Psychoanalytic perspectives on the impact of immigration on the identity of the Hispanic population
Alicia Naveas Leiva
Saint Louis Psychoanalytic Institute
Saint Louis, MO, United States
This research was supported by the Saint Louis Psychoanalytic Institute while the author was a Research Fellow on that Institution. Alicia Naveas Leiva is now a graduate student at the Department of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, University of Missouri- Saint Louis. Special thanks to Gabriel Ruiz, Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute for supervising the author during the development of the research work presented on this article.
Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Impact of Immigration
On the Identity of the Hispanic Population
With the purpose of an in-depth understanding of how migration affects Hispanic immigrants. This qualitative research looks to explore, through focus-group workshops, the impact of the migration on identity dynamics of this population.
In this initial study, I will synthesize the narratives of this particular group, their migratory experience, and analyze them through an object relations frame. This particular model outlines the development of the child’s psyche, emphasizing infant-mother interactions. In this research, object relations theory and concepts of Identity are applied in a systemic context. Furthermore, this research and theoretical application encompass immigrant’s redefinition of their identities based on new “motherland” interactions.
Keywords : Immigrants, Hispanic Immigrants, Object Relation Theory, Identity, Motherland, Focus Group.
Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Impact of Immigration
On the Identity of the Hispanic Population
When providing psychological treatment to Hispanic immigrants, it is important to understand their culture as well as the impact of the migratory process on their identity. The latter is of paramount relevance given how immigrants undergo a complex adaptation process, which can be problematic if misunderstood.
Immigration is a deep experience which triggers Intra-psychic pain and conflicts in the individual. Identity crisis, loss and mourning, emotional lability, and linguistic/symbolic transformation are some of the issues that can be experienced by an individual going through an immigration process. From the beginning of immigration experiences, the individual is marked by destabilizing cultural shock (Akhtar, 2011).
In order to understand the impact of the immigration process, I would like to refer to the analogy of the relationship between the mother and child. In this model the “Mother” refers to the “Motherland” which provides a secure base to an individual who is embedded in the culture of the land. Traditions, values, and social rules shape the identity of a person. “Motherland” provides a mirroring function, inducing feelings of belonging while simultaneously reinforcing one’s cultural identity. In this sense, the impact of migrating to a new land could be understood from the level of “mismatch” between the current socio-cultural identity and the new one offered by the new land or the “Step Motherland.”
A nascent sign of this mismatch occurs when an individual looks back and wishes to go back to the secure base, the motherland. The process of mourning sets off feelings of having left something behind, threatening self-cohesion, as ones tries to fit in this unknown place. Salman Akhtar (1999) would refer to the consequences to this mismatch as crisis identity and coined these crises experience as the “third individuation process”: “the cultural shock shakes up the individual identity, new channels of self-expression become available, there are new identification models, different supper ego dictates and different ideals, one thing is clear, immigration results in a sudden change from an average expectable environment to a strange, unpredictable one” (p.5)
One component of this individuation process is learning a new and unknown language which may drive the individual to regress to earlier periods of psychosocial development. In these periods the validation of the self is done through the new words acquired that bridge the relationship of our inner world with others. Some individuals may take longer than others in becoming functional in the use of the new language; however, for others, this may never happen.
If during identity crisis there lacks moments of reparation, the person becomes stuck in this period which can provoke a disorganized behavior (e.g., addictive behaviors). Psychotherapy can provide a “Transitional space” where an immigrant could “go back” to the secure base, and repair the misattunements between the foreign land and the Motherland.
Using this Psychoanalytic perspective, the analogy of “Motherland” may be observed through Object Relations theory, specifically from Winnicott’s concept of Transitional space, Transitional phenomena, Holding environment, good enough mother and mirroring function.
Identity from an Intrapsychic to a Psychosocial Approach
“Any attempt to trace the developmental origin of identity is complicated… most likely because of its hybrid nature. Far from being purely an Intrapsychic construct, identity has an unmistakable social referent” (Akhtar, 2011, p. 49).
