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Accelerated migration and US insertion: fragmented, heterogeneous class subjects

In the 1980s, people didn’t have the American Dream here. We didn’t even think about it. When Luis [the first migrant from Zapotitlan] left and people began to talk about New York, then the worm got into us, and we started thinking about going to New York. Then the rock ran out, production stopped and the local economy went bad.

(Pedro, Zapotitlan Salinas)

In the framework of the broad transition from Fordist to flexible accumulation since the 1980s, the Mexican state, under the pressure of the United States (Harvey, 2003), embraced neoliberal policies that dismantled life conditions in rural areas such as Pahuatlan and Zapotitlan (Binford, 2013, pp. 47^18). Surplus populations filled the ranks of the accelerated migratory flows from Central Mexico to the East Coast of the United States. These emerged in the last two decades of the twentieth cenmry, contributing to unprecedented levels of Mexican migration to the United States. Migrants were absorbed into restructured zones of Nuevo New South and New York City, relaunched through foreign and domestic capital investments.

The flows after IRCA, the last amnesty, comprised a new migratory regime marked by “illegality” (De Genova, 2005), reclassifying undocumented immigrants and subordinating them to a lower-class position vis-a-vis other “unskilled” workers. Their condition of deportability cheapened the value of their labor-power, rendering them suitable for the low wages and precarious work conditions that characterized the offerings at the bottom of the labor markets in the United States. By using the notion of accelerated migration, we linked the relationship between the speed of transitions in migration dynamics and the changes in the pattern of accumulation that led to an increased demand for cheap, disciplined and disorganized workers.

The feminization of migration, that is, the growing presence and visibility of women in these migratory flows who took jobs in domestic work, cleaning services and alongside men in restaurants, was one dimension of the feminization of work more generally (Archer, 2013; Oso & Ribas-Mateos, 2013; Verschuur, 2013). These processes responded to deindustrialization and the growth of the service sector in the United States, a sector that required individuals—women and men—who could be molded into workers willing to accept the long-hours, always-available, invisibilized dimensions of feminized work (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2007). The insertion of Pahuatecan and Zapotitecan women and men as flexible workers reflected the reorganization of the international division of labor in the current accumulation regime.

In our research, we documented the selectivity of migration from the 1980s up to the mid-2000s, identifying the overlap of several forms of mobility that characterized the new migratory regime. A Fordist, “military model of migration” that dispatched mostly married men, with or without papers, to the United States to work in agriculture and manufacturing, gave way to a mobility pattern under flexible accumulation of single women with or without dependents, a pattern that overlapped with the migration of young couples with or without children. The hardening of immigration policies prompted the loss of circularity of migration flows and longer periods of residence in the United States. Consequently, they acquired the profile of settlement migrations. Like Lucia (Chapter 3) and Ursula (Chapter 6), the mother-worker-undocumented subject emerged in this rapid transition from a circular migration to a temporary settlement migration, resulting in the formation of families integrated by couples at the beginning of their demographic cycle and binational households. As with men, capital covets women as a cheap, disciplined and disorganized labor force and, at the same time, an object of persecution and deportation due to then migratory status.

We considered how production and social reproduction articulated in the shaping of these subjects, in order to highlight tensions with which migrants constantly straggle. For example, in their attempt to make effective their children's citizenship rights, these female workers underscore their identities as mothers in their claims and “immediate straggles” (Narotzky & Smith, 2006) in different circuits of reproduction—schools, clinics, hospitals, churches and nonprofit organizations. These straggles can eventually become what Fraser calls “boundary straggles”:

Especially in periods of crises, social actors straggle over the boundaries delimiting economy from society, production from reproduction, and work from family—and sometimes succeed in redrawing them. Such boundary straggles ... are as central to capitalist societies as the class straggles analyzed by Marx.

