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The “flexibility” of deteriorated bodies: return migration, illness and injury

Hit by cars while delivering food on bicycles, venous ulcers in legs caused by standing too much during shifts, and the accumulation of stress from fast-paced restaurant work were some of the ways that Zapotitecos/as’ bodies and psyches were damaged during the flexible work regimes common to undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York.10 Five of 31 migrants returned because their poor health did not allow them to keep working. Return migration as a result of stress symptoms among restaurant workers may have increased during the crisis

Recession, return and social reproduction 137 as restaurant managers reduced the number of personnel and increased the workload of remaining workers in an effort to cut operation costs. “Illegality” complicated work-related injuries because undocumented workers did not receive sick or vacation days during which they might have recuperated. Furthermore, they generally lacked access to state-sponsored health services except for emergency care. This made it difficult for workers to be treated for chronic health conditions (mental or physical) resulting from workplace conditions.

Ursula: “I didn’t want to go back. I had nothing to go back to”

After finishing middle school, Ursula worked in a garment factory in Zapotitlan. Four years later, when she turned 20, she married a Zapotiteco and left for New York with him, a few months before the September 11th attacks. They lived with her husband's brother, his wife and their two small children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She found work in a Dominican restaurant busing tables and remained there for six months until she became pregnant with her first child. A year after that child’s birth, she became pregnant again. After their second child was born, the couple was in need of additional space to accommodate their growing family. They moved into an apartment a few blocks away. Ursula’s sister arrived from Mexico to take care of the children and Ursula went to work at the same restaurant-bar as her husband to help make ends meet. Together, they began their shift after the establishment closed at 3:00 am, cleaning and stocking until noon when it opened again for business. With both of them working, they were able to afford the apartment, childcare and basic necessities. They sent money to her husband’s parents in Zapotitlan who supervised the construction of a house and storefront on the main highway through town and another house and storefront near the town’s baseball field. Her husband’s goal was to return to Zapotitlan and start a restaurant and convenience store. These businesses, he believed, would support their family in the town and he would not have to migrate in the future.

Unlike her husband who saw the family's future in Zapotitlan, Ursula was happy in New York where she was able to count on her sister’s help with childcare and the children were enrolled in preschool at no charge and had access to health care at virtually no cost. This was especially important because her second child developed asthma and required constant medical treatment.11 Like many immigrant women with children in the United States, Ursula promoted her family’s settlement through the utilization of public assistance and development of community ties (Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997).

My husband had his parents in Zapotitlan and he wanted to come back to see them. I thought, no, I didn't want to go back, I had nothing to go back to. Over there [in New York] I had my children and my siblings. I would talk with them and visit them. I had my sister there, too. We spent lots of time together. We were always together. I felt complete there.

(Ursula, 30 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, June 2011)

When Ursula became pregnant with her third child, she stopped working. Her husband, who worked every day to cover household expenses in New York and save to build houses and start a business back in Zapotitlan, experienced high levels of stress. He felt the stress more acutely when Ursula stopped working and they were forced to make do with a single salary. Ursula tried to convince him to take a few days off work to recuperate. However, like most undocumented migrants, his employer offered no paid vacation or sick days.12

I told him many times: “take a week off so you can recuperate” or “take two days off.” He said: “we are not going to stay here. I do not want to be here. I want to leave. If I stop work, I will earn less.” He didn’t want to rest because he said that the more he worked, the faster we would be able to return [to Zapotitlan].

(Ursula, 30 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, June 2011)

Ursula was unable to convince her husband to take time off. The grueling work routine took its toll. Sick from stress, Ursula’s husband returned with Ursula and the children to Zapotitlan in 2007. The family’s return was not precipitated by the Great Recession but draws attention to a “crisis” of a different sort: the unwillingness of a society to provide adequate health care for workers, especially “illegal,” racialized minorities. “Illegality,” a crucial element in the construction of a transnational working class, conditioned both the work-induced stress and the limited options for treatment of illness.

Upon arrival, the couple opened a restaurant in the village with savings and loans from family members. However, after a few months, they closed it because they did not have enough clientele. In a town of under 3,000 people, the local market was quickly saturated with restaurants and convenience stores, the most common family businesses. These tended to fail in the first year.

Six months after returning to Zapotitlan, Ursula’s husband re-migrated to New York to pay the debt the couple acquired opening the restaurant and to send remittances to pay for the day-to-day expenses of their family. Her husband believed it would be less stressful for him to maintain the family in Mexico. Ursula resigned herself to this decision, knowing that while her children could move freely back and forth across the border, she and her husband would not be able to securely settle long-term in the United States because of their "illegal” status. The prospect of having to cross and return again was daunting. She explained: “I brought them back [to Zapotitlan]. They adapted. After, they would have to adapt again [to New York] and then return and begin again here? It’s a lot. I feel a little more settled here. I don't want to go [to New York] again.”

Although she felt settled in Zapotitlan, Ursula was not convinced that the family was better off in the village. By switching from a family migration pattern to a military-style, male sojourner pattern, the family had fewer expenses in New York. However, Ursula’s partner's remittances and the small earnings she received from the convenience store barely covered medical costs, school fees, food and clothing for their three young boys.13

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