Faculty books to be featured in 'UO Authors, Book Talks' series

Kristin Yarris

Kristin Yarris will be the first faculty member featured in the inaugural “UO Authors, Book Talks” series that begins next month.

Yarris, an associate professor of international studies, will read excerpts from her book “Care Across Generations,” followed by a discussion on the pivotal roles Nicaraguan grandmothers play in intergenerational care and transnational migration.

The debut for Yarris and “UO Authors, Book Talks” will be Nov. 6 in the Knight Library Browsing Room. The event is a recognition of University of Oregon faculty members and their books.

The second “UO Authors, Book Talks” will take place Feb. 12 in the Browsing Room. It will feature Kirby Brown, associate professor of Native American literatures, and his book “Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907-1970.”

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate scholarly work than to put a spotlight on our faculty authors,” said Patrick Phillips, UO’s provost and senior vice president. “UO authors provide a tremendous impact with their original scholarship, and their dedicated efforts enhance the reputation of the entire university by showing the world the important contributions we make to a wide variety of fields.”

The events are sponsored by the Office of the Provost, UO Libraries, and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Yarris, who also directs the UO Global Health Program, spent a year in Managua, Nicaragua, working with Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, a migrant justice organization. The work included taking testimonials from migrants who returned home and their family members to develop ways to better protect Nicaraguans working in Costa Rica and Mexico through changes in policy.

Through these testimonials, Yarris was able to meet 24 families and work with many of them to produce material for her dissertation, which later turned into the book. “Care Across Generations” takes a close look at grandmother care in Nicaraguan transnational families.

University Communications sat down with Yarris to discuss her experiences and her book. Portions of the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How did you find yourself in Nicaragua?

A: When I was a public health student at UCLA, I taught medical Spanish and was able to meet students who made service learning trips for medical students to go to Latin America. I went with them to Honduras once and then twice to Nicaragua as a translator for volunteer medical brigades. Through that work, I met nonprofit health organizations in Nicaragua, was able to understand the historical and cultural context better, and wanted to go back.

I got involved with a social justice organization, Witness for Peace Southwest, which advocates for change in U.S. policy toward mainly Latin America and the Caribbean. I was a volunteer and then became a member on their board of directors. That opened up opportunities for me to work in Managua.

Q: Did you receive any other cultural misconceptions around your book and the roles of grandmothers?

A: One thing that has been challenging for me — in writing the book, talking about the book, in teaching my students — is U.S. students, audiences or publics tend to jump to the conclusion that awful patriarchy exists (in other places) and we have it so good (in the U.S.) where there are no problems with gender and equality, which obviously isn't true.

What I've tried to do in the book is be sensitive in talking about the layers of social, historical, cultural, economic and legal configurations that leave grandmothers particularly vulnerable to being threatened by children’s fathers who take the remittances mothers send home and why that might be happening.

Q: Would you mind explaining the relationship with fathers more?

A: It’s hard because it’s a real thing. Feminists in Nicaragua have this saying, “El machismo mata,” which means machismo kills. Which is true; there are very high rates of femicide. Women die at high numbers in Nicaragua at the hands of intimate partners, husbands, the fathers of their children. Yes, it's a real thing. But I also don’t want to paint all Nicaraguan men with that brushstroke that they’re violent or don’t care about their children, because obviously that isn’t true.

There have been misconceptions about men, their roles, and why I didn’t talk to more men. The truth is, often they weren’t around. The households are matrifocal. I tried to get men’s voices, but the truth is that most of the care in these families is done by women.

The other misconception that I’ve had to be careful to not fall into the trap of is that mother migrants abandon their kids. I go through painstaking measures in the book to not paint mothers that way. I try to describe the factors pushing mothers to migrate and the steps they take to send remittance home for their kids. All of the mothers in my book care about their kids and are thankful their mothers can care for them. They’re waiting for when the “grand bargain” pays off, and they can be with their kids again.

Q: As you continue your work in academia, are you seeing your book complement the research you are conducting?

A: Yes, definitely. After the book, my next project was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation studying transit immigration in Central America through Mexico. The research questions I asked were less about families in migration but still about the role of migration and family care.

I spent a few summers in Sinaloa, Mexico, looking at how women were informally mobilizing along freight train lines to provide care for families in migrant situations. I’m currently working on a local project looking at networks of volunteers, refugee asylum seeker resettlements and sponsorship work in Lane County.

Q: You touched on this, but given our political climate, have you faced challenges discussing migration with students?

A: I’ve been glad that I teach classes on migration, that I have a book on migration and that my book is ethnographic. When students and other people read ethnographic work about migrants and their families, it humanizes things in a way that politics, media or tweets dehumanize and desensitize people.

Human stories help people and students ask questions like, “Why is it so hard for people who are here lawfully to bring their children with them lawfully?” They don’t realize that it is so difficult, it takes 10 years or other miscellaneous reasons why people are leaving to create a better life for their children.

—By Jessica T. Brown, University Communications