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Resilience beyond cruelty Central American migrants pursuing the American dream

Ana Del Sarto

Violence in Central America has been pushing away the economically active population for the benefit of global capital. During the twenty-first century, the torturous experience of Central American migrants - mainly women, children, and families - who traverse Mexico toward the United States has been socially and ethnically advantageous, as well as politically and economically productive not only for the United States and Mexico, but also for global capitalism. The mobilization of people diversifies societies. New social groups can shake up stifled social structures, prompting the need for new cognitive mappings to account for the presence of social, racial, and ethnic alterities. As newcomers, undocumented migrants are placed at the bottom of social echelons. They are the outsiders, the foreigners, those who represent the socially, ethnically, and racially other, a sector against which the “original” population will be measured. These outcasts are often used to “purify” social boundaries among citizens, and to reshuffle the US population according to political divides. More importantly, aside from this internal political uses, current migration constitutes great transnational business, since it energizes all the countries involved: the country of origin, the receiving country, and the countries traversed in between.

Today Latin America is considered one of the most violent regions in the world. In 2019, of the top 50 most dangerous cities in the world, 43 were from this region: 15 from Mexico, 14 from Brazil, and 6 from Venezuela; 2 from each Colombia and Honduras, and one from each El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica.1 Although Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (known as the Northern Triangle of Central America [NTCA]) went down in the rankings of violence, this still is an endemic phenomenon, which keeps pushing people out of their lands (Amnesty International “Fleeing...” np).

Nearly half of the approximately 3.5 million Central American immigrants residing in the United States as of 2017 established their residence there before 2000. Immigrants from the NTCA comprised an 86% of the Central Americans in the United States. In 2017, Central American immigrants represented 8% of the United States 46.4 million immigrants.

(O’Connor, Batalova and Botler, “Central

American ...” np)

Many of these migrants had been mobilizing voluntarily for family reunification purposes. However, after 2008, “the migration politics of revolving doors” changed (Izcara-Palacios “La precarizacion...” 112). The 2018-2019 escalation of Central American caravan arrivals to the southern border of the United States responds to many factors, all of them related to the logic of biocapitalism, but particularly to the pursuit of working opportunities.

Many migrants barely survive in their countries of origin. In order to overcome many times extreme circumstances, they are willing to accept not only the risks of a dangerous journey, but also the precarious working conditions imposed on them in the country of destination, in order to support their families, who often remain in their home country. Consequently, American companies can keep on exploiting these disposable people at the lowest possible cost, subjecting them to unacceptable working conditions, without being responsible for abuses. New forms of indenture servitude and enslavement are created through reciuiting companies, which do not guarantee migrants any kind of safety or legalization. When migrants are caught working undocumented in the United States, they are sent to detention centers and become candidates for deportation. Despite all these obstacles, the imaginary of the American Dream is still alive and unshakable among the poor in Central America.

Izcara-Palacios has studied the interactions between Central American migrants and Mexican coyotes since the beginning of this century ( Izcara-Palacios “El coyotaje...,” “De victimas...,” “Violencia...,” “Coyotaje and Drugs...,” “Los transmigrantes...”). One of the most salient new features of current transnational migration to the United States is that the motivations to migrate are not necessarily spontaneous anymore.2 Instead, in many cases migrants are directly sought by American employers, looking for cheap and submissive laborers through intermediaries who facilitate initial contacts with employers (Izacara-Palacios “Contrabando de migrantes...” 2 y 8). This and other structural changes are contributing to the reconfiguration of global working conditions: while neoliberal finance capitalism encompasses the entire world, the logic of biocapitalism - the capitalist subsumption of the bios or the commodification of life - keeps on incorporating the remotest and most disconnected regions into the global market. In Central America, living conditions continue to worsen due to systemic violence, a combination of economic exploitation, political instability, social domination, racial and ethnic discrimination, and gender and sexual disparities. These structural conditions trigger massive migrations of women and children who leave their countries in spite of the immense risks they face in their migratory journeys. Even though they experience many abuses while in transit, they demonstrate persistence and resilience when they start their life in the United States as undocumented workers, if they are lucky enough to reach their goals. Without a doubt, these sectors are among the most vulnerable and deprived social groups in the receiving country (the “nobodies,” according to Linda Green). As asylum-seekers, they are labeled as “illegals” and criminalized. Many are arrested in detention centers known as hieleras (refrigerators), until they are either legalized or deported. According to Green, “migration is one of the few remaining survival