Defining the concept of identity is not an easy task. It can be observed from multiple perspectives, from an intrapsychic perspective to a social context. Yet what is identity? From an intrapsychic level, the child develops the sense of self through the interactions with others, particularly from the relationship with an important caregiver who will fulfill a fundamental role in the psychic and emotional development of a child. However, the development of the self does not begin and end in this childhood dyadic. The child continues developing their sense of self at a systemic level (social context), in which, through different cycles of life, identity is consolidated. In this sense, the concept of identity would contemplate internal and external aspects based on the interaction with others, it will have a unique hallmark, and will be dynamic through life.
Object relation theory
At the intrapsychic level, the object relation theory allows us to understand the development of the self through the primary interactions with others. In these first stages of life, mother as a primary object is internalized in the infant’s mind; this interaction –gratifying or unresponsive- will contribute to the mental development and the infant’s self-state. (Pine, 1990). This is an internal representation that will lead to the individual to create patterns of interactions with later objects relations.
The Psychoanalyst and Pediatrician Donald Winnicott citated in Caldwell & Robinsom (2016) observed the importance of the mother as a “Facilitating environment” In this first interactions the child recognizes the world through the mother who plays a “role of mirroring.” In this relationship; the infant needs to experience being seen by the mother. The infant looks to the mother’s facial expression in order of being able to see him/her self. The attunement then from the mother to infant emotions will help to create “an authentic sense of self.” When mother is not able to mirror the infant, because she is the only absorbed in her feelings, the child will not be able to recognize her/his emotions, so child’s exchange with the world will not be possible. The lack of attunement and mirroring will cause what Winnicott terms a “false self.” (p. 211- 218)
When the role of the mother is “good enough”, the infant can create a feeling of trusting. Under this context, the infant began to recognize him/herself and differentiate from the mother, going through the symbiotic phase to “The Transitional Phenomena” (intermediate/between area) to the reality. The characteristic of this phase is very specific since the infant begins to phase –at the same time- the inner reality and the external reality, the recognition of the self and others, the “me” at “not me” is present in this phase (Caldwell & Robinsom, 2016, p. 447-462)
One way to adapt to reality is through this “Transitional Space” and the use of a “transitional object” (soft toy or blanket/ thumb/sound) which allow to the child to bring an extension of the self through an object that is not him/her but is not the object either. Symbolically the infant will represent the connection with the mother but will move this experience to reality through this transitional object, gradually the process of separation individuation begin. (Praglin, 2006)
Other studies have contributed to understanding the importance of development of the self in this interaction with an important caregiver; John Bowlby investigated how a child was psychologically and developmentally affected by the temporary early separation or loss of the mother, and how this emotional deprivation may lead to regressive states in the development of the child. Aniston, proposes that the development of the self would be focused on the quality of interaction between mother and child which will influence the development of a child’s capacity to form an integrated self. Later on, the research of Ainsworth describes three types of attachment: secure, insecure and disorganized. Relating to the secure attachment, there is a good quality of the interaction where the mother is fully emotionally available, creating feelings of security in the child. Meanwhile, the mother who is very disconnected or not emotionally available will create an insecure attachment; this child will perceive and feel insecure and unprotected. Finally, in the case of disorganizing attachment – there is a high-risk factor of developing a psychological disorder in the child. (Bretherton, 1992)
These studies may leads us to conclude that the mind of the child does not develop by itself, but rather within the context of a relationship with others, especially with an important caregiver who becomes the frame of the child integration, coloring the infant expectations and serving as an organizer of experiences from the very beginning.
Psychosocial Development on Identity
The developmental process continues, and the child goes from a dyadic to group/ Social interaction. It is from this point that the concept of identity diverge, and be defined from a psychosocial perspective. Under this approach, the social context will have an impact on identity development. Identity is not a static process referred to the stage of childhood, but rather a dynamic psychosocial process that is established across the life span.
For Erik Erikson (1993), there would be a progressive development of an identity that would imply new transformations in different stages of life. Erikson classified eight stages of life between childhood to adulthood, dividing each of these stages in dualistic categories. Mentioning them briefly, those stages are described in Table 1:
Table 1: Summary of Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages
1.BasicTrust v/s Basic Mistrust
Child feels safe when important early figure provide a sense of trust, affection, and care. Quality of maternal relationship provide rudimentary sense of Ego Identity in the child (p.347) Lack of this type of interaction leads to mistrust.
