Transnational Care Plots: “Wrestling with the Angels,” Theory and Metaphors on Care and Migration

In this article, I further explore the theoretical proposal of what I call transnational care plots. I do so based on an approximately decade-long research agenda on migration and care, using over a hundred stories and nearly fifty body mappings derived from a multi-sited and collaborative ethnography conducted in Colombia and Spain (Cali, Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota, Barcelona, and Madrid). I draw on the notion of global care chains, as coined by Arlie Hochschild, to provide a metaphor that leads to a more fluid and acute mental picture of the number and complexity of the intertwining trajectories of those who migrate and care in a world that does not yet give fair recognition to the implications of the transnationalized care regime on life in general, and on the lives of migrants in particular. Drawing on Stuart Hall’s dissertations on the usefulness of metaphors in the domain of theorizing — what he calls “wrestling with angels” — and on narratives constructed from multisite ethnography and a reflexive approach, I develop the image of transnational care plots as a metaphor with discursive, somatic, political, aesthetic and affective dimensions. Little has been written about Colombia’s place in these chains or plots, despite the fact that it is one of the central countries in the operation of the transnationalized care regime. At the same time, I develop a complexification of the so far little explored notion of global care chains, which is essential to envisioning and shaping the narratives of migrant care workers and to understand the politics of dispossession involved there. This, in turn allows us to imagine possible futures that go against the tide and which “wrestle with the angels.”


En este artículo profundizo en la propuesta teórica de lo que denomino tramas transnacionales del cuidado, a partir de una agenda investigativa de alrededor de una década en torno a la migración y el cuidado, desde una etnografía multisituada y colaborativa llevada a cabo en Colombia y España (Cali, Medellín, Cartagena, Bogotá, Barcelona y Madrid) que se ha valido de la construcción de más de cien de relatos y cerca de cincuenta cartografías corporales. Desde allí, pongo en perspectiva la noción cadenas globales de cuidado, acuñada por Arlie Hochschild, para pensar en una metáfora que ayude a imaginar, de manera más fácil y aguda, la cantidad y la complejidad de imbricaciones en las trayectorias de quienes migran y cuidan en un mundo que aún no reconoce de manera justa la implicación que, para la vida en general y para las vidas de las personas migrantes en particular, tiene el régimen transnacionalizado del cuidado. A partir de las disertaciones de Stuart Hall sobre la utilidad de las metáforas en el campo de la teorización —lo que llama “lucha con los ángeles”—, de los relatos construidos a partir de la etnografía multisituada y de un proceder reflexivo, desarrollo la imagen de tramas transnacionales de cuidado como una metáfora de dimensiones discursivas, somáticas, políticas, estésicas y afectivas. Sobre el lugar que Colombia ocupa en estas cadenas o tramas se ha escrito poco, a pesar de ser uno de los países centrales en la operación del régimen transnacionalizado del cuidado. A la vez, desarrollo una complejización de la útil noción de cadenas globales de cuidado, poco explorada hasta ahora, necesaria para imaginar y dar cuerpo a los relatos de personas migrantes que se dedican a labores del cuidado y para entender las políticas del despojo allí implicadas, con el fin de, a contracorriente y “en forcejeo con los ángeles”, imaginar futuros posibles.

Neste artigo, aprofundo-me na proposta teórica do que denomino “tramas transnacionais do cuidado”, a partir de uma agenda de pesquisa de aproximadamente uma década sobre a migração e o cuidado, sob uma etnografia multissituada e colaborativa realizada na Colômbia e na Espanha (Cali, Medellín, Cartagena, Bogotá, Barcelona e Madrid) que vem se valendo da construção de mais de 100 relatos e cerca de 50 cartografias corporais. A partir disso, coloco em perspectiva a noção “cadeias globais de cuidado”, criada por Arlie Hochschild, para pensar em uma metáfora que ajude a imaginar, de maneira mais fácil e aguda, a quantidade e a complexidade de imbricações nas trajetórias de quem migra e cuida em um mundo que ainda não reconhece justamente a implicação que, para a vida em geral e para a vida das pessoas migrantes em particular, o regime transnacionalizado do cuidado tem. A partir das teses de Stuart Hall sobre a utilidade das metáforas no campo da teorização — o que chama “luta com os anjos” —, dos relatos construídos a partir da etnografia multissituada e de um proceder reflexivo, desenvolvo a imagem de tramas transnacionais de cuidado como uma metáfora de dimensões discursivas, somáticas, políticas, estésicas e afetivas. Sobre o lugar que a Colômbia ocupa nessas redes ou tramas, pouco tem sido escrito, apesar de ser um dos países centrais na operação do regime transnacionalizado do cuidado. Por sua vez, desenvolvo uma complexização da útil noção de “cadeias globais de cuidado”, pouco explorada até o momento, necessária para imaginar e dar corpo aos relatos de pessoas migrantes que estão dedicadas a trabalhadores de cuidado e para entender as políticas do despojo implicadas ali, com o objetivo de, na contramão e na “luta com os anjos”, imaginar futuros possíveis.

