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Research Justice at the Intersections

Arely Zimmerman
Arely Zimmerman
Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies, Mills College

Contentious Citizenship: Central Americans and the Politics of Membership across Borders

Contentious Citizenship: Central Americans and the Politics of Membership across Borders, examines the ways that Central American migrants reclaim their rights of citizenship in the United States and in their countries of origin. Given the mutually constitutive conditions of state exclusion characterized by political persecution at home, and legal invisibility in the United States, my principle aim is to account for competing conceptions of citizenship and political belonging that emerge from migrants' liminal status. How do migrants' modes of political belonging and rights claiming practices challenge, provoke, and unsettle dominant notions of national citizenship?

My concept of contentious citizenship is grounded in an ethnographic account of Central American refugee activists' political strategies, including the rhetorical, subversive, legal, and political strategies they have deployed to contest their marginal positioning in both the US and in their countries of origin. I draw from semi-structured interviews with activists- largely former refugees who fled US backed right wing militia groups in Guatemala and El Salvador. Their perspectives and practices ground a new model of citizenship that defies the conventional views of Latino/a citizenship and incorporation, which posit immigrants as either full patriotic citizens or diasporic nationalists. Through this alternative framework, I surface how Central Americans make claims on the state, particularly through claims to legalization, while subverting citizenship's nationalist suppositions. By claiming their rights to participate across borders, by making claims to pan-ethnic identity, and by redefining citizenship as political struggle rather than a state-defined legal status, Central American activists demonstrate the possibilities of reimagining the possibilities of democratic membership in transnational contexts.


Arely Zimmerman is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College and holds a PhD in Political Science from UC Los Angeles. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with research interests in civic and political engagement of Latino communities, social movements and protest politics, youth activism and digital media and community-based and engaged ethnography. Zimmerman is currently working on a book manuscript titled "Contentious Citizenship: Central Americans and the Politics of Belonging across Borders" which draws on engaged ethnographies, participant observation, and oral histories with Guatemalan and Salvadoran migrant-activists to understand how Central Americans have used various rights claims and legalization strategies to pursue full membership in both the US and their countries of origin. Additionally, Zimmerman has completed research on undocumented students' media production and the immigrant rights movement, as well as domestic worker activism. Zimmerman is currently appointed as an Assisitant Professor Faculty Fellow in Latino Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and has taught courses on Latino/a/Chicano/a social movements, transnational approaches to race and gender, Latinos and urbanization, immigration and refugee policy, and youth and new media. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and is the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants.

Research Justice at the Intersections


RJI Scholars Program

2015-16 Scholars

Last Updated: 9/5/17