It takes a certain kind of courage to pack your bags and move to another country where you have no connection to the region and haven’t fully overcome the language barrier. It’s not the kind of bold move that most people would make. But that’s exactly what college professor and author Allison B. Wolf did when she, her husband, and two children (ages 9 and 13) moved from the United States to Bogotá, Colombia.
In the midst of her full-time teaching career and acclimating to a new culture and way of life, Allison recently published Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account. The book is a deep dive into the very complex issue of immigration injustice and provides concrete examples of what it means and how to address it no matter what side of the border we live on.
As she states, “Most of us want to be the best people we can be and have a government that we can be proud of. I think if we start from those assumptions, we can have discussions that will actually be able to address the complexity of the issues and generate solutions.”
We caught up with Allison to learn more about her incredibly thoughtful and detailed book, what it’s been like to go from Iowa to Colombia, and how she and her family are adjusting.
Among the newfound insights she shares: “I realize that a lot of what I thought mattered (like working a million hours a week), really does not. People are what matter and the combination of the distance and the pandemic have made me really value and appreciate my family and friends in ways that I do not think I did previously.”
You’re a college professor from the U.S. Why did you relocate to Colombia and how long have you been there? Are your family roots based in Colombia?
Even though many of us who grew up in Los Angeles like to think of ourselves as part Latin American, my family has no connection to the region whatsoever. I first went to Latin America for three months in the summer of 2002, when I served as a teaching assistant in Costa Rica.
Honestly, I was not convinced that I even wanted to go. But I had a feeling that if I turned down an all-expense-paid summer in a Central American paradise, then I would have regretted it. So, I went … and I loved it.
I had never felt as at home, as relaxed, or as connected to a place as I felt in Costa Rica, even though I did not speak Spanish well or understand a lot of the culture. And so, while I decided to come back to the States to finish my Ph.D. and work, I never stopped going to Latin America, learning about it, or practicing my Spanish.
At this point, I have been to 11 Latin American countries (Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panamá, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile) and I still feel that comfort – the sense that I belong there. So, when the opportunity from Universidad de los Andes came up in 2018, I decided to go for it! We have now been in Bogotá for about a year and a half.
What are the main cultural differences you notice about living in South America versus North America?
I notice a lot of cultural differences between South versus North America. First, I have found that people are much warmer, more curious, and more open to helping others in South America than in the United States. They greet each other with hugs and kisses (COVID restrictions have been very hard on folks in that regard), they use affectionate nicknames with people on a regular basis, and they ask a lot of questions about the United States and life there.
A friend of mine recently taught me a Colombian phrase: “Donde comen dos, comen tres” – when there is enough food for two, there is always room for one more. I have found this to be true, in my own case anyway.
Whether it be countless offers of assistance in finding housing, employment for my spouse, and good schools for our children or the steady stream of invitations for playdates, lunches, and wine drinking, I have seen firsthand that Colombians live out a deep commitment to treating strangers kindly, compassionately, and justly. I wish I could say otherwise, but that is not something I see as a widespread goal in the U.S.
Second, as I have heard many times, Colombians work to live, whereas people from the U.S. live to work. That is, they have their priorities aligned to value time with family and friends and work is a job, not an identity. Since moving here, I have never been asked to read emails after 5 o’clock or work on a weekend. In fact, if I do these things (and I do), people tell me to relax. They live family values.
Third, when we first moved to Bogotá, someone told us: “In Colombia everyone is OK, but nothing is OK, whereas in the U.S. everything is OK but nobody is OK.”
I have thought a lot about that – in the United States for privileged people, such as myself, life is generally pretty good. And yet we are lonely, depressed, and anxiety-ridden. In Colombia, there’s a lot of poverty and insecurity and yet people tend to be happy. It makes me really think that the United States is confused about what makes for a good life.
How has uprooting your life changed your perspective of the world? How has your family adjusted?
I love living here and I love my job. But I have to be honest that my family wants to move back to the States for obvious reasons: my kids miss their friends, my husband misses feeling competent in the local language, and even I have to admit to missing my house (and everything it brought, like wine-drinking on the deck with our friends).