This paper is an exercise in theoretical (re)creation based on the broad discussions surrounding global care chains, as well as on an almost decade-long research practice linking migration and care. Drawing on a multi-sited and collaborative ethnography (Esguerra 2020a; Lassiter 2005; Marcus 1995), the research weaves together a series of narratives constructed from in-depth interviews and body mapping with women and feminized migrant care workers1 —primarily “community mothers” and domestic workers— mainly (cisgender and transgender), lesbians, non-binary people, and transgender men, as broadly self-recognized by the interviewees. These narratives were also woven together with institutional narratives —contained in official documents and statistics— and community narratives, with a participant observation exercise and with participation in social networks and other internet media. The most intense phase of this multisite ethnography took place between 2016 and 2019 in four Colombian cities (Cali, Medellín, Cartagena and Bogotá) and two Spanish ones (Barcelona and Madrid), with a team of young and experienced researchers. To conduct the study, particularly for the period between 2016 and 2018, we constructed a research protocol (Esguerra et al. 2016) with the field assistants, which included a series of recording instruments and, of course, an informed consent form, in which we made sure to consult the level of anonymity expected by those who took part in this research.2

But beyond what I discuss in this protocol, I want to stress that this collaborative research in the fields of migration and care has involved a political becoming and an embodied experience. The research agenda underlying this article arises from a complex existential and social process, in which both the migrant care workers and those of us who proposed the inquiry are involved, and which combines affections and forms of care, contradictory relationships and incessant questions, open wounds and creative gaps. These agendas are not the product of rational choices or of the conveniences of the knowledge industries, but of deep discomforts that are part of the fabric of life itself; thus, there is no perfect linearity between theory and empirical work. The relationships we built with many people in the framework of the research exceeded academic purposes and moved into the field of affections and commitments. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe these complex relationships, but I have elaborated on this issue at length in another text that may be of interest (Esguerra 2020a).

The purpose of this ethnographic exercise was to analyze the particular way in which global care chains operate between Spain and Colombia, as a result of which I began to realize that this notion —fundamental in migration studies— could be made more complex. The notion of global care chains alludes to an image, a metaphor, and metaphors, as suggested by Hall (1992), are fundamental for theoretical creation. A good example of this is the suggestive metaphor of “wrestling with angels” by this same author —that refers to the conflictive relationship with theory— which implies that it should be questioned, which, in turn, demands rigor and, at the same time, challenges our creativity to imagine, in the strict sense of the word, conceptual devices that allow us to analyze, investigate and seek ways of understanding and transforming the world (Almanza-Hernández 2008).

When, based on the work of Parrenas, Hochschild speaks of global care chains, she proposes a metaphor and an explanation of the operation of a “global pattern of displacement of affects” (2000, 132). This in turn, refers to the following aspects:

  1. One on one chains of personal relationships. Strictly speaking, the global care chain for Hochschild is a link between people, between individuals who are connected by kinship or economic relationships, but above all by affective relationships that are woven or broken by virtue of migration and the dedication of internal and transnational migrant women —particularly those racially marked from the so-called Third World— to care work. It draws attention, for example, to the invisible links between the children of caregivers left behind and the children to whom the caregiver gives her affection.

  2. The displacement, alienation and re-fetishization of the emotions and affections of these migrant caregivers towards people receiving care, particularly children, people in situations of illness or elderly people in the first world, and the care deficit or care drain produced in those they leave behind in migration, fundamentally their daughters and sons.

  3. The production of emotional surplus value and the operation of opening and covering —or not— the care deficit, both issues that are not contemplated within the formal economy, and in the case of emotional surplus value, impossible to monetize.

  4. The connection between domestic, local, national, and international —rather than transnational— scenarios. If we translate chain as “link,” we will see that Hochschild focuses on interpersonal, micro-political relations, while if we consider it as the word itself (chain), it alludes to a matter of international scope.

  5. A global devaluation of care, not because it is not considered necessary or indispensable, but because of pre-existing cultural values, while at the same time, it is commodified and generates inequality in the redistribution of love.

In an attempt to understand what global care chains are and how they operate, we have proposed the following indicative map (Esguerra, Sepúlveda, and Fleischer 2018, 8),3 which perhaps goes further than Hochschild’s proposal (2000):

The category of analysis “global care chains” refers to the complex web of local and global flows of care work destined primarily to meeting the demand for care in urban areas and in countries of the global North. In other words, rural women migrate to cities to enter the precarious care labor market while these and other women from southern countries migrate to northern countries to do the same.

The first consequences of these displacements of care workers would be the so-called “care drains” (Bettio, Simonazzi, and Villa 2006). These care drains, in turn, create a care deficit in rural areas or in the countries that supply care workers, which is filled by the poorly paid or unpaid work of other women, children, and elderly women (and feminized persons) in the places of origin of the first migrants.

Thus, the care deficit in industrialized countries or the global north is filled by the precarious work of women from countries of the global south, which, as a result of this provision of precarious care work, begin to suffer the same care deficits. It is important to clarify that these flows also occur between countries of the south and, to a lesser extent, between countries of the north, as well as between rural and urban areas in the same country.

The operation of these local and global care chains perpetuates an international sexual division of labor that implies the draining of care work and knowledge. But we also consider that this international division of care is not only sexual but also racial, in other words, a colonial division of labor ordered by colonial racial difference and gender coloniality. (Lugones 2007)

Thus, the notion of global care chains or links has undoubtedly been a powerful and fundamental metaphor for understanding the micropolitics and geopolitics of care that many researchers have used to explain, in part, how the transnationalized regime of care works and to make visible that which, in the eyes of various disciplines, has long been made invisible, silenced, and disembodied. This article is therefore not intended to erase that image, but to make it more complex.

