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From about seven children per woman in 1960, the fertility rate in Mexico has dropped to about 2.6. Such changes are part of a larger transformation explored in this book, a richly detailed ethnographic study of generational and migration-related redefinitions of gender, marriage, and sexuality in rural Mexico and among Mexicans in Atlanta.
Introduction to a Transnational Community
When I arrived in April 1996, both Degollado and El Fuerte looked to me like little worlds unto themselves-sleepy places that could not be more different from the strip malls, trailer parks, and six-lane highways of suburban Atlanta. Over time I learned that the Mexican and U.S. field sites are intensely intertwined, and in fact some of those features that struck me as most strongly "Mexican" looking, such as the colonial-style sandstone details on the homes of some of the town's wealthier residents, date back not to Mexico's colonial past but rather to the more recent prosperity of migrant families. Migrant-sending communities in Mexico have been so profoundly transformed by migration that it is not possible to think about rural life in western Mexico without acknowledging the multiple interconnections with urban life in the United States. This chapter describes how individuals bridge the space that divides the two places to create a shared social life and gives some examples of how regional identity continues to be an organizing principle for Mexican women and men in Atlanta. I write in the present tense to give a sense of immediacy, but-as should become clear through the description itself-what follows is not a timeless portrait of life in Mexico but rather a snapshot taken at a particular historical moment.
I had been hearing about the fiestas since I first met women from this community in December 1995; people had been telling me all along how important it was that I be there to experience them, that the fiesta season is cuando se pone mas bonito el pueblo (the time when the town is at its nicest). My description makes clear that what I mean by a transnational community (a phrase that has been used in various ways) is one that spans physically distinct locations but that is closely linked through the movement of people and information, and one in which there is a broader sense of membership in a community that transcends physical borders.
CONSTRUCTING A TRANSNATIONAL COMMUNITY: EXPERIENCES OF CONNECTION
When, toward the end of my stay in Degollado, several people asked me how long I had been doing research in their community, I would begin to calculate the number of months I had been in Mexico: "April through July makes three," I would say, "and then mid-October through February is another four." Inevitably, they corrected me, dating the start of my work with the community to December 1995, when I first began interviewing women from El Fuerte and Degollado in Atlanta. Being "here with us" meant to them being part of the larger community of Mexicans from Degollado or El Fuerte. The annual fiestas in Degollado provide a fine example of the intensity of these cross-border ties and of the implications of these ties for daily life in rural Mexico. These fiestas, which locals experience as the paradigmatic celebration of their Mexican identity, owe much in texture and timing to the changing patterns of temporary and permanent migration between Mexican sending communities and the United States.
FIESTAS IN A TRANSNATIONAL COMMUNITY
Since early November this whole western-central region of Mexico has been abuzz with the excitement of the approaching fiestas, and with them the returning norteños. Their return portends both a busy season for local merchants and the changing gender ratios that usher in the start of the courting and wedding season. The cars and trucks are one of the first signs, rumbling into town with placas gringas (U.S. plates). Most are from Illinois and California, but Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia are also well represented. Large, full-size vans are the most popular-how else to fit all the presents one must bring home for one's family? There is also a fair share of extended-cab pickup trucks, some with chrome detailing and extra lamps on top; these trucks could carry a bull, several pigs, or 2 tons of bricks (or a whole extended family seated on folding chairs to a picnic in el cerro, the hills). Some of the younger men, the single ones, drive low-slung red or black Camaros with neon underlighting and shaded windows. (Not everyone drives home from the United States-especially those families with children in school, who are likely to stay just a week or two and who will take a bus or, if they can afford it, a plane. There are direct buses from Atlanta to La Piedad, twenty minutes from Degollado.)
Suddenly, everyone has new clothes. T-shirts and baseball hats from the Bulls or the Rams are coveted gifts, but any sports team, U.S. city, tourist attraction, or even company logo is warmly welcomed and proudly worn. At Mass on Sundays you can look around and see all the shiny new shoes and handbags. The norteños themselves, of course, are splendid in their new clothes: the men's attire crisply ironed, the women perfectly made up. Everyone exclaims over how white they have become in the North. Their hair seems glossier, free of the split ends caused by dust and heat and hard water. The ones who had been too skinny have put on weight, and the ones who were already healthy looking have become even more lleno/a (fuller, that is, heavier). Altogether, everyone comes back looking more compuesto/a (fixed up).
