WhatsApp Voice Notes: Keeping the Diaspora Connected, No Matter Where (or When!) We Are

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Mami On the Phone by Anto Chavez

I don’t think I know someone who loves WhatsApp voice notes as much as my mom does. There is something about them that makes her feel more connected to the person on the other side of the screen. In an immigrant mom’s world, texts feel too distant and calls are a privilege they sometimes cannot take. Working 48 hours a week in a place that requires a lot of her strength and energy, my mom barely has time for anything other than sleep when she gets home.

Some other days, I am the one who doesn’t have the time for calls. My mom is one of the most important people in my life, so to say I can’t even be on the phone with her is a big deal. But I am sure many first-gen, low-income students can relate to this. We are constantly balancing our time between classes, work, and the financial and personal responsibilities of ourselves and our family’s as well.

For some, it seems impossible to let go of the past after moving out of their country and leaving family and friends. There are memories that follow us everywhere. For others, moving to pursue a higher education means living in fear of losing touch with home. For me, voice messages ease my way of dealing with these individual battles and transport my mind to live in more than one space at a time.

If there is something my 17th and 22nd birthdays have in common, it’s the transition from physical love to virtual love. Once again, voice notes became the medium for this type of affection. 

When I turned seventeen, I had just moved from Venezuela to Miami. And as any other teenager who’s been displaced from their home country, I lost many traditions. That was the first time I spent my birthday away from my dad and my brothers. Even though we did get to talk on the phone, what got me through the day were the voice notes they sent. Whether they were singing happy birthday to me or asking what I had planned for the night, listening to those voice notes over and over again throughout the day made me feel closer to them.

Last year, I experienced another similar change in my routine. After twenty-one years of celebrating this special day with my mom, I was on campus in Massachusetts while she was back home in Miami. I was not able to blow out my birthday candles right next to her for a twenty-second time. This time everything was worse: It was a Monday! I had class, work, and school assignments to finish, but her voice note telling me we would celebrate together over winter break calmed me. My nieces singing (more like screaming) “happy birthday” to me over a voice note brightened my day. My childhood best friend sending her best wishes on a voice note, hours before my birthday because of time zone differences, made me laugh.

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Birthday Voices by Anto Chavez

WhatsAapp voice notes are also used for community organizing efforts. Anyone with a phone and internet connection can download the app for free and reach people across national and international borders. The platform’s accessibility helps further spread information among community members, and voice messages allow this communication to feel more personal.

The reality is that from community building and political education to long-distance family/friends relationships, WhatsAapp voice messages have dominated Latin American and many other immigrants’ forms of communication, and continue to do so.

The recent global spread of the coronavirus, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 illness, has completely shifted the ways in which many people have had to interact with one another. As a result of this public health crisis, I believe that connecting with one another through WhatsAapp voice notes is something that will get us through these difficult times. 

While we all should most definitely be practicing social distancing in all public spaces and follow stay-at-home orders, finding new ways to connect with others becomes essential. Checking up on my friends and family who may be geographically close to me through voice notes instead of visiting them in person helps me make sure that I am not putting them or myself in danger while also being able to express my care for their well-being.

When I was recently explaining the concept of WhatsAapp voice notes to a classmate who had never used the platform, she described it as being able to manipulate time during a phone call. Each participant can talk and listen whenever they are available. I can’t help but think of the populations who could benefit the most from this from of verbal communication right now: International students currently stuck on their college campuses, whose schedules and time zones are completely different to that of their family’s, all the people staying at home whose family members are health care staff and spend most of the day at the hospital, and even those in isolation who are fighting the virus.

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Photo credit via youtube.com

We don’t always have to see life through rose-colored glasses. Living in more than one space at a time can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to live in the moment and stop multitasking. WhatAsapp voice messages provide the option to choose when we want to exist in multiple spaces, and allow us to take a break from doing so. We are able to choose when to communicate, as opposed to committing to a phone call. Voice notes are great alternatives to calls and texts, allowing users to convey emotion and meaning without the time and tone constraints.

Forget about transporting ourselves between spaces for a second and think about preserving our memories over time. WhatAsapp voice notes can also serve the purpose of a new archival method. This creative way of passing on memories is especially relevant for Latin American and Latinx/a/o communities who have been historically marginalized from spaces like academia, where traditional archival techniques dominate.

Oral historias have always been significant parts of our cultures. Borrowing the term from Esperanza, Ruth Behar’s informant in Translated Woman, I use the word historias to refer to people’s life stories that may also become crucial to collective histories. Voice messages give us an informal process to record memories and testimonies within our communities.

Year after year, one way or another, I’ve kept appreciating the power of voice notes. Coming from a country with one of the largest recent diasporas, I have friends and family all over the world. Venezuela’s refugee crisis has separated thousands, just as it’s been the case for millions of other immigrants. I don’t underestimate the importance of a WhatsAapp voice message, because I know that may be the only way I will ever get to hear some people’s voices again. 

After recently losing my grandma to cancer, listening to her voice notes has worked as a cathartic process. To think I will always be able to remember and hear her voice, that I will always have her “happy birthday” voice notes saved for years to come, somewhat alleviates the pain of no longer having her with me.