I began to speak of transnational care networks to provide a more multidimensional and less linear idea of what Hochschild (2000) proposes with her notion of global care chains. In the case of Colombia, as a subsidiary country of care for Spain and the United States in the first place and Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile in the second place, the notion of global care chains is not sufficient to explain how and why women and feminized subjects end up hooked into this transnational care regime:

in the Colombian case, and according to the collective narrative that we have been able to construct4 through research, the outflow of care is rooted not only and exclusively in the demand for cities or countries of the global north, such as Spain or the United States, but in a long colonial history marked by war, an expression of internal and external colonialism.

The Colombian armed conflict, which we can consider to have begun with the European invasions of the 16th century, is not merely an internal conflict, in which regular and non-regular armies, business and commercial, and governmental and local civilian actors have participated —sometimes there are gray areas between what can be considered a civilian and an armed actor—, but for which international actors (corporations, governments with interventionist, extractivist, gentrifying policies, and supranational organizations) are responsible. Thus, the war in Colombia can be understood as a manifestation of internal and external neo-colonization.

The war in Colombia has led to the flight of millions of women [and feminized people because of their gender identity, ethno-racial location, sexual identity, and age] who have been exiled, and then victims of successive displacements —or of a displacement that does not end— and of apparently voluntary migrations. The conditions of impoverishment and terror that shape the social and armed conflict in Colombia are at the root of women’s [and feminized people’s] flight from their territories. It is in this exodus that they become entangled in local and global care chains. (Esguerra, Sepúlveda, and Fleischer 2018, 8)

I also consider that Hochschild’s notion of migration reinforces the simplistic identity discourse of the economic migrant, which corresponds to a unidimensional economic explanation that does not acknowledge the continuum of uprooting,5 exile, trafficking, smuggling, exile, deportation, return, expulsion, etc., occurring for “non-economic” reasons.6 In my view, the reasons for migration are always anthropic and political, even on the occasion of natural disasters. Another criticism of Hochschild’s notion of global care chains is its heterocentric view (Manalansan 2006), which I fully share (Esguerra 2020b, 2014). Such a vision is destabilized throughout the multisite ethnography initiated in 2008, as we see how people on the margins of compulsory heterosexuality and prescriptive cisgenderism7 end up hooked in chains and care plots8 (Esguerra 2020b, 2019) and how the heterosexual and cisgenderist regime permanently regulates and affects their trajectories. Meanwhile, Brown (2016) criticizes the naturalization of affective bonds underlying Hochschild’s notion, given by consanguinity, as if this were an objective biological datum and as if these bonds were natural and stable, and presented, moreover, from a Eurocentric and heterosexist view. Finally, Nadasen (2017) points out the ethnocentric and unaware view regarding the implication of race and origin systems in the notion of care in Hochschild’s proposal, as the ideas of care or reproductive work must be located socially and historically. In accordance with the above, I must reiterate that I agree with all the criticisms made of Hochschild’s proposed notion.

In the following sections, I will show how I construct the theoretical metaphor of transnational care plots and the images linked to it.

The Metaphor

Again, there is no space here to do more than begin to list the theoretical advances which were made by the encounters with structuralist, semiotic, and poststructuralist work: the crucial importance of language and of the linguistic metaphor to any study of culture.

(Hall 1992, 244)

In Spanish, the word trama used in the original Spanish title of this work —Tramas transnacionales del cuidado: una ‘lucha con los ángeles’, teoría y metáforas sobre cuidado y migración— has several meanings that are what, in part, allow me to create this metaphor. It refers, to a set of threads that, intertwined with the warp, make a fabric, or plot of a literary work. In some cases, it can also mean conspiracy or intrigue. In biology, it refers to the set of cells and fibers that form the structure of a tissue; in TV, it is the set of lines that make up the image; and, in gravure, it is the grid used to decompose an image into dots. In Spanish, this same word has these different meanings, whereas in English, several different words are used as equivalents to these meanings. For example, weave (of threads); plot, to speak of conspiracy or of the plot of a storyline; in TV terms, we speak of raster scan or raster scanning, which is the rectangular pattern of the TV image; and we also speak of raster graphics or pattern of stored image used in the bitmap of the computerized image systems. All these different meanings help me to constitute the complex image of what I understand by transnational care plots; however, it is the stories told by women and feminized people during the research that first allowed me to imagine the metaphor.

Unlike previous attempts (Esguerra 2020b, 2019), where I identify three or four, here I already distinguish at least five types of tramas or plots: 1) plots as narratives of trajectories of feminized migrants engaged in care work; 2) plots as political intrigues, as state and parastatal, local and transnational traps to exploit and dispossess energies and knowledge and maintain a transnationalized and, at the same time, domesticized (domesticated) regime of care work; 3) plots as representation structured by the media and other collective agents in the field of representations, such as academia; 4) plots as those of migrant networks that favor migration and the recruitment of feminized people to care work, who may even pass through trafficking networks; 5) plots as the embodiment and arrangement of migrant trajectories in the framework of a transnationalized care regime. I attempt to create a metaphor, a quick, moving (emotional) and unfinished image of the series of multi-scale dynamics, discourses, and relationships that are embodied, and that simultaneously become flows of a global dimension.

