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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Ramón Sánchez Pérez De Lara

Professor, Escuela de Bellas Artes, Cádiz

Value is a quality that confers meaning to things, events or people, whether positive or negative. For objective idealism, value lies beyond people; for subjective idealism, however, value lies in awareness, in the subjectivity of the individuals that make use of it.

Personal objects tell stories, describe their holders and their lives. Migrants, when they make the decision to leave their country, must also choose what to bring as luggage and what personal objects will form part of the journey. Objects of aesthetic value, lucky objects or those of sentimental value, objects that identify the people and which speak of them and of the situation that they are going through in their lives. They represent a moment in which individual identity, emotions and a collective are brought into question, in which the importance given to these objects is examined. These objects that stand as a reference of past and present lives, to try and project them towards the future, holding on to them as depositories of memory. Objects that describe their culture and origin, objects that enable us to approach the living of the migratory experience of a group and the lives of its members. What do these objects tell us? What do they say about these people? And what value do they represent?

Examining the objects that migrants specifically choose when leaving their country enables us to approach the living of the migratory experience. By way of the stories of the transfer of three people from different origins and of the place that the objects have in their new destination, we will be given an insight into the processes related to the construction of a person’s own life, individual identity, the preservation of memory and the role of loved ones in this process. These objects tell the story of emotions, sensations, personal and family ties and stories that an attempt is made to preserve when it comes to migrating, and which acquire new dimensions after the destination has been reached.


Milouda El Hankari comes from a small village in Rif called Beni Bouayach (Aït Bouayach) in Northern Morocco, in the province of Al Hocëima, which lies inland and is only a few kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea. Milouda crossed the Strait laden with concerns and with a box in which she will keep all those objects that have a special meaning for her and which, over time, will increase in numbers. As the years go by, new experiences will be added along with the objects that accompany them and which describe for her those emotionally significant moments, which she will zealously keep, like a great treasure of personal experiences, and which only she will know how to interpret, read and contemplate. Quite often this will depend either on the inspiration and emotion transmitted to her by these objects, or if these objects choose Milouda to accompany her throughout her life. These treasures may be letters, photographs, poetry written on little slips of paper, a dried flower, a leaf from a tree, or even those small, diverse articles that are irreplaceable, noninterchangeable, personal elements that are difficult to share and which have been collected over the course of her journeys. Objects that tell stories and are kept in a tin can. This can will gradually rust with time and will only be replaced by another when both Milouda and the passing of time so decide. Incorporating certain objects into a life’s journey plays a considerable part in describing important moments which, as in this case, will be safely kept hidden away and remain secret.


Lecturer Maurice O’Connor keeps a clock from the early 20th century with which a curious tie with his grandfather has been established. His political commitment, which saw him travel around part of Latin America before landing on the shores of southern Andalusia, afforded him the opportunity of experiencing the 30th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Indeed, his journey also coincided with the last days of the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua in 1989. This interest in Latin American political movements may form part of the legacy of his maternal grandfather whom he never met, Thomas Corrigan, a person who was committed to the struggle and defence of the rights of the Irish people on the republican side, with Sinn Féin. Also a teacher, he found it necessary to go into exile in New York. Sometimes it seems inevitable that certain signs mark one’s fate and remind us of where we come from through relatives that we never met in life and which are somehow closely related to the very depth of our being, despite how long it may take us to become aware of this. Perhaps it is this clock that belonged to his grandfather, and which marks the passing of time from its privileged position on the living room sideboard, which strengthens those invisible ties with the family, with the grandfather he never knew. There are places that are not chosen by people, but rather by objects. This is the case of Maurice’s clock which, though it forms part of an environment far removed from its place of origin, silently presides over a space that honours its history and provenance. The references to certain inherited objects are destined to rewrite family legends, where present and past are linked with common histories in different places.


