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The concept of ‘diaspora’ draws on a long history, originally related to the Greek, Jewish and Armenian experience of displacement from their native land and their ensuing dispersal across the world. As an analytical tool, ‘diaspora’ may be defined according to Robin Cohen (1997, 180-187), who extends William Safran’s (1991) pertinent considerations, designating as basic criteria the following features: forced or unforced dispersal from an original homeland; retention of a collective memory or myth about the ancestral home, which is idealized and to which the diasporic subject may wish to return; a distinct ethnic group consciousness and sense of solidarity with co-ethnic communities in other places, most often coupled with a troubled relationship to the host society.

From "Old" to "New" Diasporas

By tradition, scholarly research was previously focused on the dispersion of the Jews dating from the Babylonian exile, regarded as the paradigmatic case of what has been coined “victim diaspora”. Since the beginning of the 1990s at the latest, diasporic studies centered on the African diaspora, shaped by the transatlantic slave trade and conceptualized as the transnational cultural space of the “Black Atlantic”, as well as the “new diasporas” resulting from the mid-20th century decolonization processes and the ensuing postcolonial migrations. In view of the present process of increased globalization with its concurrent flows of mass migration these are considered as “the exemplary communities of the transnational moment” (Tölölyan 1991, 5; cf. Braziel 2008; Mayer 2005).

An expedient approach has been adopted by James Clifford, who identifies ‘diasporas’ as “dispersed networks of peoples who share common historical experiences of dispossession, displacement [and] adaptation” (1994, 309), and who discusses ‘diaspora discourses’ as representing “experiences of displacement, of constructing homes away from home (...) while remaining rooted/routed in specific, discrepant histories” (302). Diasporic subjects stay connected socially and/or emotionally to their (remembered or imagined) home countries, though not necessarily sustaining a “teleology of origin/return” (Clifford 1994, 306), since the construction of ‘homes’ or “homing desire” should be considered as “distinct from a desire for a ‘homeland’” (Brah 1996, 16). However, given the recent technological developments in communications and transportation facilities, coupled with an enhanced geographic and social mobility, the homing strategies of the “postmodern” diasporic subject may no longer be conceived in an unambiguous way, with the notions of travelling and dwelling competing with one another, thus in dissent on the issue of contemporary diasporas’ politics of (spatial) location.

Latino Diasporas in the United States

Among roughly 50 million people of Latin American/Caribbean descent living in the United States according to the 2010 census, the rise of a diasporic consciousness, coupled with a proliferation of diaspora discourses, seems to be a somewhat recent phenomenon, serving ‘diaspora’ to some extent as a substitute for the hegemonic majority-inflected label of ‘ethnic minority’. The diasporic dimension of the Latino experience in the United States has been underlined first and foremost in the context of Puerto Rican and Dominican migration, particularly on behalf of the Nuyoricans and Dominican Yorks as “transnational” inhabitants of the “global city” (cf. Duany 2002, 2011; Flores 2009; Lao 1997; Torres-Padilla, Rivera 2008). This is where the discourse of diasporism, while holding onto identity politics of cultural difference and achieving authority by its communitarian outlook, refers essentially to a social space that is delocalized and de-territorialized, thus privileging the notion of travelling over the notion of dwelling, and claiming metaphorical rather than spatial “locations” of the transnation: as a “nation unbound” (Basch, Glick Schiller, Szanton Blanc 1994), a “nation on the move” (Duany 2002) or by Luis Rafael Sánchez’ biased analogy of an “airbus” as the most popular image of Puerto Rican “space of a floating nation” (1994, 22).

Diasporic communities as transnational social fields are sustained by dense social / personal networks of economic / political connections across the borders of nation-states, most visible by the remittances that migrants send to their families back home, as well as by circular migration, with “transmigrants” celebrated as the “new subjectivities in the global arena” (Nonini and Ong, cit. by Vertovec 2010, 6); and numerous empirical case studies reveal specific transnational migrant circuits of Latin American / Latino communities (Portes, Guarnizo, Landolt 1999). But, as Alejandro Portes underlines, particularly among Latinos, not everybody is “going transnational”, since “labor and subordinate classes remain ‘local’, while dominant elites are able to range ‘global[ly]’” (1997, 18-19); and Jorge Duany (regretfully) had to admit, that his assertion of Puerto Rico as “nation on the move” is compromised by empirical data, which identify little else than 10 percent of Puerto Ricans engaged in circular migration (2002, 234-235).

