Ally Bain, creator of Ally's law, and I spoke at FHPW's dinner tonight. Flying in from Chicago, Ally gave a truly inspiring speech, which she had just written on the plane-ride over. She has such a sweet soul, and I enjoyed showing her around Houston at night and celebrating her 22nd birthday at Anvil.
Fractured Identities- a phrase some anthropologists often use to categorize immigrants and their children of (frequently) mixed ethnicities. At university, the term irritated me- the implication that I was somehow broken and scattered across lands and cultures bothered me deeply. In many ways though, it was an accurate description.
When I was a child, my mother told my sister and I stories of her life in Taiwan and Brazil- my father of his life in the U.S. and Brazil and Uruguay and Paraguay and Mexico. Somehow I was profoundly connected to those places- even though they were only abstractions or ideals- the exotic unknown took root in my imagination. On occasion, we would wear yellow to celebrate the Chinese New Year on the regular New Year’s Eve or sing the Happy Birthday song in Portuguese as well as English. Dinners often accidently (and sometimes purposefully) morphed Brazilian and Asian food together. Yet- despite everything, we were still very much American, or so my family tried to be anyway.
As I became older, notions of “race” and identity started to matter more. In high school, I was told that my limited number of sciences courses indicated I wasn’t Asian enough. In college, I was ineligible for many scholarships because I wasn’t Latina enough (despite my Brazilian citizenship). Perhaps my identity only became “fractured” because that was how others labeled me, but after a while I felt it more and more myself… So this winter, I returned to Brazil to better understand myself, and the land where my parents grew up and where they fell in love.
In Brazil, I blend in, and I don’t. Here, almost everyone came from somewhere else. The Spanish. French. Portuguese colonizers. Africans. After slavery was abolished, Japanese and other Asian immigrants flooded the country to build railroads for coffee transportation. The Germans came after World War II. I’m not really sure when the Middle Easterners got here, but they definitely left their mark on the national cuisine...
My paternal grandfather came here from the U.S. to work with giant computers in the ’70s- my maternal grandfather, with barely any elementary school, emigrated from Taiwan. With his overseas career, my paternal grandfather afforded new luxuries like private school for his children and live-in maids. My maternal grandfather, originally a peasant rice farmer, sold watches brought over from Taiwan. Under Brazil’s military dictatorship, he was soon convicted of tax evasion and sent to jail for two years. Life went on. Both brought their families over; both learned more Portuguese; both they and their children experienced racism and xenophobia. Immigration- wherever you come from- is never easy.
Here I feel more Taiwanese, Brazilian, Texan, more like an immigrant- more fractured and more whole. In the glow of the news and telenovelas, my grandfather and I eat steamed buns and dumplings with chopsticks. Ours shoes have been left at the door. We both are too embarrassed to speak Portuguese to each other. There isn’t that much to say. He prefers a nearly extinct Taiwanese dialect- I understand. It’s difficult to learn another language, even when you really want to.
My uncle and I speak a mixture of Portuguese and English. I ask him about life in Brazil. He asks me about Houston and my family there. Sometimes we talk about the human situation and watch movies in English and French (Portuguese is easier to understand with subtitles).
In rare conversations with strangers, I am proud to say I’m from Texas. They speak Portuguese too quickly, and I smile and nod and give short responses before leaving as soon as I can.
I’m glad to be returning to the United States tomorrow. I miss the feeling of being able to communicate without trepidation, to navigate the city without fear of becoming lost, to take a walk at night without too much worry... Still, a part of me will always be here and elsewhere in the other places I have been. Travel turns into memory, memory into mind, mind into identity. The where, when, and why of life becomes jumbled in the mindscape, and perhaps in the end everyone else’s identity might just be as fractured as mine is too.
Selling the Issue and Not the Person
Hands tightly wrapped around prison bars, a downcast girl sitting on a bare mattress, barcodes on skin, children looking longingly out of windows, naked women plastic wrapped in meat trays- all are exhausted symbols of bondage and commodification portraying human trafficking. At press conference in 2010, Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition furthered such rhetoric through an “auction” of two young girls (as seen in the trailer). While the girls played convincing “sex slaves,” the spectacle gave me an uneasy feeling that the dramatization did more harm than good. Graphic imagery has proven to be very effective in drawing public attention to the issue of human trafficking, yet it can also obscures the individuality of those actually trafficked and forms a limited (and often inaccurate) archetype of the crime itself.
In today’s sound-bite culture of rampant advertising, media endorsed by social service agencies can all- too-quickly peg trafficking survivors in very stereotypical (and often helpless) roles. However, when I interviewed a survivor of trafficking, I found that her incredible ingenuity and strength ran counter to the one-dimensional characteristic of a “proper” victim that I had heard about in many of the conferences and training sessions that I attended while researching this topic. While her several attempts to enter the U.S. were largely motivated by threats against her family (as with many cases of human trafficking), Ana’s ability to secretly marry a U.S. citizen and leverage his citizenship status to negotiate her trafficking situation, necessitates a more complex view of “autonomy” than is commonly portrayed in the media.
