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Experiences of Structural Violence in the Stories of Undocumented Latinas in the U.S.

Experiences of Structural Violence in the Stories of Undocumented Latinas in the U.S.

Photo credit: Rochelle Brown on Unsplash

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Saleem, R., Pagan-Ortiz, M. E., Morrill, Z., Brodt, M., & Andrade, L. (2020). “I thought it would be different”: Experiences of structural violence in the lives of undocumented Latinas. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 26(2), 171–180. 

Talking Points

  • A selected group of undocumented Latina immigrants in the U.S. reported experiencing:
    • direct and indirect violence across multiple social and institutional contexts.
    • negative physical and emotional consequences of direct and indirect violence.
    • support, gratitude, and resilience as coping mechanisms to survive structural violence.
  • The level of structural violence experienced by this group of poor, undocumented Latina women was elevated by their intersectional marginalized identities.


Most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. come from Latin American countries where poverty and income inequality are major contributing factors in the decision to leave their families, communities, and home countries. Among other factors, those conditions are linked to a history of colonization and continued postcolonial exploitation. Past and present U.S. policies—overt and hidden—toward Latin American countries sustain these conditions. Yet, when arriving in the U.S. in search of a more stable life, many undocumented immigrants find that their hardships continue in the form of personal and systemic obstacles and different kinds of violence. It is in this context that the authors ask how undocumented Latinas experience structural violence.

Structural violence, the framework for this research, is defined as indirect “violence that emerges from the unequal distribution of power and resources.” Often hidden or ignored, structural violence manifests itself in institutions, policies, and practices that are fundamentally unjust but accepted as the societal status quo. When structural violence is present, certain individuals and groups are deprived of basic needs under the cover of official rules and regulations.   

Employing a qualitative research methodology, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with eight women between the ages of 23 and 51 from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to understand their lived experiences as undocumented Latinas in the U.S. This methodology helps examine known oppressive structures and policies from the perspectives of those most impacted, thereby centering their narratives within the framework of structural violence. The researchers analyzed these interviews with a focus on common themes emerging from them, especially the impact of social structures on the participants.

Qualitative research uses text (instead of numbers) and is interested in participant perspectives (not “study subjects”), everyday practices, and everyday knowledge related to the issue under study. It aims to access experiences, interactions, and meaning-making in their natural context.

Adopted with modifications from: Flick, U. (2008). Designing qualitative research. London, England: Sage.  

The analysis of the interviews revealed three major themes across the participants’ accounts. The first one highlighted direct and indirect violence across multiple social and institutional contexts. In their places of employment, participants experienced restrictions in the type of work they could do, abuse and humiliation, poor work conditions, and insecurity due to their gender. In their homes and communities, structural violence manifested itself through a lack of legal protection, especially with regard to participants’ experience of physical violence. Because of their undocumented status, the women feared possible repercussions from accessing legal institutions and law enforcement, therefore these were not considered safe options for addressing insecurity in personal relationships or in interactions with acquaintances or strangers. When it came to accessing basic services such as police, school, and healthcare, language and communication limitations reinforced existing discrimination and negative experiences.

The second theme highlighted negative physical and emotional consequences of direct and indirect violence. These ongoing harmful experiences were believed to be connected to health impacts such as depression, diabetes, and other physical ailments. In addition, emotional impacts were noted by all participants, often in connection to the forced disconnection from their immediate family and ongoing anxiety due to uncertainty about their living and work conditions. Crossing the border was not only an immediately dangerous undertaking—it also meant more permanent separation due to the inability to freely move back and forth.

The third theme highlighted support, gratitude, and resilience as coping mechanisms to survive structural violence. All participants talked about support from friends, family members, and communities as they were experiencing violence. Support included financial measures, the provision of housing, language interpretation, or simply moral support (e.g., during pregnancy). Those acts of support carried great significance and “were highlighted as essential for surviving otherwise largely adverse conditions.” In the context of structural violence, however, it is important to note that these acts—as meaningful as they were—occurred infrequently and took place informally among the participants’ social networks outside of institutional policies.

The qualitative approach enabled the authors to capture lived experiences through the stories of those impacted by oppressive systems. Structural violence, as it was experienced by the participants, had a detrimental effect on their physical and psychological well-being. Furthermore, the level of structural violence they experienced was elevated by their intersectional marginalized identities. Their disadvantage, lack of access to power and resources, and experience of discrimination and insecurity were all compounded because they were poor and they were women and they were undocumented. Furthermore, the authors highlight more generally the inhumane conditions that are facilitated and protected by social structures, policies, and laws. Their research, which was centered around the stories and identities of the participants, aims to question and challenge unjust systems. Taking the systemic and intersectional nature of violence into account, the authors view these stories of structural violence, resilience, and resistance within a broader context of global struggles for equality and human dignity.

