Dr Alfonso Del Percio, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics, UCL Institute of Education, reflects on the experience of buying a used car, and theorises the intersection of language, migrant labour and inequality in times of COVID-19.
An expanded version of this piece appears on Del Percio’s blog, Disruptive Inequalities. Read it here.
I want to buy a car. I want my freedom back. The government has announced a softening of the lockdown. I want to bring the kids to the mountains. Cambiamento d’aria (change of air), people call it here. I saw an advert from Andrei, a Romanian man living in the neighbouring town who wants to sell his Renault. An old car, but still a strong engine, he tells me on the phone. But migrants spread the virus, people kept telling me. Are you sure you want to buy a car from a gipsy, they say?
Migrants are super spreaders, agrees Legame, a social cooperative with which I am collaborating. It provides services to workers from Eastern European, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa not far from here in a little town famous for its tomato plantations. Last month, Legame translated the rules of social distancing into as many languages as possible. So that migrants too would eventually understand how to avoid spreading the virus. This concern for migrants’ infectability is part of a larger campaign aimed at empowering migrants. Along with what sociolinguists have been preaching for decades, their practice assumes that translating information from the state can help fight inequality.
This assumption is not new. The violent colonization of the world has always co-existed with the spread of civilising knowledge. Translation as a technique of persuasion allowed colonisers to localize knowledge, to adapt it to the worldviews and modes of living of the individuals targeted, and to create consent for their violence and oppression. Translating public health measures was a means of imposing knowledge about the human body that, while seemingly benevolent, positioned the colonised as subordinate and produced a racialized critique of people’s practices and relations.
Buying a car from a Romanian? Not now, people insist. I meet Andrei in in this neighbourhood. Deserts of concrete. Big, overcrowded houses. Families squeezed in small apartments. Children playing on tiny balconies. What if migrants’ major infectability is caused not by language, not by migrants’ lack of understanding of the confinement rules, but by these housing inequalities? What if it is not the virus that makes people die, but the system of inequality that we have built around us?
I see Andrei come down the stairs. I instinctively try to shake his hand. My body forgets that physical contact needs to be absolutely avoided. Andrei looks at me, astonished. He knows the rules. No need for translation. I apologise. Try to say something about routines. And about how they come automatically. But he does not listen. This is the car. Andrei makes a good deal. I don’t negotiate.
We drive to Eugenio’s office to process the transfer of ownership of the vehicle. Eugenio and Andrei seem to know each other. How is work going? Eugenio asks. Work? The lockdown was not for everybody. It isn’t just doctors, nurses and care-workers working. Andrei had been working as a day labourer. Hidden from the vigilance of the authorities. Somebody needs to keep labouring, Eugenio notes. I had heard about the government’s need for manpower to keep the provision of food going. There was also an idea to legalize informal agricultural laborers. The army of illegalized, black bodies that, yesterday, large sectors of the Italian public wanted to send back ‘home’, now had to save the nation. The economy needs to restart, politicians kept repeating. But this was different. There was a parallel economy which continued operating despite the lockdown. Invisible. Invisible, with no security measures. Are migrants super-spreaders? Or are they deliberately exposed to the risk of infection? Is language just an excuse to avoid speaking about their exposure? Their exploitation? Their sacrifice?
Where is your mask? Eugenio laughs. Leave the office, he shouts. Can’t you read the signs at the door? Don’t you understand our language? You need a mask. Eugenio was joking. Andrei had warned me about Eugenio’s humour: You never know what he means. Screw the masks. Screw the virus, he repeats. The virus is a business, Andrei adds. They want me to pay for your virus. Employers call us one day, and the other day they don’t. One day they pay. One day they don’t. They treat us like animals. How will you go to work now? Andrei, we need you to work. We need to keep going. You have no car. How will you go to work? Eugenio laughs again.
I drive Andrei home. He asks me to stop next to a letting agency. I start to think that he needed the money to pay his rent. I had read in the media that people were struggling to pay their rents. That people working informally had not benefited from the government’s financial support to those who had become unemployed because of the lockdown. Was he making enough money? Was he selling his car to pay his rent?
I drive home. Next to an Italian flag, I see a big poster on a balcony. We will all get through this if we stay home and hold together, it says. What if what will make us get through this is the suffering of others? My freedom, my ability to see the mountains happens at the costs of others. I realise that inequality is not, or not only about unequal consumption, but about consumption enabled by oppression. Our collective ability to overcome this health crisis and its social and economic effects will depend on the necessity of others to sacrifice themselves. Language and translation are here to help us avoid having to speak about sacrifice, about the violence that people like me exert on others, about the costs of our enjoyment.
Banal inequality occurs trough banal oppression. While shutting the door of the car, I realise that it’s through mundane practices, such as buying an old car, that both oppression and inequality manifests itself. We are used to putting the blame on others, on the corporations, on the state, on god, and tend to forget that inequality’s most powerful weapon is the banality of everyday practices, choices and decisions. Our seemingly mundane actions are what makes inequality and oppression stick. What makes it bearable and acceptable. What makes it normal. Within any moment, we can all be the oppressor. Here, I am the oppressor. Oppression is what makes me free.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.