We were all starting to feel better and more settled when the COVID pandemic hit, which has been terrible for all of the Americas. Despite all of this, though, I think everyone is adjusting pretty well. We are making friends in spite of not being able to really see folks in person, the kids’ Spanish is getting really good, and we are starting to establish some Colombia-specific routines (like Cinnamon Roll Saturday). So, hopefully, when the pandemic abates we can keep going on our path to getting adjusted.
Still, making this move has changed my perspective on numerous things.
For one, I realize that a lot of what I thought mattered (like working a million hours a week), really does not. People are what matter and the combination of the distance and the pandemic have made me really value and appreciate my family and friends in ways that I do not think I did previously.
Picking your life up also makes you appreciate little things and realize what you took for granted before – like knowing who to call if you feel sick, being able to ask a friend for help picking up your kid if you are running late, and going to Target (or even having a Target).
But, most of all, this experience has enriched my capacity for empathy for those who struggle, for those who feel like they are lonely or need a new start but do not have the resources to take the leap, and, unsurprisingly, for those who immigrate with far fewer resources (economic, social, linguistic) than I have.
What inspired your new book, “Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account”?
Ever since that first stay in Costa Rica, I became interested in global justice and immigration in the Americas. But since I was already working on health care justice and ethics related to childbirth, I decided not to pursue it academically.
Then, in 2014 there was a large influx of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. from Central America – some searching for their parents who had come years before, others to escape terrible violence, poverty, and a sense of hopelessness in their home nations. I could not believe the harshness and coldness of the public debate and felt I needed to start doing something.
So, like a good academic, I turned to the philosophy of immigration literature but realized that almost nobody was taking up this issue. In fact, I did not see or hear philosophers in any of the public or academic discussions on the issue.
This sparked my curiosity and, in short, I realized that both the academic and public discussions were in dire need of both a feminist perspective and an approach to immigration justice that really understands Latin America and its history with the U.S. And the idea for the book was born!
Based on the description, the book appears to be very timely for today’s world. Was that part of your motivation to write this book?
Absolutely! This book did not come about as an abstract musing or a desire to fix some philosophical problem removed from the real world (though I have tried to do that in the book too). On the contrary, it came out of a deep, visceral response that I had to use my talents to do something about the immigration injustices I (and all of us) are witnessing all too often.
In my case, my talents are as a thinker, a writer, and a philosopher, so that was my approach. As I alluded to in my last response, I think that the public discussion is really lacking because it is not engaged with philosophy and the philosophical debate on immigration is wanting because it’s too often disconnected from the real world. There are some exceptions, like the work of Amy Reed-Sandoval of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and José Jorge Mendoza of the University of Seattle.
I wanted to write a book that would address both issues to help us finally improve immigration policy both in the United States and throughout the region. And I hope that it helps offer some insights into the current situation.
Your book doesn’t simply explore the nature of immigration justice in theory, but it explores what it looks like in practice. For those who haven’t read it yet, can you provide an example of this?
Thank you for the question. I always appreciate the opportunity to clarify these things. Generally speaking, I argue that immigration justice – in theory and in practice – is about resisting and eliminating oppression (global and domestic) in the lives of immigrants. So, in the book, I explain what oppression is about and then show where it is actually present in real people’s lives.
For example, following feminist philosophers like Marilyn Frye and Iris Marion Young, I argue that oppression is like a birdcage that traps immigrants and leaves them no good options only because they are immigrants from specific nations. There are many ways that the cage forms and traps them, though – systemic violence, exploitation, marginalization, just to name a few.
After going through all of this theory, I show how different concrete policies – the family separation policy, attempts to end DACA, third party agreements, and the Remain in Mexico Policy – trap immigrants in cages in these ways.
For example, by forcefully taking (I say kidnapping) the children of Central American immigrants, the United States uses violence to trap these immigrants in ways that give them no good options – stay in their home nations and risk being killed or come to the U.S. and lose their children.
They are trapped with no good options. In this way, reading the book helps provide a better understanding of what constitutes immigration injustice in theory and in practice.
Your book touches on a variety of topics that aren’t just complex, but also controversial for many people. For instance, you analyze policies such as trying to end DACA, deporting working migrants, separating families at the border, etc. Do you think it’s possible to have a public discussion about these subjects without devolving into further political division and strife?
I certainly hope so. I realize that in our current political climate this probably sounds naïve, but I know that most of us do not want to perpetuate injustice against anyone, including immigrants. Most of us want to be part of the solution rather than the problem, and most of us do not want women raped and children kidnapped under the false pretense of our safety.
