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Pahuatecan migration from a feminist perspective

During the fieldwork in October 2013 in Durham, North Carolina, we identified aspects that were not captured either in the 2010-2011 survey, nor in the interviews conducted in Pahuatlán throughout more than five years. What stands out is that the first women to travel to the United States and settle in the Southeast were, specifically, single women. Those who had left a child in Mexico under the care of their grandmothers came back shortly after to cross the border again, this time with their children. They recall that, in the early 1990s, crossing the border cost US$1,300. To raise the money, these pioneer young women asked family or friends already established in the United States for loans and paid the loan back with their first salaries. Once this “bridgehead” had been established, consisting of only four women, other single women with or without children felt encouraged to follow them. It was interesting to note that, in our basic social network of women interviewed on both sides of the border, a significant number came from households led by single women—widows or abandoned—who had to face many hardships to raise their children. In other cases, the migration of these single women to the United States was preceded by labor incursions to Mexico City, which set them up as the breadwinners of their homes. In successive interviews we noted the progressive consolidation of interethnic networks of mestizo and Otomi women in the migratory corridor configured in a border area between the states of Hidalgo and Puebla. At the same time, the importance of networks woven between women that enabled the mobility and labor insertion of female relatives and other women from the same region who progressively joined the migratory flow stands out:

I think that my sister Lucia and her friends were the first to arrive. When they arrived there were already many people from San Pablito and, I think, from another place, San Nicolás, but few from Pahuatlán. My sister’s friends came before her, in 1993. They are still here, they are American citizens now: Verónica married an American and another girl, Sofia—who was the one my sister studied with to be a hairdresser and worked together in a beauty salon in Pahuatlán—helped my sister to come here. I came in 95, my sister in 94 and they came in 93.

(Adriana, 36 years old, Durham, NC, October 2013)

Pioneer women traveled between 1992 and 1994, precisely when young male migrants from the municipality were transitioning from rural employment (tobacco and cucumber harvest and lumber industry) to urban employment upon settling in Durham. In those years, the incipient migration of mestizo Pahuatecos/as was far surpassed by the flows of Otomi workers from San Pablito Pahuatlan. Otomies had accumulated experience in dairy farms and egg production in Texas during the 1980s. A few Otomi women participated in this circuit, preceding the mestizas, some as day laborers while others sold food to the workers, thus lowering reproduction costs (Cravey, 2003; D'Aubeterre & Rivermar, 2014; Griffith, 2005).

The following testimony of a mestiza woman named Lucia allows us to reconstruct the migratory itinerary and the presence of women in the first migrant cohort from the county seat, where agricultural work in the Southeast stands out. Lucia arrived in Durham in 1994, when she was only 17 years old. A year later, she started a relationship with a migrant from Durango. She returned to Pahuatlan only once for a short time to take her young daughter.

My friends first arrived in Texas, in Nacogdoches, but there were too many people there already. There, everybody worked in ranches, in farms. Then, here, in North Carolina, there were a lot of people [working] in tobacco. My friends, when they came to Carolina, worked in the tobacco harvest. But when I arrived I got in Servitex because they were able to find a place there. It was nice for me, because I arrived to an apartment. They didn’t have that when they arrived for the first time because they arrived a year before. I never asked them how it was that they left that job to come here, because they lived in ranches.

(Lucia, 38 years old, Durham, NC, October 2013)

Adriana, Lucia’s younger sister, remembers that the migration of single women traveling with male friends, male acquaintances and brothers sparked gossip and suspicion in the town. Adriana, who was single and had a small child, had a good reason to look for a way to make a living outside of Pahuatlan. Female migration finds its full justification when carried out “for the wellbeing of the children”: securing their material support when there is no father to take care of their needs legitimates the mobility of single women, their sacrifice and their departure from the town, even risking their life in a dangerous journey to cross the border. When migrating for the sake of others, the decision dignifies she who migrates:

My sister surprised us, because she was one of our grandparent’s favorites. She studied, and she already had a beauty salon there in Pahuatlan. So, when she came here she did surprise us very much and maybe, because of my situation, it was easier for me to make up my mind, because I was a single mother.

(Adriana, 36 years old, Durham, NC, October 2013)

The justification is more doubtful when single women without children migrate for “selfish” reasons, that is, chasing individual projects, perhaps “vain” personal aspirations. Even the mere wish to “see the other side”—as young males frequently state—turns them into “suspicious migrants” (Juliano, 2002). The stoiy of Lucia reveals the dilemmas surrounding her decision to migrate and the arrangements in her life as a single woman to make it through so much evilspeaking, gossip and suspicions:

There in the town they said: “They are only going to act all flirty there. What are they going to do there? If they don’t even know how to work.” People, I think, that’s what they thought, but my friends, thank God, they did well. Verónica my friend, had gone back to Pahuatlán to get her daughter, because she left a three-year-old there and she told me: "Let’s go.” I told her: “No, the thing is I’m going to study.” But she told me: “Let’s go, it is cool there.” And a cousin that was here [in Durham], he only lasted a year here and went back to the town, and he told me “No, don’t go to the north. There you are only going to go get married, because men are like vultures there.” He says: “They are only waiting to see who comes.” Because there were no women, there were only men, I told him: “No, I’m not going to go get married,” and that’s it. I got the itch to come here; without thinking I just went and told her: “Let’s go!”

