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“Learn how to sew so you can get a job”: Zapotitecas and labor market insertion in New York

The first migrants from Zapotitlan arrived in New York beginning in 1984 and settled in the Soundview, Parkchester and Castle Hill sections of the Bronx, as discussed in Chapter 2. Most migrants found work through their relatives and friends from Zapotitlan. Occasionally they used temporary agencies or worked as equineros, day laborers gathered on street corners (esquinos in Spanish) waiting to be hired. Others resorted to being esquineros on a part-time basis to find work on their days off from their regular jobs.

Results from the Ethnosurvey administered to a 25 percent sample of households in Zapotitlan6 showed that of 156 migrant men on their first migration, 138 (88 percent) worked in New York City and Spring Valley (a suburb of the city).

The remaining individuals were scattered among California (Los Angeles and Monterey), Chicago, Tennessee, Atlanta, Florida and Texas. Of the 138 in New York, 74 (54 percent) worked in restaurants, 33 (24 percent) worked in services (supermarkets, convenience stores and carwashes), and 12 (9 percent) worked in construction. The percentages of workers in each category did not change significantly from first migration to last migration, the only two moments registered in the survey with respect to employment information.

Of 47 female migrants, 42 (89 percent) worked in New York City and Spring Valley and the remaining women lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania during their first migration. Of the 42 in New York, 11 (26 percent) worked in private homes as caretakers or domestics, seven (17 percent) worked in beauty salons, six (14 percent) in dry cleaning or clothing factories, five (12 percent) in restaurants, and four (10 percent) in supermarkets and other retail establishments. Only four (10 percent) reported that they were homemakers and not looking for paid work. The vast majority of women who migrated to the US from Zapotitlan were wage earners. The sample size of women with a last migration was too small to draw any conclusions about changes in occupation between first and last migration.

Conditioned by the legal construction of their personhood as “illegal aliens,” undocumented men and women toiled long hours, in dangerous and taxing conditions for meager wages. Despite the value they created for small and mediumsized firms in the city, they remained officially invisible. Usually paid in cash, no official record existed of migrant workers’ individual contributions. They remained permanently excluded from the social protections that citizens and some legal immigrants enjoyed.

Eva: garment factories in New York and tristeza (sadness)

By 1988, the first woman from Zapotitlan left for New York. Eva, a single mother, traveled regularly to Tijuana, a northern border city, to sell onyx and embroidered blouses. She had learned to embroider in a course given to women in the village. Once they had gained the necessary skills, garment workshop owners from a nearby town subcontracted women in Zapotitlan as home workers to embroider blouses. Eva, along with other men and women from the region, sold the blouses in tourist destinations throughout the country. In Tijuana, she could see the fence that marked la linea (the border) between the two countries and told others that one day she might go to New York. Everyone cautioned her that it would be too dangerous for an unaccompanied woman. However, Eva thought about building a house that would be better than the wood shack she shared with her daughter.

On one of her trips to Tijuana, she crossed over into San Diego with the help of a smuggler and then flew to New York. Four male relatives from Zapotitlan, already established in New York, helped pay her way. Because she knew how to sew, she found work immediately in a garment factory owned by a Korean woman.7 She worked nine hours per day, Monday through Saturday for US$210 (USS3.88/hour, slightly above the federal minimum wage of USS3.35/hour in the 1980s).

After five months in New York, four other women from Zapotitlán arrived, inspired by Eva’s success. Three of them found work in the same garment factory. After several months, she moved to another factory owned by a Dominican man and made US$230 each week for the same number of hours. Whenever women told her they were going to go to New York, she responded: "Fine, go, but learn how to sew first so that you get a job.” (Eva, 55 years old, Zapotitlán Salinas, September 2003). Eva’s insistence on women acquiring sewing skills before they migrated lends weight to the idea that women from Zapotitlán migrated primarily to work and not as dependents on male relatives.

