life emotion.

Fields in the Black Dirt Region, Orange County, New York

 

Mobility becomes idealized, fetishized, when it is premised on the exclusion of a group of people who lack the rights and freedoms afforded to others (Ahmed, 2004). In their daily lives, these boys experience limited mobility due to the lack of public transit services in their town, and their parents’ lack of vehicles. Their status as migrant and undocumented restricts their families’ access to the infrastructures that would afford them the mobility and movement offered to them in their go-kart rides. If, as Berlant states, “an infrastructure is defined by use and movement,” (2016) then these families seem to exist externally to local infrastructures.

A mode of travel is far more than a way to get from one place to another. “Mobility is a resource to which not everyone has an equal relationship” (Skeggs, 2004). Mobility, and by extension, the infrastructures and technologies associated with it, represent modernity and futurity, becoming symbols for individual dreams and desires. In this way, infrastructures “actively participate in often unexpected ways in the process by which power asymmetries are articulated and enacted” (Salamanca, n.d.). In the new mobilities paradigm, “mobility is always located and materialized” (Sheller & Urry, 2006), an assertion that is played out through local infrastructures. Driving a climate-controlled car on a rural road affords a very different view of the world than the experience of walking along the side of that same road.

Seeing mobility as fluid upends the idea that stability is normal and mobility is abnormal (Sheller & Urry, 2006). Especially for undocumented people, mobilities and moorings (Hannam et. al., 2006) are not predetermined, but are made up of complex intersections. “Issues of movement, of too little movement or too much, or of the wrong sort or at the wrong time, are central to many lives and many organizations” (Sheller & Urry, 2006). For undocumented immigrants, these issues with movement are embodied in the omnipresent threat of deportation through checkpoints or raids, and for college students specifically, in the “transportation… problems they could not fully surmount” (Gonzales, 2016). In every place, there are mechanisms that allow for the movement of some people but not others. There are in-between spots—waiting rooms, bus stations, detention centers, and amusement parks—that involve being mobile yet immobilized, illustrating the “power geometries of everyday life” (Hannam et al., 2006) through physical movement at the intimate scale of daily lived experience.

In the boys’ rural upstate New York town, there is noticeable segregation between the migrant families and other area residents, an example of Lauren Berlant’s (2016) view of belonging: “Just because a space on a grid is shared intends nothing about the affective and material substance or even the fact of membership.” Thinking of belonging as a relation whose terms are always contested (Berlant, 2016) is a helpful frame for the lived experience of migrant, undocumented families whose movements are often both restricted and forced.

Infrastructures create disconnections among groups of people while simultaneously creating connections for others, illuminating the uneven physical, economic, and political aspects of spatial relations (Salamanca, n.d.). In response, groups of people who are outside the realm of “belonging” established by official infrastructure networks create their own. For example, in the state of Georgia, alternative infrastructure exists in an informal transportation network to ensure that undocumented college students can get to class. Freedom University, an institution set up specifically for undocumented students, has established a system of carpools and drivers to circumvent the requirements of mainstream transportation infrastructure (such as driver’s licenses and access to a vehicle) that are inaccessible to their student body. The driving service improves access to education for students in an area with limited public transit options (Freedom University, n.d.). Peer networks also serve as alternative infrastructures for undocumented college students, providing informal sources of academic support (Gonzales, 2016).

Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor’s concept of survivance is useful in considering how belonging is organized through infrastructure. Vizenor describes native survivance as “an active sense of presence over absence” (2008). Alternative infrastructures, both affective and material, make undocumented lives possible by creating a sense of belonging for those excluded from mainstream infrastructure. In this way, they could be considered a practice of survivance, rejecting “dominance, detractions, [and] obtrusions” and operating beyond “instincts of survival, function, or subsistence” (2008). They are mechanisms to create an active presence, to nurture belonging and enact desires, lasting well beyond a fleeting lap of the go-kart track.

Rural roads in Goshen, New York

 

References

Ahmed S (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Berlant L (2016) The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(3): 393–419.

Del Vecchio D, Toomey N, and Tuck E (2017) Enacting Refusal in Image-Based Research: A participatory action research project with migrant youth in the Hudson Valley. Critical  Questions in Education. Ahead of print.

Freedom University (n.d.) Apply to Freedom University! (accessed 10 September 2017).

Gonzales R (2016) Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hannam K, Sheller M, and Urry J (2006) Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings. Mobilities 1(1): 1-22.

Larkin B (2013) The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.

Salamanca O (n.d.) When Settler Colonialism Becomes ‘Development’: ‘Fabric of Life’ Roads and the Spatialities of Development in the Palestinian West Bank. Birzeit University, Center for Development Studies: 1-21.

Sheller M and Urry J (2006) The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A 38: 207-226.

Skeggs B (2004) Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge.

Vizenor G (2008) Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Survivance. In: Vizenor G (ed) Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, pp.1–23.

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Deanna Del Vecchio is a Ph.D. student in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her research uses participatory photography methodology to explore young people’s relationships to place, drawing on Indigenous theorizations of place, refusal, and resistance. Deanna’s career in education has included classroom teaching from primary to post-secondary, community-based learning, outdoor education, and teacher training.