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Prof discusses research on Guatemalan migrants

April Veness
2:44 p.m., April 15, 2004--April Veness’ research takes her to remote villages in the western highlands of Guatemala, places where the day’s tortillas are cooked over an open fire and running water usually comes from an outside spigot. It also involves fieldwork much closer to home, in Georgetown and nearby towns in Sussex County.

An associate professor of geography at UD, Veness is studying the vast wave of Guatemalan immigrants who have settled in Sussex in the last decade and the ways in which they maintain contact with family members left behind. This research was the focus of Veness’ lecture, “Where is Home? Conversations with Mayan Migrants in Southern Delaware and Their Families in the Western Highlands of Guatemala,” presented Wednesday in Gore Hall. The talk was part of the “Research on Race, Ethnicity and Culture” spring lecture series, sponsored by the Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Program.

Veness, who holds joint appointments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy, has devoted much of her academic career to the study of poverty and homelessness in Sussex County and other areas of the United States. Delaware’s Guatemalan migrants primarily come from the western highlands, one of that country’s most impoverished regions. Nonetheless, Veness said she felt “out of her element” when she began her current research three years ago.

“I had never done field work outside the U.S.,” Veness told Wednesday’s noontime audience. “And, my knowledge of Spanish was based on three years of undergraduate study in the language.

“But, I have a habit of stretching myself, and my students,” Veness noted in an earlier interview. So she was receptive when then-undergraduate Jennifer Koppenhaver came to her in 2001, seeking assistance with an ambitious senior thesis project on Delaware’s Guatemalan community. A native of Sussex County, Koppenhaver witnessed the migrant population there grow from less than a dozen in 1990 to the approximately 6,000 Guatemalans who reside in Sussex today. Veness quickly caught Koppenhaver’s enthusiasm for the topic, and began her own research into this transnational community, most of whom work in minimum wage jobs in the poultry industry.

Veness sought out and interviewed five extended families of Guatemalans residing in Georgetown, Millsboro and Seaford. These families represent a classic pattern of “chain migration,” Veness said, in which one or two relatives migrate first, paving the way for subsequent migration by other relatives.

Although her Sussex research was productive, Veness said she knew that she only had half the story. She applied for and received grants from UD’s Center for International Studies that enabled her and Koppenhaver to travel to Guatemala in June 2002. There, they interviewed relatives of the five Delaware families, in their home villages of Ixchiguan, Tacana, Sajquim and Cuilco. Accompanying them was Michael Oates, a professional videographer who is conducting an independent project on Delaware’s Guatemalan community.

“Having Mike and his video equipment with us was a huge plus, ” Veness said. “It gave us an air of authority and made people more receptive to our presence.”

Since that initial research expedition, Veness has made two additional trips to Guatemala, taking an undergraduate each time. Although her research is still in progress, Veness said preliminary findings demonstrate that “concepts of home” have changed in the decade since Guatemalans began leaving the western highlands of their country to live and work in coastal Delaware.

“You would expect to see the migrants living here to begin to change the way they dress, speak and behave, as well as what constitutes ‘home’ for them,” Veness said. “But you also can see very real differences in the villages in Guatemala. You notice American influences on clothing, behaviors and gender roles.”

Veness returns to Guatemala next month to present a paper at the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers and for additional field study in the western highlands.

The “Research on Race, Ethnicity and Culture,” lecture series runs from 12:20-1:10 p.m., every Wednesday through May 12, in 116 Gore Hall. The lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Miranda Wilson at 456-0918.

Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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