Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Triqui woman for Oaxaca dances with her traditional dress in the Mayordomía © Abbdel Camargo M.

Mobility and Intangible Cultural Heritage: Some Thoughts on the Role and Tasks of ICH for the Integration of Immigrant Society

According to the International Organization for Migration, although the percentage of international migrants in relation to the total world population is relatively low, that is 3.3percent in 2015, and has grown only 1 percent since the 1970s—in absolute numbers, it has almost tripled, from 84,460,125 to 243,700,236 in that same period. In fact, and from a historical point of view,

people across the globe have long been interconnected; populations have been mobile, and their identities have often been fluid, multiple, and contextualized. It is important to acknowledge the various (historical) forms that mobility has taken, because the ways people move exert strong influences on their culture and society. (Salazar, 2018: 153).

This amounts to reconsidering, among other fundamental issues, what we actually mean by integration in a mobile world where migration fluxes are growingly diversified in terms of age, gender, migratory projects, places of origin and destination, immigration policies at state and local levels, economic inequalities, and power struggles. As Levitt puts it, it is important to address the “structural considerations to facilitate integration of individuals with different characteristics and needs, at different points in their life course,” and this includes how to disseminate a positive image of migrants; ways of combating racism, extremism, xenophobia; measures to facilitate their inclusion in the labor market and to guarantee their access to social services; working towards social and political participation, and focusing on migrant children and youth, particularly the 1.5, second and third generations. (Levitt, 2010)

Culture in general, and intangible cultural heritage specifically, plays a very important role in these processes. Nevertheless, culture—and therefore ICH—remains a comparatively minor subject within migration studies (Arizpe 2007; Amescua, 2013), and in turn, mobility and migration are an almost unchartered field in heritage studies. To reflect on the role and tasks of intangible cultural heritage for the integration of immigrant society, I will build upon the concept of contact zones and its relation to mobility processes.

Mary Louise Pratt defines a contact zone as

the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict. (…). A “contact” perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees”, not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interactions, interlocking understanding and practices. (Pratt, 1993: 5).

I want to stress that contact zones are constantly built wherever people from different cultures live together; these encounters have been triggered throughout history by different kinds of mobility processes including, of course, colonial enterprises, but also international and domestic labor or educational migration, political displacement, asylum seeking, and even tourism.

As I have argued elsewhere, movement is becoming a strong characteristic that shapes everyday life in the communities that create and recreate ICH, as they become increasingly involved in mobility processes that have grown both in diversity and intensity. And concomitantly, one of the main characteristics of ICH

is (also) movement, transformation. Since groups of human beings are the repository of the knowledge and practices that constitute ICH, adaptation and dynamic change are the key elements that ensure endurance of deeply grounded meanings that give sense to collective life. (Amescua, 2013: 105-106)

In this sense, research of ICH in migratory contexts can fall into what is being called the “new mobility paradigm,” which incorporates new ways of theorizing how people, objects, and ideas move around. “Mobility appears self-evidently central to modernity as a key social process ‘a relationship through which the world is lived and understood (Adey, 2010:1)’” (Salazar, 2018: 156) Nevertheless, from this standpoint, mobility can, and is, naturalized to the extent of being considered as a given fact that does not need any kind of second thought or analysis. What I suggest is quite the opposite, and in that sense, I argue in favor of undertaking a critical analysis of mobility that “focuses on the political-economic processes by which people are bounded, emplaced, allowed or forced to move (…). Mobility is always materially grounded” (Salazar, 2018: 156); and this groundedness applies both to ICH bearers involved in processes of migration and to the transformations that give ICH its dynamic form. Understanding the relations between ICH and migrations through the mobility lens will allow us to shed some light on complex processes, such as how the way immigrants reproduce their cultural heritage in the communities where they settle. This is done through a complex interplay between preservations and transformation and, how they go about building new communities through ICH by sharing their cultural practices and expressions with other immigrants and even with people from the receiving communities while they value authenticity and adaptation depending on their specific experiences both in their communities of origin and through their mobility and resettlement processes.

This understanding of ICH in contexts of human mobility challenge traditional conceptions of the relations between culture and community and culture and territory. It is important to point out that social sciences have argued for a long time now that culture (and hence ICH) is a dynamic process in constant recreation, and in that sense, it is not bound by hard and unmovable geographical or cultural borders; but nonetheless, there is still a common-sense belief that human groups exist and are basically defined within those borders. Such an assumption is constantly challenged by what happens to culture and ICH in contexts of migration. Transnational communities and their transnational cultural practices show processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (both physical and symbolic) that expand and contract those territories within which—and trough which—a lot of human groups live their lives. And these processes are profoundly shaped by economic, political, and social forces such as more or less restrictive migration policies, harsher or laxer border-crossing enforcement laws, labor market differentials between countries and regions, and social perceptions on potential upward mobility through migration.

Culturally speaking, the characteristic copresence of contact zones means first a heightened consciousness of cultural diversity and therefore an awareness of cultural particularities. The way in which these two phenomena are managed in everyday life as well as through collective actions or even governmental policies, is precisely what will shape the kind of community that is to be built. If cultural difference is positively valued, then ICH can play a key role in fostering spaces of conviviality both among immigrants (domestic or international) and with the host society (in all its variety, since rarely a host society can be understood as a homogeneous entity). But if diversity is constructed as a negative force threatening the imagined “wholeness” and “purity” of a society, then ICH can become a weapon through which human groups can assert and/or try to impose their own ways on others so it can lead to veiled or brutal conflicts and confrontations.

ICH has an enormous potential to build intercultural dialogue, embodied processes of self-recognition, and empathy towards others. It has an extremely relevant role to play in terms of integration and well-being of growingly diversified societies. However, it is not a natural or given fact. Therefore, one of the main tasks is to understand how local integration—or segregation—processes are happening. Social sciences in general, and particularly anthropology, have a very important research field to explore and expand.


Amescua, Cristina. 2013. “Anthropology of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Migration: An Unchartered Field.” In Anthropological Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage. edited by Arizpe, Lourdes and Cristina Amescua. Springer Briefs in Environment, Security, Development and Peace, Springer. pp.103-120.

Arizpe, Lourdes. 2007, Migración y Cultura en América Latina y el Caribe: Bibliografía Seleccionada, CRIM-UNAM.

Levitt, Peggy. 2010. “Societies and Identities: The Multifaceted Impact Setting the Scene.” (presentation, International Dialogue on Migration, Geneva, Switzerland, 19 July 2010). (accessed on 13 May 2018).

Pratt, Mary Louise. 2005. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” In Reading Context. edited by Gail Stygall. Thomson Wadsworth, Boston, pp. 585-598.

Salazar, Noel. 2018. “Theorizing Mobility through Concepts and Figures.” in Tempo Social, revista de sociologia da USP, v. 30, n. 2, pp. 153-168.