Immigrant youth use humor to navigate troubled waters. // Guillermo Spelucin Runciman

coping through humor

Author Erica Jong once said that humor is one of the most serious tools we have for dealing with impossible situations. And what could feel more impossible than enduring adolescence as a newly arrived immigrant in a politically charged climate? In Ethnic and Racial Studies, sociologist Liliana V Rodriguez explores how teens from Latin America used humor as a coping mechanism to navigate life in the United States in the contentious months before and after the 2016 presidential election.

Through 24 months of ethnographic observations of and interviews with immigrant youth, Rodriguez identifies two strategic uses of humor. First, youth draw upon their cultural knowledge, such as shared language and collective experiences, to mock and appropriate anti-immigrant discourse. For instance, when a participant and his friends heard police sirens, they would joke about “going back to Mexico.” Second, newcomer teens utilize humor as a tool to gain control in stressful situations, like when they are confronted with nativist discourse. Rather than succumbing to the stress, the youth in the study used humor to reinterpret and diffuse the situation. For example, one participant and her friend exchanged a knowing look and laughter when they heard others making nativist remarks.

Humor serves not only as a means for making sense of reality but also as a protective resource that helps build solidarity and resilience. In the case of immigrant youths, their use of humor transcends the typical joking patterns of their peers, becoming a powerful tool for maintaining a sense of agency and control. Through their use of humor, these youth create a uniquely playful world within an often stressful immigrant experience.


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