Mobilities, Values, and Citizenship: An Interview with Carla Santos

This is part of our special feature Governing the Migration Crisis.

There’s a subtle poetry to how European migration to North America is often understood—i.e. as a vestige of a bygone era, the residue of migratory waves that shaped the institutional contours of nascent American republics but have since faded into the ether, lost to time. While this romanticism may be endearing to some, it’s betrayed by a simple truth: Europe and the “New World” remain linked in the here and now. To wit, the spectre of European migration still roams the streets of the New World, its legacy immortalized in infrastructural developments, cultural products and ethnic enclaves scattered across global cities like New York, Toronto or Chicago, the host of next year’s International Conference of Europeanists. Professor Carla Santos—Program Co-Chair of the conference, Director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois and Professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism—recently joined me to explain how Europe and the New World continue to intersect, due to both contemporary migratory processes and the echoes of the past. Her insights are incisive and brilliant, and should serve as a clarion call for more interdisciplinary work examining the connections between Europe and North America.

—Sakeef Karim for EuropeNow


EuropeNow Thanks for joining me, Professor Santos. I’ll begin with a general question about the 25th International Conference of Europeanists, which will be taking place in the beautiful city of Chicago in 2018. As Program Co-Chair, how would you describe the overarching theme of next year’s conference?

Carla Santos Thanks for having me! Our goal for the conference is to bring together colleagues from a variety of perspectives, approaches, and fields, the core ethos of CES, to consider the dimensions and dynamics between existing and emergent mobilities or immobilities, values, and citizenship. We are especially interested in work that underscores, from a comparative and international perspective, the contemporary social, cultural, and political challenges that are facing Europe. Our overarching theme is really in response to increasing recognition and calls for the need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach, particularly across social sciences and humanities, if we are going to ever understand the wide-ranging and powerful processes of mobility, within and outside of Europe. This is central because these processes are reconfiguring identities and citizenship regimes across European nation-states. The challenges and opportunities faced, of course, span party politics, political governance, security, economic policy, and community building and well-being, and collective self-understanding. And we are really looking forward to meeting with our colleagues in Chicago to discuss and learn about the ways that we can better conceptualize and address these pressing issues.

EuropeNow Let’s shift our focus to Chicago, host of next year’s conference. Chicago—like many urban agglomerations in the New World—relied heavily on migratory inflows from Europe until migration policy reforms were enshrined in the ’60s. Today, migrants from Latin America and Asia constitute a disproportionate share of the city’s foreign-born population. This may lead some people to think that the link between Europe and Chicago is weak, or that the linkages that do exist are relics of a distant past. This not only ignores large populations of Polish, German, or Ukrainian migrants in the city today, but is belied by your own analysis of how history plays a constitutive role in how we think about ethnic spaces within cities. With your own work in mind, can you briefly talk about how junctures between Chicago and Europe—and really, the New World and Europe—endure in the twenty-first century?

Carla Santos I think you’ve brought up one example: the Polish community. If our attendants travel through Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods—and I hope they do—they will notice that the European identity component is really salient there. We have a very strong Scandinavian neighborhood in Chicago that maintains a core commitment to educating the population of Illinois, not just Chicago on contemporary issues in Scandinavia. There are a number of museum exhibits about current issues in Europe, as well as the struggles and challenges that those emigrating from Europe to Chicago experienced. So effectively, that connection to Europe continues to evolve. The Polish community, again, is historically strong and continues to grow. There are individuals of European descent who reside in Chicago, but who are curious about the role of the EU in their native lands, as well as the challenges facing Europe. These are individuals who may have emigrated from Europe a long time ago. Some of them are first or second generation, others have recently immigrated. They often represent themselves as European, travel back to Europe regularly and use those travels as part of the way they claim and represent their European identity and lineage. In my work, when I’ve interviewed folks in the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago, one of the things I find is that they travel quite frequently back to Europe, and often refer to Europe as “home” when it comes to claiming a lineage. Indeed, many do so via a discussion on roots travel and genealogical tourism. There is still a very strong connection between them and what’s happening in Europe. And they continue to reflect on it. Many of them buy local European TV channels so that they can get access to news at home. For those who had children after arriving in the United States, there’s a strong push for their kids to learn their native language.