In general terms, although I will explore the metaphor in greater depth in the following sections, I refer to (trans)national care plots as:

the entire social, economic, political and even police and military fabric; the narratives and social discourses on migration and care and the (neo)colonial projects or conspiracies that are set in motion to maintain a transnationalized regime of care based on the administration of mobility, of governance, and of the need or desire for migration by women and people devalued by their gender identity or sexuality or their racial and even age marking in a regime of sexual, racial, and international racial division of labor. (Esguerra 2020b, 114)

This social warp is multiscalar and hetarchical (Kontopoulos 1993); it alludes to local, national, and transnational levels and concurrently to nano, micro, meso, and macropolitical, as well as necropolitical (Mbembe 2011) and biopolitical levels. These plots also recognize that there is a concatenated operation of systems of oppression such as compulsory heterosexuality, racism, xenophobia, class, ableism, and agism. The (neo)colonialism of power, gender, sexuality, and racism operates in these plots which, in its modern colonial expression of sexual and racial division of labor, leads the feminized —displaced, uprooted, and exiled— migrant to end up interwoven in the transnational care plots while also linked to the counter-geographies mentioned by Sassen (2003).

The transnational care plots “articulate the rural with the urban, at the expense of rural spaces, impoverished populations and the global South, while producing urban spaces” (Esguerra, Ojeda, and Fleischer 2021, 217); men or those placed in the pact of masculinity to the detriment of women and feminized people; the white to the detriment of color(s); the adult to the detriment of the child; the human to the detriment of the other animal or the radical non-human, of the various exploited social and “natural” ecosystems. And all of this at the expense of women and feminized migrants —not only those they leave behind, as Hochschild emphasizes— and at that of the lives and existences of those who are engaged in work that is wrongly considered unskilled and is therefore informal, precarious, and underground.

These jobs involve an investment of energy, but also an outflow of knowledge and of cultural capital. This outflow of knowledge is not considered in the national or global accounts of the so-called market economy, since it cannot or does not want to be monetized and because of the symbolic devaluation of these capitals. It is worth noting that this draining of various capitals has not been studied. The great paradox lies in the fact that care drains sustain the modern colonial production of capitalism, of networks of metropolises, and subsidiary cities or localities, insofar as they are (re) productive jobs. That is, they are always productive but not considered as such in the dominant economic theories, nor in Marxist or neoclassical ones, as critical feminist studies have been noting since the 1970s. The maquilas and domestic employment are a clear example of how feminized migrants end up being part of transnational value chains, in their dual role as workers and caregivers, or in their work as caregivers who reproduce life and add invisible value to these chains. Chains of an emotional nature, but also of the material production of bodies that are woven in a web of

muscles and tendons of the workers who exhaust themselves in the repetitions required, in the warehouses, assembly lines, administrative cells, and computer networks that keep the great electronic firms of the late twentieth century running. These workers know the pain involved in the union of the machine and body tissue […]. (Sandoval 2004, 82)

To continue to build on the image, below, I introduce some of what we have been able to observe during the multisite ethnography.

Drains and Motivations

Many displaced and internally displaced, intra-urban and intra-village women migrate with their children and their elderly. But, their informal and precarious jobs, force them to abandon their caregiving duties to those closest to them, which, at the same time, leads them to deploy survival strategies. Thus, the displacement of affection referred to by Hochschild is relative, because although they have to shift their burdens of care and affection to family, neighborhood, or community networks, all of which are generally women or feminized persons, they continue to take care of their children, and their sick or disabled dependents, even if only partially. In other words, there is, as Hochschild asserts, no automatic re-fetishization of affection.

Sometimes ties are broken, for reasons other than migration or issues that precede it, as in the case of transgender people in which a complex web and continuum of violence exercised by their families, the community, armed actors —legal and illegal— from the private and institutional sectors causes this rupture, whether temporary or permanent. In many cases, these individuals are re-evaluated as they begin to fulfill a role as provider, caregiver, or both. Women, particularly trans women, often end up linked to a specific type of network. For example, Sabrina, a Mexican, trans and lesbian whom I interviewed in Barcelona in May 2018, works as an itinerant prostitute in at least three countries in Europe; she considers her work to be care work. She sees it as such because it involves physical, bodily (Kang 2010, 20), and emotional work, in which she uses a range of knowledge and skills to help her clients sustain themselves and their world.

At other times, migration is an expression of the desire to break those ties, as in the case for several of the ten Latin American lesbians interviewed in Madrid between 2009 and 2018, the vast majority of whom, nevertheless, end up, throughout their migratory trajectory, dedicating themselves to care work as domestic employees, as caregivers for the sick or elderly, or to informal educational work (Esguerra 2020b). This applies regardless of their degree of formal qualification, for in the racist and xenophobic operation of the transnational care regime, structured on the basis of cultural discourses expressed in legal discursive apparatuses, as feminized beings, they are destined for this branch of labor.