Diasporic discourses are most commonly shaped by “the vocabulary of transnationalism” (Tölölyan 1991, 5), thus underscoring the notion of delocalized / deterritorialized “traveling cultures”. But culture, as Arturo Escobar (2001) put it bluntly, “sits in places”; and “places” (or “spaces”) are “characterised by specific social activities with a culturally given identity (name) and image” (Shields 1991, 30). Thus, the homing strategies of diasporic subjects / communities depend on their “performance or enactment of spatialisation (...) in their daily habits” (53), involved in localized and territorialized relational processes of identity formation and management, beset by both external (hegemonic) pressures and internal (generational) conflicts.


Some academic scholars have advanced the idea of America as a “crossroads of diasporas” (Lao 1997, 180) or a (“postnational”) nation-state comprising a “large variety of transnations” (Appadurai 2008, 172). Yet, others are highly critical of the “inflationary use” of ‘diaspora’ as a master trope “to cover just about any type of existence away from the homeland” (Fludernik 2003, xiii), and the likewise problematic “Bhabhian celebrations of diasporic hybridity” (xxx) as a “cultural catch-all of alien positivity” (xxii). As Katharyne Mitchell (critically) states, Homi Bhabha’s “‘third space’ of hybridity and the margins of the diasporic have been offered to the sacred altar of resistance as new sites of hope (...) and as the chiasmatic spaces of a progressive and liberatory transnational culture” (1997, 533). However, the celebration of multiple and mobile (or “nomadic”) diasporic identities largely disregards what Edward Said set against the “optimistic mobility” of our “postmodern” times, and what lies at the very origins of manifold diasporic conditions: “the massive dislocations, waste, misery, and horrors endured in our century’s migrations and mutilated lives” (1994, 332).

Frauke Gewecke

Please cite as:
Gewecke, Frauke. 2012. “Diaspora.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/d_Diaspora.html.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2008. Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. 8th ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Basch, Linda, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc. 1994. Nations Unbound. Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach.

Brah, Avtar. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora. Contesting Identities. New York: Routledge.

Braziel, Jana Evans. 2008. Diaspora. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Clifford, James. 1994. “Diasporas.” In Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3: pp. 302-338.

Cohen, Robin. 1997. Global Diasporas. An Introduction. London: UCL Press.

Duany, Jorge. 2002. The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move. Identities on the Island and in the United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

——. 2011. Blurred Borders. Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 2001. “Culture sits in places: reflections on globalism and subaltern strategies of localization.” In Political Geography 20: pp. 139-174.

Flores, Juan. 2009. The Diaspora Strikes Back. Caribeńo Tales of Learning and Turning. New York: Routledge.

Fludernik, Monika. 2003. “The Diasporic Imaginary: Postcolonial Reconfigurations in the Context of Multiculturalism.” In Fludernik, Monika (Ed.) Diaspora and Multiculturalism. Common Traditions and New Developments, xi-xxxviii. New York: Rodopi.

Lao, Agustín. 1997. “Islands at the Crossroads: Puerto Ricanness Traveling between the Translocal Nation and the Global City.” In Negrón-Muntaner, Frances / Grosfoguel, Ramón (Eds.) Puerto Rican Jam. Rethinking Colonialism and Nationalism, pp. 169-188. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mayer, Ruth. 2005. Diaspora. Eine kritische Begriffsbestimmung. Bielefeld: transcript. Mitchell, Katharyne. 1997. “Different diasporas and the hype of hybridity.” In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15: pp. 533-553.

Portes, Alejandro. 1997. “Globalization from Below: The Rise of Transnational Communities.” Working Paper WPTC-98-01, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

——, Luis E. Guarnizo, and Patricia Landolt, ed. 1999. “Transnational Communities.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 2, special issue.

Said, Eward W. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. 9th ed. New York: Knopf.

Safran, William. 1991. “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return.” In Diaspora 1, no. 1: pp. 83-99.

Sánchez, Luis Rafael. 1994. La guagua aérea. San Juan: Editorial Cultural. Shields, Rob. 1991. Places on the Margin. Alternative Geographies of Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Tölölyan, Khachig. 1991. “The Nation-State and Its Others: In Lieu of a Preface.” In Diaspora 1, no. 1: pp. 3-7.

Torres-Padilla, José L. / Haydée Rivera, Carmen (Eds.). 2008. Writing Off the Hyphen. New Critical Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Vertovec, Steven. 2010. Transnationalism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

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