Resilience beyond cruelty 109

strategies for many. At the same time, migration has exacerbated economic and social divisions further eroding any sense of collective solidarity or possibility of struggle” (372). These “illegal nobodies” are not only dispossessed by displacement, but also stripped of dignity, dehumanized, and subjected to constant shame, fear, and uncertainty about their futures. However, even though their migrant condition is psychologically, racially, and ethnically devastating, they fulfill a very important social and economic purpose. As it is well known, their remittances are indispensable for the survival of whole families and communities back home, as well as the sustenance of weak national economies. In many cases, after long periods of persistent efforts, their own lives become more livable, and they become relatively integrated into the new environment.

From a Latin American cultural studies perspective, I will analyze how Central American migrants, once they have successfully crossed the border and established themselves in the United States to start a new life as undocumented aliens, must confront and endure a daily life of perils, instability, and fear. According to Oscar Martinez, migrants know that, particularly in the case of women, “their role is to be a second-class human [an infra-human]. Migrant and woman equals easy target” ( Los migrantes... 59; my translation). The main corpus of this chapter is based on chronicles and documentaries produced by investigative journalists, personal testimonies, and other forms of ethnographic research, as well as on statistics from the Pew Research Center, the Migration Policy Institute, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Other materials used for this study include anthropological and sociological articles, Farmer Associations’ and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s reports. Finally, some information originates in legal cases in the United States. One of the goals of this study is to highlight the violations of human rights suffered by migrants as undocumented aliens.

Politics of survival and endurance

After the 2008 economic and financial crises, different deterrence strategies were applied by the Obama and Trump administrations. This included, during the Obama administration, the implementation of ambiguous immigration law enforcement, especially toward minors. Trump has been using a heavy and harshly loaded rhetoric about what he offensively called “shithole countries,” whose “criminal, rapist, and indecent inhabitants” are “invading” and “infesting” the US Southern border (Cohn, Passel and Gonzalez-Barrera, “Rise in U.S...” and "Recent Trends...”). Oftentimes these persons are not classified as voluntary economic migrants, but as displaced populations fleeing violence, extreme poverty, hunger, and death (Borger, “Fleeing...”). However, not all violence is the same in the NTCA countries. While these countries share high levels of systemic violence,3 organized criminal conflicts or instrumental violence carried out either by Mexican Cartels (particularly Los Zetas) or Salvadoran maras (such as MS-13 and Barrio 18) hit them differently. The same can be said about domestic and genderviolence. Narco violence is more prominent in rural areas. For example, Mexican Cartels convinced rural communities in the Guatemalan highlands to replace theircrops with poppies, but later the central government and local authorities, underpressure from the United States, forced them to eradicate “the plant” from their fields (González, “A Dangerous...” np). On top of that, since 2018, several natural disasters and droughts impoverished rural communities even more, making their life extremely precarious. Gang violence usually occurs more in the cities, and is directed toward the goal of dividing the neighborhoods and controlling territories. Their objectives are to extort people, recruit boys, and use girls as sexual objects. Gender and domestic violence are endemic in most of these settings (Cantor and Plewa, "Forced ...”). State intervention is generally absent, and infrastructures are usually insufficient. Consequently, the convergence of an ineffective judiciary system, the negligence of the police, and the existence of widespread corruption, favor the proliferation of violence and impunity (Leutert, “Who is.. ,”).4

It is interesting to recognize that although the flow of undocumented migrants tended to diminish for a couple of years, in the first half of 2019 alone, it tripled. In addition to systemic and criminal violence, these populations are heavily affected by climate change - desertification to be specific - a crucial pushing factor. Families who depend on the products of their land cannot feed themselves due to droughts and territorial devastation. So, they send one of their offspring to work abroad in the hope that her/his remittances would allow the family to cope with daily needs. Looking at the rate of remittances reported by the World Bank, it is easy to understand why they keep on migrating to the United States: migration of family members, often of women and children, is the last survival tool for the entire family (Ratha et al, “Data Release.. ,”).5 This is the bottom-line explanation to the movement of Central Americans along the dangerous Mexican corridor.

