Birthdays, Transnational Families, and ICT (Sondra Cuban)

Sondra Cuban is Professor and Director of the Adult and Higher Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham (WA). Her most recent book is Deskilling Women Migrants in the Global Care Industry (2013) based on research she did in England.  Her current research has focused on high- and low-skilled immigrants in the Seattle area and how they communicate across borders with their families.

This post appeared on her blog December 23, 2014.



Having a 4-year old girl who is fascinated by birthday parties, I rarely see a children’s book on this topic that isn’t sickly sweet and pink–most are miniature barbies.





Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash by Monica Brown/Sara Palcios (illustrator) isn’t one of those. The main protagonist dresses in soccer, pirate, and princess clothes destroying all gender stereotypes in one fell swoop. Although the clothes theme and the birthday theme are paramount here (when interviewed on NPR and other places Brown talks extensively about this), the real focus is on family, cultural transmission, with the computer technology functioning in the background of these relationships.

Here Marisol, a U.S. born inter-racial girl is so tired of talking to her grandmother in Peru on the phone because the “telephone connection breaks up, and I can’t even hear her voice” and she finally gets a chance to “see” her grandmother after two years on her birthday.


Here Marisol hugs the computer screen:

 “¡Feliz compleaños Marisol,” she says and we both laugh. “I’m still waiting for my visa, but I used some of the money you sent to buy my very first computer and get an internet connection. Now we can talk and sing together and I can see your pretty face all the time.” “Te quiero mucho,” I tell aburelita, “I love you so much.” Then I give the computer screen a great big abrazo” 

 This new view of intimacy through ICTs for grandchildren that is shared among transnational families who, separated by immigration policies, have to find creative ways to communicate, share feelings, and love one another across the miles, even if it seems to us like salty “seconds.” Marisol’s experience however is unlike anything I’ve seen or heard.

In my study, the children of parents who migrated often fail to develop close relationships with grandparents left behind because of the lack of communication, language, and shared daily lives that no amount of computers or phones can compensate. A number of these children have never actually seen their grandparents although they do see pictures and hear their parents talk about them. More than one mother in my study told me her children pass back the phone quickly to her or refuse to talk in the first place. These parents feel hurt when this happens.

Yet they are adamant about their children speaking Spanish in the home not because they plan to return but because they believe it is the right thing to do in terms of cultural transmission and it has the potential to create better bonds across the generations. When asked, many mothers however confessed that their school-age children knew how to speak, read a bit, but not write in Spanish, leaving oral transmission through information and communication technologies one of a very few options for these children. In addition, none of their schools taught Spanish language literacy. Birthdays were often opportunities to call and talk to parents and sometimes, as some participants told me, they would discuss traditional foods they ate.

Unlike, Marisol, few of the parents who were low-skilled (of these, most had an elementary level of education) used Skype or web-based services to communicate with their family  because of either not knowing how to use it or not having access in their home due to resources or Internet connections inside or on the other end–across the border.

For the ones who depended on these mostly for their communication, they admitted it could feel a bit empty—much of this connected to the device itself–computers were much less depended on for family communication than phones. One father I spoke with lived in a shelter in Seattle. He admitted he didn’t want a computer because it would be “too heavy” and would prefer Facebooking his 14-year old son in Mexico on his smartphone that uses the wifi signal of the Home Depot he stands in front of regularly trying to get a construction job. He says good morning and good night to him and when his son Facebooks back, he knows that he is “there.”

This migrant worker can’t afford any more than this type of communication and he has “settled” for this level of intimacy. Any more might mean his son could learn in fact he wasn’t just renting a room in a boarding house. Marisol, like the other children I’ve seen while I do interviews in people’s homes, seem acutely aware of the emotional distance between themselves and these far-away family members in a way that the parents, who are forcing the ties from a long way away, make themselves believe are relevant. The social presence, of just letting someone know they are still alive seems like where the ICT best functions.

These women’s ICT interactions were significantly different from the high-skilled immigrants I interviewed who used Skype often and frequently to talk to their families, even having dinner conversations with one another across the miles–as I did when I lived in England. I’ve found that high-skilled migrants make myriad digital connections, and rarely use one format. But there are some differences too. I rely on email for personal messages to friends as if they were letters, with greetings and endearments—and this may be because as an academic, I spend a general large amount of time on the computer itself.

In my research hardly any of the women who were low-skilled— care givers or house cleaners or farmworkers–used emailing to friends and family members, but instead used it only for business purposes as a part of a “record”, and this went for those women who were highly skilled and frequent and advanced users of digital media making me wonder if emailing is a strictly American thing or a “professional” behavior, of those who are on the computer a lot.  One woman said she had an email account but never really checked it, and this was echoed by a number of other women, high-skilled and low-skilled. The other issue is that when a computer exists in a home, children often use it and this was the case for many women who owned a computer, even if they knew how to use it.

Back to the children, in fact I’m on Skype so much my daughter drew a picture of her favorite stuffy (of the week), “reindeer” and me Skyping her on my computer.

Skyping a Raindeer









The children in my study who I met while interviewing their parents in their homes wanted to use Skype to communicate even if their parents never did. Yet their birthdays, for better or worse, were defined more by who was immediately in front of them.







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