2.Autonomy v/s shame and doubt
Child begins to explore the environment. The child needs to develop a sense of control so child can experience positive self-esteem, and pride. Failure in this stage brings feelings of shame and doubt.
3. Initiative v/s guilt
3 -5 yr.
Child experience more control and power over the environment. When the child expresses too much power, the child can experience external disapproval, provoking shame.
4. Industry v/s Inferiority
When the child experience validation from others, create a sense of competence. Lack of success leads to inferiority.
5 Identity v/s Role confusion
The adolescent needs to develop a sense of self. Success in this stage implies true self; meanwhile, failure in this stage leads to role confusion.
6. Intimacy v/s isolation
Consolidate an intimate relationship, a loving relationship with others. Failure in this stage of life implicates isolation.
7. Generativity v/s stagnation
Success in this stage brings feelings of usefulness and accomplishment of life. Meanwhile, the failure leads to feelings of uselessness.
8. Ego integrity v/s Despair
65 yr. to death
To see behind and observe what it had been done, with feelings of fulfillment. Success in this last stage brings wisdom, meanwhile failure results in regret and despair.
Observing the Psychosocial Identity development by Erikson, reaching a positive identity would be associated with the ability of an individual to face various crises that allow him to advance to the next stages of development. Meanwhile, diffuse identity would be associated with various crises that have not been resolved.
Social / group Identity theory
The concept of Identity roots in connection with others, with the initial internalization of the dyadic interaction (primary caregiver-child) and later on in the relationship of the person in a social context. The process of internalization also occurs at a systemic level. The internalization of a group object also begins to play an active role in the formation of the self.
For the Latin American sociologist Larraín (1996) Psychosocial Identity would be understood as a process that develops in social interaction where internal self-knowledge would be a function of the recognition of others that we have internalized. In this way, this author identifies some elements that determine the process of identity configuration; among them, identity as a result of social relationships and the influence that culture exerts on personal identity.
In the first element, the individual is inevitably identified with certain shared social categories such as religion, sex, profession, nationality elaborating their identity in terms of these social categories. For other authors, such as the French sociologist Claude Dubar (2002) the identity construction, being the product of a process of socialization, forms the image of the self according to the recognition of the other in spaces of social interaction. In this reciprocal exchange that is objective and at the same time subjective, the individual assumes an identity that is given by another and can hardly evade.
Identity from a social perspective, according to Henri Tajfel (2010) is understood as that part of the individual- which derives from their knowledge of their membership of a social group/s together with the value an emotional significance attached to that membership/ how the individual sees himself or herself in relation to his context.
When the individual bases his self-concept on the belonging of groups, the meaning of value, and emotional type that is associated with such belonging arises along with it (Hogg & Vaughan, 2009). By identifying with a particular group, the individual sets in motion intergroup comparison processes. In this comparison, the thoughts and behaviors of the individual are oriented to positively highlight the group to which they belong. In this way, because the evaluation of the self depends on this comparison, the individual will avoid comparing when it implies a negative contribution to their social identity, the out group tends to be devalued, generating a positive social identity and self-esteem (Ibáñez, 2011).
The Focus group –workshop
These two-session workshops were offered in two communities clinic; Casa de Salud and the Saint Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, and it was open to any Hispanic immigrant interested in exploring the topics of immigration and identity. The workshop at Casa de Salud (group 1) was offered in July 2018. Meanwhile, the workshop at the Psychoanalytic Institute (group 2) was offered in August 2018. Both; Casa de Salud and the Saint Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, are agencies that work to promote mental health in the community but present different characteristics regarding their clients and location in St Louis, Missouri.
Casa de Salud opened in 2010, and works primarily with the Immigrant community (with a special emphasis on Latinos), offering clinical and mental health to this uninsured population. In 2018 they extended their mental health services, opening a new building and program called Mental Health Collaborative (MHC), giving clinical psychotherapy to immigrants trough the partnership of different mental health agencies (St.Louis Psychoanalytic Institute is one of them). Casa de Salud is located in mid-town of the city; this area is a low-income area.