I can genuinely say that I have rarely met someone who intentionally and proudly wants to participate in the oppression of others (though I certainly do not deny that people like that exist).
On the contrary, most of us want to be the best people we can be and have a government that we can be proud of. I think if we start from those assumptions, we can have discussions that will actually be able to address the complexity of the issues and generate solutions.
To do that, though, I also think we need to include academics in the discussions much more (philosophers, sociologists, historians, etc.) so that they can be a bit removed from the political arguments of the day.
What do you hope people will get out of reading the book? What will they learn from it?
Thank you so much for asking that question. More than anything, I hope people will learn two main things from reading the book:
1. How unjust (and thus deeply harmful) immigration policies are both in the United States and in other Latin American countries as well (often as a result of U.S. pressure).
2. We can do something to change this. In other words, I don’t want people just to read the book and get depressed and angry; I want them to use that anger to get educated and politically active in the issue so that they will fight to make things better for immigrants throughout the Americas. And it is possible – things have not always been this way.
In fact, as I discuss in the book, the way we deal with immigration in the U.S. is very recent and things do not have to stay this way. We can make changes and I hope the book helps show people why we should and inspires them to get involved to do it.
Do you plan on writing more books? If so, will they cover the same topics?
I do hope to write more books on immigration justice. Right now, I am working with my brilliant and wonderful colleagues at Universidad de los Andes both in the Philosophy department (Catalina González Quintero) and in the Law School (Carolina Moreno and Gracy Pelacani), exploring the relationship between immigration justice, the law, and the way we speak about Venezuelan immigrants in the Colombian context. I am hoping that these projects culminate in books.
I am also hoping to write a book on the philosophy of immigration using the case study of Colombia. Colombia is a really interesting country when it comes to these issues – many of its citizens have immigrated to other countries, the nation has one of (if not the) largest population of internally displaced people within its own borders, and now it’s dealing with a large influx of immigrants from Venezuela.
Finally, and this is a bit different, I am also working with a fabulous colleague, Jennifer Thompson, who is the Chair of Jewish Studies at California State University, Northridge on an anthology on Jewish Applied Ethics.
I am a proud Jewish feminist and it has always surprised me how little we turn to the rich and wonderful Jewish ethical tradition to explore contemporary issues. It has also long bothered me that many people, even Jewish people, do not realize that Jewish ethics goes well beyond rabbinical commentary and biblical texts. So, Jennifer and I are creating a text to start to change all of that.
Homegirl Talk is all about celebrating and promoting women from all walks of life. Who are the women who have inspired (and continue to inspire) you?
As a committed feminist, I am indebted to so many women who inspire me in a whole host of ways. Of course, I am indebted to the women of my family – my mother, Laurel Wolf, my sister, Wendy Wolf, and my late Grammy, Lenore Moss – because they have all given me incredible role models of how to be strong, caring, intelligent women who chart their own diverse paths but never falter in supporting each other.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to those feminists who came before me but especially those women who taught and mentored me (some indirectly and others intensely) but who many of your readers have likely not heard of:
Marilyn Frye, Alison Bailey, Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr., Lisa Schwartzman, María Lugones, Judy Andre, Ann Garry, Linda Hirshman, Naomi Schemann, Stephanie Rivera Berruz, Shireen Roshanravan, Gabriela Arguedas, and Kristie Dotson, just to name a few.
All of these women are brilliant thinkers who in a variety of ways took me under their wings and taught me countless lessons about philosophy, feminism, and life. I wish more people learned about the great feminist philosophers that are affecting change every day in their classrooms, in their programs, and in the lives of people in their communities.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with other women?
Never forget – you are not alone and you are NOT crazy! You are right to get angry at sexism, frustrated at hypocrisy, and enraged when you are treated unjustly – AGAIN.
I know that may seem like odd advice but women (and many other members of marginalized groups) encounter injustices every day and so often that our experiences are diminished, denied, or mocked.
Consequently, many feel like they are the problem. But that is not true – the unjust, sexist, oppressive system is the problem.
And there are lots of us out there who know you are not crazy and who will be there to support you to fight so that the women who come after us do not have to do so as much. We can resist oppression, we do it every day, and you are not alone or crazy for wanting to do it too.
Thank you so much for your time and for helping me get the word out about my book!