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American by Paper

How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy

2016
Author:

Kate Vieira

American by Paper

A richly enlightening look at literacy as lived experience

American by Paper reveals how two groups of immigrants who share a primary language nevertheless have very different experiences of literacy in the United States. It is both an ethnography, filled with illuminating details about contemporary immigrant lives, and a critical intervention into two leading—and conflicting—scholarly ideas of literacy and its social role.

I leave Vieira’s book feeling deeply that ours is a crazy system: Why keep piling documents on top of documents, making of them a wall to the world? Why should migrants—people—have to choose between the time-consuming work of pursuing English or caring for their families? Why make migrant lives any harder than they already are? American by Paper urges us to rethink all that we ask of those who seek a better life.

Catherine Prendergast, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

American by Paper reveals how two groups of immigrants who share a primary language nevertheless have very different experiences of literacy in the United States. It describes the social realities facing documented and undocumented immigrants who use everyday acts of writing to negotiate papers—the visas, green cards, and passports that promise access to the American Dream. It is both an ethnography, filled with illuminating details about contemporary immigrant lives, and a critical intervention into two leading—and conflicting—scholarly ideas of literacy and its social role.

Although popular thinking and scholarship have viewed literacy as a method of culturally assimilating immigrants into the nation, Kate Vieira finds that upward mobility and social inclusion in the United States are tied to literacy in complex ways. She draws from extensive interviews with Portuguese-speaking migrants who live and work together in a former mill town in Massachusetts that she calls South Mills: one group from the Azores, who are usually documented, and another from Brazil, who are usually undocumented. She explains how migrants experience literacy not as a vehicle for assimilation (as educational policy makers often assert) nor as a means of resisting oppression (as literacy scholars often hope) but instead as tied up in papers, particularly in the papers that confer legal status. Papers and literacy are inextricably bound together, both promoting and constraining opportunities, and they shape why and how migrants read and write.

Vieira builds on insights from literacy theories that have long been in opposition to each other in order to develop a new sociomaterial theory of literacy, one that takes into account its inseparable link to paper, forms, and documentation. This point of view leads to a deeper understanding of how literacy actually accrues meaning by circulating, and recirculating, through institutions and the lives of individuals.

American by Paper

Kate Vieira is assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

American by Paper

I leave Vieira’s book feeling deeply that ours is a crazy system: Why keep piling documents on top of documents, making of them a wall to the world? Why should migrants—people—have to choose between the time-consuming work of pursuing English or caring for their families? Why make migrant lives any harder than they already are? American by Paper urges us to rethink all that we ask of those who seek a better life.

Catherine Prendergast, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Relentless in its critique of literacy as a social practice and in its effort to develop a counter-narrative, American by Paper forces open a conversation that has been lingering but has not received the kind of attention it deserves.

Juan Guerra, University of Washington

A riveting account of those pursuing the American Dream.

CHOICE

American by Paper

Contents

Preface: An American with Papers
Acknowledgments
Introduction. How Documents Matter in Migrants’ Lives
1. Literacy and Assimilation in an Age of Papers: The View from South Mills
2. “American by Paper”: Azorean and Azorean American Literacy Lives
3. Undocumented in a Documentary Society: Brazilian Literacy Lives
4. “It’s Not Because of the English”: Literacy Lives of the Young
Conclusion. Lessons Learned from Transnational Lives: Toward a Sociomaterialist Literacy
Epilogue
Notes
Bibliography
Index