Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Carla: economic crisis and competition among low-waged workers

In 2002, Carla left Zapotitlan with her husband and one-and-a-half-year-old son. They settled into an apartment in the Bronx which they shared with her husband’s extended family. With the certification of a completed beauty course from an esthetician school in Tehuacan, Carla found work in a nail salon in Manhattan where she made about US$280 per week, including tips, a salary far below minimum wage.5 Her husband, who had been to New York a few times previously, worked in a pizzeria earning USS500 weekly. While this salary may have been above minimum wage, their combined salaries did not cover their basic expenses. They did not represent a living wage for New York City.6 Until their son was old enough to go to school, they paid a babysitter US$20 per day to care for him. When he was older, either his dad would pick him up from school and take him home to the apartment or, more frequently, he would sit in the salon until his mother finished work.

In early 2007, the couple decided to have another child. They moved into a larger apartment paying considerably more—US$750 per month for rent. Their growing family needed more space and privacy. In late 2007, Carla’s hours were cut back because fewer clients came into the salon in the fall and winter months. After she had the baby in early 2008, she stayed home to care for the infant. A few months later, her husband quit his job at the pizzeria when his employer reduced his salary to equal that of a Guatemalan co-worker. Carla described her husband’s frustration:

So [my husband] said, “Well, if [the Guatemalan worker] can do it [for 400 dollars per week], let him do it!” So my husband left the job. But I told him, “Look, you didn't have work for a month, so maybe ... (she doesn’t finish the thought).” But it wasn't fair for him! He said: “Look, if they now give me 400 dollars [per week], how am I going to say “yes” for 400 dollars if I work from 5 am to 3 pm?”

(Carla, 29 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, June 2011)

Indignant, and unwilling to work for less pay, her husband searched for another job for several months but without success. The couple soon felt the pressures of mounting debt. Carla explained: “So, we said, 'Well, in Zapotitlan, we won’t have much of an income, but we won’t have to pay rent. We won’t have to pay for so many things.’ ”

Carla’s husband’s inability to find another job was most likely related to the contraction of the economy during the Great Recession. The unemployment rate in New York City rose sharply from 5.6 percent in 2008 to 9.3 percent in 2009, and it remained elevated through 2010 (9.5 percent) and 2011 (9.1 percent).7-8

The jobs held by Zapotitecos/as in New York’s service industry did not meet living wage standards, relegating the majority of them to a position at or near the poverty threshold. Without work and with an infant and young child to care for, Carla and her husband returned to the village hoping to relieve themselves of debts they would not be able to pay. Although they had not saved money to build a house in the village, they had managed to save enough to buy a bus to shuttle townspeople back and forth between Zapotitlan and Tehuacan. Carla’s husband drove the bus virtually every day to pay for food, health care and education costs back in Zapotitlan where they lived with Carla’s family. She lamented the high costs of health care in Mexico, especially with respect to treating her son’s asthma and the cost of her third child’s birth in Zapotitlan.9 These costs had been covered by the public health insurance plan in New York City.

Given her husband’s low income, the couple would take a long time to construct a house in Zapotitlan, but on the upside, Carla felt relatively settled there. Eventually, her eldest son adjusted to school and improved his Spanish, and his coordination and physical strength improved because he was able to play outside more. Did she want to go back to the United States? “I think we have adjusted to living here. I would like to go back, but just thinking about not being able to take my children, or that I would have to go alone, I lose interest.”

Only one of Carla's three children was a US citizen. Despite her interest in returning to work, she did not want to subject her non-US citizen children to a dangerous clandestine border crossing. She also did not want to be in New York without them. The ability to stay with her children in Mexico was supported by her husband’s steady employment as a bus driver. Carla and her husband were among the very small number of migrants who managed to live from selfemployment in the village. Ursula and Beatriz’s experiences, discussed below, were more typical of the difficulties associated with productive investments and self-employment for return migrants in Zapotitlan.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics