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Volume 54, Number 2 Spring 2021
Edited by Jessica S. Saucedo, Michigan State University
Written by Andrea C. Ruiz-Sorrentini, University of Miami
Transnational migrants’ identities are configured in relationship to more than one place and are continuously pulled in different directions as old and new members of multiple communities are wrapped in a single experience (Aranda, Hughes, & Sabogal, 2014). Broadly defined, transnationalism refers to the maintenance of identity claims and practices that connect people living in different geographical spaces to a specific territory that they see as their homeland (Duany, 2003; Glick Schiller, 2005). As the patterns of relationships between immigrants and hosts are changing dramatically in the global era (Van Oudenhoven & Ward, 2013), scholars (Duany, 2003; Aranda 2007) have argued that the Puerto Rican experience should be understood within the transnational paradigm. Due to Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. Commonwealth, and therefore lack of national boundaries, functional or symbolic ties might put Puerto Rican migrants in a position of manifesting a partial membership in both countries. This requires us to expand traditional notions of sense of community as a process and as an enactment of connections among people, settings, and social spaces (Li, Hodgetts, & Sonn, 2014).
Psychological sense of community was first described by Sarason (1974, p. 41), as the feeling of belonging and as being a meaningful part of a larger collectivity that strengthens relationships and participation in the community. Scholars in the field of Community Psychology have worked on understanding the sense of community with a strong emphasis on the individuals’ local and neighborhood communities (Lenzi, Vieno, Santinello, & Perkins, 2013; Li et al., 2014; Zhang, Zhang, Zhouz, & Yu, 2017). However, the sense of belonging to a transnational community has not been thoroughly examined.
Particularly for Puerto Ricans living in the U.S., they are not only part of communities in Puerto Rico, but are also part of the diasporic communities formed in the U.S. Especially during the past three decades, there has been a significant increase in the Puerto Rican population in Florida settling in three main regions: Central Florida (Orange, Osceola, Volusia, Seminole, and Polk counties); South Florida, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties; and Tampa Bay (Duany & Matos, 2006). Recent research on Puerto Rican transnationalism has focused on an established community of Puerto Ricans in Orlando, which has been characterized for the maintenance of transnational connections, especially kinship ties, with the Island (Duany, 2010; Aranda, 2007). Nevertheless, long before Orlando’s emergence as a major Puerto Rican niche in the 1990s, Miami’s Wynwood area was named “Little San Juan” and is where many Puerto Ricans settled (Feldman, 2011). While Wynwood's Puerto Rican heritage remains visible in some of the street art and local businesses in the area, there is still an open space for exploring the Puerto Rican diaspora in South Florida, specifically in Miami, a location without a large co-ethnic community of Puerto Ricans.
Furthermore, this document was written during an unprecedented crisis in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico. Consequently, studying the transnational sense of community in this historical moment provides an additional opportunity to explore the civic participation and activism of Puerto Ricans living stateside. Guided by transnationalism and the values of Community Psychology, this master’s thesis aims to answer the following question: how do Puerto Ricans living in Miami interpret the definition of community and construct their sense of community? The disastrous repercussions of the hurricanes and the insufficient response from the local and federal governments were crucial to consider as I interviewed my participants.
In this study, I used an exploratory qualitative research approach to describe how Puerto Ricans living in Miami-Dade County define the concept of community and construct their sense of community based on the connections they have to their communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. This qualitative methodology allowed me to reflect on my position as a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora in Miami and approach the participants with knowledge of the experiences, but not enough to anticipate their answers.
In this study, transnationalism served as a lens to display how Puerto Ricans living in different parts of Miami, Florida constructed their sense of community in relation to the communities they belong to. It has been argued that transnationalism is mostly a first-generation phenomenon (Levitt & Glick-Schiller, 2004). However, second-generation immigrants can exhibit transnational practices and emotional attachments to their parents and grandparents’ homeland that influence their concept of “home” (Wolf, 2002). Additionally, McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) elements to define sense of community—membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs and emotional connection—were utilized as sensitizing concepts (Patton, 2015). They were fundamental to probe the psychological term from a transnational standpoint.
The study sample consisted of fourteen (F=11; M=3) Puerto Ricans in between the ages of 25 and 77 years old. In order to participate in the study, the individuals had to self-identify as Puerto Rican, live in Miami, and speak and understand English or Spanish. Participants were recruited by snowball sampling techniques and sampled for maximum variation (Miles & Huberman, 1994) with respect to location within Miami, age of arrival in the U.S., time living in Miami, sex, marital status, and employment. Thirteen participants were born in different cities of Puerto Rico and only one was born in Miami. Most of them were relatively well educated.
To collect the data, I developed a semi-structured interview guide to inquire about the participants’ interpretation of the concept of community and their involvement with the community/ies they belong to. At the end of the interview, I provided a brief questionnaire to the participants to self-report their sociodemographic characteristics such as age, occupation, migration history, and civil status.
Once I obtained approval from the University of Miami’s International Review Board, I distributed a flyer in different locations in Miami and reached out to Puerto Rican-based networks, including local businesses in the Wynwood area and people I connected with during the hurricane relief events. Colleagues on the Island collaborated in referring the study to their contacts living in Miami. All interviews were conducted in Spanish and audio recorded.
All recorded interviews, written notes, and debriefing recordings were transcribed. Thematic analysis was used to engage in the process of line by line coding, following with focusing on recurrent features or patterns across the dataset and developing different themes that arose from the participants’ experiences (Braune, Clarke, and Rance, 2014). After the themes and sub-themes were created, I reviewed that they represented the data accurately and created a “thematic map” (see Figure 1) to contextualize the findings in relation to the research question.
The study findings suggest that transnational sense of community was created through the participants’ emotional connections to their communities both on the Island and the U.S. These were expressed by 1) territorial connections to the Island, 2) cultural connections, 2) social connections, and 3) civic participation with their communities. Participants’ feelings of belonging to their transnational community were tied to recreating cultural practices in the diaspora, participating in Puerto Rican-based events, and sharing symbols that connect them to Puerto Rico, such as the Puerto Rican flag and the coqui (Puerto Rican-native frog). The impact of hurricane Maria intensified participants’ transnational sense of community. Experiencing the catastrophic event from the distance drove participants to support the recovery of the Island and help their fellow Puerto Ricans who forcefully migrated to Florida seeking for aid after losing their homes and employment.
Participants defined a community as a group of people that share things in common, like types of music and Spanish language, engage in activities together, and protect each other during challenging situations. This group of people can consist of friends, family members, a fraternity, a dance team, or a religious group.
This research study intends to fill a gap in understanding psychological constructs
across different levels of analysis in the increasingly global world (Birman, 2011). For Puerto Ricans living in Miami, their communities are not only geographical but ideological and emotional as well. A transnational approach to understanding the sense of community serves to exhibit a plurality of cultural codes and symbols that expand territories and multiple locations of “home” (Wolf, 2002). Moreover, the data gathered support the idea that altruistic behaviors can stem from that sense of belonging and solidarity with fellow members of one’s community, even when they are not in the same location (Itzhaky et al., 2015). Future research could explore the sense of community and activism among Puerto Ricans who experienced the hurricane on the Island.
If you have any questions or are interested in following up on more specific details about the study, please reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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