What’s Love Got to Do with It? Language of Transnational Affect in the Letters of Portuguese Migrants

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Book Chapter

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Emotional Landscapes : Love, Gender, and Migration


The unprecedented increase in transoceanic migrations in the second half of the nineteenth century was a major catalyst for an explosion in letter-writing and for the expansion of letter-writing to the working classes. Through letters, migrants and their families made sense of their separation and kept connected with each other and with the broader purpose of migration as a family project, contributing to the creation of what David Gerber characterizes as a “singular transnational space.” This chapter explores this epistolary language, focusing on expressions of responsibility and sacrifice as gendered manifestations of transnational affect among Portuguese families separated by migration, in particular married couples living apart and parents who left their children behind. Epistolary language was the vehicle through which they managed the emotion work of migration; communicated vital information to cope with their temporary separation; weighed options and possibilities for the future; and discussed expectations and behaviors within a narrative framework of family and marital love that combined emotional and material well-being. Migration was a widespread phenomenon in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Portugal. Portuguese workers participated in a variety of migratory circuits in the Americas, Portuguese Africa and other colonial territories, and Europe. Brazil attracted the vast majority of transatlantic migrants (ranging from 90 percent in the 1890s to 70 percent in the 1920s), followed by the United States and Argentina. This was a gendered labor strategy characterized by a predominance of migrant men, who constituted close to 80 percent of departures from continental Portugal between 1886 and 1930. For married migrants, this strategy relied on the active role of wives who stayed home to take care of the household, work the land if they lived in rural villages, and invest money sent from abroad. The gendered nature of Portuguese migrations contributed to a prevalent pattern of family separation rooted in a longstanding culture of migration with expectation of return. A parallel movement of family reunification also emerged, but transatlantic migration continued to be overwhelmingly male.


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