La Dolce Vita: Desires and Despairs of Latin American Migrants in Rome – By Hillary Kaell

Hillary Kaell on Valentina Napolitano’s Migrant Hearts and the Atlantic Return

Valentina Napolitano, Migrant Hearts and the Atlantic Return: Transnationalism and the Roman Catholic Church, Fordham University Press, 2015, 248pp., $28
Valentina Napolitano, Migrant Hearts and the Atlantic Return: Transnationalism and the Roman Catholic Church, Fordham University Press, 2015, 248pp., $28
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Arrayed in white before the crowd at St. Peter’s in Vatican City, the newly chosen Pope Francis first addressed his Church by doing something unprecedented: he asked the people to bless him before pronouncing a blessing of his own. “Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me — in silence,” he said, bowing his head. The feeling of newness swirling around Francis’s election could be felt from the moment he was selected. He is the first pope from the Americas, commentators excitedly remarked.

Born of Italian parents in Argentina, Francis is an almost-too-good example of what anthropologist Valentina Napolitano calls “the Atlantic Return.” She is referring to migrations of Latin Americans to Rome for a variety of reasons, including clergy and female religious who attend seminary or hold Church offices but, more commonly, people of the humbler variety seeking employment. The economic migrants constitute a highly feminized workforce, securing jobs mainly as in-home caregivers for children or the elderly. As elsewhere, their fate is often precarious. Napolitano traces the vagaries of government, as conservatives have made the status of undocumented workers illegal (a criminal offence, not a civil one), and have restricted migrants’ ability to sponsor family members. She also follows debates about the use of public squares, which many Italians insist the migrants do not properly respect. Italian bishops weigh in on different sides of these heated debates. While some clergy reiterate the conservative line, others strenuously disagree. Indeed, the Church provides nearly all the available social services for migrants, including emergency care, job placement programs, and recreational spaces.

These realities set the stage for Napolitano’s multilayered study of how “returns” unfold in places much less noticeable than the balcony of St. Peter’s. She begins with Rome’s Latin American Mission (MLA), housed in a sixteenth-century church tucked away in Trastevere. It is ground zero for Latin American migrants in Rome who come for worship and social events, and Napolitano uses it as a home base from which to follow numerous threads of connection outwards to encompass papal theologies, Guadalupean devotions, and religious orders. At the heart of her narrative are the women who comprise the majority of economic migrants. Rather than treat the “migrant community” as a block, however, Migrant Hearts continually tacks back to their individual trajectories; at times, they are happily freed from difficult family lives in Latin America and at others they are “enwalled,” as Napolitano puts it, by failed dreams of wealth and security or erotic longings, and also by the literal walls that restrict their movements as live-in caregivers.

Migrant Hearts begins by explaining facets of Italian politics related to migration, as well as theologies within the Catholic Church. It explores two modes of migration, in orders like the Legionnaires of Christ and among individuals seeking employment. Napolitano also discusses the Virgin of Guadalupe, including the cult’s public instantiation. Finally, the book juxtaposes the experiences of women working within Italian homes with Latin American sisters who have moved to Roman convents. Theoretically speaking, affect is a central axis around which much of the discussion turns. It is a framework both highly attractive and vague at times, seeming to refer to everything from fantasies to ideas to emotions, both conscious and unconscious. To some degree the broad span speaks to something larger than this particular study: despite the emergence of important texts that offer some coherence — for example, the noteworthy Affect Theory Reader — scholars have come to use affect in a bewildering number of ways across many disciplines. Yet in so many exciting new studies of religion, we owe a lot to the “affect turn” as well; Migrant Hearts could not have come about without it, or certainly not in this form. More particularly, it is indebted to the work of Sara Ahmed on embodied cultural politics of emotion. To this, Napolitano adds a sophisticated line-up of other social theorists, including Foucault on biopolitics and feminist work on Lacan.

The bodies of women caregivers, but also the metaphorical body of Latin American believers, undergird the trans-Atlantic migration from the “periphery” of global Catholicism to its very heart in Rome. The migration speaks to the anxieties and hopes that from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries fueled the mission to purify and convert the indigenous people of the New World. Now the “natives” have become the new apostles — bringing much needed lifeblood to the failing European church. It is a fantasy of conversion, argues Napolitano, reiterated in the New Evangelization of the pontificates of John Paul II, and especially Benedict XVI. In this sense, Napolitano’s work fits with a new and welcome wave of anthropological work on Catholicism that is complicating notions of center and periphery, for example Deirdre de la Cruz’s Mother Figured (2015), which we discussed recently on the New Books in Religion podcast. Napolitano’s study is especially compelling since it takes us right to the heart of, well, Roman Catholicism, thereby distilling how ideas, hopes, and fantasies are entwined at the center of what she aptly calls the “passionate machine.” She uses the term to foreground how the Vatican is a bureaucratic state, as well as a multifaceted political subject that propels the passions and affects shaping global migration.

