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Disarticulation of agriculture, transition to a service economy in the Sierra Norte of Puebla and accelerated migration to the Nuevo New South


In this chapter we examine the connection of two distant and unequal territories through the provision of cheap and undocumented workers from Pahuatlân in the Northern Sierra of Puebla, in the center of Mexico, to North Carolina, in the Nuevo New South (Levine & LeBaron, 2011; Mohl, 2003) during the last four decades. Underpinning this process, we identify a relative surplus population proliferating in an area in which, compared to other states in the countty and even within the state of Puebla, the migration rates to the United States were low and moderated until the 1980s. Our analysis of the historical conditions preceding this accelerated, but short-lived, migratory flow in the 1990s, focuses on the contradictory class experiences configured in various sites of exploitation during periods of mobility and immobility of the relative surplus population.

We argue that these mobilities are shaped by the disarticulation and rearticulation of the conditions of reproduction of rural populations under successive waves of capitalist expansion. The narratives of men and women from three generations collected in the field allow us to recognize oscillations and intermittences in this erratic process shaped by displacements in and out of the region and by the rise in migration to the United States in the mid-1990s. The transition from agriculture to manufacturing, to craft production, or to a range of informal activities between one generation and the next, and even throughout the life of these men and women, attests to these comings and goings.

The way persistent and chronic uncertainty is experienced depends on several imponderables of smallholder subsistence production. It also depends on the loss of viability of two crops with commercial value (sugar cane and coffee) that have dominated the political economy of the area under study and the changing relations of these rural populations in Central Mexico with the state (see Chapter 2). Adding to this is the narrow margin of these populations to respond to climate contingencies, crop losses, or to surmount family crises and diseases, which place them in a perennial state of informal survival (Green, 2009). Such uncertainty is shared with rural populations all over the world who have become redundant as neoliberalism marches in its path of dispossession and pillage (Harvey, 1989; Li, 2014; Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013; Pini & Leach, 2011). Such

Accelerated migration to Nuevo New South 61 paths are characteristic of a globalizing process that, far from “homogenizing,” points to a greater differentiation because local social reproduction has become unattainable for a considerable segment of these populations.

In this chapter, we insist on the centrality of class in people’s lives. We also emphasize that class is not limited to the experience of collective work in a factory, nor to the distinction between owner and disciplined workers, and neither to a “consciousness in itself’ that mobilizes the political potential of a given collective (Kalb, 2015; Mollona, 2014; Smith, 2015) (see Chapter 1). We stress the malleability and historical instability of working classes and, at the same time, we highlight the role gender plays in the process of class formation (Narotzky & Smith, 2006). Moving in this direction leads us to acknowledge with Bettie (2003, p. 32) that in late capitalism, class subjectivity is built in a complex maimer in relation to gender and ethnic/racial identities. We show the random, unstable and oscillating absorption of relative surplus populations (Marx, 1990, pp. 786, 789) that combine work both inside and outside their regions of origin.

Our ethnographic research also uncovers a process that runs counter to the representation of the male Fordist worker/producer/breadwinner/head of household vs woman/reproducer/dependent on the male’s income, that has dominated the "teleological narrative” or "selective tradition” still prevalent in the social sciences (De Genova, 2016; Smith, 2015). Such a masculinized class subject was never fully realized under the expansive waves of Fordist capitalism, and even less so after the dismantling of the welfare state. Furthermore, in the so-called developing countries, this model certainly had focalized and scattered expressions. These insights inform our task of documenting the transformations of the migratory regime linked to the changes in the accumulation pattern, a process that includes the massive incorporation of women in deregulated labor markets (Harvey, 1989; Kofman & Raghuram, 2015; Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013; Oso & Ribas-Mateos, 2013).

The comparatively recent accelerated flows that originated in Central and Southern Mexico to new destinations in the United States, such as the case we analyze here, allow us to identify transitions in the migration of women linked to the deindustrialization of the US economy and job insecurity (Harvey, 2003; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2011; Sassen, 2002, 2003). In this accelerated migration we identify the combination of the traditional model of individual and cyclic mobility— of male predominance, a “military model of migration” of sorts, usually linked to the agro-industry (Griffith, 2005)—with an emerging mobility scheme of single women or with dependents, which overlaps with the migration of young couples with or without children. This combination frequently results in settlement migrations (Pedone, Gil Araujo, Echevem, & Agrela, 2011), sustained by networks that underpin the reproduction processes of workers and their families leading to the development of communities (Griffith, 2005, p. 52).

The initial organization of domestic conglomerates of unaccompanied men gave way in the 1990s to new formations that included men, related to each other or not, without dependents and to conjugal couples that settled temporarily in those “homes.” Demographically, Pahuatecan flows supplied these new classes of emerging workers in North Carolina with first-generation adult migrants, as well as children that made up the “1.5 generation.” These groups where daily reproduction was organized, acted as a base or station of men who came and went. Their insertion in the construction industry forced them to constantly move between small towns in the region or to other states. The establishment of these new communities of immigrants was related to internal displacements in the Nuevo New South and between borders. A series of threads connected these communities, much like a switch, and several households anchored them in the various places between which workers moved (Griffith, 2005, p. 53).

This new mobility pattern of Pahuatecan women, supported by a sustained demand for cheap, unstable, deportable (De Genova & Peutz, 2010; Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013), and therefore severely disciplined labor (Lee, 2015), entailed increased inequalities in reproduction that were “stratified and re-localized on a global scale” (Colen, 1995). We document the conditions that underlie the production of the mother-worker-undocumented migrant subject, whose experience of mobility between two countries was intertwined with precarious work, over-exploitation and gender inequality. We explain the tensions that traverse a new type of binational domestic arrangement, a formation that grew during the last three decades in the context of the decrease of circular migration between Mexico and the United States.

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