And there are, to be sure, a lot of events in the city. To your point about history, there are many events that happen in these ethnic neighborhoods that hearken back to what happened in Europe, back to what it used to be, but also reflect on what it is now. And so, to me it was fascinating that, despite the perception that people who emigrated from Europe—including myself—transform and change in host societies, there are certain historical constants that endure once European subpopulations are examined empirically. In my own work, I find that immigrants to ethnically European neighborhoods in Chicago still maintain a connection to Europe, to their nation, to their home country. They maintain that through cultural activism, mass media, friends, and family, as most of them still have family still in Europe. So, that linkage with the original nation continues to be very strong.

EuropeNow Great answer! Let’s shift gears once again and zero-in on ethnic neighborhoods. In your work on Chicago’s Chinatown, you mention that the rise of the ethnic tourist industry in the city is a function of broader programmatic, ideological, and economic shifts, such as multiculturalism or the commodification of diversity. How has tourism affected ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago and the city as a whole? Are there significant differences between European and non-European ethnic enclaves, both in how they approach tours and the manner in which they’re affected by exogenous sociopolitical shocks?

Carla Santos Compared to the Asian neighborhoods that I’ve studied, it seems rather apparent that European ethnic neighborhoods haven’t confronted the commercialization of their culture to quite the same degree. Chinatown, for example, has really moved forward with transforming the ethnic neighborhood into a business enterprise. I would argue that the Ukrainian, the Polish, the Irish, and the Scandinavian communities are not as attached to that dynamic. There’s more of a desire to educate the general population about cultural issues, issues going on in Europe and the struggles they went through when they or their families first arrived in the US.

With communities from Asia, what I saw was more of an amalgamation of identities in service to tourism, and due in large part to market forces. Most people in Chinatown are perceived to be Chinese, although many aren’t. The ethnic neighborhood, in the context of Chinatown, is a commercial initiative. It’s also a way for Chinese and other Asian communities to claim stakes, or claim a place in Chicago while profiting. That’s the difference that I see between some non-European communities when compared to, say, the Ukrainian neighborhood or Andersonville, the Scandinavian neighborhood, where the preservation of history and educational initiatives are more valued.

The Chicago Office of Cultural Affairs came up with the slogan, “… see the world in your backyard,” painting Chicago as a representation of the world at large. For European communities, the slogan became an opportunity to educate Chicagoans of all stripes about their unique histories, both in Europe and in America. When you go on ethnic tours, you meet in downtown Chicago, get on busses, and pick the neighbourhoods you’re going to visit. Let’s use Greek Town as an example. During tours to Greek Town, guides take you to eat pastries and patronize different establishments, but there’s an educational component to the tour as well; for instance, a guide will take you to a grocery store and explain how the products are used and combined in Greece. Of course, they’ll still want you to buy products! But embedded in the tours is a desire to educate the tourists about a particular ethnic neighbourhood and its connections to Europe. In Chinatown, there’s a very different approach; guides talk a little bit about Chinatown and how it came to be in Chicago, and then they let you walk about and visit the stores. So, it’s a very different approach.

EuropeNow Of course, and I have a quick follow-up question to that point. In your analyses of Chinatown, you bring up ideas about how dynamics in the neighborhood are beholden to shifting social, cultural and economic paradigms vis-à-vis the profitability of diversity. Are European communities in Chicago insulated from these broader ideological shifts because they constitute what’s normative, in the sense that—as you’ve noted—a great many Americans can trace their roots back to Europe, making racialized communities from the Global South more susceptible to broader market or economic reconfigurations?

