Emslie Horniman Award – Jennifer Cearns

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Award Holder: Jennifer Cearns
University: University College London
Title of Research: “The Mula Ring”: Networks of Material Flow Through the Cuban World

Research Topic

My research was conducted primarily in Miami (U.S.A) and Havana (Cuba), but also in Mexico, Guyana and Panama, and focuses upon the material and digital flows that connect Cubans on the island with diasporic communities elsewhere in the region. In the light of the embargo, and with socialist modes of rationing still in place, material acquisition is a major challenge in Cuba, and yet Cubans exert considerable agency in mobilising vast transnational networks of contacts to source and obtain material goods. Meanwhile, exiles in Miami support relatives back on the island (financially and materially), and also go to considerable lengths to acquire and import certain items from the island due to nostalgia and desires to (re)create memories. My research shows how these goods move from place to place, through highly gendered networks that map onto older social and familial kinship networks from the height of socialism in Cuba and before, and addresses the formation of value systems in this liminal space between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’.

My thesis ‘follows the thing’ (Marcus 1995), charting the movement of both people and things back and forth between places and the way they acquire new layers of identity, meaning and memory. In so doing, it follows religious items, clothes, mp3s and photos, antiques, paintings, car parts, brothel ‘supplies’, vials of soil and even corpses, looking at how these ‘things’ are re-appropriated (sometimes several times over) as different sections of the Cuban community seek to (re)define what it means to be Cuban.

Fieldwork, Access and Methods

I conducted fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in total, divided primarily between Cuban communities in Miami and in Havana, but also with short trips following Cuban migrants across the region more broadly. Having conducted a pilot trip in Havana in March 2017 and encountered considerable difficulties in gaining access to the groups of people I wanted to work with, I decided to start my fieldwork in Miami, where I hoped Cubans would be less suspicious of outsiders, given they had already left the island.

In reality I only found this played out in a few instances, and for the most part, I found the paranoia of ‘snitches’ and ‘spies’ pervaded the diaspora in Miami as well. My position as an outsider meant I spent many months feeling lonely and anxious in the field, worried I wasn’t collecting enough data. Most of the early months of my fieldwork were spent driving around observing from my car windows, only to enter an establishment to be met with silence and blank faces.

This only began to change after about six months, when I offered to help someone by carrying items myself to Cuba. It was only upon integrating myself into the familial sharing networks by physically carrying items back and forth (something that I, with my European passport, was able to do more easily than most of my participants), that I started to gain the trust of my interlocutors and their relatives both in Miami and Havana.

I also found digital methods opened up access to people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. Throughout my fieldwork, I had the distinct impression that my participants were researching me just as much as I was researching them; from the outset I decided to set up a Facebook profile, in Spanish, in which I made it very explicit what my intentions and research aims were. I immediately found this gained considerable interest from Cubans both on the island (primarily working for the state apparatus) and in exile (who wanted to know ‘what side I was on’). Most importantly though, this gave participants a chance to ‘stalk me back’, or observe me from a safe distance, before deciding what they in turn wanted from me.

I was also asked to give a lecture on my research at Florida International University a few months after arriving as a Research Scholar there. I expected a handful of attendees, but was surprised to find a packed room and several television stations there to cover the lecture in Spanish across Latin America. Once I had appeared on television, in Spanish, making my own stance as a neutral researcher (as opposed to a spy) clear, I found some people started to approach me, both in Miami and Havana, wanting to find out more. This became a crucial ‘way in’, as I ironically became a source of news about Cubans to Cubans living ‘on the other side’ of the Florida Straits.

Aim and Theoretical Contributions

In this regard, my research also disrupts discourses that fetishize Cuba as somehow ‘isolated’ from processes of globalisation, digitisation, and multinationalism. This research involved sixteen months of ethnographic research (participant observation) around the network, both with recipients in Cuba, the ‘mules’ who transport goods, and the senders or relatives in the diaspora, to understand the emotional trajectories and familial contexts of these items as they move.

My research has shown how, contrary to the evidence provided in most literature on migration and remittances, these ‘flows’ are not unidirectional; indeed, some Cubans on the island send items to their relatives overseas to support them, and these flows are not always solely indicative of diasporic power, nor of oft-presumed American economic/ cultural hegemony towards Cuba (Eckstein 2003; Duany 2010; Byrne 2016). At a micro level, my research explores the agency of everyday people to (circum)navigate the complex political and economic systems that operate at a macro level between Cuba and its largest diaspora in the U.S.A.

In considering these flows of material exchange, my work builds upon well-established debates on exchange, migration, remittances, materiality, consumption and gift-giving (Mauss 1954; Strathern 1988; Parry and Bloch 1989; Carrier 1995; Levitt 1998; Miller 1987). In my conceptualization of what I call the ‘Mula ring’, I have drawn upon the traditional concept of the ‘Kula ring’ from the Trobriand Islands (Malinowski 1922) to explore how circuits of material exchange are determined by networks of power, gender and kinship in a very different setting in the Caribbean (Olwig 1993; Berg 2011; Härkönen 2010; Rosendahl 1997). 

Figure 1 Diagram of material flows across the ‘Mula Ring’

My research has also considered how, in one of the world’s least online countries, digital content also traverses Cuba, moving through similar hand-to-hand networks, forming new informal economies in the process. Despite having one of the lowest rates of internet access in the world, over one terabyte of digital content circulates Cuba daily, moving hand-to-hand through established networks of exchange called ‘el paquete’, or ‘the package’. Local ‘dealers’ are able to curate this parallel ‘internet’ for their customers (who are frequently their neighbours), even adding advertising for local businesses and brands that wish to target clients. This data is also shared to at least 44,000 people in Havana through a network of interconnected homemade intranet systems, which in some ways mirror (and indeed aesthetically imitate) what we know as the internet, but which also operate according to specifically ‘Cuban’ norms.

My work theorises how Cuba’s specific case of digital development can offer insight into larger debates surrounding the rise of the internet and social media. I argue that Cuba’s case offers us a parallel route, revealing how the internet as we know it was never inevitable, and indeed, is culturally constituted, as all material and digital culture is. In the case of Cuba, which has long operated under distinct (socialist) economic restrictions, and consequently distinct social norms as well, I am exploring how similar human desires to communicate, share information, and socialise, are still facilitated by the rise of digital media, but manifest themselves in distinctive ways. This in turn leads to wider questions about the nature of ‘modernity’ as conceived of in ‘the West’: a study of such phenomena in Cuba, which culturally and economically spans aspects of what have been called the ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ Worlds respectively (N.B. I use such terms entirely uncritically here for the sake of expediency), may challenge existing ideas about our experiences of contemporary or ‘modern’ phenomena (e.g. the age of data, social connectivity and the internet, trends towards self-employment and pressures on the State), far further afield (Henken 2005; Brinkerhoff 2009; Miller 1995; Miller et al. 2016).

But this research also speaks to many core questions within Anthropology, most notably the discipline’s focus upon kinship and exchange networks, as well as discussions surrounding nationhood, identity, and migration. In this regard, my research takes a specific context, but extrapolates from this setting to offer theoretical insight at a wider level. Despite focusing on Cuba, which some might view as an exceptional case, my research challenges general assumptions about the course of ‘modernity’, and as such speaks outside of the relatively isolated case of Cuban or even Latin American/ Caribbean Studies. The same can arguably be said for the way my research interfaces with theoretical work on (post)socialism/capitalism, the development of the internet, and indeed, literatures on migration and media. By way of traditional and new anthropological methods of participant observation (using both material and digital culture), my research considers a unique cultural context to draw conclusions and ask questions that are relevant and important on a far larger scale, interrogating our own assumptions about how we construct modernity and identity, and how, in the face of the age of information, different cultural worlds influence one another. As such, while my work is firmly grounded within Anthropology, it also interfaces with various other disciplines, and I hope to engage further in that more publicly engaging/ interdisciplinary aspect of my research upon submission of my thesis.


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