Matthew Hayes is Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. His research develops a global sociology of lifestyle migration, focused on the relational experience and ongoing global social relations that shape migration from North American and Western Europe to Latin America and North Africa. His book Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism (2018, University of Minnesota Press) was published in Spanish (Gringolandia: Migración Norte-Sur y Desigualdad Global) by Abya Yala in 2020. He tweets @matthewfhayes.
Review by Nick Osbaldiston, 11th February 2021
It is a strange time to be conducting a book review on the topic of transnational migration based on privilege, mobility and relative affluence. However, the latitudes of inequality between those considered the North and South remain firmly in place. When the dust settles eventually and state borders reopen, it will be interesting to see how much COVID-19 has imprinted itself on future migrations of privilege. While this is something that we will need to engage with as migration researchers, what is clear from Matthew Hayes’ excellent contribution to the field, culminating in the book Gringolandia, is that there exists a latitude of inequality that allows those from the global North the agency to choose how to live out a ‘better way of life’ (Benson and O’Reilly, 2009, 3). In particular to his work, the movement of North Americans into the Central American region presents a case study into how migrants tap into existing inequalities by using their relative privilege.
Hayes explores this through ethnographic analysis of migrant experiences shifting from North America into Cuenca, Ecuador. He frames this as a movement based on a number of privileges that have historical relevance in colonial structures between states;
I suggest thinking about these territorial inequalities as “latitudes” of a global division of labour, a concept that captures the unequal accrual of privileges and rewards from a global system of production and accumulation. These latitudes are […] a by-product of an exploitative and often very violent appropriation of wealth in the colonies that was later expressed in the European metropolises in both cultural and material forms(Hayes, 2018, 11).
North Americans have acquired a ‘greater distribution of social surpluses in the form of health care, education and social rights’ which has led, arguably, to substantially better economic conditions. For Hayes these conditions were made possible through a global division of production, labour and consumption which saw the North progress and the South suffer.
Hayes argues this creates a condition of geoarbitrage where an individual migrant’s relative wealth, status and racial identities find them in more privileged positions than before. In the case of Gringolandia, these people tend to be those in their ‘third age’ who are seeking to retire well. As Hayes explores throughout the book, ‘in Ecuador’ retirees find that ‘their savings go further and permit them to experiment with new forms of aging, where they have the illusion of greater control and the possibility of staving off […] a “narrowing” of their social worlds’ (Hayes, 2018, 14). In short, their wealth levels are worth more in Cuenca and go a lot further. This new level of comfort allows individuals to enact their ideas of ‘personal growth’ and ‘enrichment’ (Hayes, 2018, 41). While incomes and wealth levels within their home countries would disallow this, transnational migration into a place like Ecuador frees up space, time and income to give them opportunities to pursue their ideals of an authentic lifestyle. This could be counted as a type of ‘subtle critique’ (Hayes, 2018, 72) of western modernity as individuals become freed from the constraints of time-compressed fast capitalism. However, instead of allowing that narrative to be at the forefront here, Hayes focusses on some of the darker issues associated with this privileged form of migration.
I wish in this review to focus on one area that can be summarised as a nostalgia for a time period lost. Hayes discusses how his participants reflect on their places in Ecuador as similar to how North American life used to be. In particular, the city of Cuenca looks and feels like a 1950s American city yet to be overcome by the pitfalls of western modernity. Through such a narrative, migrants reflect their ideas of what is ‘authentic’ upon the town and sociality. As Hayes argues, such an imposition disallows the city to develop its own modern trajectory as it is constantly framed and reframed by migrant imagination which is facilitated by local landowners and elites. Hayes uses El Centro as a case to demonstrate how through a revitalization project working-class people are displaced or sidelined. This comes about due to the actions and responses to global movement by the propertied elites whose goal is to ‘increase real estate values’ (Hayes, 2018, 137). At the heart of this is that nostalgic trope for a life forgotten – and in this case it is the heritage of Cuenca which is steeped in colonial architecture, history and of course, inequality (see also Hayes, 2020). What Hayes tries carefully to point out is that lifestyle migrants do not explicitly participate in this urban gentrification, but their tastes, thoughts of the good life and above all relative wealth brings with it a set of expectations that the local elites use, perpetuating inequality. As Hayes (2018, 146) writes, ‘their (migrants) desire for colonial-style urban spaces and their taste for urban improvement participate in urban agendas that potentially raise rents and displace lower-income groups’. Lifestyle migrants also unwittingly step into the rural terrain with ‘individualistic ideals with respect to their relocation’ and ‘become entwined in the historical social relations […], dominated by the accumulation strategies of landowning elites, of which they know little’ (Hayes, 2018, 161). In particular, as Hayes explores, the long battle to democratize land-ownership and pursue equality in places like the Vilcabamba is interrupted by the incoming North Americans who seek their slice of idealized paradise. Lifestyle migration into the region has led to a shift of land-use values from agriculture to ‘real estate investment and speculation’ (Hayes, 2018, 161). In short, the land has moved from one of production to consumption disrupting any attempts to rectify long standing social justice issues of class, race and an unequal colonial history. As he states, the ‘landowning classes are best positioned to take advantage of the shift toward real estate development’ (Hayes, 2018, 172).
This main narrative runs throughout the book and Gringolandia could easily be sub-titled, the unintended consequences of privileged migration. For some time lifestyle migration researchers have focused on aspects of individual lives, looking at the class, status and power dimensions built into the ways people think through and then enact their quest for a new life elsewhere. But the growth in research investigating movement of people from the global North into the South from people like Hayes highlights a few key points that we ought to take seriously as scholars of migration, both international and domestic.
Firstly, it is clear that economic capital is a significant variable. Yes we do need to consider others such as social, cultural and symbolic capital when we examine the privilege that migrants hold. However, Hayes shows that economic capital (combined imagination and expectation) plays a substantial role in this movement of people and complicates attempts to rectify existing inequalities. Secondly, this work highlights the absolute necessity for us to examine the histories of places where lifestyle migrants go. Without that foundation, the work Hayes does here might have taken a different direction, focusing instead on individual narratives of the good life with a hat tip to the colonial legacy and unequal distribution of wealth in the country. However, Hayes has exemplified what careful and robust consideration of the histories of the area can reveal about the relative privilege that lifestyle migrants hold. I would add that one of these privileges is that migrants do not have to engage with that history at all. They are able to avoid ethical decisions about whether to buy land there or not, simply because they are not overly engaged nor understand the historical inequalities that exist. In short, they are free from the burdens of others to pursue their own idealised lifestyles. Lastly, and of serious importance in the contemporary environment within academia, Hayes’ brilliant ethnographic work, prose, style and reading of the situation in Cuenca shows the importance of being on-the-ground and spending time amongst people both inside migrant communities and with the hosts that surround, work with and sometimes for them. I do think there is value in trying to make theoretical and even empirical comment from afar. However, it is clear from the brilliant work of Hayes and others, that the long-standing tradition of being amongst your participants and the context that they live in is vital to understanding movements like lifestyle migration.
Benson, M. and O’Reilly, K. (2009) (eds) Lifestyle Migration: Expectations, Aspirations and Experiences. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Hayes, M. (2020) ‘The Coloniality of UNESCO’s Heritage Urban Landscapes: Heritage Process and Transnational Gentrification in Cuenca, Ecuador’, Urban Studies 57(15), 3060-3077.
Nick Osbaldiston is a senior lecturer in sociology at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. He is the author of several pieces on lifestyle migration, including an edited volume with Michaela Benson entitled Understanding Lifestyle Migration (Palgrave, 2014).