Saint Louis Psychoanalytic Institute opened in 1974; it is an educational center providing psychoanalytic training and psychotherapy through the Schiele Clinic, which offers high-quality, in-depth professional assessment and treatment on a sliding-fee basis. The Schiele Clinic began to work with Hispanic immigrants in 2014. This agency is located in Ladue/Clayton of Saint Louis County; this area is a high-income area.
The Group as Container of Emotions
In Group 1 – session 1, I was struck by the speed with which this interaction began. From the beginning of the first session, the dialogue in this group was quite cohesive; people began to interact and give their opinion freely and fluently. It seems that speaking the same language facilitate the participants positively. This made me change my initial plans going from experiential exercise to a conversational space. My feeling is that there was a great need to search for a space that could contain them, and the language was a bridge to be able to express their thoughts and emotions freely.
In group 1, the themes that prevailed in the first session were a concern for children, particularly the children of immigrants, the relationship with their Hispanic parents, and the fear of losing their Hispanic roots. Concern about these issues could have meant a rather projective group experience, where the theme of “children” can be seen as a safer way to talk about their own experiences as immigrants.
In this sense, the Spanish language seems to be associated with the Hispanic roots, as part of a cultural identity that the immigrant would not want to lose. The emotional tension of incorporating a new language, makes me think of a resistance to incorporate new internal elements that can transform their sense of identity. The fear would be to become American by replacing their language and their roots.
As the conversation between them seemed to move forward, the emotional intensity in this group grew, especially in the face of issues such as feelings of non-belonging, feelings of rejection, and cultural identity as Latino immigrants. One of the participants, in particular, began to be a channel of these emotions, giving his testimony, raising the tone of his voice and showing his clear discomfort in this situation.
In this sense, there was a high need for the group to become a place of contention in the face of intense emotions such as frustration and rejection. The dynamics in this group in particular, is that while one part of the group freely expressed the emotions of discontent, others reacted and tried to deliver more encouraging messages for the other participants.
However, despite this positive reinforcement, there were many moments of tension in which other participants continued to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the immigration experience, such as the discrimination they feel against the ruling government. I think the latter is important to mention since the immigration experience would be related to the historical moment that these people are living.
In the second group, the subjects were related to the injustices and the difficulties of being an undocumented immigrant. In this case, his dialogue with this situation was not only associated with the emotional experience of being an immigrant but also because of the external restrictions that a Hispanic immigrant has to face due to his situation of being undocumented.
In session 1 of this group, it caught my attention that the feelings of abandonment and non-validation in the initial stage of their immigration were more evident, except for one member who had found in the faith fundamental tools to get ahead of the hard experiences that he had to live. In this case, their limitations were no longer physical but rather mental.
This group was also more suspicious and skeptical about the objectives of the workshop. I think the feelings of abandonment were more palpable in this group, where life stories were more extreme. From my side, I also felt frustrated; it seemed that the workshop was not enough to be able to contribute to what they were experiencing.
Following the idea of emotional content, in this group, the second session was only with one participant, but the exercise of free drawing was powerful: In Session 2, to explore the emotions about this migratory experience I did an activity where this person has to draw and symbolize their experiences presented in the session.
The participant drew the following: On a sheet, the participant split the page in two with a strong line. In the left side, she draws a big tree with a lot of dollar symbol (as fruits), and a person crying with her hands opened facing the right side, while on the right side of the page there was a cactus and a group, like a happy family. On the edge of the sheet she wrote “Reir llorando” (laughing crying).