New York's garment industry had always relied on immigrant workers and their children as an essential labor source. Their lack of social capital restricted their flight into more remunerative labor markets. As a result, new waves of immigrants were required to replenish workers who either aged out of work or found better jobs after a period of acculturation and incorporation (Waldinger & Lapp, 1992). While the industry declined in the decades after World War II, immigrants from Latin America and Asia established themselves by opening small factories that were contracted by larger garment manufacturing firms. Smaller firms, headed mostly by immigrants, were well-suited to recruiting labor from immigrant communities and, therefore, adapted more easily to changing production conditions, characteristics which explain their relative success in a competitive industry (Waldinger, 1984).

Immigrants from Mexico, like Eva, furnished the low-waged labor required by small immigrant-owned firms in New York. She evaluated her meager wages and difficult working conditions (as did other immigrant laborers) by relying on a dual frame of reference, that is, with reference to worse conditions in their home countries (Waldinger, 1984, p. 104; Waldinger & Lichter, 2003, p. 40). Meager wages and difficult working conditions are understood by Mexican immigrants in relation to Mexican wages and working conditions shaped by the neoliberal dismantling of livelihoods in rural areas (Binford, 2009). For Eva, working in a sweatshop in New York presented one of the only paths to “acquire the income necessary for a minimally dignified life” (Binford, 2009, p. 505) given the increasing precarity and informalization of work in rural Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s.

After a few months working in the second garment factory, Eva was overcome with “tristeza” (sadness). The months-long separation from her daughter took an emotional toll, and she had to take frequent bathroom breaks, a symptom of her worsening diabetic condition. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to continue working at the required speed in the garment factory. While Eva told me that she decided to leave voluntarily when she became sick, it is not uncommon for operators to be forced to leave, under more or less direct pressure, when they do not make production quotas because of illness or injury (Fernández-Kelly, 1983, pp. 113-114; Wright, 2006, pp. 33—42).

Melissa Wright’s elegant analysis of the myth of the third-world disposable woman explains how the myth naturalizes the deterioration of women’s bodies through factory work. Women's bodies become a form of industrial waste that will necessarily and inevitably be disposed of and replaced. “The myth explains this unlucky fate as a factual outcome of natural and cultural processes that are immune to external tampering” (Wright, 2006, p. 2). Although women produce enormous value, they do so through their own destruction. When Eva could no longer make the quota, she left her job and joined a Pentecostal church where she received food baskets in return for her volunteer work. A parishioner hired her as a nanny to care for her two children for US$130 per week. This represented a substantial reduction in pay; however, the “lighter” working conditions made it easier for her to manage her diabetes. Eva, like Maria (mentioned above) and Gilda (discussed below) found “refuge” from the bodily wear and tear of manual jobs in remunerated reproductive work in private homes.

After a year and a half in New York, Eva returned to Mexico. With the money she had saved from working in the US, she built a small house in Tehuacan and almost finished another in Zapotitlan. Eva was satisfied with what she had accomplished by migrating: “I never finished my house, but at least I have a solid house of cement. I wanted to go back a few years later with my daughter, but because my health got worse, I had to resign myself to the house that I had.”

Her sister, however, commented that Eva came back worn out (acabada) from working long hours and being away from home, attributing the wasting from Eva’s diabetes to the experience of migration (see Chapter 6 for more discussion about return migration and illness). She complained that Eva returned without “doing anything” (no hizo nada), that is, without permanently improving her living conditions. She implied that Eva’s trip had not been worth the heartache of separation and the wear on her body.

Powerful tropes among villagers establish normative behavior that disciplines migrants. “Legitimate” reasons to leave the village include the goal to “salir adelante,” to progress and improve living conditions. This process entails hard work and sacrifice, both in terms of suffering in the United States as well as the suffering of family members from separation (Abrego, 2014). Because there is much at stake, the sacrifice must lead to success, measured primarily in terms of the amount of money migrants invest in regular remittances, clothing, housing, vehicles and, for a few, a business—all things that can be seen publicly and evaluated through gossip. If they cannot prove their success, migrants are subject to disqualifications. No hizo nada (he/she did not accomplish anything), anda perdido (he/she is lost i.e., in drugs, for example), dan lastima (he/she evokes pity) are some of the colloquial forms of these disqualifications. The constant evaluations of success and failure that circulate in the transnational migrant circuit act to shore up a normative discourse of the hard-working migrant, one that disciplines the population (Cordero Diaz, 2007).

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