Carla Santos I think you’ve hit it right on the head. They are more susceptible to those forces. It’s also worth noting that most of the people going on ethnic tours are themselves of European descent. Therefore, when they’re on tours in European neighborhoods, what they’re facing and what they’re coming across is people who look like them and cultures that are reasonably familiar to their own. So, European ethnic neighborhoods are, to varying extents, distanced from the larger forces I refer to in my work. However, it might come down to an issue of subjectivities. Perhaps it’s not so much that European ethnic neighborhoods are not commodifying or commercializing their own culture, but that tourists—like the ones I interviewed—didn’t perceive it that way because it’s less foreign to them. Somehow tours to European ethnic neighbourhoods don’t “feel” like commercial enterprises to those who travel to those neighbourhoods. And keep in mind that a lot of the time, the tourists that are coming into these neighbourhoods are from suburbs in Chicago. Thus, ethnic tours become a way for them to experience the city, meaning we need to think about spatial factors as well, and how they influence our perceptions of different neighborhoods, and different subpopulations. The space Chinatown occupies is very isolated and demarcated. The roads around it really keep it far from the rest of the city. You have to want to go into Chinatown, you don’t just happen upon Chinatown. The Chinese or Asian population has also experienced more mobility in the form of gentrification, and have been more mobile during their time in Chicago. There’s been far less mobility for European groups; when it comes to neighborhoods, many ethnic European communities are where they’ve always been. And so, there’s less of a need to demarcate the space that they occupy. Conversely, when you go into the Puerto Rican or Asian neighborhoods, you know you’re there and there’s a lot of visual representations; the European neighborhoods have less of that. They’re not void of it, but they have less of it.

EuropeNow They blend in more?

Carla Santos Yes, and they’ve been there forever, so they’ve not dealt with having to move out. They haven’t had to face as many struggles with the city to recognize that they belong there. The fact that these ethnically European neighborhoods have, in some ways, been “preserved” is important to note. Visiting them will therefore be a great opportunity for the people coming to the International Conference of Europeanists. The different European ethnic neighborhoods will provide the attendants a great opportunity to experience how Europeans have settled in the US, and the different ways they’ve done it. And Chicago, with its different ethnic neighbourhoods, provides such a great context for us to make sense of the relationship between the United States and Europe, given the dynamics we have going on currently. It’s a great opportunity for us to consider our relationship to Europe and how it continues to manifest, not just in products, but also in discourse. My hope is that the attendants, or those participating in the conference, will really take the chance to move about in the city and visit the neighbourhoods to which I have alluded. I would be curious to see how they encounter them. The exhibits, the food, all these things are very present … but they’ve been nicely blended with Chicago as a whole.

EuropeNow We’re reaching the end of our brief interview. Before I let you go, I wanted to circle back to the beginning of our conversation. Thus, how can the 25th International Conference of Europeanists—with its focus on mobilities as well as social and cultural sustainability—be an opportunity to address some of the issues affecting Chicago today?

Carla Santos Well, Chicago has seen a growth in tourism development over the years. I’ve observed it over the last 15 years. And there are certainly changing issues in Europe that are being reflected in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, and our research in tourism development and management has not yet caught up to it. We do know that tourism is linked to migration and to issues of economic, social and cultural sustainability, but we need to probe further. We need a lot of other scholars—from a diverse set of disciplines—at the table with those of us in tourism. Furthermore, there are trends as well as challenges and opportunities around migration that are linked to tourism that we need to dig deeper into. We have a large number of migrant workers who have moved to ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. The issues they’re dealing with—issues such as quality of life, integration, distribution of power and resources, employment, education, basic infrastructure and services and social justice—have not been fully examined. My hope is that this conference allows us to consider those issues and deconstruct them; issues like access to influential decision-making, to use an example, need to be put under the microscope. In Chicago, some neighborhoods have access to people who make decisions, but some don’t.

To conclude, if you think about who works in these ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, the labor force is largely composed of migrants and immigrants. The mixing of all the different European cultures makes Chicago a perfect location for us to come together to talk about issues of mobilities and present our work, but it also offers us the opportunity to get out of the conference and experience a city that is struggling, still I would argue, with how to represent and fully embrace and mobilize its ethnic European neighborhoods while recognizing that these neighborhoods remain very strongly attached to Europe. These are dynamics that, in the US, we’re going to have to deal with as we consider and explore the impacts of our transatlantic partnerships and relationships moving forward.


Carla Almeida Santos is the Director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois and a Professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research program examines communicative practices as a means of addressing the socio-political and cultural impact of tourism development on the world’s people and cultures. Her work appears extensively in the premier national and international journals in her field, and has been featured in numerous media outlets such as CBS News, Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. She holds additional faculty appointments in the Department of Landscape Architecture and the Department of Anthropology.

Sakeef M. Karim is a second-year PhD student in McGill University’s Sociology Department, and is affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship and McGill’s Centre on Population Dynamics. He is broadly interested in international migration, comparative race and ethnicity, and demography.


Published on October 2, 2017.


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