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“In Zapotitlán, we won’t have to pay for so many things”: the Great Recession, return migration and social reproduction


[The United States] broke everything up and mined us. There are many abandoned families, women left by themselves. I have a house, but not a spouse. What's the point of having a house if the family has split up?

(Karina, 50 years old, Zapotitlán Salinas, February 2012)

For me, the United States has taken away half of my family ... but I think it has given me more than it has taken.

(Juana, 34 years old, Zapotitlán Salinas, June 2016)

This chapter explores how the Great Recession and new rounds of border militarization beginning in the mid-2000s shaped return migration to Zapotitlán. In Chapter 2, we presented household survey data demonstrating that, after 2007, fewer Zapotitecos/as migrated to the United States for the first time and more individuals returned to the village. These significant changes in mobility patterns raise a number of questions about the experiences of people along the transnational migrant circuit. Given the dismantling of rural economies in neoliberal Mexico (see Chapters 2, 3 and 4), why did some migrants return to Zapotitlán? Into what context did return migrants in the late 2000s and early 2010s reinsert socially and economically? Which migrants re-migrated to the United States and why? How did migrants and others make sense of these changes?

The economic and social context of Zapotitlán into which migrants returned can be conceptualized as a “remnant place;’’ anthropologist Gerald Sider’s reference to tural communities devastated by unfavorable terms of trade for commodities (Sider, 2006). Without commodity production or adequate subsistence production, such places are forced to export labor. Although migration may provide remittances and maintain a portion of the population in place, the social reproduction of the community becomes more uncertain. For the American and Canadian communities he analyzes, Sider argues that social reproduction becomes more dependent upon the state. In what follows, we explore how the state intervened in social reproduction and local development through a tourism project and how these processes played out in Zapotitecos/as’ lives. Credit from

Recession, return and social reproduction 133 different types of financial institutions mediated productive and reproductive relations in Zapotitlán, often in the form of microloans to stimulate women’s “empowerment.” Finally, we analyze if and how remittances played a role in social reproduction.

Focusing on return migration can be problematic because it invokes methodological nationalism. Analytical concerns switch from immigrants in destination countries to return migrants in places of origin. This simply reverses the direction of mobility and emphasizes the social and cultural differences among places. Methodological nationalism can reify dichotomous thinking: there/here, non-citizen/citizen, away from “home”/“home” (Schiller & Salazar, 2013). Thinking in terms of “remnant places,” however, maintains a holistic gaze on capitalism as a heterogeneous global system. Remnant places are not outside of capitalism. In fact, they are created through the uneven development processes inherent to it. Instead of dichotomies related to space and identity, we can think in terms of migrants—differentiated by class, gender, ethnicity, "illegality”— inserted into different assemblages of capitalist relations. In Chapter 4, we explained how economic and social relations in Zapotitlán were dismantled during successive waves of neoliberal policies. For migrants returning to the village after 2007, inserting themselves economically and socially into a remnant place like Zapotitlán was sometimes experienced as a refuge from "illegality” and the economic burdens associated with the high cost of living in a global city such as New York. However, insertion was shaped by a dearth of productive activities and fewer supports for social reproduction.

Maintaining a holistic gaze on capitalism as a heterogeneous global system can be extended to our conceptualizations of the relationships among production and social reproduction. As discussed in the introduction, social reproductive labor produces and reproduces labor-power, making it key to understanding the global economy. The multiple links among productive and social reproductive labor are important to keep in mind when considering migrants’ complex decision-making processes about mobility. These are rarely only about work, but involve important considerations related to social reproduction, such as where children should be educated and what family members need to be cared for and where. Gender traverses decisions about mobility because of how most social reproductive tasks are assigned to women in rural Mexico and female migrants in the United States.

The views posed by Karina and Juana at the beginning of the chapter hint at the immense cost of social reproduction for transnational families, often registered in the conflicts and tensions that traversed relationships among family members. After many years of separation from her spouse and children, Karina poses a powerful critique of the association of “progress” with migration. In Juana’s case, we want to understand under what circumstances losing half of one’s family could be compensated through migration. These considerations of migration provide glimpses into the difficulties of social reproduction for a mobile working class formed from the devastation of rural economies. By situating trajectories of migration and return within the frameworks of class and gender, the chapter explores the selectivity of return and long-term prospects for remaining in Mexico.

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