Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
THIS BOOK TELLS THE STORY OF FOUR WOMEN who came of age during a revolution. Andrea, Silvia, Ana, and Pamela were impoverished youth when the Nicaraguan revolution took hold in 1979.1 They attained young adulthood while it blossomed and then withered away in the context of a war and profound economic crisis. Still, the Sandinista revolution gave them hope of a different future, if not for themselves, then for their children. While they initially envisioned themselves working to build that future in Nicaragua, over time it became clear to these women that it would be difficult to offer the next generation real social mobility through their labors there, as previously existing social equalities were only reinforced in the aftermath of the revolution. Hence, they eventually chose to emigrate to Italy to make their hopes realizable. Yet the network they relied on to arrive at their destination existed because of the revolution. And their work abroad paid off as their children, and now grandchildren, have alternatives they never had.
In telling their stories, this book describes the agency these four women engaged in as they sought a brighter future for their children. In fact, their life stories directly address the long-running discussion about the relationship between agency and social structure, the latter of which refers to
those patterns of social life that are not reducible to individuals and are durable enough to withstand the whims of individuals who would change them; patterns that have dynamics and an underlying logic of their own that contribute to their reproduction over time. (Hays 1994: 60–61)
In recent years a number of scholars have furthered the conversation about this relationship in ways that acknowledge the distinction between these two phenomena and recognize that use of the term agency—which speaks to action that is oriented toward bringing about change—does not mean an assumption of unfettered possibilities in this regard. They do, however, suggest that spaces can be found to promote change. Those spaces and opportunities can lead to wholesale transformation—such as that brought about by some revolutions—as well as small-scale modifications in the lives of individual social actors. Yet even as social structures may enable agency in certain circumstances, agents’ chosen actions “are always socially shaped” and are those located “within the realm of structurally provided possibilities.”2 As they contemplate those choices, they may look to the past, the present, or the future in gauging what might conceivably be achieved (Emirbayer and Mische 1998). Their options are also colored by their own social position, in terms of their social class, gender, race/ethnicity, and other characteristics (Romero and Valdez 2016).
In the cases of Andrea, Silvia, Ana, and Pamela, the formative, national social structure in which they were positioned was that of Nicaragua. As they grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, their lives were greatly shaped by being disadvantaged vis-à-vis multiple social inequalities that characterized the country at the time. When the Sandinistas took power, their objective was not only to rid Nicaragua of the Somoza dictatorship that had ruled the country for more than forty years but also to alter the economic, political, and social structure to achieve social justice. That process of transformation brought about notable changes in each of those areas. It was greatly weakened, though, by the late 1980s and ended when the Sandinistas left office in 1990. The introduction of neoliberalism by the conservative government that took power and those that followed brought the economy and society back into a full embrace of capitalism and, among other things, led to an increase in poverty and inequality. Within this milieu, the aspirations of Andrea, Silvia, Ana, and Pamela were constantly challenged.
However, when these women eventually emigrated to Italy, the prevailing social structure there became the next context within which they might exercise some measure of agency. As immigrants, they were channeled into Italy’s “care economy,” whose existence and demand for their labor made their emigration possible. Their movement into the care sector was an expression of both the Italian social structure and the social positionality they embodied as immigrant women (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Solari 2017). That sector expanded significantly in response to economic and demographic changes under way in much of the Global North, which are especially apparent in Italy (Solari 2017; Lutz 2011; Da Roit et al. 2013; Parreñas 2015). Moreover, the Italian government facilitated the incorporation of immigrants into its labor force as a way to address the social consequences of those changes, most especially that of the country’s “care deficit.”3 Yet in so doing, these immigrants were relegated to a specific position in the country’s social structure.
In spite of the inequalities generated by the Nicaraguan and Italian social structures, which subjected the four women to ongoing structural violence, they have been able to open up possibilities for their children that are distinct from what they had. In doing so, these women have contributed to the social mobility experienced by this next generation. Even as they work long and arduous hours to take care of members of Italian society, including the sick and elderly, they have made it possible for their children to attend college and assume professional jobs or positions that are in demand and can sustain them. And these women will not have to rely fully on their children in their old age, as their parents had to do with them.
In the chapters that follow, their stories unfold to show in stark relief these inequalities and additional social phenomena and dynamics. Principal among them is that of structural violence, which is defined as a situation in which the social structures in a society produce an unequal distribution of resources such that those disadvantaged by that distribution are unable to reach their full potential (Galtung 1969). Structural violence affects the better part of Latin America’s population and is the predominant backdrop against which these women have sought to bring about change in their lives. We will see how that violence impacted them from their early childhood through well into their stay in Italy as middle-aged adults. That is to say, we will become acquainted with the ways in which structural violence was borne out in their lives before, during, and after Nicaragua’s revolution.
Thus, this book offers a detailed longitudinal examination of structural violence while also capturing how the social change brought about by the revolution modified the nation’s distribution of resources and opportunities for a period of time. In addition, it illuminates the ways in which the revolution and its aftermath contributed to the women’s emigration, along a pathway and to a destination that were quite distinct from most south–north migration. The fact that it was only after long years of working in Nicaragua that they chose to emigrate in order to create an alternative future for their children will also be apparent. Importantly, the combination of that extended effort in their country of origin and their labors in their country of destination ultimately produced some measure of social mobility for the next generation. Hence, the lives of Andrea, Silvia, Ana, and Pamela have also embodied multiple expressions of agency, including having made this major life decision. But those expressions have been delimited by the structural violence that still characterizes the two societies of which they have formed a part.
My telling of their stories is based on oral histories that I developed with them in the course of numerous interviews between 2015 and 2018. I followed up those interviews with various forms of correspondence with them. The way to developing the necessary rapport for the interviews was opened by having known these women for an extended period of time—in one case going back more than thirty years—and being familiar with their lives in Nicaragua before their emigration. It is out of a conviction that their lives illuminate these multiple elements of Nicaraguan and Italian social history, as well as speaking to larger social issues, that I have put them to paper.
Before I recount their life histories, though, it is necessary to situate them within the relevant theoretical and historical discussions that can shed light on them. The remainder of this chapter is dedicated to that effort, as well as to describing my methodological approach in greater detail and presenting an outline of the book. In subsequent chapters, we turn to becoming better acquainted with these four Nicaraguan women.
The lives of Andrea, Silvia, Ana, and Pamela evolved in the context of a diverse array of social phenomena, including high levels of structural violence, political regime change, and the forging of new transnational labor systems. Although these phenomena are interrelated, we need to examine each in turn before we can identify the ways in which they were connected. Proceeding in this sequential fashion will allow us to understand the nature of each phenomenon and take into account what scholars have learned about it prior to grappling with the ways in which they may combine to produce even more complicated dynamics. The most overarching of these phenomena within the lives of the four women was that of structural violence.
1. These names, along with those of their home communities, relatives, and employers, are pseudonyms, which I have used to protect their privacy.
2. Hays (1994: 64); italics in the original.
3. This term comes from Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2003).