Joanna Dreby ’94 – Writing Ethnographies to Share the Voice of Mexican Immigrant Families

Sociologist Joanna Dreby has received wide recognition for her written works examining Mexican immigrant families, and her deep commitment to the communities she has written about is unmistakable. Because Joanna came to academia with a background in social services and community-based work in the Spanish-speaking community, she has approached her sociological research with a grounded empathy that has made her a trustworthy ally to the families whose stories she wrote about in her most recent book Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families (2015).

The Fall 2015 issue of the Harvard Educational Review praised the book for its eloquent and sharp narrative about how immigration policy reaches deep into the daily lives of mixed-status (legal and illegal) Mexican immigrant families and credited the book as an important contribution to literature on undocumented populations. But it was Joanna’s fluid writing style that humanized the day-to-day experiences of the families affected by U.S. immigration policies that made Everyday Illegal such a compelling read, even for the non-academic casual consumer.

Joanna was first exposed to the concept of merging her interests of community work and sociology during an undergraduate internship at Coordinadora Nacional Indianista (CONACIN), a cultural organization that advocated for the rights of Chilean indigenous people, while she was studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.

“Through my internship I became involved with a research project studying indigenous domestic workers in the city,” said Joanna. “I loved Chile and that experience, and it made me want to major in sociology so I could study the communities around me [at Rutgers] and focus on my own country. I ended up coming back from Chile speaking Spanish fluently and became very involved with the local Latino community.”

Upon her return to New Brunswick, Joanna acted as a translator at Planned Parenthood, then, in her first job after college, she served as the Director of Human Services at the Puerto Rican Action Board, a community-based organization serving Latinos in New Brunswick. She also co-founded Unidad Cultural, an all-volunteer English as a Second Language community school.

During this time period (1990s), Joanna noticed a large demographic transition occurring in New Brunswick and across the country. The Mexican population was growing rapidly and there was no data about this emerging population for community organizations to access. This information void prompted Joanna to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Sociology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She continued to live in New Brunswick and commuted to New York though for the duration of her graduate program so she could maintain her involvement in the Spanish-speaking community that was so important to her.

In fact, the concept of her dissertation and first book Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and their Children (2010) was a product of her community connections. “One day I was teaching the future tense in my English class [at Unidad Cultural] and we went around the room saying what our hopes were for the future,” said Joanna. “One student said ‘I hope to see my children again’ and about one-third of the class repeated the same hope. I hadn’t realized at the time that many people had left their children in their home countries, so in Divided by Borders I explored that idea by interviewing kids whose parents left them to come to the U.S.”

Divided by Borders was highly praised and was named the recipient of the Goode Book Award, the Thomas and Znaniecki Best Book Award from the American Sociological Association, and the 2011 Book Award of the Association for Humanist Sociology.

Similarly, the inspiration for Everyday Illegal was a result of her sociological observations drawn from her surrounding community in Ohio, where she moved following the completion of her Ph.D. program for her first Assistant Professor position at Kent State University.

“When I first moved to Ohio, I thought ‘where is the Spanish-speaking community?” said Joanna. “I couldn’t see anybody speaking Spanish and it was jarring since I came from a very bilingual community where all my friends spoke Spanish and my oldest child was attending a bilingual preschool. So that’s when I had my idea for a second book, looking at the strong Mexican communities in New Jersey versus the dispersed immigrant communities in Ohio. I ended up narrowing my focus to look at immigration policies though because my research coincided with the Obama administration taking office, which had a hard stance on immigration enforcement. I was learning stories about families’ fears of deportation, as the Obama administration had more deportations than under any other U.S. president, and I felt that this story needed to be told urgently.”

Over the course of a few years, Joanna collected qualitative data through interviews with 91 parents and 110 children and participant observation with focal families in Ohio and New Jersey to understand how the singular experience of legal status, or lack thereof, affected the internal dynamics of mixed-status Mexican families.

“The field work is really exhausting, but I find that writing can be meditative and I enjoy it a lot,” said Joanna. “Sometimes ethnographic writing doesn’t feel great because it’s people’s lives and personal stories that I’m writing about at their expense. But I try to write them personally and I am committed to communicate their stories well. Because I felt like I was exposing all these families I interviewed to the gaze of the public, I thought I should do the same for myself and also added in my own family story in the last round of editing. I wrote the book without it at first but I decided I needed to include my story too.”

Since the book’s publication, the issue of U.S. immigration policy has been pushed to the forefront of headlines in national news, and Joanna hopes Everyday Illegal can help readers consider another perspective of the conversation.

Joanna is now an Associate Professor at the University of Albany, SUNY, where she has been since 2011. She is the daughter of former faculty members Ed Dreby and Katie Dole and the sister of Tim Dreby ’90.

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