On Friday several members of the Hiraeth team drove to the beautiful little town of Wageningen about an hour and a half southwest of Amsterdam, to participate in a conference on The Value of Life, organised by Wageningen University.

Meghann Ormond, Assistant Professor of Cultural Geography at Wageningen and co-organiser of the conference, invited Hiraeth to take part in a two part session entitled ‘Whose Heritages Matter? Re-imagining “Dutchness” through migration in and beyond the Netherlands’.

The session focused on the Canon of Dutch History, a 2005 initiative that chose fifty topics in Dutch history as a “canon” that every primary school child should learn as a matter of cultural heritage. The various participants examined the canon, its underpinnings, assumptions, and results, in the context of migrants and their unique perspectives and contributions to Dutch society.

Monca Perez Vega, the originator of the Hiraeth idea and current member of the editorial board, gave the Hiraeth presentation.

Here’s the closest we can bring you to being at the conference and experiencing Monica’s presentation. Enjoy! (Mobile users, you may want to turn your phone sideways for best viewing experience.)

Hiraeth magazine is a digital magazine and podcast exploring the meaning of home through visual, written and oral storytelling.

So, I’d like to talk about what we are doing at Hiraeth- and how it all relates to the Dutch Canon.

However, we are coming from more of an artistic; abstract sense- raising questions as points of discussion- And I realize that identity has become sort of a bad word- but as a migrant, it is something we are forced to think about- coming into the culture of another; and how we fit into it.

It was at about this time last year that I was asking myself- what can I do?

The news headlines and political debates were losing the nuance of humanity.

(photo by Bryan Trawick)

People were becoming immune and detached from the crisis. Britain had just voted to leave the EU. America was still in the process of campaigning for presidency… and we all know how that turned out.

(photo by Bryan Trawick)

Back in America- I couldn’t understand how people were even considering voting for Trump.  Even within my own extended family..?

(Photo by Griselda San Martin)

Didn’t they know that I was married to a Mexican immigrant? Didn’t they know that I, too, was a migrant- living abroad?

And it suddenly occurred to me that no- they probably didn’t.  Because I am a face and those are just words.

For some reason the two things were not being connected.

Without the faces, words like “refugee” and “immigrant” felt threatening and unfamiliar.

So, I thought, how can I connect faces to words?

That’s when I realised that maybe I do have something to offer-

Thus, Hiraeth Magazine was born.

Eventually a team was formed. We have Sarah, Rowena, Xenia, Pepe and myself. Two writers, two artists, and Pepe, our creative guru.

We came together with a common goal of creating a platform to not only explore the meaning of home, but also for people to share their stories of finding home, whether in an abstract, emotional sense or be it a physical movement- so as to connect the faces to the words we are labeled with: immigrant, refugee, expat, third culture kid…

Everyone has a story- and so much of this “search for home” also has to do with the search for identity.  Because as our homes change so do our identities.  How we define home becomes less about where we are from but more about how we feel.

We chose the name, “Hiraeth,” because as expats and third culture kids ourselves, who have adapted to and made homes in new lands, we could all relate to the Welsh expression, which means “nostalgia for a home that no longer exists or that never was.”

This feeling also applies to those whose homes are changing as migrants move into their lands.  And we are simply asking- what does that mean?  How does that feel?

The intention is to explore these feelings as well as create empathy and understanding on all sides so that we may build a better, stronger, more cohesive community.

And Storytelling is the key to empathy.

Whether it be storytelling through art,

Since Hiraeth’s launch six months ago, we have developed the digital magazine and podcast.

We’ve held our first storytelling event, created a short documentary, and are working towards an annual print magazine.

The original idea has grown into a constellation of ideas with many plans and projects to come, growing even beyond the borders of Amsterdam.

Since launching this project I have moved to London–as you do when you start a project about migration…  However, I continue to produce the podcast from my studio.

Over the past 10 years while living in Amsterdam, I met a lot of fascinating people whose lives are unlike anything I knew growing up, and have always thought their stories should be documented.  I’m happy that I am now able to do that- and working with the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague, we are archiving these stories.

While the magazine is not necessarily geographically tied to the Netherlands, it is where we launched and where the rest of the team lives, so naturally many of the stories relate to Amsterdam or the Netherlands. We find it fitting, as the Netherlands has a legacy of welcoming migrants, going back to the 1500’s when the Dutch won their independence from Spain and Protestant refugees fled north. Or to when Sephardi Jews from Portugal and Spain, and Huguenots from France in the 1700’s flocked to the country. Or to the arrival of immigrants after WW2, who helped rebuild this country, or to the opening of borders in 2004 to Eastern Europeans seeking jobs and education.

And to this day, The Netherlands continues to be a place of international business and community.

When we look at the canon of Dutch history, we are obliged to also take notice at the ways in which immigrants have shaped the culture of this country – and still do.

Over the last decade, some of the most iconic cultural institutions in Amsterdam alone, such as the Stedelijk, and Van Gogh museums have been led and curated by foreigners, most notably the French-Lebanese Pierre Audi, who transformed the Dutch National Opera into a leading opera house worldwide, and for many years was the artistic director of the Holland Festival.

As an “expat” I acknowledge that I also play a role in reshaping this country,  just as this country has reshaped me.

So- What does that mean?  How does that feel?

My daughter was born in Amsterdam.  However, she went to an international school and barely spoke Dutch- much like her parents… We moved to London just shy of her ninth birthday.  And I once overheard a parent ask her- “where are you from?”  To which she confidently replied, “I’m half Mexican, half American, and fully Dutch.”

This surprised me. While I lived with one foot out the door, my daughter was literally born and raised in this country.  So of course she would say she’s fully Dutch. But it did make me wonder: What exactly qualifies a person to claim Dutch identity?

My daughter doesn’t have a Dutch passport, or speak Dutch.  Doesn’t eat herring or bitterballen or sing to her shoe in December. And yet she is “fully Dutch”.

She doesn’t have a barometer of Dutchness; she just knows Dutch life the way she lived it.

So- When considering the Dutch canon, I’m asking:

Is one’s national identity defined by how they acclimate to the expectations of a society? Or is it simply about their personal experiences within the borders of a land? Or can we say, that like gender- perhaps, it too, is a spectrum?

We are exploring how migrants, in the search for home, are weaving the threads of their own stories into the larger fabric of the Dutch canon – or any- national canon.

A canon is the story of not just a nation but a culture.  A nation is simply a set of rules bordered by lines on a map- but a culture is the people that live and breathe and move within those lines.  A canon is a record of how that culture has evolved, for better or worse, over time.

Therefore, I think that the experience of my “fully Dutch” daughter, is valid to the canon of Dutch history. As a child of an “expat”  who lived and breathed and moved within the borders of this land, she is a symbol of our era and of the role that the Netherlands plays in globalisation.

But it’s not just expats whose stories should be included, it’s all migrants who come to this country, and its the Dutch who are perhaps seeing their homes change.  It’s all the stories that show the culture of this country.

We at Hiraeth don’t necessarily have an overt political agenda. We are just humans asking other humans questions with an open heart in the hope that it might open the hearts of others.

Storytelling has always been crucial to the preservation of our collective culture and history, so as a reflection on this era of our time, I believe archiving the stories of people coming and going out of not just this country but all countries, of finding home in and outside of their places of birth- is imperative to the canon of not only Dutch history, but to everyone’s history. Not even as a political statement, but as a reflection of our humanity.

Peruse the Hiraeth digital magazine for visual, written and oral storytelling… with threads that weave through this country, thus expanding the meaning of Dutch identity and shaping the canon of Dutch history.

We are grateful to Meghann and Wageningen University for letting us be a part of what ended up being a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion about the meaning of culture and identity, and how the stories we choose to tell and the ways we tell them influence the society we create. We look forward to further creative collaboration on this topic!