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Where do multinational families like mine belong amid growing nationalism?

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Where do multinational families like mine belong amid growing nationalism?
What will the future hold for multinational families in Sweden? File photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/imagebank.sweden.se
13:00 CEST+02:00
With nationalism growing in more and more countries, where do multinational families truly belong, asks American Victoria Martínez, who moved to Sweden with her Spanish husband and children in 2016.

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The recent election here in Sweden reinforced something I've known for a long time: as a multinational family, no matter where we live, there will always be people who believe we don't belong. And we've got it good compared to so many others, whose nationality, race, or religion give rise to even stronger antipathies among xenophobes.

As I write this, I anxiously watch the political situation in the United States. I have already cast my vote in the key midterm elections that will, hopefully, help to shift the disturbing rhetoric coming out of my native country. I think back to the thousands of dollars and years of time we spent in the U.S. for my husband to become a legal resident in that country. Now, legal residents like my husband – and even, in some cases, naturalized citizens – are having their status revoked.

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Even I, an American citizen by birth, have encountered the nasty side effects of growing nationalism in my own country. On my last trip back to the US to visit my family, travelling with my two young children but without my husband, I was detained for nearly an hour in Customs and Border Patrol in Texas. When my passport was brusquely handed back to me, I asked for an explanation, only to be told that my surname was "common". It doesn't take much imagination to understand the full meaning of this.

Ironically, I never received such treatment in my husband's home country of Spain, where my surname is even more "common". I also gained residency much more easily than my husband had in the US. But people's feelings about foreigners manifest themselves in myriad ways. Where we lived, it was the use of any language other than Spanish that seemed to arouse the most disgust.

Among the "foreigners" I knew and encountered, I observed that any use of their native language – whether it was Arabic, Polish, English or even Swedish – generally drew long and unfriendly stares. Never mind that most all of us were using the language with our children, who would otherwise have had no way of learning it. About the only thing that made me feel more annoyed than this was when the same people, once realizing that my children and I also spoke Spanish, came to me asking if I could tutor their children in English.

Naturally, these examples do not speak to the entirety of my experiences in and feelings about either the US or Spain. In both places, the majority of the people we knew and encountered never openly expressed xenophobic attitudes or behaviors, and we lived overall in peace and harmony. But there is a large gap between knowing you and your entire family are accepted as "belonging" to a place, and constantly feeling like at least one of you is under the microscope of people who dislike and fear outsiders.

In my whole experience of being part of a multinational family, I have never felt the former, only the latter. For all its progressiveness, Sweden has not been an exception. Here, we are all outsiders, though fortunately it's rare that we feel this in a significant way. That's why the election was so worrying.

MORE BY VICTORIA MARTÍNEZ

To most people I know, the rise of nationalist and populist ideology around the world is disturbing. As a multinational family, it is especially so for us. Where would we and others like us belong in a world where homogeneity is not only prized, it's enforced? What kind of stability would there be when even hard-earned permanent residence and citizenship are actually conditional? When people say, "Go back to where you came from?", where exactly would that be?

In addition to my family having no place where we all "belong", I would find such a world incredibly boring and unrewarding. Nothing good, in my opinion, comes from living only with people who think, speak, look and behave alike.

In any case, I perceive that our world is moving away from this, rather than returning to it. But it is just this globalization and diversification of the world that frightens so many people and makes them perceive threats rather than opportunities.  

Sadly, Sweden – along with so many otherwise modern countries – has been swept up to a certain extent in this wave of fear. Fortunately, the election results seem to have demonstrated that it has not been swept away.

I like to believe (sometimes it is more hope than belief) that what we are seeing now is the crest of this wave, and it is about to come crashing down as the world watches it dissolve from a safe distance. The froth and few stinking remnants that will inevitably be left behind will be trampled under the feet of diverse people who belong right where they are.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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