The following is from the 2007 edition of The SMU Research Magazine

Coming to America, integrating as citizens

Anthropologist Caroline Brettell
Caroline Brettell

Canadian Caroline Brettell took a long walk in her neighborhood the day before her naturalization ceremony as a U.S. citizen in 1993. “The moment was emotional because you give up a part of yourself when you renounce and abjure your country of birth,” says the anthropologist, who has studied immigration issues for more than 35 years.

Now the Dedman Family Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and dean ad interim of Dedman College, Brettell first entered the United States in 1967 on a student visa to attend Smith College, then transferred to Yale University. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Brown University. Brettell later married an American citizen and obtained a green card, which she owned for 18 years. She decided to become an American citizen to obtain the full rights of citizenship, including not only the right to vote but also the right to serve as executor on a spouse’s estate and to obtain inheritance exemptions that are automatic for citizen spouses, a right being challenged at the time by a proposed law before Congress.

The tug between old and new worlds experienced by all immigrants is familiar to Brettell. She wrote in the September 2006 issue of American Behavioral Scientist, “Bridging the divide between reason and emotion, between citizenship (with the rights and responsibilities that accompany it) and identity, and between political belonging and cultural belonging is something that many first-generation immigrants in the United States face.”

Indian couple participate in a puja
An Indian couple participate in a puja, a blessing for their new house.

Brettell, who joined SMU in 1988, is considered one of the leading cultural anthropologists on the role of women in the migration process, as well as the movement of populations among countries and incorporation as citizens into their new cultures and societies. She began researching the subject for her senior thesis at Yale University, and since has written 48 books or book chapters and 36 articles for scholarly journals.

She has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation for her research. With a recent $445,000 NSF grant Brettell has studied various immigrant groups and how they integrate into the economic, social and political fabric of their new communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, considered an emerging gateway city of immigration. The study examines the populations of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Asian Indians, Vietnamese, and Nigerians who have moved to the area since the 1980s. The research crossed disciplines, drawing on the expertise of SMU professors Jim Hollifield (Political Science) and Dennis Cordell (History), as well as political scientist Manuel Garcia y Griego at the University of Texas at Arlington. Brettell and Hollifield also collaborated on and co-edited a widely used text, Migration Theory: Talking Across Disciplines.

Asian strip shopping mall
An ethnic strip shopping mall, which can be found throughout the area.

Through interviews with the immigrant groups, Brettell found that they become naturalized citizens for pragmatic reasons but identify with and remain emotionally attached to their cultural roots. She asked them to assess what it means to be American on one hand and Indian/Nigerian/Salvadoran/Vietnamese on the other. “Most respondents do not want to choose between being one or the other,” she says. “They believe they can be both, and will emphasize different identities depending on the situation and context.”

A 2005-07 grant from the Russell Sage Foundation is funding research on citizenship practice and civic engagement among Asian Indians and Vietnamese in the Dallas area. Brettell and Deborah Reed-Danahay have co-edited a collection of articles that explore the issues in Immigration and Citizenship in Europe and the United States: Anthropological Perspectives (Rutgers University Press, under contract).

Brettell continues to maintain a full research agenda while juggling the responsibilities of dean of Dedman College, an act that is not without its challenges, she says. In fact, Brettell believes that being an active researcher helps her better understand the issues that faculty face when balancing the roles of teaching and research, and the many steps they encounter when applying for research grants. Having participated on review panels for the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities, “I know how competitive it is to get these grants,” she says. “It takes patience, mentoring and support, particularly for junior faculty.”

For more information visit Brettell's Web page.

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