A ‘Scribble Scrabble’ Life: Digital Storytelling Project Reveals Young Latina Mothers’ Struggles with Movement and Migration

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AMHERST, Mass. – The digital stories of a number of young Latina mothers reveal that the shaming and humiliation they face is often exacerbated by the frequent moves they and their families are often forced to make – a “scribble scrabble” life, as one mother described it – according to a new article from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

For the past six years, Elizabeth Krause, professor of anthropology, and Aline Gubrium, associate professor of health promotion and policy, conducted the multi-year research and training project “Hear Our Stories: Diasporic Youth for Sexual Rights and Justice.” The community-based aspect of the program featured four, four-day digital storytelling workshops at a General Education Diploma (GED) prep site in Holyoke, Massachusetts, with 31 young mothers. Through conversations and interviews, documented in print for the first time in the journal Medical Anthropology Quarterly, the researchers found a startling and common theme of temporary housing and frequent moves – from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland, from state to state, city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood, and, for some, into and out of homeless shelters.

A prime example cited in the paper is Gabriela, a single mother who had two young daughters and had twice dropped out of school during her freshman year of high school. She became pregnant for the first time at 18, well after dropping out, and had a nearly non-existent parental support system – her father was in jail and she had a difficult relationship with her mother, who battled drug and alcohol problems. Born in Puerto Rico, Gabriela moved to Ohio when she was one, then back to Puerto Rico when she was eight. She stayed there for a year and then moved to Springfield at age nine, and to Worcester at age 10. She came back to Springfield at age 14 and had since moved a lot within Springfield, including, for a while, in a shelter, “as the result of having been kicked out from her daughter’s father’s place, then from her mother’s place, and finally from her cousin’s place.” At the time of her interview with the researchers she was living in an apartment, but was having some issues with government assistance.

Asked if she would be able to create a map of all of the places she had lived, Gabriela replied “Yeah… Like it would be like… all this scribble scrabble everywhere.”

“The reference to her life as ‘scribble scrabble’ captures a life lived hastily in such a way that the journey is barely legible to outsiders,” the researchers write. “There is a sense of groping through one’s life, and a sense that all of this movement mounts up to just barely surviving.”

Krause and Gubrium say that the richness of the stories may serve as a potent intervention—a narrative shock—for articulating meanings and cultivating dignity for young mothers and their families, especially those who do not fit the sedentary and age biases of parenting ideals. They say that digital stories are shocking because they move beyond text—they shock at visceral, affective and sensory levels, “synergizing the spoken with the visual and creating a different kind of voice” to link the storyteller and listener.

“The digital stories humanized their experiences as mothers,” the researchers write. “The multi-sensory quality both of making and showing these stories creates the narrative shock. Taken together, the corpus of digital stories shifts sentiments away from the tired trope of prevention, shocking viewers to their senses, into caring about and wanting to support the storytellers and their families. The digital stories thus shock and shift viewer sensitivities to the important connection between reproductive health, mobility, and movement.”

And while the difficult experiences of the mothers underpinned their stories, Krause and Gubrium write that “strikingly present was a vague promise of opportunity entangled with a concrete desire for a better life. Time and again, the young women expressed a search for improving their life circumstances, one that involved a quest for quiet—away from the noise of drugs, gangs, violence, surveillance, and conflict… to find a place to call home that took them from state to state.”

They also say that the process of making digital stories in solidarity with other women empowered the participants, and that many of the women credited their participation in the study as providing a space for them to tell their stories for the first time, and for their stories to be listened to and cared about.

“The workshop, as well as post-workshop activities such as leadership training and community forums, became sites for raising consciousness and legitimizing previously devalued forms of knowledge. That participants became storytellers and observers of their own lives built confidence for them to realize their narrative agency.”

Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Sexuality Research Initiative and in collaboration with six community partners, the “Hear Our Stories” project focused on young Latinas whose families are shifting or uprooted, who may have gone through the foster care system, been pushed out of public education, or who have regularly traveled between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Digital stories were crafted within the structure of a workshop that featured talking and writing prompts, individual and group script work, a story circle, script editing, voiceover recording of scripts, storyboarding, image selection, digital editing and assembling. In addition to the digital storytelling workshops, they conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 of the 31 participants.

The article, “Scribble Scrabble”: Migration, Young Parenting Latinas, and Digital Storytelling as Narrative Shock, is available online now.