One of the circumstances that women and migrant caregivers have to face is precarious and insecure daily mobility —where they face both physical and psychosocial risks— which is linked to job insecurity. In the six cities where we conducted the multisite ethnography, we witnessed the journeys that many migrant women engaged in care work have to make and the difficulties they face: transportation in cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, or Cali is precarious and often informal and unsafe. They often have to travel for one or up to three hours —when it takes two hours to travel to a neighboring country, such as Ecuador—, sometimes in dilapidated vehicles —the gualas or piratas in Cali or the old buses that roll down the steep hillsides of Medellín— to reach their places of work. These times and journeys are especially demeaning in Bogotá. In the cases of Madrid and Barcelona, many irregular workers have to make longer or more expensive trips —on commuter trains— to evade police raids, or if they are interns, they may not leave their place of work to avoid these controls. Meanwhile, the employees of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF), known as “community mothers,” remain confined almost permanently in their homes. These, in turn, serve as communal spaces that are even regulated by the State. All this is part of what I call the spatial paradox (Esguerra, Ojeda, and Fleischer 2021).

In Colombia, community mothers are part of a complex web of State exploitation and deprivation of community care, not only in terms of labor, but also in terms of knowledge and energy. Indeed, they are workers that have been precarized by the ICBF, against whom a discriminatory gender-based treatment has been exercised, which is “public, compounded, continued, systematic and of constitutional relevance” by the Colombian State as determined in Ruling T-480 of 2016 (Constitutional Court of Colombia 2016, num. 168). As we saw in the ethnographic work, a large proportion of these women are migrants, who take care of the children of workers, displaced persons, and exiles. Many of these workers have also been domestic workers and consider assuming this role, as caregivers of infants, as an opportunity for social mobility, while they simultaneously take care of their own children and those of their neighbors. This is one way of working from home.

In the so-called “traditional” modality, these workers care for fourteen under-five children throughout the year. To do so, they have to allocate the common spaces of their own house, of their home —the kitchen is one of these spaces that is put at the service of the community— and other resources of their own (household utilities). Thus, their homes end up being not only communal spaces, but also regulated by the ICBF, since these are where the so-called Hogares de Bienestar Familiar or Family Welfare Homes operate.

From the inception of the Family Welfare Homes program until 2014, none of the community mothers received remuneration for their work. Instead, they were given a form of compensation called a “grant” which consisted of the payment of a fraction, perhaps a quarter, of a legal minimum wage in force. Despite the heavy bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the ICBF, in the midst of a national migration policy —in practice xenophobic— along with a whole host of other problems, these workers take care of many children from Venezuela (Venezuelan nationals and Colombian returnees).

In the case of “surrogate mothers,” the situation can be even worse, since their work requires twenty-four hours a day availability. They are generally in charge of children in a “situation of restitution of rights.” That is, those who for one reason or another have been abandoned or separated from their families of origin, many of them with disabilities or complex chronic illnesses. This is the case of Guacho and Carlos, cared for by Ruth, one of the most prominent leaders of the Family Welfare Homes Workers Union (Sintracihobi). Carlos died over three years ago. As I was telling my colleague María de los Ángeles Balaguera (field assistant in Cali), it is desperate to see the number of dead people who had at some point participated in our project: “I heard about Katherine [worker at Casa Matria9 in Cali, who helped us contact potential interviewees in the city] and it made me sad to think how many deaths there have been throughout our project” (personal communication WhatsApp, September 24, 2019). Currently, the Colombian government remains unwilling to recognize the real contract that exists between these workers and the ICBF and has failed to establish measures to protect employment and domestic work or to promote human mobility in dignified conditions.

Something that is not contemplated in Hochschild’s notion of global care chains is how migrants carry knowledge and practices of resistance. Care drain, in this sense, implies the draining of knowledge and, in general, of a series of cultural and other types of capital, not categorized in Bourdieu’s theory (1986), which we could call emotional capital. This draining creates a deficit in one environment of relationships and simultaneously produces a gain in another ecosystem of relationships such as those of the families or companies in which they conduct their care work.

The Different Plots or Threads that Comprise the Metaphor

I am not dwelling on the secular connotations of the metaphor of worldliness here, but on the worldliness of cultural studies. I’m dwelling on the “dirtiness” of it, the dirtiness of the semiotic game, if I can put it that way […].

(Hall 1992, 279)

As is clear from the title of this section, I attempt a textual metaphor from a textile image: the imaginative possibility is broad if we allow ourselves this play on words and images. In this section, I propose a general image of the transnational wefts of care based on the threads that compose them. The first, plots as narratives, corresponds to the meaning of plot as argument, as narrative, and implies the discursive, somatic, political, aesthetic —the aesthetic understood from the bodily, the sensory— and affective dimensions of the transnational care plots. These are embodied narratives that involve emotions, sensations and affects, joys, and discomforts. These plots are incarnated in the bodies and existences of migrant caregivers and connect different elements of experiences throughout the migration trajectory. My intention —in line with that of anthropology and critical psychology and cultural studies— is to recover the political value of the individual and collective narratives of these people which are obliterated in more generalist approaches. These individual narratives are co-constituted with collective and even national and transnational narratives.

