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“I was motivated to do everything”: undocumented “entrepreneurs of the self” in New York


This chapter turns to the emergence and acceleration of migration in Zapotitlan. Through the accounts of women and men situated along different points of the transnational circuit, this chapter traces villagers' experiences with changing political economic regimes in Zapotitlan and New York City. Some Zapotitecos/ as responded to the economic crisis in Mexico of the 1980s by migrating to the United States, while others, especially women, increased their participation in waged work, particularly in recently established garment factories that produced for domestic and international markets. As the crisis deepened in the 1990s with the devaluation of the peso, migration accelerated, and many more men and women migrated north to work in New York’s expanding sendee sector. Providing for families’ basic needs appeared to be “progress” against the backdrop of worsening conditions of social reproduction in Mexico. As low-waged service workers, Zapotitecos/as struggled to meet the basic social reproductive requirements for their families. In the final section, the discussion turns to the forms of discipline which traverse gendered, “illegal” subjects laboring as restaurant workers, domestics and garment factory workers.

We lived from the rocks! Onyx and labor in Zapotitlan

Chapter 2 provided some details about the history of Zapotitlan Salinas, an important salt producing center for the colonial mining industry. Salt also played a central role in the diet of goats. The region’s caprine industry produced various products for industry and household use up until the revolutionary period in the early twentieth century. Barbacoa, goat meat cooked for hours in an underground oven, continues to be a favorite local dish. In addition to goats, villagers produced ixtle—fibers from the agave plant used for making ropes—and charcoal. These products were sold for cash or traded for other foods and goods in the regional market in Tehuacan. Salt, goats, ixtle and charcoal were pillars of the local economy in a region where rain-fed agriculture provided food for only part of the year.

After the mid-twentieth century, some local families with access to travertine (known as “onyx”) and marble quarries, hired their family members and neighbors to extract rock. Before electricity arrived in the town in the 1960s, the rock was sold in Tehuacan and other regional processing centers. However, in the late 1960s, the first workshops opened in Zapotitlan and produced handicrafts and some construction materials. Owners paid workers piece rate and often withheld a portion of workers' weekly earnings in order to ensure they would return the next week. Subordinating labor through these means counterbalanced the tendency for workers to look for better wages in the competitive local labor market. “We lived from the rocks!” one former workshop owner explained to me. The majority of workers shifted from ranching and salt production to onyx extraction and manufacture from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Overall, Zapotitlan's incorporation into the regional stone industiy through the provision of low-cost labor and rock reinforced local social differentiation. While workshop owners sought to retain labor, they also sought to undersell workshops selling similar products. Quarry owners fought incessantly over the borders among quarries to prevent the theft of onyx. Although some individuals suggested local onyx producer’s form a cooperative to stave off the predatory practices of intermediaries, individual short-term gain appealed more to the town’s caciques, political bosses. Without authorities to adjudicate the conflicts over property ownership, conflicts turned violent from time to time and political bosses demanded, and received, compliance from villagers with relative ease. Disputes over quarry ownership encouraged extracting rock as quickly as possible. This process, however, resulted in inefficient use of the rock and undervalued sale prices.

The lost decade: economic crisis and the decline of onyx

As discussed in Chapter 2, the Mexican oil crisis of 1982 sent the countty into economic and political shock. Beyond the rise in the cost of basic subsistence, Zapotitecos/as experienced the crisis as the beginning of the decline of the onyx industry owing to various factors. First, demand for onyx products fell as household earnings declined. Second, the supply of local rock diminished because of internal disputes over quarry ownership. This forced workshop owners to buy raw material from external sources, thus raising the cost of production. Third, workers began to migrate to the United States, making it difficult for workshop owners to find and train workers. Fourth, in the 1990s, cheaper Chinese imports began to replace onyx products in national markets. Finally, as part of the neoliberal structural adjustment policies, the state eliminated electricity subsidies for workshops. Electricity prices increased 16 percent from 1991 to 1992 and 32 percent from 1995 to 1996 in real terms.1 Although workshops withheld payments in protest, the government refused to grant reprieves to all but a few of the largest and most prosperous workshops. The majority had to contend with higher operating costs and debts left over from the unsuccessfill protest. As a result, many owners closed up shop and left for the United States (Lee, 2008).2

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