President Trump has threatened many times with massive arrests of undocumented immigrants.6 Through the vigorous use of the politics of fear - and the practice of unexpected raids and removal of millions of illegal workers through massive deportations - he declared a border emergency crisis in order to justify the need to build a physical barrier to contain the “invasion of drugs, gangs, and thugs,” dangerous criminal, vicious rapists, and spiteful assassins. He has insistently indicated that he continues to strengthen what is supposed to be the “world’s largest immigrant detention system” (Reichman, “Crisis...”; Watkins and Kohut, “MS-13...”; and Kassie, “Detained...”). Nevertheless, Central American migrants, either in caravans, small groups, or individually, keep on migrating to the United States, in the hope that their special status (TPS) would allow them to apply for asylum (Cohn, Passel and Bialik, “Many Immigrants...”). According to Leutert and Spalding (Lawfare), during the past five years, around 265,000 people traveled annually from the Northern Triangle toward the United States. However, during the first half of 2019, a total of 508,000 migrants applied for asylum in the United States, including many families with children, thus putting a great amount of pressure on the US immigration system, and saturating detention centers (Ingber, “Undocumented Children...” np).

Historically, Central American migrants started arriving in the United States in the 1980s, fleeing civil wars and poverty. These mobilizations reached their peak in the 2000s. Since 1990, the flow of Central American women migrants

Resilience beyond cruelty 111 have increased in the route through Mexico to the United States. In Las viajeras invisibles, Ana Silvia Monzon indicates that one of the most important leading factors behind the increment of migrant women was the inflexibility and the harsh implementation of the patriarchal mandate in relation to work and economic opportunities, family and community stigmas, gender violence, and their exercise of autonomy. In addition, according to the Global Burden of Armed Violence, which provides statistics about the countries with the highest female average of annual homicide rates for the years 2007-2012, NTCA countries are placed in the top ranks. El Salvador, with 14.4%, tops the ranking, followed by Honduras, with 10.9%, and Guatemala in fourth place with a 9.1% (GBAV, "Lethal ...” np, and UNHCR, Women on the Run). Leutert also confirms that around 2014 “Central American women averaged between 20 to 32%” of the migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol. “In recent years these numbers have increased even more, with women constituting 48% of all Salvadoran migrants ... and Honduran women reaching 43%.” Later, she adds, “this change is much more dramatic when looking at families and unaccompanied minors,” which “average between 40 to 60% of the migrants from Central American arriving to the US” (Leutert, “Who is Really Crossing...” np).

In order to examine some of the terrible experiences of Central American undocumented migrants in the United States, I will resort to three documentaries presented by Frontline, a Public Broadcasting Television (PBS) program, which featured human trafficking and sexual abuse cases related to the Latinx undocumented workers. The documentaries were written, directed, and produced by the Investigative Reporting Program, chaired by Lowell Bergman, at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, during a span of five years (2013-2018), and freely aired through PBS. They are: Rape in the Fields (June 15, 2013), Rape on the Night Shifts (June 23, 2015, and reviewed, updated, and aired again January 16, 2018), and Trafficked in America (April 24, 2018).