(Lucia, Durham, NC, November 2013)

Good reputation and respectability are symbolic goods associated with the femininity model of a class (Skeggs, 1997) that must be carefully cultivated when poor women venture into masculinized fields. Not being represented by a male—when migrating as single women—makes them fall into the quicksand of suspicion. In this case, single male households, typically linked to the “military model” of migration and to the barracks of agricultural fields, were displaced as accommodation venues by apartments in urban areas where the first arrivals lived in overcrowded conditions in Durham (Cravey, 2003; Flippen & Parrado, 2012). These venues were considered inappropriate for young single females who could fall prey to sexual harassment by their housemates.

Castañeda and Zavella (2007) document the strategies of female day laborers in Californian agro-industry who are subject to a meticulous social scrutiny including even the careful presentation of their bodies in public, a "remapping task” modeled by instructions of how to be an honest working-class Mexican woman in the United States. The aim of such instructions is to avoid any body language that may be interpreted as a sign of sexual availability by their male counterparts. In Lucia’s testimony, one can identify her concern with gaining respectability and acknowledgement for her effort to distance herself from the ways of life attributed to promiscuous women.

My friends got married shortly after and I was the one who was still single.

I was living with many boys from there, from Pahuatlän, who arrived [in

Durham] and lived together. So, when they decided to get married, I said: “What am I going to do? I can’t stay here with so many men, because then they are going to say, no, this woman lives here now ... with everyone.” That worried me. And then I met two other girls at my job at Semitex, they lived alone with their brother and their parents were about to join them, so they told me: “Well, you can come to our place.” And, yes, I decided to go to their place and we started to live well there.

(Lucia, Durham, NC, November 2013)

Soon, they all started their married life and, in some cases, brought their young children from Pahuatlan to Durham. Some of the women we interviewed in Durham use the phrase “marrying out of necessity,” a strategy for protection or shielding against the advances of men in the house where they resided and, at the same time, for circumventing the economic hardships surrounding these low-income female workers. Deeb-Sossa and Bickham Mendez (2008, p. 16) also identify these practices and discourses among Salvadoran women immigrants in Virginia and North Carolina. Shortly after starting a conjugal relationship, Lucia encouraged her sister Adriana to migrate with her young son. Soon, other relatives followed:

When I finally started living with a man I decided that my sister should come. I told her: “Come over.” Not only did she and her son come, my brother and his son came too. They came, and little by little, all the family arrived: my mother and my other little siblings. I was pretty much one of the first in my family to come here.

(Lucia, 38 years old, Durham, NC, October 2013)

This condensed migratory history, reconstructed from the testimonies of Adriana and Lucia, shows the quick consolidation of family, interethnic and common-origin networks as one of the distinguishing features of the accelerated and recent migratory flows from the center of Mexico. These flows take advantage of and quickly add to what previous flows have accumulated. In the previous testimonies we can also identify the interlacing of two female mobility patterns. The first pattern is similar to the “single male military migration” in that it is a migration without dependents, but of limited circularity. This mobility shortly gave way to a second ancillary mobility pattern involving women who had recently started their married life and who, in some cases, traveled with young children born in Mexico. In other words, the family reunification process, unlike what has been observed in other parts of the country, occurs in the early phases of the household’s demographic cycle. These young couples continued their reproductive life, giving way to domestic formations, conjugal or not, integrated by binational families, that is, with children born on both sides of the border. The incorporation to the labor market, the first conjugal union, and the paternity/maternity at an early age often overlap in the lives of these immigrants.

Binational families are plagued with difficulties and conflicts that emerge over the years due to greater border controls (cfr. Chapter 2 in this volume) and with the limited circulation imposed on these populations. The tensions these households experience are a defining factor in the explanation of the selectivity of the returns, one of the aspects that will be elucidated in Chapters 4 and 5 of this book. Families are defined by their condition of “semi hostages”—to use the knowledgeable expression of Lynn Stephen (2007)—, a condition that especially affects mothers of preschool children. Given the effects of their illegalization, household heads of these binational family configurations strive to stay in the United States at all costs and to consolidate strategies to live on the edge of citizenship while searching for the recognition of their rights.

Through a variety of strategies, women try to take their children away from the purgatory where disposable workers are piled up. It is worth noting that in the relationship they establish with the state, these female immigrants assume and build their new identities as mother-poor-undocumented, always suspected of deceiving the state. The prejudices towards these racialized populations magnify such suspicion. The relationship these women enter into with the state is an oblique relationship, mediated by the product of their wombs. Perceived as uterus/containers of citizens in the making, undocumented women lack rights of their own and, as is the case with all poor individuals—native or foreign— aspiring to qualify to obtain healthcare or education assistance, they must certify their eligibility by adjusting to the patriarchal equation woman=mother and, what’s more, good and sacrificing mothers (D’Aubeterre, 2004).

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