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‘I Need to Work to Be Legal, I Need to Be Legal to Work.’ Migrant Encounters, Haitian Women, and the Chilean State



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Ugarte Pfingsthorn, Ana Sofía 


This dissertation explores the lives of Haitian women in Santiago, the capital of Chile, with a focus on their everyday encounters with Chilean state agents and private employers. It analyses the experiences of Haitian women as they navigate bureaucratic institutions and practices, negotiate their working conditions with employers and public defendants, train as care and domestic workers, seek modes of subsistence as street vendors, and understand themselves as migrant workers and working mothers. I argue that Haitian women’s efforts to transform their lives in a new country reveal the nature of state institutions in Chile, in the context of the legacies of its military dictatorship and the experience of an immigration boom not seen in its recent history. My account is based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork with Haitian women and their families living in Santiago, state agents involved in migration management and control, and employers of Haitian women. The dissertation uses migration as a case study to contribute to anthropological understandings of states and bureaucracies, work and markets, sameness and difference, and their effects on people’s lives.

I begin with an overview of the project’s main themes of migration, states, bureaucracy, legality, and formality, and I reflect on encounters as a critical site through which anthropology can make sense of difference and social change. Chapter two draws on historical and statistical data to show how the relationships between Haitian women and the Chilean state are underpinned by the country’s history of migration, the configuration of racial hierarchies, and the neoliberal foundations of market democracy. Chapter three uses processes of visa application to analyse how Haitian women devise different strategies to ensure residence and labour formality through bureaucratic practices of speculative legality. Chapter four then draws on job-seeking encounters to analyse the consequences of these processes, revealing how gendered and racialised differences produce a landscape of servitude, in which migrants’ value as workers is continuously negotiated.

The two successive chapters focus on Haitian women’s encounters with social protection programmes that seek to integrate migrants in the country’s national project. Chapter five explores the relation between human rights discourses and work in the formal economy for the Chilean state. Chapter six describes Haitian women’s experiences of pregnancy in Chile and the contradictory effects the status assigned to motherhood has in Haitian women’s lives. The final chapter follows the experience of Haitian women who have failed to secure formal employment and who make a living as informal and wageless traders in neighbourhood markets.

Altogether, encounters between Haitian women and Chileans transform the state’s definitions of migrant legality and labour formality through economic practices of black markets, humanitarian rationales, gendered and racialised moral discourses, intimate body transformations and the normalisation of urban poverty. As a result, this ethnography enables the understanding of state formation and belonging as multi-scalar relations and affective processes that contribute to the anthropological knowledge of states, migration, and intersectional encounters.





Lazar, Sian


Chile, Labour migration, Racism, Gender, Haiti


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge