Peruvian Migrant Laborers in South Korea


A review of Converting Dreams: Money, Religion and Belonging among Peruvian Migrant Laborers in South Korea, by Erica Vogel.

Erica Vogel’s Converting Dreams: Money, Religion and Belonging among Peruvian Migrant Laborers in South Korea begins with an intriguing narrative about different kinds of “ends” unraveling in South Korea. It is summer 2009, and everyone is hobbling in the aftermath of the world economic crisis. Jobs are scarce, exchange rates are terrible, and immigration raids and deportations are on the rise. With policy changes effectively ending all legal migration routes from Peru, it is only a matter of time before the undocumented Peruvian migrants are arrested and deported, plucked away from their global itinerary and sent home to their disappointed families.

The picture is certainly bleak, but it not just fear that fills the air—this is only the latest crisis, and many have managed similar challenges before. Vogel presents stories of a transitioning migrant community in numerical decline and yet still full of possibilities, and shows how people continuously negotiate the limits of law and geography in navigating an itinerary full of loopholes and contradictions. Factories, nightclubs, churches, and family remittances constitute key sites of transnational migration, and Vogel shows us networks of firsthand knowledge and layers of personal relations that stretch between Peru and Korea. Especially interesting is the explanation of the set of conditions that led Peruvians to migrate to Korea in the 1990s, and fascinating is the account of how some of these migrants are now joining the thriving complex of Protestant missionary flows out of Korea. Vogel convincingly suggests that this unexpected group of undocumented migrants in an unlikely destination in fact raises new questions about geographical imaginations, transnational connections, and the politics of migration, conversion, and globalization. The dissertation will interest especially those wanting to know more about how documented and undocumented migrant workers grapple with the temporary and precarious nature of their stay in Korea, and how a variety of geopolitical, social and religious dynamics shape their migration. For scholars of Peruvian diaspora, transnational Japanese migration, and Latin America-Asia connections, the case of Peruvian migrants in Korea poses a fascinating challenge to unpack. Religion also gets a close look in Vogel’s ethnography in which faith-based practices and theological worldviews—and their interaction with dynamics of migration—are treated with detailed and careful attention.

Converting Dreams is organized into an introduction, four empirical chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction leads us into the Spanish-speaking congregation of Seoul’s Nazarene Church, and then to a larger Peruvian migrant community who constitute “not only the largest group of Latin Americans but one of the largest groups of non-Asian factory workers” in Korea (5). Korea’s immigration policy is briefly discussed, centering on the changing status of Peruvian migrants from the late 1980s when “foreign workers started entering Korea as tourists, overstaying their visas, and working in Korean factories without much regulation” (12) to South Korea’s current “multicultural” moment which is nonetheless full of immigration raids and deportations of undocumented migrants. Vogel calls the Peruvian migrants “cosmopolitan converters” (p. 19) to describe how unauthorized, disenfranchised migrants can create new “global passageways, routes and opportunities in ‘the ends’ of global routes” (p. 19). The metaphor of “passageway” effectively captures practical considerations and fantastic contingency and diversity of “transnational connection, blockage, possibility and movement” (20), and helps explain how Korea became a “possible point of transit for Peruvian migrants in the first place” (21). Vogel also focuses on the concept of “undocumentability” to describe not only the precariousness of undocumented migrants’ legal status but also the incommensurability of their existence in official legal discourse. The role of Catholic and Protestant church leaders becomes essential here, as migrant workers create new routes and encounter pitfalls in hidden transnational networks.

Chapter 1 on “Transnational Passageway” gives a detailed historical overview of Peruvian migration to Korea, and shows how a group of migrants from lower socio-economic status in Peru end up migrating to Korea after not being able to afford the more preferred, authorized global routes to places like the United States, Japan, Spain, and Italy. Vogel locates the unauthorized passageway from Peru to Korea as “an undocumented branch” of larger diasporic ethnic return migration from Peru to Japan,” and a “new passageway into the global realm of possibility” (46). The chapter shows that as an undocumentable passageway, Korea became an attractive destination for Peruvians precisely because it was such an unlikely choice and they figured the relatively few number of Peruvians were unlikely to raise the suspicion of border control and immigration officials in Korea. An interviewee’s quote perfectly captures the sentiment of Korea as part of unintended itineraries: “My uncle called and said, ‘Let’s go to Japan!’ That’s how I came to Korea” (58).

Chapter 2, “Cosmopolitan Converters” discusses the lives of Peruvians living in Dongducheon, an infamous military town just north of Seoul, near the main camps of nearly ten thousand military personnel and civilians in the US Second Infantry Division. Vogel explains that Dongducheon has “its unique community of foreigners” including not only the young, mostly male US soldiers, but also “women primarily from the Philippines who work as entertainers and sex workers… foreign English teachers, and men and women from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe who labor in small factories on the outskirts of the city” (85). Embracing the social and networking possibilities of Dongducheon, the Peruvian migrants in Korea succeed in converting their temporary status into a “semi-permanent state of transition” in and beyond Korea. By “imagining, planning, adapting and connecting with others” (85-86), the migrations to keep themselves moving in the “global realm.” Their expertise in navigating legal loopholes, building new relationships, and finding new opportunities—and otherwise converting crises into opportunities—illustrates the hard and ongoing work of migration across legal limits.

Chapter 3 is titled “Predestined Migrations,” referring to how the migrants come to interpret their migration experience as a predestined passageway into the global realm. Transnational religious networks here may not be able to offer a direct pathway to incorporation—since the undocumentable migrants have little chance of being incorporated legally into the South Korean polity or sociality—but religious participation and church involvement do in many ways support the migrants’ transnational desires through leadership development, seminary education, and missionary employment. Through religion, Peruvian migrants come to interpret their migration experience within the Protestant narrative frame of discovery, repentance, and rebirth, and the migrants in turn help extend Korean churches’ global mission to Peru. Vogel’s argument is that rather than simply seeing them as acting as unwitting beneficiaries or transnational conduits of religious belief, the Peruvian migrants who become religious leaders could be considered as mediators who make the transnational links through their respuestas, or signs from God, and help forge the very networks they travel. The chapter is an important contribution to the study of migration and religion, and the persistence of inequalities and hierarchies that undergird transnational networks.

Chapter 4, “Converting Remittances,” analyzes the economic and social remittance practices of Peruvian migrants, and how the two different but related processes of money conversion and religious conversion take place alongside each other. Hard hit by the wild fluctuations in the currency exchange rates particularly during the world economic crisis in the fall of 2008 when the value of one’s salary in Korean Won plummeted to two-thirds of what it was once worth in US Dollars, some of the migrants became experts on “currency speculation and the potential value of money in relation to other currencies” (170). Understanding conversion as “a self-constitutive act that is not just about transforming others, but transforming the self” (186), Vogel argues that the migrants combine economic remittances with religious and social remittances in trying to “convert their families members in Peru into people who value work and money in new ways” (202)—but to mixed results.

In the concluding chapter, Vogel returns to the concept of “the end” to examine how the Peruvian migrants have converted ends into new beginnings. One way this is accomplished is by repositioning Korea not as a place of unfortunate departure but a point of transit, “a space of conversion where anything is possible because there are no more options” (43). In the shadows of larger authorized flows to Japan and the US, the undocumentable Peru-Korea migration flow becomes an important site of transit, even though Korea is not the main destination. In turn, the Peruvians who “end up in Korea” because they believe “they have nowhere else in the world to go” ultimately help “forge new routes and transnational connections between not only Peru and Korea, but also the US and Japan” (202). These conversions have the “potential to remap the way the world is connected,” Vogel argues, and can give the Peruvian migrants “leverage to navigate these networks as authorized migrants—missionaries, evangelists, pastors, or members of transnational families” (202-3). Transnational migration, in other words, is a complex web of beginnings and ends, openings and closures, taking place in a fundamentally unequal world of flows. It would be a mistake, especially after reading this dissertation, to imagine migration as entirely strategic, rational, or predicted from beginning to end.

By shifting the focus away from a rigid national frame of “Korea and its newcomers” to a more flexible and revealing transnational frame that analyzes migrant subjectivities as incomplete and in transit, taking place in a wider world of global aspirations and itineraries, Vogel succeeds in examining transnational lives before, during, and after migration—that is, if migration is to be considered at all as a single event. Her emphasis on the migrants’ undocumented status and the notion of undocumentability suggests rich possibilities for cross-national comparisons, for example the undocumentable immigrant youth in the United States. Overall, the prose is accessible and well-written, the stories and characters compelling, and Vogel deftly balances descriptive details with analytical insights with wit and compassion. Converting Dreams: Money, Religion and Belonging among Peruvian Migrant Laborers in South Korea is a welcome contribution to the fields of Korean multicultural studies, transnational migration studies, and anthropological theories of conversion, among many others.

Ju Hui Judy Han
Assistant Professor in Geography
University of Toronto Scarborough

Primary Sources

Extensive ethnographic fieldwork in South Korea and Peru.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2011. 229 pp. Primary Advisor: Mei Zhan.


Image: Global Destinations and Points of Transit for Peruvian Migrants. The world map is courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

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