“The Carnival of the world is so deceiving,
That the lives are shortly masked;
Here we learn to laugh with tears
and also to cry with Laughter “
(Poem: Laughing Crying
by Juan de Dios Peza)
Regarding her drawing, this participant wrote the following: “I am with a feeling of losing everything I was, to be another, sometimes happy and sometimes sad, crying and smiling, enjoying and longing. Many times alone, among so many people.” At the same time, I also tried to draw a symbol that could represent the emotions talked by this participant during the second session, and what I heard from the group number 1. My drawing was related with a person inside of a box with a chain in her hands and wanting to push one of these walls. The following words were inside of this box; “courage, frustration, sadness, loneliness, frustration, confusion.” On the reverse side of the page, I wrote the following:
“This drawing symbolizes the migratory experience of the participants in the sessions. How these people have felt during their migration. The box is the walls with which a person has had to face … these feelings are present in the life of an immigrant.”
Phantasies, Transferences, and Countertransference in the Groups
In the first and second group, the phantasy pre-arriving to the USA was related to coming to this new country and having a better quality of life. It looks to me that this pre-arriving, phantasy is very strong and triggers in the immigrants to “leave everything”: country, family, their life and friends.
Once they arrive at this new culture, most of them complain about the difficulties of feeling isolated. Missing their families is a big component since they began to feel isolated here. Both in the first group and the second, the phantasy of building an “outstanding” life in this country began to change when they began to face internal and external barriers. The internal barrier was related to psychological and emotional restrictions, such as dissatisfaction, feelings of loss, non-validation, and puzzle about who they are in this new land. Meanwhile, the external barriers were related to lack of opportunities, low salary, and being exploited to very long days of work.
Another phantasy is related to the freedom that legal documentation can provide to them. Obtaining a legal status would be associated with the fantasy of being free, validated, and accepted in this country. However, the issue of discrimination is still present in the participants, even though some of them are already North American citizens. On the other hand, the nostalgia for loss and belonging of the country of origin also continues to be present, represented as a particular aspect of the “Self” that is yearned for and that one wishes to reconnect.
For those participants who cannot reach this legal status (“legal documentation”), we could say that this situation has an impact on the way they feel treated in this country. The disqualification given from outside would give a negative connotation to their identity as immigrants.
This negative connotation giving from an outside group looks to be something that the immigrant looks to fight against, wishing to show up the beautiful aspect of being a Hispanic; like their traditions, culture, and history, but with the melancholia of not being able to find spaces where they could continue reinforcing and enjoying their heritage. The idea of showing the best on them looks important for these immigrants, so people from this country could see beyond this negative connotation that sounds unfear for them.
Countertransference with the group
One of the things that happened to me during the workshop time was the emotional exhaustion from working with this group of immigrants. I began to feel tired, especially after each session. This surprised me a lot since I was anxiously waiting for this workshop to work. I believe that the fact of being an immigrant myself could have influenced this process, especially by my own experience of adapting to this culture.
There was also a part of me as an immigrant that wanted to unload all of this heavy emotions. These feelings could have been related to how I perceived the group 1 when the participants began to speak freely about her migratory experience. I interpreted this first encounter as a cathartic moment for the group.
The intensity of this catharsis in this two groups, also makes me think about myself as a transitional object for them, the mourning loss of their country and the intensity of their complains about their experience in this new country, makes me feel tired since both groups had high expectations related with the workshop. In some ways, I felt responsible for giving them an immediate answer from their migratory experience, a type of conclusion or solution to that. I also felt responsible for the group, not to leave them aside, to take care of them.
Their dissatisfaction and frustration with some migratory experience, makes me think in the feeling of abandonment or being on their own. To deal with something unknown and oppressive that they cannot defeat. I am wondering if they saw me as a “Motherland” when I was feeling a container of their emotions, especially of their complaints of this new land which is not giving an answer to them and a proper opportunity for growing up.
The identity of the Hispanic Immigrant (Group 1 & 2)
The narrative of each group constructed their concept of Identity as an immigrant. This narrative considered their own experiences as an immigrant in a context where nowadays, migration policies negatively impact their identity. The type of interaction with this “new motherland” makes the immigrant feel insecure and not accepted. Using the psychosocial stages of Erikson, it can be observed that these stages are experienced from the negative pole of the stages (example: mistrust, shame, role confusion, and isolation), which does not allow to the immigrant develop a positive identity.
