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I would clean the house quickly: domestic work and the reproduction of rural households

Many women alternated between work in maquiladoras and domestic work, before and after marriage. Carolina, the daughter of peasants, migrated to Mexico City in 1986, when she was 17, to work in a maquiladora and, later, as a live-in domestic worker. Carolina managed to send half of her salary to her parents, who used the money to pay for the maintenance of her younger siblings back in Zapotitlan. She cleaned house and cared for two young children in a middle-class neighborhood. When the family would retreat to their weekend home in a nearby town early on Saturday morning, Carolina explained her routine.

I would clean the house quickly. It had three floors and I was all alone. When they were away, I would wash the curtains with Downy and re-hang the curtains while they were still wet. On Saturday afternoon, I would leave for my house [in Zapotitlán, about 4-5 hours by bus]. When they got back from Cuernavaca, the whole house would smell like Downy and they would say “Carolina has been working very hard!”

(Carolina, 30 years old, Bronx, NY, November 2004)

She laughed, pleased that her employers recognized and appreciated her hard work, signaled by the smell of fabric softener permeating the house. When the female head of household had breast augmentation surgery, Carolina cared for her. “I was the nurse! They did not hire anyone to take care of the señora. I did all the household chores quickly and I had time left over to take care of her.” When Carolina told them that she was going to migrate to New York, her employers told her that they did not know what they would do without her.

Structurally, the labor-power of domestic workers, devalued through racial-ized, gendered and ciassist discourses proclaiming the inevitability and naturalness of servile labor (Davis, 1981; Durin, 2017), was infinitely replaceable in a country where nearly half of the population lives in moderate or extreme poverty. Carolina, like virtually all domestic workers, subsidized the reproduction of her employers’ position in the Mexican urban middle-class, a position marked by the distinctions of employing "chachas"3 and buying vacation homes and plastic surgery (Bourdieu, 1984). She constructs herself as indispensable to the family, through the way she attends to their every need, even when these needs go beyond what her employers normally expect of her. She seeks to be always available, proud of the job she does to please, a servant rather than a worker (Amorós, 2008, p. 311). Her emotional and affective competencies were partly accounted for by her gendered socialization in a peasant household as servile labor to parents and brothers. At the same time, Carolina’s disposition to serve was potentiated as a member of the new working classes expelled from subsistence production and petty commodity production in rural towns through the neoliberal policies that dismantled living conditions in places like Zapotitlán.

Whether through the affective and emotional labor of domestic work, assembling and packaging onyx artifacts, or manufacturing clothes in the factory or at home, women from Zapotitlán were socialized into waged work characterized by long hours and low pay. Garment factories exposed women to manufacture characterized by flexible production. They incorporated into the new working classes created through the shocks of the 1980s debt crisis and the destruction of rural economies through economic restructuring. Many of these women left Mexico to incorporate into labor markets in the US remade through neoliberal restructuring that required the flexibility and availability many women were familiar with through their waged work in Mexico.

“Progress” in worsening conditions: the emergence of international migration in Zapotitlán

I sewed clothes at home so that I would not have to leave my children alone. I never wanted to separate from them, until things got too difficult.

Because of the poverty, hunger and living from charity, I wanted to progress. For this reason, I went to New York.

(Gilda, 29 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, January 2012)

Given the worsening conditions of social reproduction in the 1980s and 1990s, it became more and more difficult for households to pay expenses through the work available in local labor markets. With rising prices for food and other necessities, local wages maintained families at a bare minimum. Onyx workers could afford food and other indispensable household and ceremonial expenditures, but they could not make improvements to housing or afford to educate their children beyond primary or middle school. Maquiladora wages, already substantially reduced by their assignation as “complementary” to men’s wages, did not keep pace with the cost of living. Single mothers, like Gilda, were especially vulnerable to sinking deeper into poverty. Despite the fact that Gilda worked from home and accepted clothing and other goods from her neighbors, she was not able to cover all the needs of her family. For workshop owners, the rising costs of production, the shrinking of markets for onyx products and the accelerating migration of the workforce caused many of them to close their doors.

It was in this context of the decline of local wages—a reflection of the generalized crisis in Mexico—that international migration became an attractive option. Although many migrants discussed how migration allowed them and their families to “progress” and “succeed” (salir adelante), the vast majority of migrants “dreamed” (American style) about providing for their families’ basic needs: food, housing, education and health care. Providing for families’ basic needs appeared to be progress against the backdrop of worsening conditions for social reproduction. If migrants were successful in inserting into US labor markets, they might succeed temporarily at beating back poverty. Despite the celebration of the development potential of remittances in the 1990s and 2000s, migration produced dependency, not development, in rural Central Mexico (Binford, 2003; Reichert, 1979; Wiest, 1984).

The first migrant from Zapotitlan, Luis, a 20-year-old quarry worker, left in 1984 with his brother’s brother-in-law. This man, from Izucar de Matamorros, had been to the US several times to work in restaurants in the Bronx section of New York City.4 A year later, Luis financed the trips of his two brothers, also quarry workers, and some cousins and friends, who worked in the workshops. Six months passed until another small group of men from Zapotitlan joined their compatriots in New York. This “military-style” migration pattern (Griffith, 2005) characterized international migration from the town from 1984 to 1987; five or six men—principally young and unmarried—would leave every six months. The “success” of these first groups of migrants, combined with worsening local conditions, motivated more to go north. By 1988, larger groups of 10-15, that included a few women, left every few months, and workshop owners began to feel the effects of a dwindling labor pool.

The collapse of onyx and the devaluation of the peso: the acceleration of international migration

Many migrants who departed in the 1980s believed that migration would only be a temporary part of their working lives. However, after the peso devaluation in 1994—where the currency lost approximately half its value overnight—the local onyx industry permanently declined. Zapotitecos/as viewed international migration as the most viable solution to meet a family’s basic needs. As a result, the town’s migrant pool quickly diversified. College graduates and professionals joined ex-onyx and ex-maquiladora workers in restaurants, markets, domestic work, clothing factories and construction sites in New York. Young couples with or without children, and unaccompanied women with or without children migrated alongside men who arrived without dependents.5 From 1988 to 2010, of the 51 women who migrated, 60 percent were single without children or single mothers. From 1985 to 1991, only 3.8 percent of migrants were women. However, from 1992 to 1998, 27 percent of the migrant flow was comprised of women, and from 1999 to 2006, women made up 30 percent of the flow.

The peso devaluation coincided with a steady ramp-up of Border Patrol presence on the US-Mexico border, as discussed in Chapter 2. Before the mid-20003, it was not uncommon for unaccompanied men and women to circulate back and forth every three, four or five years. However, undocumented men and women with US-born children tended not to circulate in order to avoid detention at the border and jeopardizing their chances of reunifying with their children in the US. After the mid-2000s, the further militarization of the border (Lee, 2018; Slack, Martinez, Lee, & Whiteford, 2016) as well as the increase in interior detention and deportation (Cantor, Noferi, & Martinez, 2015), exacerbated the “bottling-up” effect, and reduced circularity and first migrations to the United States. Zapotitecos’ arrival after the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRC A) of 1986 ensured that they were locked out of virtually any path to recognition as legal immigrants.

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