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Crisis, return and social reproduction

When we started our field trips in the municipality of Pahuatlan in 2007, researching the impact of migration in educational trajectories, residents believed that migration to the United States was over. Bad news spread regarding job loss in the construction sector in North Carolina, the primary destination of Pahuatecans. Some were returning or had stopped going altogether and, furthermore, a few had been deported. In 2010, we started a new project on return migration in the area. We tried to find out whether remittances had decreased due to job loss, how many people returned, and who returned. We investigated how these populations were remade in an environment where well-founded fears spread about how things could get worse both for Pahuatecan families that depended directly on the dollar salaries of absent providers, and for other segments indirectly benefiting from these remittances (cfr. Chapter 6 of this volume).

At the same time, the fieldwork carried out in Durham in 2013 and 2014 allowed us to realize that the impacts of the recession on Pahuatecan immigrants and their families in both countries lasted beyond July 2009, when the crisis was officially over. As part of our research, we interviewed men who went back to Pahuatlan during those difficult years, by themselves or with their wives and children. They stated that the main reasons for going back to Mexico included pay cuts and job loss in the construction sector in North Carolina and other neighboring states where they sought work (South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Florida). In addition, the impossibility of renewing their driver’s licenses, due to greater restrictions imposed on undocumented immigrants (Gill, 2010; Griesbach, 2011) affected the routines of these illegalized, flexible and hypermo-bile construction workers. Twenty-seven-year-old Roberto managed to attain the coveted position of subcontractor and oversaw the mobilization of a crew of undocumented immigrants, although he was still an ilegal (illegal). He alluded, as did almost every returnee we interviewed, to the effects of the crisis. Mexican newcomers were to blame for the cheapening of labor-power in that sector:

In addition to the drop in employment, as time goes by, many people are coming. They come, they work for two, three years, I hired them. The mistake is that, in order to get the job, if I charged five thousand per house, they charged four thousand, then another one comes and charges three thousand, another comes and charges two thousand. In addition to the drop in employment, one keeps making it cheaper, which is what angers gringo workers the most. Because if they used to earn, let’s say, very cheap, ten dollars an hour, now we go and do their work for five dollars, and that angers them.

(Roberto, Pahuatlán de Valle, October 2008)

Unlike male returnees and those interviewed in Durham, allusions to the uncertainty exacerbated by the degradation of the reproductive conditions of households predominated in the stories of the women we interviewed. They spoke of debts and the difficulties they faced in paying rent, covering children’s expenses and sending money to their hometown. Those who stayed in North Carolina in 2013 and 2014 with children born in both countries were trapped in the predicament of returning to Mexico or staying in a country where they were defined by a paradoxical condition: even if they were mothers of citizens, they themselves lacked that status.

Among them is Julia, 40 years old, married to a Pahuatecan construction worker, and mother of three adolescent daughters. Her eldest was born in Mexico and she crossed the border with her parents when she was very young. In 2013, the family was still living in Durham even though Rafael, the father, had lost his job in 2008. When we interviewed Julia, she told us with a hint of grief about the difficult situation her family was still going through since the height of the crisis. Her eldest daughter was paid to look after an elderly woman but lacked work benefits. The youngest daughters, although they continued their high school studies, took low-wage jobs during the holidays to earn some pocket money. The house, the furniture and household goods showed signs of decay. Their deteriorating condition would not likely return to the favorable conditions that prevailed during the construction boom. In those years, Julia’s family managed to celebrate their daughter’s 15th birthday along with many guests. Photos of those times reflected the satisfaction of their aspirations. Julia and her niece Adriana, who we referred to in Chapter 3, a fellow survivor of the crisis still living in Durham in a mixed-status household, spoke of the damages and the attempts to mitigate them.

Work became very scarce in those years! We had to borrow money at the financial institution. When we arrived, lots of people were eager to buy gold. Back then we bought it for about ten dollars per gram and when I pawned it, in 2008, at the pawn shop, they paid me 18, 20 dollars per gram. That was a good investment! We paid the rent with that, the person renting us the house waited for up three, four months, and we paid this person little by little until we finished paying.

(Julia, Durham, NC, October 2013)

The effects were multiple and uneven. They were visible not only in the rise of inequality regarding proprietary classes but also in the growth of differences between migrant workers, with or without papers, and their citizen counterparts. It was a heavy blow to workers’ faith in legal documentation as the key for enjoying, albeit with many sacrifices, the life standards of middle classes in the United States. Neither Adriana nor Julia were able to understand why the crisis had also ruined many immigrants with legal status and many years of living in the US, thwarting their aspirations of social mobility by destroying the control on the livelihoods they had worked so hard to gain. The crisis also instilled new fears about the medium-term future of their families in that country. It did so by wrapping these migrants who hoped to remove their children from poverty in the elusive mysteries of mortgages and other credit instrnments of financial capital that, behind their promises of salvation, hid unsuspected risks and new forms of dispossession (Harvey, 2004).

We have Mexican friends that are American citizens already and that, at that time, when the crisis came, had already been living for about ten, eleven years in their homes and lost them because they couldn’t afford them. They filed for bankruptcy. We were all affected by the crisis, not only us [undocumented Mexicans]. But, obviously, citizens, where were they supposed to go if they are Mexican-American citizens? Many people opted for going back to their countiy, but they come back again, or the husband comes back and the wife stays there.

(Adriana, Durham, NC, October 2013)

The women's bewilderment at the failure of legal migration status and citizenship to “save” families during the crisis was intertwined with allusions to the collapse of their life conditions during those years. The crisis of 2008-2009 triggered improvised family arrangements and the selective return to Mexico. We tried to untangle these complications by focusing not only on the site of the production of goods and the insertion of these cheap workers in the deindustrialized US economy, but also by broadening our gaze to the space of labor-power (reproduction. In such a space, gendered and racialized activities and relationships proliferate, oriented to maintaining life and developing human potentialities mainly, but not only, in the family and kinship arenas.

Focusing on the reorganization of social reproduction activities entails recognizing the inhumanity of the processes that produce differences between working classes (Carbonella & Kasmir, 2015). Such differences are amplified in moments of crisis in their articulation with gender, race and ethnic formations, as shown in Roberto’s aforementioned testimony, by blaming Mexican workers for the collapse of the construction industry. Indeed, in the junctures where subaltern classes are remade, competition emerges between natives and non-natives for the available jobs. This situation enables “[...] capitalists to maintain wage discipline and to inhibit working-class solidarity by means of the application of a logic of divide and rale” (Farris, 2019, p. 124). A straggle ensues between different segments, previously produced as different—in both countries under the same capitalist logic—even before they reach the competitive labor market in the United States (Bhattacharya, 2019, p. 117). The deepening of those differences was one of the outcomes of the 2007-2009 crisis. While some were expelled, thrown again to segments of the relative surplus populations, others managed to overcome the storm with varied costs. In the following section, we turn our attention to unraveling the selectivity of return and discussing how gender intervenes in shaping these experiences in which working classes are remade.

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