In the following, I would like to illustrate one of these personal narratives which incorporates various dimensions of the transnational care chains and plots. Pilar is the daughter of a migrant woman in Barcelona (Figure 1). She has had a very broad migratory trajectory, with at least two moments of transnational migration, and she interweaves her existence with these plots in her body mapping. The first moment occurs about fifteen years ago, when her daughters were still very young; the second, about four years ago. Although we provided many colors and different suggestions for the mapping exercise, Pilar chose to only use a graphite pencil; she looks suspended, as if lost on the blank page, and the smile on her face contrasts with the sadness she exudes throughout the interview and with the words “guilt” and “fear” marked on her body map. Analyzing her work, I get the feeling of someone who doesn’t want to take up too much space; another spatial and bodily paradox tied to migration and care. Xenophobic and misogynist discourses have one thing in common: a mandate of invisibility on women, feminized people, and migrants, who are summarily judged for occupying a space that “does not correspond to them.”


By the time I interviewed Pilar, I had already interviewed her mother and sister in Barcelona. Pilar was hoping to travel to Spain to reunite with her family, among other things, to flee with her daughter —who appears pregnant on the map and who stayed with us throughout the interview— from a violent environment propitiated by her father, who was about to be released from prison. Pilar tells us that she cannot or does not want to leave her home for fear of reprisals from him. This illustrates the spatial confinement-migration paradox that is very recurrent in the trajectories of migrants, particularly feminized migrants (Esguerra, Ojeda and Fleischer 2021), to which I have already referred. Her account also reveals how the operation of transnational care plots is interwoven into her life, how care drains and displacements of affection mark the narrative of abandonment for at least two decades of her existence:

Pilar: [About what she felt in her mother’s first migration when she was 5 years old] Well, I don’t really remember very well. I don’t know if I unconsciously erased it because it was painful, so I don’t remember it. Many people ask me… [we asked her about what she does remember] No. I don’t have anything to tell you because I don’t really remember. Even a lot. I mean, there were many things that I have totally repressed, that I have forgotten. I remember it as a grown-up, that is, let’s say from 15 years ago, before that I don’t remember anything. The truth is that I repressed everything, I repressed everything so it wouldn’t hurt me […]. I can remember little things, for example, when my father lived here in Colombia, like he was a good father, he was someone who came and played with us, he has always been very respectful, he has never been rude, nothing, nothing at all. And then, I think, the fact that he left and never came back is too painful, so, for that reason, I decided to repress. I don’t know, my other sisters will remember, but I don’t remember anything from my childhood. (Interview with Pilar, Cali, March 2018)

We can also see how migration establishes a series of transnational relationships of complex links and ruptures that involve an economy both material and of emotions, as well as the operation of a mechanism that turns feminized people into migratory meat, to make an analogy with the metaphors cannon fodder and prison meat (Esguerra 2020b), which connects us with the image that I propose when speaking, a little further on, of plots as conspiracy.

Pilar: [On how she supports her children] The truth is that, to tell you the truth, my mom helps me. My mom lives in Spain and my mom is helping me with the children’s support from there. My children’s father doesn’t help me because he is in prison and he doesn’t help me with them whether he is here or not… he doesn’t help me with them. At the beginning it was difficult because she helped me a lot here when she was with me, but I got used to it… and it was that my mother did not have any income. She had to start to make food to sell, things like that, and she never got a stable job here in Colombia, I mean, nothing. My sisters live there with her and they never had a university either, no, because they couldn’t… they couldn’t really find a place to do it. And since my father is also a migrant there, he also… and he stopped helping us for a long time… […] And at the beginning it was very hard, but not anymore. And nowadays there are so many ways to communicate, so we are in communication all the time. So… well, nothing, that’s how I’ve been getting used to the fact that my mom is gone. (Interview with Pilar, Cali, March 2018)

Meanwhile, plots as conspiracy, as political intrigue and state and parastatal traps, are local, national, or global in scale and refer to hegemonic discourses that serve to maintain the transnationalized, and, at the same time, domesticized (confined, enclosed in the dome), regime of exploitation and dispossession of care work, based on the international, sexual, and racial division of labor, which largely guarantees the reproduction of life in the (ex)metropolis of the global colonial system (Esguerra 2020b). This is the case for community mothers in Colombia, but in general it also refers to public policies, the politics of migration and the border industrial complex that turns feminized migrants into migrant meat (Esguerra 2020b). These hegemonic discourses are performative and materialize in the bodies and existence of migrants and of those who accompany them closely or from a distance along the migratory trajectory. These plots are traps, hunting nets that inflict harm in a continuum of violence that simultaneously reconfigure these care and migration plots.

These schemes also include parastatal actors, such as networks trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation, begging, servile marriages, and criminal exploitation, among others. The ethnographic exercise showed that a large proportion of migrant women who end up in domestic work know of some experience of trafficking involving close family members and acquaintances, without actually being aware that what is involved is a form of human trafficking. It is common for girls from the countryside to be taken to the city by families who make them work in domestic service in exchange for payment in kind in the form of food and lodging, promising them the almost-always-unfulfilled chance to study. Their mothers give them up, believing it is their only option to escape from an environment that offers them nothing but on-going physical, sexual, and economic violence.

The plots of representation of migration and care refer to the warp woven by the media and other sectors of the field of representations, such as art or academia. To explain this using a visual image, these plots are the raster scan of migration and care. What is at stake in these plots are the politics of representation: who speaks and what is said about migration and how the circulating discourses about migrants, particularly those engaged in care work, are constructed. Personally, I come across the painful paradox that it is me that receives the greatest benefit from research on this issue, as it leads to my own reproduction in the academic field, which ends up being a “wrestling with angels” (Hall 1992, 282), not only in terms of a battle to explain, analyze, and theorize, but, above all, to do and to transform.