The most important sectors in which the Latinx find jobs are construction, agribusiness (fruits, egg farms, dairy, meat and meat packaging, among others), care industry (child and elderly care, health care), the industry of hospitality, travel and leisure (hotels, restaurants, and related services), and home domestic service (cleaning, gardening, etc.), sendees that are generally performed by undocumented laborers (Jordan, “8 Million...,” New American Economy, “Undocumented...,” and Dudley, “These U.S...”). To understand the upsurge of women and children migrants, we need to look carefully to the composition of the US workforce in all of those sectors: the agribusiness industry counts for more than half a million undocumented women workers, while 1.3 million out of the total 2.4 million janitors are also undocumented (Elejalde-Ruiz, “Hospitality...,” and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “Occupational... ft. Meat packing, egg farming, and dairies are sectors that hire more than half of their workers among migrants, many of whom are undocumented minors. “These businesses, which operate 24/7, year-round, require work that some farmers insist most Americans will not do. ... Immigrants work harder” (Hall & Veterkind, “How undocumented.. .ft.1

All food industries have to compete within a global market, which means that they need to keep their costs of production as low as possible. Wages in particular are maintained as close as possible to those in Mexico. So, remunerations in these sectors are not ruled by national averages - which are per se extremely depressed - but by transnational labor markets - which push wages down to the bottom. Therefore, jobs in the food industries require long working hours of hard physical labor (many times up to 12 hours shifts), while wages are below regular standards (depending on the state, they could range from $7 to $15 an hour) (National Farm Worker Ministry, “Low Wages”). In 2016, the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Washington passed laws to increase the minimum salary to $15 an hour; after that, due to the activism of the “Fight for $15” movement, “California, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, SeaTac and Washington DC” also approved it.8 In California, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the United Farm Workers (UFW), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were able to exert enough pressure to change some working conditions. Not surprisingly, salary increases in agribusiness had the negative effect of many Farm companies moving to Mexico in order to avoid the higher costs of the workforce within the United States.

In Marion, Ohio, on April 24, 2018, a transnational human trafficking ring was uncovered when four Guatemalan adolescents were found living in enslaved conditions inside the trailer park of Trillium egg farms. In Trafficked in America, Daffodil Altan, a journalist from the UC Berkeley IRP, followed this criminal transnational network, which connected Trillium Farms (a Jack DeCoster company, located in Ohio very close to where I live), to the Western Highlands of Guatemala. In 2014, a US immigrant from Guatemala, Aroldo Castillo, went back to his village to offer help to desolate families, with the option to bring some of their teenagers to work in the United States so they could send money back home. Before eight teenagers had departed, their families signed contracts for SI5,000 each to cover the costs for traveling, crossing borders, and placing them in decent jobs. These minors ended up being enslaved in the most horrific conditions in the countryside of Marion, Ohio. Pablo Durán Sr., along with his brother, Ezequiel Durán (a manager inside Trillium Farms), were the leaders of Haba, a recruiting company, which subcontracted crews of laborers from other companies. One of them was owned by his son, Pablo Durán Jr. Ironically, it never occurred to any of them that they needed to check the legal status of those workers, their living conditions, and the wages they were paid. They just made sure the products (eggs) were shipped on time. When John Glessner, ex-CEO from Trillium, was interviewed by Daffodil Altan, he declared that “the conditions in which they were living were far better than those from which they were in their own countries.”

In Rape in the Fields (2013) and Rape on the Night Shifts (2015), Lowell Bergman explains why sexual assault, sexual abuse, and even rape constitute an epidemic and remain mostly unreported. Undocumented women workers in agribusiness call their place of work the “fields del calzón,” or “the panty fields,” because of the high rate of rape and sexual harassment to which they are exposed daily by their foremen or supervisors, who are also Latinx migrants. Symbolically

Resilience beyond cruelty 113 and materially significant differences separate these supervisors from the women workers: they are males, they speak English, and they are US citizens or legal residents. These three elements offer them the little extra power to abuse women and reproduce the unequal gender relations fostered in their own countries. The possibilities of reporting these cases or denouncing the abusers are virtually impossible for these women, since they often have no hard evidence of their abuses to present, and as their managers usually claim, “[N]o one will believe what you will say.... [Y]ou will never be able to prove it.” But, the extraordinary obstacle is the possible phone call that these managers use as a threat: “[I]f you denounce me, I call la migra and you will not only lose your job, but be deported.” This is the classic quid pro quo situation and, the worst part is that, as everyone knows, the undocumented worker must accept anything to keep the job and be able to remain in the country.

