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Reexaming the immigrant experience. A recent study by Susan Eckstein, a CAS sociology professor, compared two cohorts of émigrés from Cuba — those who arrived in the United States before 1980, during the early decades of Castro’s rule, and those who arrived later. Her research draws on census and survey data as well as interviews with approximately 200 people in the United States and Cuba.

Those who arrived before 1980 primarily were from upper- and middle-class families and left Cuba because the revolution stripped them of power, property, and prestige. They arrived in the United States with money, education, experience, and networks of influence that positioned them to begin successful new lives. U.S. policies also supported them, granting them immediate refugee status and the right to work and to gain citizenship. They also benefited from public programs that provided food, clothing, health care, assistance in finding jobs, employment and professional training, bilingual education, and college tuition loans.

Later émigrés were primarily of the working class and left Cuba for economic reasons. Many professionals within this cohort had worked for the state, earning low salaries. Although they also were granted residence and citizenship rights, there were no programs in place to help them adapt to life in the United States.

The differences in assimilation are striking. While many members of the first group today are politically and economically powerful, those in the second group are likely to live in poverty and be unemployed or marginally employed. Their political viewpoints and their attitudes about Cuba, as well as their relationships with family and friends back home are also very different: despite having fewer resources, later immigrants are more likely to be in touch with, and send money to help support, relatives in Cuba and to travel to Cuba despite travel bans by the U.S. government. According to Eckstein, the differences persist into succeeding generations.

Eckstein’s study reveals different factors at play in the assimilation process than does previous research. While earlier studies tended to focus on immigrants’ family relationships and the length of time since immigration, Eckstein emphasizes the importance of factors external to the family — the economic and social conditions of both the homeland and the adopted country — in shaping the immigrant experience.

This research was presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August.

Feeding the family. The Vietnam war and the subsequent rule by the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia, and widows in that country have been especially vulnerable to hardships related to war, disease, and famine, according to Rev. Susan H. Lee, a CGS assistant professor of social sciences. In 1999, nearly 11 percent of Cambodian women were widows and 25 percent of the country’s households were headed by women.

Lee recently interviewed 33 rural widows in five districts in the central plains of Cambodia. She found that most relied on rice agriculture supplemented by microenterprises and labor to earn cash — what Lee calls “rice plus” strategies. These strategies depend upon cooperative family labor and a spirit of family solidarity, and may vary according to the age of the widow and her children.

Some Cambodian traditions support widows who are breadwinners, Lee found. Family members commonly live with or near the wife’s mother, so they can help the widow and children remaining at home. Daughters as well as sons inherit land and goods, and women own land in their own name and can sell it as they choose. Also, women often manage the family finances.

But other traditions work against widows. Although many gender roles in Cambodia are permeable, meaning either women or men can do a job, farm labor typically is gender-specific — women prepare and sow rice seeds and transplant seedlings, while men plow, transport the rice, and maintain irrigation systems. Lee found that in some areas women were able to take over the plowing. In others, women instead had to transplant other families’ fields in exchange for plowing, which put them at an economic disadvantage because plowing is valued more highly.

According to Lee, “The experiences of Cambodian plow-women provide clues to improving the valuation of female labor. It helps to place productive resources such as oxen and a plow into the hands of women. When women participate in traditionally male roles, they gain insight and confidence to advocate for better compensation . . . . Empowering women through access to resources will help widows support themselves and their children and prevent the perpetuation of poverty into the next generation.”

Lee’s research was reported at the American Sociological Association’s 2004 annual meeting in August.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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