The stages proposed by Erikson can be seen in each participant as a revisiting psychosocial development. The process of immigration will imply to regress to earlier stages of life where the person builds a sense of trust in their new environment. The lack of validation from others, in this case, the hosting country, could drive to role confusion.
Related with the age of each member and their psychosocial development, this regressive experience can bring a mismatch between their age and psychosocial development. People who migrate being an adult will struggle to find a place in this new territory, conflicting with the internalize own culture and new culture. Most of them showed a diffuse identity. From a negative pole, few of them will reject this new land as the way to protect their own identity, identifying with one culture or another. Meanwhile, from a positive perspective, few people experienced this process as a learning process where they have been learning to adapt to this new culture incorporating both cultures in their identity development.
It should be noted that this type of identity is also related to contextual elements. There is a negative identity that is given from the outside group (American context) that is imposed, but that is rejected by these group of immigrants. This mismatch between what this immigrant feels and how they are perceived from outside, create a frustrating feeling. The interaction between the American environment and this group of immigrants would provide a distorted mirror, disorganizing their inner world. The reparation of this mismatch is also important in this group of immigrants who are looking for a nurturing maternal land that can provide them an opportunity of development and the possibility of showing the best of the Hispanic inheritance.
In this group of immigrants, there was a high desire to express their migratory experiences with the group. It is necessary then, to create spaces of therapy where immigrants could vocalize their experiences from the time of pre-moving (explore fantasies of the immigrant) and post-migratory time (mourning process, the language barrier, misattunements with new motherland and feelings of belonging). Using the analogy of a “Holding environment” by Winnicott, the therapist needs to validate the migration experience and work with these trauma and loss.
These Hispanic immigrants construct a new identity based in their migratory experience. Unfortunately, the type of interaction with this “new motherland” makes these immigrants feel insecure and not accepted since there is a negative identity that is given from the outside group (American motherland). The interaction between the American environment and this group of immigrants provoke a distorted mirror; that bring confusion and frustration to this minority group. However, there is a desire for a nurturing maternal land that can recognize them and validate their Hispanic inheritance.
In these two groups of immigrants, there is also a mismatch between the immigrant’s age and their Psychosocial Development. The therapist needs to consider that a migration process brings to the immigrant to the first stages of the psychosocial cycles of life, implying a re-organization of the sense of self. For example, in this new relationship with the new motherland, the immigrant will be confronted with the first stage of life where they have to develop “Trust v/s Mistrust.”
The immigrant’s Psychosocial Development is experienced in the negative pole of the stages (Mistrust, Shame, Role Confusion, and Isolation). These negative characteristics could be associated with the acculturation process but also the immigrant’s experience with the outside group (new motherland). In this searching of Identity (“who I am in this new Motherland”), the immigrant experience the outside group as harmful; because the outside group assigns a negative identity to them. This connotation is perceived as unjust by the group of immigrants, mainly because the immigrant group sees their Hispanic roots as a precious one. If we continue the analogy of “motherland,” the immigrant doesn’t feel recognized by the outside group.
Because of the high emotional demand of these two groups, I perceived my role as insufficient. This countertransference let me think of myself as a negative object that did not give them a satisfactory answer toward their complaints and unpleasant experiences in their migratory process (Me as the new motherland). However, I could also observe a strong desire for participating and group cohesion, especially in group 1, which make me think that I was most of the time a positive object for them (me and the group as a motherland).
The workshop space/ therapeutic space can works as a “transitional phenomena” where the therapist can become a bridge between these two cultures; motherland (immigrant culture) and the new motherland (outside environment). The group as a transitional space can reinforce the immigrant cultural Identity and allow them to adapt to this new motherland. So they can positively continue their psychosocial development.
Nowadays, due to the fear that immigrants have toward this new motherland, the experience of participate in a group and speaking about their experience as an immigrant could be initially viewed with distrust. But, the feelings of belonging and identification with other Hispanic immigrants could be an element of healing due to the reconnection with their roots.
Finally, this work with the Hispanic population can be more challenging to an immigrant therapist since migration experience can provoke emotional triggers. It will also require the therapist to work in a social/community frame, creating good enough networking that can sustain and contribute to the therapeutic work.
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