The problems with these complaints to the police and/or the legal investigations is that they make the working population yet more vulnerable, because “if the worker denounces, the manager/foreman calls to report her/him as an illegal worker.” The ultimate responsibility lies in the undocumented worker who thereby is criminalized and, consequently, arrested and deported. Shame and fear feed the laborers’ minds: fear of the call; shame toward other people and themselves; fear of the possibility of being deported, of losing their job, and of not being able to support their children. The trauma “of not even know how they should have reacted, felt, what they should have done” - as one of them confesses - paralyzes them. Women feel shame, guilt, the trauma of not having been able to avoid being raped, and the profound pain of feeling that they have betrayed their partners or husbands, their daughters and sons, even themselves. The burden of keeping the secret becomes an overwhelming load that only increases as time goes by. The result of facing these unjust and violent realities is a loss of self-esteem, which not only keeps the undocumented people under control, but also establishes a routine of subordination and submissiveness. “To see, to hear, to shut up” is exactly the same culture that rales in many Central American countries under criminal organized violence, as shown in Zamora Chamorro’s documentary, Mary in Nobody’s Land, as well as in Martinez’ chronicles from The Beast and History of Violence. This cycle of women’s abuse and violation many times feeds anger, rage, and violence toward themselves and those close to them. The feeling of powerlessness in relation to their lived experiences is the worst situation the victims have to confront, because when there is no outlet for these emotions, a new cycle of violence is being produced, and the protective mechanisms of resilience keep corroding.

Through this chapter, two constant features became clear. First, most of the abuses come from other Latinx migrants, Spanish speakers in charge of the hiring and supervision of migrant women and children. The patriarchal logic of unequal gender relations and gender violence against women, the masculinity mandate, is translated and reproduced from their own cultural milieu to the new one, from the national social setting to the transnational labor market. Most managers or “mayordomos” are documented immigrant Latino men who abuse the power they have to humiliate and keep under control an undocumented female and minor

Latinx work force. In so doing, they reinforce racially and ethnically motivated discrimination (“look to those savages how they relate to one another,” the same mechanism that makes white Anglo-Saxon people feel better and superior). A U-visa, immigration relief for victims of a crime, is issued only when a law enforcement officer can claim that somebody was victim of a crime (USDHS, “U Visa”). Paradoxically, this possibility renders women much more vulnerable and disposable, when in reality they are indispensable. The second constant feature is the legal scheme of outsourcing, at many levels and for different purposes, especially in relation to hiring and control of labor crews. Big companies do not hire their workers directly anymore; they outsource their hiring processes, subcontracting workers through a system of ghost companies. This is more efficient, less expensive, and involves no legal responsibilities to the company. They are never accountable either for the selection or the status of those workers, which many times end up being victims of human trafficking.

Closing remarks

Since the 1990s, the free and democratic capitalist world along with the Western modern-colonial culture obtained one of its most exceptional and perverse triumphs, the structural adjustment programs, which endorse the global biocapitalist design for the twenty-first century. This model is supposed to be imposed on the entire world. The free market is the central device where social relations are articulated, capital feels unregulated, and labor is flexible, precarious, and feminized. Minorities, women, children, and the global poor are made more vulnerable, discriminated against, and racialized. Along those dispositifs, the technological and digital revolution speed up communications to suggest that most of the material processes are unnecessary because robots are here to work for us. In other-words, the global world is now organized by a blatant and violent biocapitalism, where certain humans are reduced to being nothing more than the living dead (Agamben) and others, the fewest, are the protagonists of the turbo-capitalism of adrenaline and happiness forever.

