VFH Fellow Jennifer Bickham Mendez, Associate Professor of Sociology at William and Mary, shares some results from her ten-year, ethnographic study of Mexican and Central American immigration to Williamsburg, Virginia.
Her research explores what happens when this community, which considers itself the “birthplace of American democracy” becomes a destination not only for students, retirees, and tourists, but for a culturally distinct group of newcomers whose presence challenges the dominant narrative about what it means to be American.
Bickham Mendez places at the center of her work the lived realities of this latest group of settlers to the Williamsburg area, as they seek to make a life in their new surroundings. Her work uses cases of local people’s daily lives as a window into broader trends in the nation and in a globally interconnected world. At the same time she presents the perspectives and experiences of native-born service and healthcare providers, professionals, and social workers who struggle to contend with the changes that immigration has brought to their work and community. The experiences of exclusion and hardship, but also triumph and resolve of this group of newcomers add texture to overly simplistic rhetoric about the “immigration problem.”
The unique position that Williamsburg occupies within the foundational story of the United States, makes this “new immigrant destination” an ideal case study for addressing pressing questions for democratic societies in the 21st century.