The taco wagons in the plaza multiply. During the rest of year they are only crowded on Sundays, but now there seems to be a throng around every wagon, every night. The cenadurias, tiny kitchens that sell sopes and pozole and fried tacos, spill their patrons out into the street. In the sleepy summer months the only men in the plaza during the day are old men on benches outside the church, whose cowboy hats shade eyes that inspect every passerby, but suddenly-even during the day-the plaza is full of young men. They luxuriate in the weak winter sun, so much warmer than where they have come from, and in the freedom of being able to sit in public and talk with their friends-of being able to sit down at all without looking over their shoulders for la migra.
Commerce hums. The market runs out of meat if one does not go early-who buys meat every day but los que traen dólares (those who carry dollars)? The bricklayers on the edge of town work in a frenzy; not only is the rainy season around the corner, but everyone who comes back wants his (or her) house finished, so they can't make bricks fast enough. The construction workers have more work than they can possibly manage, and the building supply stores are full of people busily getting estimates and placing orders. The mariachis and conjuntos who the rest of the year stand for hours in the plaza, waiting for someone rich enough or drunk enough to spend 50 pesos for a song, now never sit still. The store just outside the market that sells birria (spicy goat stew) opens every day instead of intermittently. The town's three travel agencies do brisk business, arranging family package vacations to the beach; later, in January and February, they will get even busier as people book their return trips. And dollars are everywhere; "A cuanto esta el dólar?" (How much is the dollar at?) echoes not just at the bank and the three casas de cambio but in stores throughout town, as men and women pull out wads of dearly earned, proudly spent bills. Like their families who cash money orders in increments of $50 or $100 the rest of the year, they hope the dollar is up, giving them more pesos-but also like their families they feel a touch of sadness or even a twinge of guilt when it rises, knowing that there are some in the town with no money orders or foreign checks to cash.
Even during the rest of the year, Sundays are different. Families ride in, packed in the back of pickup trucks, from the surrounding ranchos, to do their shopping and attend one of the five Masses offered that day in the main church on the plaza, or one of the several at the two churches in las colonias. Sunday morning the tianguis (flea market) sets up on one of the streets bordering the plaza, offering stall after stall of dishes, underwear, herbal remedies, clothes made in Mexico, America, or Southeast Asia, needlework, makeup, shoes and sneakers, and tapes and compact discs. Young girls invent errands, beg to take their grandmothers to Mass, or volunteer to go for the tortillas, desperate for an excuse to visit the plaza and the flea market.
Even on a regular Sunday in the middle of summer, the air is heavy with food smells, and people eat as they shop: sugar-coated peanuts; churros (caramel-filled fried donuts); popcorn; small plastic bags spilling over with chopped watermelon, cucumber, cantaloupe, mango, and papaya, with a squeeze of lime and heavy sprinkle of salt and ground chiles; hot dogs wrapped in bacon and fried, served on a bun with ketchup, mustard, and jalapeños in vinegar; tortas planchadas (grilled cheese and ham sandwiches). For families who can afford it, Sunday morning is not a time to cook; those who would rather eat at home scurry back with bags of steaming tacos de cabeza (tacos made from head meat), goat stew (not cheap at 40 pesos the kilo), or menudo (tripe and chile soup, excellent for taking the bite out of a hangover).
As midafternoon draws near, those from the ranchos tend to head back, their shopping done and their Mass finished (the Mass at noon is known as the misa del rancho). In spite of the exodus toward the ranchos, if anything the pace in town starts to pick up as dusk falls. The early evening Mass (at 7:30) is the misa de adolescentes, the teenagers' Mass. As the 7:30 Mass lets out, young single people flood out into the plaza to sit on the benches or to dar la vuelta (promenade around the plaza). Women walk counterclockwise, men clockwise. The young women tend to link arms or hold hands; men walk in groups of two or three, but without touching each other. In the past, people say, young men let their intentions be known via an elaborately coded courtship language of real and artificial flowers and confetti-filled eggs, but now (they say because of la crisis) exchanges are immaterial, though no less significant: a glance, a smile, perhaps a few words as they pass.
