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Rural Central Mexico and the East Coast of the United States: articulating surplus labor and restructured economies


In this chapter, we discuss the conditions from which migratory flows to the United States emerged and accelerated in Puebla during the last two decades of the twentieth century. We consider both the impact in rural life of economic restructuring undertaken by the Mexican state beginning in the 1980s and the deindustrialization of the US economy. The analysis captures the articulation, through the supply of cheap and precarious labor, between the state of Puebla, in Central Mexico, and New York City and the Raleigh-Durham corridor in North Carolina. Statistical information from our survey data allows us to compare Zapotitlan Salinas and Pahuatlan de Valle in terms of the emergence and acceleration of migration and staying in the US or returning to Mexico.

We situate migration flows from Puebla to the United States with the disarticulation of rural Mexico, resulting from the progressive liberalization and reorientation of the Mexican economy toward the exterior.

Mexico, for example, abandoned its already weakening protections of peasant and indigenous populations in the 1980s, in part under pressure from its neighbour to the north to adopt privatization and neoliberal practices in return for financial assistance and the opening of the US market for trade through the NAFTA agreement.

(Harvey, 2003, p. 154)

This transformation subjected the country to structural adjustments under the direction of international institutions, affecting small and medium-sized agricultural producers. The austerity measures dictated by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) included economic stabilization programs to alleviate the debt crisis. Over a period of six years, 743 strategic state companies were privatized, state expenditures were reduced from 30 percent of GNP (gross national product) to 17 percent, and real wages fell 60 percent (Fitting, 2011; Hernandez-Navarro, 1992).

In this scenario of the neoliberalization of social life, we identify an increase in Mexican migration to the United States, a privileged path by which transnational capital incorporated “latent reserves” and residual surplus populations from remote regions of traditional agriculture (Fitting, 2011; Harvey, 2003). This process underpinned accumulation in traditional and new zones of economic expansion in that country (Griffith, 2005; Levine & LeBaron, 2011). In the 1990s, migration increased ten times compared with the preceding decades (Arroyo, Berumen, Sandoval, & Rodríguez-Álvarez, 2010; BBVA Bancomer & CONAPO, 2014). In this chapter, we will show how accelerated migration in Pahuatlán and in Zapotitlán Salinas declined after two decades, creating a short cycle of migration-return within the context of restrictive and criminalizing immigration policies and the pernicious effects of the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2009. These transformations destabilized the lives of these workers and their households on both sides of the border.

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