Literacy Learning in Migrants' Homelands


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Jaú, Brazil

Jaú, Brasil джау, Бразилия

Jaú, is a mid-sized town in the interior of São Paulo, Brazil, a four-hour bus ride from the state capital. With a modest rate of outmigration, some wealthy residents send their children to study abroad in the U.S. or Canada; others attempt to gain higher education certificates abroad, because it is seen as less expensive, less competitive, and potentially of higher quality than accessible Brazilian education; and others engage in labor migration, traveling to Japan, Europe, or the U.S. to work.

While Brazil as a whole has been a notable sending country of immigrants since the 1980’s, and there are just under 2 million Brazilians living abroad (Margolis, 2013), many of Jaú’s residents do not migrate. Judging from the rate of automobile ownership (1 for every 2 residents), Jaú is riding the larger national trend of middle-class growth (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, 2013). 

What highlights migration-driven literacy practices in Jaú, then, is not that everyone leaves, but that most tend to stay. 

Felipe, for example, whose brother migrated to the U.S., grew up in Jaú, where both his parents were born. He married his high school sweetheart, then moved into a house across the street from her parents, who had built the house there for that purpose. (His wife’s brother lives next door in an identical house with his family). Felipe visits his father daily at lunchtime, and weekend activities often include extended family gatherings, where his brother is missed. 

Residents think of Jaú as quiet, friendly, safe, a town securely ensconced in Brazil’s interior heartland—a collective belief that makes the absence of one member of the community noteworthy. 

Daugavpils, Latvia
Daugavpils, Letónia Даугавпилс, Латвия

Daugavpils, Latvia is is the second largest town in the former Soviet and newly minted European Union state, Latvia. Like Jau, it is nestled in the interior of its state and is four-hour bus ride away from the capital. Unlike Jau, however, Daugavpils is facing mass population loss due to migration.

During the recent global recession, Latvia’s economy floundered and its unemployment rate rose above 20%. It faced what Latvian economist Hazans has called a “demographic disaster.” During 2009-2010 alone, Latvia lost between 40,000 and 80,000 inhabitants to emigration (Hazans, 2011), contributing to its net migration rate of -4 per 1,000 (Population Reference Bureau, 2012). 

Latvia, with a population of 2 million, is weathering one of the highest rates of population loss due to migration in the world—higher than that of Mexico (-3) and comparable to many places with longstanding conflict (Population Reference Bureau, 2012). Both the popular press and Latvia’s prime minister have referred to this mass outmigration as “brain drain,” pointing to children being raised by grandparents, schools closing, and the iconic tragedy of Latvian civil engineers leaving Latvia to pick strawberries in England. 

It seems nearly everyone has a family member living or working abroad. These departures are difficult to bear, but as one participant said of his two children who left for Germany: "They have no future here." Or as the running joke goes, "The last one to leave the country should turn out the lights in the airport." Daugavpils has clearly lost valuable knowledge, skills, and experiences as educated citizens emigrate. Yet in the process of brain drain, more informal kinds of literacy learning are quietly underway.