The air fills with nighttime smells: cologne, roasting green garbanzos and ears of corn, buñuelos (another fried pastry), tacos, and more bacon-wrapped hot dogs. In between the ringing bells before each Mass, one hears the throb of disco music from that den of iniquity, the disco, which most of the year opens only on Sunday nights but during the twelve days of the annual fiestas of the Virgin of Guadalupe (December 1-12) is open nightly. The crowd in the plaza thickens at 9:30 when the last Mass ends. Now there are no spaces to be found on the benches, and the paving stones are thick with the green shells of roasted garbanzos. At ten o'clock the streets clear of families and the noise dies down. Now is the time for married women, good girls (las recogidas), and young children to be safely home. Men, whether married or single, may stay out later. Some bad girls do too, because the disco continues until 1 or 2 in the morning.
So if the streets brim with excitement on Sundays in May or June, when the crops are just coming in; in the Salinas Valley and construction, landscaping, and paving are at their peak in Georgia, imagine Sundays in the winter. The bandshell, silent all year, fills with a group of local musicians courtesy of the mayor's office (which pleads poverty during the summer months, but coughs up the money in the winter to please the returning migrants). During the summer months, the line going counterclockwise (girls) is several times thicker than the one going in the other direction. The few boys who come to promenade in the summer are noticeably younger than most of the girls-that is, still too young to go north-but in November and December the boys' line and the benches around the plaza fill with new faces. Most of them of course are actually familiar faces, but with new clothes, pockets bulging with dollars, and chins smooth after a carefully done, though barely needed, shave. In the girls' line one sees teenagers but also women in their twenties, thirties, and even forties. Because some men go north and marry Mexicans from other towns, Chicanas, or even gringas, there is a sizable group of adult, unmarried women in town. Still technically muchachas, many of them put on heels and stockings and continue to optimistically dar la vuelta.
The return of these norteños ushers in courting season. Many men come back hoping to find a girlfriend; they are looking for a nice girl, one who expects to be respected. If all goes well, they can spend several months courting, talk on the phone weekly after he goes back north in January or February, and then marry the following year. Young women dress with care for these crucial Sundays. Some wear the latest fashions from the United States (during my fieldwork, clunky black shoes, low-slung baggy pants, and midriff-baring tops), but it is not uncommon to see muchachas in off-the-shoulder, ankle-length velvet, taffeta, or sequined dresses. (A bridesmaid dress can live a long life in this part of the world.) The more sophisticated girls from the pueblo mock those in long dresses, choosing instead suits in printed rayon fabrics, copied from designs in K-Mart, Sears, and J. C. Penney catalogs sent from the other side.
November is also wedding season; young men who have worked hard all year come back prepared for a splendid wedding, with mariachis and carnitas (tender, deep-fried pork meat) and then a honeymoon at the beach. Several times a day on Sundays in November, December, and January, a bride and groom brave a torrent of flying rice to leave the church. Sometimes the couple pauses for photos outside the church, interrupted by clapping and shouts of "beso, beso" (kiss) from the gathered crowd (they do not kiss in church in this part of Mexico; it would be disrespectful). Then the newlyweds hop into their heavily decorated wedding car and lead a parade of cars through the town streets, beeping their horns and driving in circles, until they can be sure that enough guests will have arrived at the party so they can make a grand entrance (see Photo 2.1). (Between wedding processions and norteños showing off their cars, traffic gets so heavy this time of year in Degollado that the police make several normally two-way streets one way, to lessen the possibility of serious accidents and relieve congestion.)
Excerpted from A Courtship after Marriage by Jennifer S. Hirsch Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
List of Tables
2. "Here with Us":
Introduction to a Transnational Community
3. From Respeto (Respect) to Confianza (Trust): Changing Marital Ideals
4. "Ya No Somos Como Nuestros Papas" (We Are Not Like Our Parents):
Companionate Marriage in a Mexican Migrant Community
5. Representing Change: A Methodological Pause to Reflect
6. "En el Norte la Mujer Manda" (
In the North, the Woman Gives the Orders):
How Migration Changes Marriage
Intimacy in Mexican Companionate Marriages
8. Fertility Decline, Contraceptive Choice,
and Mexican Companionate Marriages