The Roman clergy who support Latin American migrants most strenuously against legal exploitation and conservative state politics theologize them in Catholic terms as suffering, devoted mothers who work on behalf of families (both their own and their Italian employers). Comparisons are drawn to Jesus and Mary’s flight into Egypt, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, when they were driven from home during Herod’s reign. This theology of contemporary migration and displacement has much broader resonances beyond Italy; I heard it often in my work on Holy Land pilgrimages. Catholics, Anglicans and “mainline” Protestants (both foreign and Palestinian) employ it with regard to Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land and — more apt here — the largely economic migrations that have so drastically depleted their population. Just as Palestinian Christians employ such theologies themselves, so do Latin American migrants in Rome.

Yet fundamentally, Napolitano writes, the twin fantasies of New Evangelization and the suffering, devoted migrant are continually disrupted by migrants’ own agendas and, importantly, their (female) sexuality. Separated from their families, the women indulge in erotic fantasies, sometimes begin extramarital relationships or create “mixed” families by marrying Italian men. Thus the migrants are paradoxically elevated as embodiments of the Church’s “culture of life” that puts (the nuclear) family at its center, while at the same time (sometimes radically) undermining it.

At the heart of these disrupted fantasies is perhaps the biggest one of all: a Catholic humanitas. The term, which Napolitano draws from the Holy See’s statements following its 2011 election to the Organization for International Migration, refers to the belief in “the unique dignity and common belonging to the same human family of every human person …” While at first it seems a rather incontrovertible and even unremarkable claim, she situates it historically in the European encounter with colonized people that formed the basis for theological and philosophical reflections on the shared sameness of all human souls. It implies belonging in a single human Family (not families), Nation (not nations), and History (not histories). As a precultural and universalistic ideal, Napolitano argues, it is actually at odds with other ways that the Catholic Church understands migrants through the lens of individual dignity, for example, or as a protest against violent forms of governmentality. Perhaps the most important point in Migrant Hearts is how humanitas is both necessarily inclusive, while also being exclusionary.

The exclusions become evident as migrant worlds cut across the humanitas ideal. The particularities of migrant desires, failures, injustices, and betrayals are not adequately captured in this vision of a common humanity, nor are larger legacies of colonial encounters and exploitations. How does a Catholic humanitas encompass the experience of a mixed migrant-Italian marriage on the rocks or the erotic and unrequited desire to be touched by the sympathetic parish priest? Along the same lines, the vision of common Catholic identity is often interrupted by migrants’ longings for their nations of origin, such as Peru or Mexico. The Legionnaires of Christ, for example, are a conservative Mexican-based order whose clergy form another type of Latin American migrant population in Rome. The order finds its basis in Mexican nationalist politics, as do the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations that female migrants attend. In both cases, migrants’ own longings for family and friends are entwined with the fantasy of the nation and its political reenactment. Napolitano’s textured portraits challenge assumptions of a “free-flowing” Catholicism, as she puts it. To my mind, then, this book is also an important contribution to the ongoing attempt among scholars of religion (and others) to re-theorize globalization by moving away from the controlling metaphor of global “flows.”

Napolitano is more explicit about where the Atlantic Return contributes to a conversation in the anthropology of Christianity about the place of Catholicism, which has largely been eclipsed in part because of the influence of important studies of Protestantism, notably by Webb Keane and Joel Robbins. Drawing on Fenella Cannell’s introduction to The Anthropology of Christianity, Napolitano argues for something uniquely Catholic about carnality: the “enfleshment,” as she says, of Jesus’ suffering body and Mary’s labor to bring that body into being. These ideas clearly resonate with how Napolitano understands female migrants’ experiences set within theoretical paradigms of embodiment and affectivity. In the spirit of discussion, however, one might ask whether an emphasis on Catholic carnality also reifies a Protestant/Catholic divide that associates the former with discourse and unmediated faith and the latter with embodied devotionalism. It is clear, for example in Napolitano’s own work, that such broad generalizations fail to account for the experience of many contemporary Catholics, especially in North America and Europe — and Protestants too, for that matter. Regardless, the project of injecting Catholic realities into the burgeoning field of the anthropology of Christianity is vital, and Migrant Hearts demonstrates the kind of sophisticated studies it can produce.

Female caregivers are just one strand of economic migration woven so securely into the fabric of Western countries that their presence is often taken for granted. Even when their labor is recognized, a Filipina nanny, Peruvian housecleaner, or Mexican caregiver likely does not immediately conjure the complicated interaction of migrant experience, national politics, humanitarian discourse, and contemporary theology that Napolitano’s work suggests. If there is one thing Migrant Hearts tells us, however, it is that it should. And the next time I hear Pope Francis introduced as the first Catholic pontiff from the Americas, I will know he is one of thousands of other Latin American migrants living and working in the Eternal City — a comparison that he might in fact welcome.