This struggle implies that we understand and try to deconstruct technologies of representation and, at the same time, propose new fictions. I hope that this metaphor serves a pedagogical purpose so that those who read me find the pieces of this puzzle and know how to twist the path; that we stop turning this into a television show; and that this does not result in a noo-politics of numbness (Lazzarato 2006), a modulation of memory and imagination regulated by noo-political devices (audiovisual and telematic networks).

Much has been written about plots as networks of people, of migrants. In fact, this is one of the most widespread theoretical approaches in the field of migration, in which such networks are generally understood as people’s social capital during their migratory trajectory. However, I would like to make the notion more complex here by emphasizing that these networks are not only woven as an expression of social capital, but also, as what I suggested earlier, of emotional capital. This plot would be largely covered in the theory of migration networks (Massey, Durand, and Riosmena 2006), based on the operation of social capital —and then human capital— expressed in networks of kinship, friendship, and affection. These networks also refer to the migratory networks of women or feminized subjects who use their relationships to migrate. These relationships provide them with mechanisms for insertion in the transnational care labor market —precarious, exploited, and enslaved— that dispenses them to cover care deficits, which at the same time opens up gaps in their own social environments. Plots as networks of migrants favor migration and the recruitment of feminized people to care work, who may even pass through trafficking networks. However, these networks are generally understood superficially, imagining links that are always positive and not in tension. In this regard, as I noted earlier, the boundary between migration and trafficking is easily blurred in millions of children’s stories, especially those of peasant girls, many of them transgender, who face on-going violence, abuse, and dispossession, and who are handed over or flee and become entangled in plots of exploitation. Plots that, in any case, play an ambiguous role, since they allow them a certain political mobility, given the availability of certain material and symbolic resources in the urban centers and in the networks of cities where they end up living a migratory trajectory that becomes a spiral of continuous movement and displacements.

To conclude, I would like to talk about the last series of threads: plots as embodiment or organisms, that is to say, the plots that are woven based on the incarnated and stark experience of migration and care. These last plots would be somatic plots. In biology, the soma is the series of cells of a living organism, with the exception of reproductive cells; it is the network of cells that can undergo mitosis, with the exception of sexual cells that can undergo meiosis, a relationship between gametes that potentially (re)produce another organism, which involves a series of diverse genetic and molecular mechanisms. This plot is a soma, but it does not exclude sexual and reproductive dynamics; it integrates them. This somatic plot is the image of a productive and reproductive living organism.

The soma, as a migratory care plot, is the fabric of individuals and groups that can (re)produce the world, regardless of whether their reproductive production is organic. This challenges the heterosexist and cisgenderist view of reproduction associated with organic (re)production or poiesis and, at the same time, challenges the fiction of consanguinity —particularly the Western and Westernized, deeply dimorphic and heterocentric one— as the basis of social reproduction that has been conceptualized in part as care Tronto (2018) states that

on the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web. (Fisher and Tronto 1990, 40)

To go beyond what Tronto establishes, it is important to say that this world is us, we, that is, our bodies, the collectivity and the environment, the territory. Care is somatic, it is organic. Rather than care, I actually prefer to speak of (re)production in an (auto)poietic sense of the preservation of life.

Meanwhile, plots as organisms imply acuerpar, a word I learned in the debate with Paula Santos, from Mujeres Migrantes Diversas in Catalonia; Dalila Arqueta, from Honduras; Ariadna Aleida Román (Sitradomes and Las Febes), from El Salvador; and María Elena Luna, from Trabajadoras del Hogar de Santander (Asotrabajadoras), Colombia (CooperAcció and La Directa 2020). An expression widely used in Central America, acuerpar means “to support” or “to favor,” much like apañar is used in Chile. I interpret both words as “to put one’s body and soul into the struggle for life and living well;” “meter el hombro,”10 as we would say in Colombia. It is about the communitarian dimension of caring for life, the dimension of resistances and disobediences.

By acuerpamiento or acuerpar I mean the personal and collective action of our bodies outraged by the injustices experienced by other bodies. That are self-convened to provide themselves with political energy to resist and act against the multiple patriarchal, colonialist, racist, and capitalist oppressions. Acuerpamiento creates affective and spiritual energies and breaks down borders and imposed time. It provides us with closeness, collective indignation but also revitalization and new strength, to recover joy without losing indignation. (Cabnal 2015)

Finally, the migrant plots in the framework of a transnationalized regime of care are, in my imagination and in a certain collective imagination, a plot of affections, emotions, and sensations incorporated, embodied, and acuerpadas. It is the flesh and blood of migrations that connects me once again with the other side of the metaphor; or the political plot that turns migrants into migrant meat (Esguerra 2020b).

Conclusions: Imagining Futures Is Like Putting Together a Jigsaw Puzzle

I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency.