Intersectionality describes the ways in which oppressive systems (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another, and also applies to how individuals live within these interconnected systems and therefore can experience multiple forms of oppression.

Adopted with modifications from: Racial Equity Tools ( and Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6).

Informing Practice

Two practically relevant strands stand out in this study. First, the lived experiences of undocumented Latina immigrants in the U.S. need to be viewed within the global context, as well as within the context of direct and indirect U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs. The aftermath of civil wars, ongoing large-scale political violence, and an internationalized “war on drugs” with increasing homicide rates are undeniable major push factors for immigrants from several Latin American countries—people who seek not only better lives for themselves and their loved ones but also, in many cases, simply pure survival (see Violence in Mexico may be worse than you think in Continued Reading). In the global context, the landscape of political violence in Latin America is heavily impacted by wealth inequality, corruption, and unresponsive governments in addition to historical colonial and postcolonial exploitation and external control. U.S. militarism plays a significant role in these dynamics in several ways: corrupt regimes receive military support if they serve U.S. strategic and economic interests, the U.S. has directly engaged militarily in the region, the southern border is becoming increasingly militarized, and immigrants from the south are viewed as threats. The Latinx immigrant experience in the U.S. must not be viewed outside of this context, because doing so fails to account for the complex causes and consequences of transnational migration, especially as experienced by migrants and their home and receiving communities.

Second, the methodology of the study made a strong case for peace advocates and activists, peacebuilders, peace and security funders, peace scholars, journalists, policy makers, and others to center their work on those most impacted by different forms of violence. In other words, programs to support immigrants and immigration policies should be guided by voices such as those highlighted in this research. From a Western academic perspective where so much emphasis is placed on measuring and generalizing, we might have to let go of the illusion of control gained from certain engrained research methods and results. As the authors state in their research, “the purpose of this style of qualitative analysis was not to create a representative understanding of all undocumented Latinas in the United States but to develop a deeper understanding of a particular set of women’s experiences and meaning making related to structural violence and documentation status.” When using such approaches, we cannot anticipate the outcome and should modify our expectations accordingly. If we are unhappy that we did not hear what we wanted to hear, we are on the wrong track. The people impacted by structural violence are the experts on their own lives, and it is crucial to leave behind the arrogance of “expertise” on other people’s lives. Even if we know that sometimes the stories or memories are not fully accurate, that is beside the point if what is important to understand are precisely their memories, their truths, and their ways of making meaning of their lives.

In practice, the two strands outlined above can be combined to strengthen efforts to abolish structural violence and challenge militarism. In-depth root cause analysis will enable a stronger understanding of the interconnectivity of issues in a social, historical, economic, cultural, and political context. By engaging in such analysis, we are broadening our conception of violence to include not only observable direct violence but also less observable indirect violence. Intersectional analysis enables us not only to connect issues but also to recognize overlapping forms of oppression (or privilege). Lastly, if approached with a feminist curiosity, these inquiries will refuse to take for granted the given social and political state of affairs and instead will reveal how structural realities are created and maintained.

Engaging in this type of analysis is not easy. As peacebuilders, we might be confronted with uncomfortable truths about our own complicity in unjust systems. It then becomes clear that good intentions are not good enough if the approaches and “solutions” are centered around the experiences and priorities of peacebuilders and peace advocates and not of those most affected by violence.

Hearing and studying personal narratives of people whose lives have been touched by structural conflict, helps us understand conflict perception, conflict motivation, conflict behavior and conflict dynamics from a unique angle. This angle, we believe, opens pathways to nonviolent, sustainable and just conflict transformation. (Hiller & Chaitin, 2014)


Continued Reading

Hiller, P. & Chaitin, J. (2014). Their lives, our peace: Narrative inquiry in peace and conflict studies. In: R. Cooper & L. Finley (Eds.), Peace and Conflict Studies Research: A Qualitative Perspective. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.

Matanock, A. (2020, March 18). Violence in Mexico may be worse than you think. Political Violence at a Glance. Retrieved on December 23, 2020, from

Key Words: structural violence, immigration, Latinas, undocumented migrants

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