Kanita Mukanovic is from Bosnia Herzegovina, Sarajevo to be exact. The most precious item that she brings back with her after a visit to Sarajevo is food. It has a special value owing to its perishable nature, not to mention its enormously charged emotional significance. It is a way in which to keep in touch, practically spiritually with Bosnia, her home and her family. There is little with which such a peculiar feeling can be compared, it is a moment of great transcendence, nigh on sacred. She savours, enjoys and even prolongs the process so as to slowly delight in it, to feel that she still has another mouthful left and to enjoy the taste of her home and her family. As she chews, her salted tears blend with the texture of the beef ham, the chicken breast pâté or the cakes and pastries such as baklava, kadaif and tulumba, all of ancient Turkish origin. These different flavours that take her back to her home are extremely difficult to find in the new places where she now lives and, of course, on being perishable, carry an expiry date. Therein lies their dual importance. Something material and lasting does not have the same value for Kanita as the food from home. Its eating provokes conflicting feelings: on the one hand, when it runs out, she suffers a slight pain, something inside her is lost, but on the other hand, it represents a certain relief in freeing her from the anxiety caused by the fear that it will go off as the days go by. Mouthful after mouthful is a mixture of joy and pain. A feeling of blame that disappears when everything has been eaten.

The act of eating is used as a socialising mechanism in most countries during festive seasons, family events, funerals, homages, anniversaries or religious encounters. Food on such occasions occupies pride of place.

Migrants consider food as something that belongs to them, whether recipes that they zealously preserve, accumulated over generations, or the desire to enjoy in their destination the food prepared with such care and affection, which involves bringing it back in their luggage before it loses its properties. Cooking and eating become something transcultural when food is prepared outside its original setting, albeit enriched by the contribution of another seasoning, thus making it possible to acquire new sensations. When it comes to enjoying the food prepared by family members when one is alone, a feeling of much greater intimacy is involved, a veritable roller coaster of emotions ranging from emotional pleasure found in the smells and flavours that bring one back home and to a faroff environment, to a feeling of melancholy, recreating moments and people that are hundreds of kilometres away.

There are objects that form part of these individuals creating a special relationship, constituting a relationship of appropriation to confer a particular and unique value on the object and that identifies all those people with their cultural milieu. They are personal, unique objects that cannot be interchanged; they are genuine biographical elements and key parts in the stories of these lives. There are also those objects that not only refer to experiences of a sentimental nature, but of a sensory one as well, such as taste in the case of food, which is so important to Kanita, as its flavour and aroma enables her to recreate a moment in time, a space, a culture or a very intimate connection with her familial origin. These possessions also enable them to preserve their memories and remind them of where they come from, thus they are endowed with value from the moment they are chosen.

These objects can serve as true references to place and time that identify their owners, such as, for example, photographs of family members, of friends, of loved ones and places. They can also attest to the experiences that describe particular moments. Sometimes the mere presence of the objects makes it possible to create contexts of diverse and faroff places; their geographical origin serving as a special link between these places and people. The photograph is not merely a material support. The credibility of the traditional photograph has occasionally relied on the original character of its initial correspondence with the world it produces in images, a relationship that is considered fundamental as a representation system. Furthermore, there are those objects that have been acquired as gifts. Such objects can attain a great importance in the new home of the migrant, sometimes to be shown as a reference to a place of origin. Others are kept more concealed, depending on the relationship they have with their owner, on account of the intimate and sentimental ties involved; safely kept treasures infused with a great emotional charge, protected from the sight of strangers, as in Milouda’s case.

Another important consideration is the identity and continuity of the place of origin with past space and time. Its link not only with people but with places and times, evoking lived experiences of the past, while also forming part of the present, thus marking out a space of temporal continuity.

The objects chosen become significant, even symbolic, due to their evocative nature and their capacity to transmit meaning to the significance of migration. They become important as they are the reflection of a crucial life experience, their presence serving to describe these personal biographies. Object and subject interrelate to share stories and emotions.