While moralistic campaigns may pull on the heartstrings of potential donors, volunteers, or trafficking ring whistleblowers, they also indicate that commodification of those trafficked occurs at the level of raising public awareness. By using the same techniques as mainstream thriller movies, docudramas, and print advertisements, many nonprofit organizations also open their PSAs up to similar criticisms against American media for the voyeuristic oversexualization of women. Although their dramatic imagery may be a telling commentary on what is now “necessary” to shock American culture, the ironic cycle of social services paying for advertisements that portray helpless women and objectify the sexual crimes committed against them is quite unsettling- especially when one of the primary goals from this endeavor is to gain both social and monetary capital for their organization. In addition, this method may create an artificial distance between human trafficking and more controversial (yet related) debates on illegal immigration, the War on Drugs, and fair trade. By selling simple stories and visceral images, however, nonprofit organizations may unwittingly further stigmatized survivors of trafficking as commodities to be sold to the public and used to carve out portions of federal and private funding streams.
How then can nonprofit organizations and coalitions effectively raise public awareness without further commodifying the very people they are trying to serve? Can the ends of doing good ever justify the means of objectifying people? Deciding that they did not, I resisted using reenactments of trafficking situations and other imagery of bondage in my film. However, I still wondered if I were guilty of the same crime I just denounced when I included the “auction” within the opening scenes of my film. The first step I took to answering this question was some serious self-evaluation and contemplation of my project’s purpose. In my final cut of Pack and Deliver, I ultimately decided to include the scene of the “auction” to more thoroughly portray how Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition portrays human trafficking. While I understand that they felt this was an appropriate, sobering method to draw attention at a press conference and garner support, I couldn’t help but think that there must be better alternatives to promote anti-trafficking initiatives.
With better practices in mind, the following list provides some practical steps to prevent the objectification of trafficking survivors:
- When using images to explain your organization’s role in anti-trafficking initiatives, avoid uncommon yet iconic depictions of human trafficking. For example, those trafficked are more commonly psychologically bound to their traffickers (rather than physically). Therefore, images of bars, handcuffs, and chains should be used more sparingly. In addition, labor trafficking is much more prevalent than sex trafficking, yet it usually receives far less attention in the media.
- Whenever possible, try to use vignettes written (or stated) by survivors of trafficking themselves. Provide them the opportunity to tell their story in their own words by creating a speaker’s bureau for them, putting a couple paragraphs about them on the organization’s website, showcasing their artwork, etc.
- Try to use the term “trafficking survivor” instead of “trafficking victim” whenever appropriate. However slight, the positive connotation of “survivor” highlights the potential resilience and strength of previously trafficked people.
- Go beyond simplistic, moralistic terms when describing human trafficking. In particular, discuss international human trafficking in a more global manner including demographic push factors, immigration policies, drug trafficking, psychological factors, and free trade policies.
- Focus on the people you are trying to help. Ask survivors of trafficking for their opinions and incorporate their suggestions into your marketing campaign.
- Reevaluate current campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking and set marketing standards that match your organization’s mission and goals.
With the establishment of many coalitions and task forces within recent years, I wonder how large of a role grotesque imagery has played in funding anti-trafficking initiatives. Without titillating spectacles, can a film, PSA, or awareness campaign remain poignant, accurate, and relevant? While the success of my own film remains to be seen, I firmly believe that demanding public action should not come at the cost of the further commodification and objectification of trafficking survivors.
Edited excerpts from Beneath the Surface, an exploratory study on sex trafficking in Houston.
Dottie Laster, one of the key participants in my thesis, interviews me on my new film "Pack and Deliver." Check out the show live at noon (CST) on www.herewomentalk.com
I am not one to twitter (yet) or write many status updates on Facebook. Still, I sometimes catch myself thinking of my life in third person. Here are some of the highlights from this week.
- walked a couple of lost Americans to the Mercado Municipal. Oh tourists... :)
- loves Brazilian shirts with English phrases- the best ones I have seen include "Happy Summer (wore in the winter)" and "Sexually Dyslexic."
- can barely breathe from all the (diesel, unleaded, ethanol) exhaust in this city.
- is watching a TV show with a French cook making Brazilian feijoada. Between the spoken French, Portuguese subtitles, and visuals I think I understood most of it :)
- thinks that Houstonians and Brazilians bundle up way too much for the winter when it's 70 degrees outside. I suppose any excuse to wear pea coats is valid...
- is looking for places to screen the new film!