In Cruel Modernity, Jean Franco analyzes cruelty as the main feature of our contemporary global culture, demonstrating that “when the taboo against harming another is broken, there can be no limits, no social pact” (1). For Rita Laura Segato, this cruelty is a patriarchal pedagogy that launches an informal low-intensity war against female and feminized bodies to continue expropriating and commodifying life in all its forms (Segato, La guerra... 57). She develops this idea further, arguing that “the pedagogy of cruelty” is the transmutation of life into commodity: “the living and its vitality into things.” “Human Trafficking and sexual exploitation are the most perfect examples of this.” How do we contest it? Segato affirms that we can only fight it by “undoing the masculinity mandate,” which is to say “the ownership mandate” (Segato, “Pedagogia...” np). No wonder, then, why violence has been so endemic in the Northern Triangle of Central America, causing so much fear, so much horror, and continues to expel out of the region the most distraught and wretched of populations. Inside

Resilience beyond cruelty 115 their own countries, people feel unprotected because there are no mechanisms of social integration and contention (employment for the economically active population, education for children, health and food for everyone). States are only present to collect benefits shared by global investments and capital, but they are completely absent to protect their citizens, not even the most vulnerable of all, their children. Hence, why and how Central American women and children would care if they become undocumented and overexploited in the United States, where at least they could find a job, even though under dreadful conditions? Even though they do so at the highest imaginable costs, hastily wasting their bodies and their lives, sleeping in overcrowded rooms and many times sharing beds, these migrants at least have a chance to improve living conditions for them and their families, the possibility to have a future, and a chance to realize the dubious American dream.


  • 1 The most up-to-date statistic was published by USA Today, August 14, 2019. (https :// -world-tijuana-caracas-cape-town/1813211001/). This statistic does not include war zones, such as Syria and Ukraine. The usual causes given for this endemic violence are drug trafficking, organized crime, political instability, poverty, economic conditions, corruption, abuses, and impunity.
  • 2 There are many debates about the productivity of social capital as a concept. This notion was theoretically developed by Pierre Bourdieu. It soon spread from the field of sociology to other social sciences, and in particular to the area of migration studies. Alejandro Portes has published two important articles on this concept, “Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology” and “The Two Meanings of Social Capital.” According to Portes, it originally referred to a “differential performance,” or benefits accruing to individuals or families by virtue of their ties with others” (Portes, “The Two...” 1-2). The concept soon implied also “information about or direct assistance with migrating provided by prior migrants, which decreases the cost of moving for potential migrants” (Garip, “Social Capital...” 5).
  • 3 The percentage of population living below the poverty line in Honduras is 61.9% (2018), in Guatemala 59.3% (2014), and in El Salvador 29.2% (2017), according to indicators from The World Bank. See'indicator/SI.POV.N AHC.
  • 4 Even when these three countries of the NTCA shared many socio-historical characteristics, and violence is so pervasive in all of them, Stephanie Leutert (Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas, Austin, and regular collaborator for the Lawfare blog), suggests in “Who's Really Crossing the U.S. Border, and Why They're Coming” that we need to abandon “the depiction of the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Central America as a homogenous region.” Certainly, there are salient demographic heterogeneities and dissimilarities among these countries, which affect the migration trends and its push factors: the data show that in terms of etlmic composition, while Guatemala is 40% indigenous, Honduras is just 10%, while in El Salvador, indigenous population is very small, with a meager 0.2%. Moreover, El Salvador is mostly urbanized, while Honduras and Guatemala are only 50% urban. Leutert, Lawfare, https://ww w.lawfareblog.comAvhos-really-crossing-us-border-and-why-theyre-coming
  • 5 See World Bank, data release for 2019, elease-remittances-low-and-middle-income-countries-track-reach-551-billion-2019.
  • 6 See Rose, “President Trump Threatens Mass Deportation of Immigrants,” NPR, June 18, 2019. s-deportation-of-immigrants.
  • 7 In the same article, Neil Rainford, “a long-time labor activist,” an ex-union representative from the Madison area, declared: “undocumented workers do not qualify for public benefits ... meaning they have to ‘labor without the basic social protections that are part of our social and legal compact, are easily exploited, suffer sub-market wages and benefits and are denied many of the basic minimums that we have agreed upon as a society’” (Hall & Vetterkind, “How undocumented...”).
  • 8 See Tamara Draut, “Is this your image of the working class? You need to update it,” The Guardian, May 9, 2018, may/09/american-working-class-what-it-looks-like-today and “How to Fight for S15 Transformed the Political Debate,” March 31, 2016, /31/fight-for-15-transformed-political-debate/.

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