(Hall 1992, 282)

What I meant by theoretical gains was that the next kind of work that you feel able to do is done in a profoundly different way because you’ve had to wrestle with a new set of what I call conundra.11

(Hall 1992, 290)

The metaphor of the transnational care plots should serve to map the terrain in which we move; a map that should, at the same time, help us to swim against the tide. Throughout many places in Colombia and across different generations, when we want to express that something interests us very much, we say eso me trama.12 In this sense, I am interested in thinking about possible futures, even if this means facing unanswered questions, mysteries, a “wrestling with angels.” The plots become puzzles, which do not interest me as entelechies, but as unanswered questions about the transformation of inequality, about how to face its consequences of suffering and death.

In the last few years, we have been hearing about the migration crisis ad nauseam, as if human mobility were not a right, but a crime, and as if the real crisis were not linked to complex death plots that expel people by the millions from the places where they would like to live. We must remember that to care is to sustain life; to care is an anti-thanatopolitics and anti-necropolitics, a politics of poiesis and (re)production. At the same time, the pandemic that began in 2020 exposes a crisis of reproduction or care, that is, the sustaining of life. While health policies focus on confinement and border closures, even intra-national ones, the little virus exposes the big lie of state borders, shows the extent to which the politics of life have been sidelined, and unmasks practices such as tourism: the commodified face of human mobility as a privilege of the few. Much was reported in the media and on social networks about how certain international travelers, multinational executives, or recurrent tourists with a clear racial and class mark were the “patient zero.”

We are witnessing a new spatial paradox that implies the closing of borders, from inter and intra-municipal to international, and a profound domestication of the reproduction-production of life, given by confinement, while at the same time disembodying care and affection through social distancing. We have also seen how many care workers, the vast majority of whom are migrants, have been laid off; or how, conversely, their confinement has worsened, as exemplified by domestic workers who work as interns.

The puzzle of these plots urges us to consider a change in the thinking and practice of economics and politics that involves understanding the sexual, ethnic-racial, age, and transnational division of care work, and that also requires us to understand the current and globalized social organization of work, both domestic and transnationalized, and its implications of harm, pain, and death. It is essential to assume that the solution does not involve the mere redistribution of reproductive work in the domestic sphere, as Hochschild proposes, as this entails maintaining care in its domesticized (domesticated) state. Nor does the solution consist in deepening its commodification, as proposed by neoliberalism, or in resorting to developmentalist explanations and models, as is rightly proposed by Hochschild (2000, 143, paraphrasing Massey 1998). We need a new social and political pact that understands the need to redistribute both public and domestic production-reproduction time. We urgently need to rethink community care and time, to question the idea of community and the place that feminized people occupy in it, and to think of other non-Western and non-Westernized notions of kinship, bonds, and love.

We must think about the redistribution not only of material wealth, but also of symbolic wealth, and within it, of affections: how they flow and their materiality. But it is particularly pressing to think about the redistribution of time: what we spend it on; who spends it on whom; in what proportions time is devoted to (re)production, to production, and to leisure. We must also rethink the right to move or to stay throughout the planet. We are urged to make a new pact to place reproduction at the center and that there be no “exemptions” (Tronto 2018) from this responsibility if what we want is to sustain life and live well.



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[1] In this article, I address migration as a phenomenon that involves a continuum between “voluntary migrations,” exile, internal and cross-border displacement, return, trafficking, smuggling, banishment, exile, deportation, etc., at intra-village, intra-urban, intra-municipal and transnational scales.

[2] In this respect, some of the names of the participants have been changed in order to maintain the anonymity they requested.

[3] All translation of citations are the translator’s unless otherwise stated.

[4] I speak in the first-person plural because I consider that I owe this discussion not only to the more than one hundred people I interviewed over the years, but also to the young and experienced researchers with whom I worked, in particular Eliza Enache, who lovingly commented on this article, and to Ivette Sepúlveda, María de los Ángeles Balaguera, Laura Castrillón, and Alí Majul.

[5] The notion of uprooting (destierro, in the Spanish original) is used by women in El Chontaduro, Cali.

[6] The notion of economic migrant does not recognize this continuum, as it is not comprehensive of the multiple causes of migration, nor does it account for the variation of motivations that takes place along the migratory trajectory. Moreover, it is a notion linked to theories that conceive migration as the result of a rational choice.

[7] In other words, the obligation to accept the process of dimorphic sexuation and binary, linear, and intelligible generization; in other words, if one is sexed as male, if one is assigned male, the gender identity must be male, just as if one is assigned female, that person’s gender identity must correspond to this sexuation (Esguerra 2015).

[8] The translation of the word tramas into English raises a number of difficulties. In the context of this article, the word tramas could be translated as network, knitting, warp and weft, or plot. However, we chose the word “plot” because of the proximity of the concept of plot to the production of political devices of different kinds based on a discursive operation and the production of narratives. In this article, plots refer, as we will see below, to different networks of meaning and politics.

[9] A program implemented by the municipal administration of Cali, the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation for Development (AECID), and women’s social organizations that supports the development of public policy for women in the municipality of Santiago de Cali. It consists of “a space intended to develop, disseminate, and promote the construction of a municipality free of gender-based violence, where the meeting, visibility and recognition of knowledge, experiences, needs and interests of women on issues and practices of equity are made possible” (Santiago de Cali Municipal Mayor’s Office 2016).

[10] To support or help someone.

[11] Series of mysteries, of unsolved questions.

[12] When something engrosses us.