(Fraser, 2017, p. 25)

Although migrant mothers consider their claims for their children’s recognition— their potential boundary straggles—as legitimate, they are forced to hide due to their condition of "unwanted foreigners” (Luibheid, Andrade & Stevens, 2018; Oboler, 2014; Smith & Winders, 2007). The conceptualization of these mother-worker-immigrants as secondary contributors to the reproduction of their households compounds their official exclusion from US society. In this logic of hiding their condition as workers yet making visible their identities as mothers, we discover the effects of the hyper-masculinization of the category of class, on the one hand, and, on the other, the hyper-feminization of the category of gender (Bettie, 2003).

By following women like Gilda (Chapter 4)—single mother, industrial homeworker in Zapotitlan, elderly care worker and restaurant worker in New York— and Elena (Chapters 3 and 5)—who cobbled together part-time jobs caring for children, in manufacturing and in restaurants—we hope to have demonstrated that women, along with men, are class subjects (Bettie, 2003). While the women’s labor and migration trajectories demonstrate the ways in which flexibility, precarity and disposability traverse their working lives on both sides of the border, they also show how they have moved through different class positions with respect to the wage relationship. Carolina’s (Chapter 4) labor providing childcare in her home for other immigrant women “liberated” other motherworkers for New York’s service economy (Colen, 1995). Lucia (Chapter 3) lost her job and separated from her violent partner during the worst years of the crisis. In exchange for food and a small stipend, she cleaned, cooked and cared for her sister’s children. Few scholars have appreciated this work, veiled by kinship, friendship and shared nationality, as a significant contribution to production and reproduction, particularly when it is naturalized as simply an extension of a maternal instinct of care (for an exception see Fernández-Kelly & García, 1990). The heterogeneity of the working classes under flexible accumulation (Carbonella & Kasmir, 2014), therefore, was not only marked by gender and migratory status, but was also manifest in the micro-differentiations of women’s variable position vis-a-vis the wage relationship and formal and informal work.

The analysis illuminated migrants’ discourses about “deservingness” and the right to belong, closely linked to forms of self-exploitation. In Chapter 4, we discussed the forms of discipline that traverse gendered, “illegal” subjects laboring as restaurant workers, domestics and garment factory workers. Gilda (Chapter 4) and others extolled the virtues of their abilities to work hard and autonomously. The desire for autonomy forms part of the construction of a neoliberal, flexible worker who is continually working on herself to produce more, faster and better. We view this discourse as a way to make oneself visible through a moral claim of belonging and recognition that extolls pride in one’s hard work, notwithstanding one’s “illegal” status.

Likewise, the mother-worker-undocumented migrant (Chapter 3) claims her moral right to belong through the labor she performs for her US-born children. These women remind us that they are not “abusing the system” because their contribution to the reproduction of their children is “discounted” from their paychecks. This ambiguous discourse comes from their subject position as mothers of native-born children. These discourses protect undocumented Pahuatecos/as and Zapotitecos/as from the insults and injuries acquired from those who discredit them as cheap, racialized “others” through quotidian horizontal and vertical racism (Lefevbre, 2011, p. 259) they experience in the workplace and on the street. In a paradoxical manner, these subjects have internalized the idea that they are not deserving of citizenship or social protections. Rather, they deserve a meager salary and nothing more. The self-exploited being is "free” to improve, attempting to reach an always-receding finish line measuring greater levels of production. This represents a more efficient form of subjectification and subjugation, because the class straggle turns inward. The subject straggles against her/himself (Chan, 2017). Collective class straggle is abandoned and replaced

Crisis and transnational working classes 161 by a repressive individualism in which problems are internalized and can only be resolved by the individual working on him or herself. Women and men hope their work will advance their children’s mobility. However, the undocumented men and women we interviewed consider themselves responsible, to some extent, for their “illegality.” For these reasons, Pahuatecos/as and Zapotitecos/ as, as fragmented, heterogeneous subjects, are hardly able to articulate a class identity and recognize themselves in the struggles of workers against capital. Job loss, cutbacks in working hours, growing deportation threats and detentions in the interior of the country further disciplined those who managed to stay during the crisis.

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