Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants

Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants

by Abigail Leslie Andrews

Hardcover(First Edition)

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In 2018, more than eleven million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States. Not since slavery had so many U.S. residents held so few political rights. Many strove tirelessly to belong. Others turned to their homelands for hope. What explains their clashing strategies of inclusion? And how does gender play into these fights?
Undocumented Politics offers a gripping inquiry into migrant communities’ struggles for rights and resources across the U.S.-Mexico divide. For twenty-one months, Abigail Andrews lived with two groups of migrants and their families in the mountains of Mexico and in the barrios of Southern California. Her nuanced comparison reveals how local laws and power dynamics shape migrants’ agency. Andrews also exposes how arbitrary policing abets gendered violence. Yet she insists that the process does not begin or end in the United States. Rather, migrants interpret their destinations in light of the hometowns they leave behind. Their counterparts in Mexico must also come to grips with migrant globalization. And on both sides of the border, men and women transform patriarchy through their battles to belong. Ambitious and intimate, Undocumented Politics reveals how the excluded find space for political voice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520299962
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/21/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Abigail Leslie Andrews is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

Read an Excerpt


Legacies of (In)Equity

For most of the twentieth century, villagers in Partida and Retorno lived by growing corn. Neither hometown had roads, let alone electricity or running water. Only one in four people owned shoes, and less than 20 percent could read. To access urban markets or schools, Carmen's and Alma's parents had to walk for two or three days through the mountains. The Oaxacan government neglected such villages almost entirely. As long as the pueblos delivered votes to the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI; Institutional Revolutionary Party), they were free to run their own affairs. In principle, indigenous people followed the customary system of communal governance known as Usos y Costumbres. In practice, men ruled, blocking women from voting or holding property and demanding that they ask their husbands' permission to leave the house. In some villages, including Retorno, a few men took over the local government, using their power for personal gain.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, labor recruiters came to Oaxaca. In the state of Sinaloa, 1,300 miles to the north, Mexico had begun building a vast, new agroindustry, whose growers needed cheap labor (see map at front). Recruiters trekked into Oaxaca to tap its isolated, indigenous population. They promised the peasants cash advances and double or triple the wages earned at home. As Mexico urbanized, demand for urban service workers soared as well. Oaxacans began to leave for such paid work. By the 1980s pioneer migrants from both Partida and Retorno had gone on to California, almost universally crossing the border without legal authorization. By the 1990s almost 90 percent of the villages' migrants were headed, undocumented, for the United States.

Though farm recruiters came to both villages, they got little traction in Partida. Instead, people from Partida held out for urban jobs. They became servants in middle-class homes in Oaxaca. They cleaned houses in Mexico City. Eventually, they found themselves in Los Angeles. Instead of traveling as families, most left as young people, alone, in search of opportunities before they settled down. More than half were women.

In contrast, Mixtec families poured into farmwork. By the 1970s Alma, her parents, and three-quarters of Retorno were making a yearly trek to the tomato fields in Sinaloa. Winters they worked; summers they came back to the village. From Sinaloa, labor contractors drew them farther north, funneling them into the hostile, rural area of North County San Diego. In Mexico, women and children had worked alongside the men. Yet when men from Retorno went on to the United States, women sought reprieve from the trials of industrial farms. Many returned to Oaxaca, refusing to go on.


These histories stand in for a broader trend, in which Zapotec migrants tended to move to Los Angeles, while Mixtecs went to farmwork. Though other scholars have traced these differences, few offer a clear explanation. If both groups were poor and isolated, and both left at the same times and volumes, how did they come to take such different paths? In general, researchers know that industrialization pushes emigrants out of rural towns. Typically, those with more money, skills, education, and networks have the best prospects as migrants. By contrast, the poor often have to move within their home countries to build cash and contacts before they can continue abroad. Theorists of social networks also show that family and hometown ties play critical roles in defining where individuals end up — and in which jobs. Migrants from rural areas, in particular, follow others from their hometowns. Indeed, it is common to find an entire restaurant or ranch in Southern California staffed entirely by migrants from a single Mexican village.

Many scholars also assume that Mexico-U.S. labor migration follows a relatively standardized process. First, men move into U.S. farmwork, then they bring their families, and eventually migrants branch into different places and jobs. Some researchers contend that even when two communities appear to have different migration patterns, they may just be at different stages of this process. Those with migrants living in cities may simply have had more time to branch out. As for different starting points, this model implies that variations are due to chance. For instance, some scholars argue that an early migrant "in the right place at the right time" might help his whole village find contacts in New York City, while those of a neighboring pueblo remained consigned to farmwork. In this rendering, landing in Los Angeles or North County San Diego appears almost accidental.

This chapter shows that, in fact, hometown power dynamics shape the choices available to a village's early migrants — and thus to its networks as a whole. In the twentieth century, Partida and Retorno faced similar poverty and isolation. Technically, both villages governed themselves under Usos y Costumbres and held communal titles to their land. Yet they practiced autonomous governance in starkly different ways. Partida followed a traditional model of indigenous participation, running itself as a commune (albeit a patriarchal one). It redistributed land, insulating families from debt. As a result, when farm recruiters came to the village, its residents had just enough resources to refuse their overtures. Men in Partida also rotated into local leadership posts like village president or secretary. While serving in such positions, they gained access to Oaxaca City and learned of urban opportunities. Soon they began sending their children to the city for education and jobs. Thus, men in Partida were able to reject farm labor and build a pattern of independent, urban migration. Later these urban ties also helped women from Partida flee male control.

In contrast, Retorno was unequal, pressing whole families into farmwork. Even though Retorno technically followed Usos y Costumbres, in practice, it was ruled by caciques, or local political bosses. These caciques used their positions to strip other villagers of land, converting the poor into sharecroppers. By the time farm recruiters arrived in Retorno, most of its residents were destitute, landless, and in debt. Elites also monopolized access to cities. As a result, poorer families had little choice but to accept farm jobs. Driven by debt, men, women, and children cycled back and forth to northern Mexico for seasonal agricultural work.

Each community's internal migration patterns then channeled it into a different destination in the United States. Like many Sierra Zapotecs, young men and women from Partida began to work as housekeepers in Mexico City. While there, women met wealthy U.S. families who offered them work in Los Angeles. Even though men from Partida were recruited into farmwork in the United States, just like those from Retorno, women's housekeeping ties gave them both an alternative. By contrast, as migrants circled between Retorno and northern Mexico, they met few contacts except for farm recruiters. Even when they went on to the United States, they stayed trapped in agroindustry. Still, these patterns were not inevitable once they began. Rather, migrants reacted to their internal migration experiences, reinforcing or altering their paths. Partida's and Retorno's shifting gender dynamics illustrate this dynamism.

Scholars have generally argued that men dominate Mexico-U.S. migration thanks to (1) Mexico's "patriarchal culture" and (2) the U.S. government's recruitment of men as temporary farmworkers after World War II, in what is known as the Bracero Program. Indeed, most migrants from rural Mexico to the United States in the second half of the twentieth century were men. Women tended to either stay in Mexico or come to the United States after their male counterparts. But Partida and Retorno reveal that this trend was not universal. Whether or not women migrated was not just a reflection of patriarchal culture but also of whether village-wide migration paths enabled the women to escape. In particular, urban opportunities attracted women migrants, while farmwork deterred them from further migration.

Women's experiences in housekeeping (from Partida) and farmwork (from Retorno) sparked very different responses. Those from Partida could use hometown networks in Oaxaca City and Mexico City to leave independently, escaping the violence of their families of birth. As women from Partida found urban jobs, more of them chose to leave, tipping the balance among migrants toward women. In turn, women's access to feminized housekeeping and garment work helped the whole community set roots in Los Angeles. At first, in the 1960s and 1970s, women from Retorno also migrated in almost equal numbers to men. Yet patriarchy traveled with them. In farmwork, they shouldered labor violations alongside sexual abuse and household beatings. They also had to raise families in squalid labor camps. Migration was no escape. Instead, women from Retorno found relief by separating from their husbands and returning to their village of origin. Ironically, their decisions to opt out of U.S. migration left the people of Retorno as a whole with little access to feminized service work in the United States. Still, the women of Retorno were not "left behind," as accounts of Mexican migration sometimes imply. In the face of family farm labor, they chose to go home for relief.


Migrants left Oaxaca as part of Mexico's agrarian transformation. From 1929 until 2000 a single party — the Partido Revolucionario Institucional — held power in Mexico, ruling through a centralized state and corrupt elections without real competition. In the 1950s and 1960s this party began seeking to "modernize" the nation. It invested in industry, agricultural technologies, energy, and transportation, driving a three-decade period of 3–4 percent economic growth known as the "Mexican miracle." In 1941, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Mexico began the Green Revolution: a project to revolutionize agriculture through environmental restructuring, fertilizers, chemical pesticides, irrigation, and railroads to the United States. The Valley of Culiacán, Sinaloa, a sparsely populated area in the middle of Mexico's western coast, became a lynchpin of this growth. To fuel the agroindustrial machine, growers in Sinaloa began importing labor, mostly from Oaxaca. Over time Oaxacan workers also moved on to nascent agroindustries in the states of Baja California and Sonora, just south of the U.S. border. By 1980 more than five hundred thousand Oaxacans were serving as seasonal farmworkers in Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California, the three most concentrated sites of Mexican agroindustry. They worked fourteen-hour days, up to their knees in mud, growing more than half the winter vegetables sold in North America.

The Mexican miracle also fueled rapid urbanization. In the 1940s more than 80 percent of Mexicans lived in rural pueblos without running water or electricity. By 1970 the country was almost half urban. In particular, Mexico City's population grew from 1.4 million in 1900 to more than 22 million in 1970, making it one of the largest cities in the world. As the urban upper classes expanded, they began wanting household help. To fill this demand, peasant boys and girls came to cities as housekeepers, starting work as early as age eight or ten. Though household workers in Mexico had typically been young boys, in the 1960s employers began demanding single women. Migrant women found they could establish themselves as servants, even as their male counterparts struggled to find stable urban jobs.

Mexico's policies also drove peasants out of subsistence farming. In the 1940s and 1950s the government introduced primary schools, piped water, and dirt roads in rural Oaxaca. It also began to require fiscal accounting from indigenous villages. Then, in the 1960s, Mexico imposed price controls on corn, decreasing its value by a third. In the 1970s the large-scale borrowing that had fueled Mexico's "miracle" drove the country into debt and runaway inflation. Prices for seeds and farm equipment increased dramatically. In the late 1970s world oil prices plummeted, sending Mexico into crisis. The government responded by reducing farm subsidies and opening local markets to mass-produced U.S. food. By 1981 Mexico was importing more corn than it exported, even as production reached record highs. In August 1982 Mexico defaulted on its debt. In exchange for a bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the government devalued the peso by 100 percent. In the coming decade, in a series of reforms demanded by the World Bank and IMF, and referred to as "structural adjustment," Mexico privatized government firms, deregulated markets, reduced public-sector spending, eliminated price supports for basic crops, and pushed peasants to sell communal land. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 put the final nail in the coffin of the nation's small-scale corn farms, removing remaining subsidies and trade barriers.

By the mid-1990s it was cheaper for farmers in rural Oaxaca — the birthplace of maize — to buy corn from the United States than to grow it themselves. By 2003 peasants in pueblos like Retorno and Partida earned a mere 11 percent of what they had just a decade before. Meanwhile, the indigenous population boomed, fueling land shortages. Thus, Oaxaca became a prime target for labor recruitment. In the 1980s and 1990s indigenous peasants flooded out of the state.

At the same time, employers in the United States also began seeking new low-wage workers. In the 1970s the U.S. market for fresh produce started to boom. Women also entered the U.S. workforce in unprecedented numbers. The effect was to radically increase U.S. demands for farm and household labor, doubling the number of gardeners and housekeepers in Los Angeles, for instance, between 1980 and 1990. Then, in 1986, the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized many of the unauthorized immigrants who were already in the United States, enabling earlier waves of migrants to obtain higher-paying jobs. Thus, there opened up a new market for undocumented migrants with little choice but to do low-wage work.


Local power dynamics mediated rural villages' experiences of economic transformation. While the PRI was highly centralized, with no formal local government in Mexico until the 1990s, in practice it ruled through various regional arrangements, combining bargaining, coercion, and alliances in different sites. State power was especially variegated in Oaxaca, where the PRI relied on indirect rule to manage remote, indigenous villages. To keep the indigenous from organizing, the state often pitted nearby communities against one another. At the same time, it gave each village autonomy to run its own affairs. As a result, local governance practices diverged.

Formally, Partida, Retorno, and most indigenous pueblos used (and still use) the system of Usos y Costumbres, or "Ways and Customs." Practiced since the colonial era, Usos y Costumbres allows indigenous villages to run their own elections and staff their governments in the way they see fit. In theory Usos y Costumbres is associated with collective governance. Whereas Western governments define citizenship in terms of individual rights, members of Usos y Costumbres communities earn rights through public service to the pueblo. In an ideal-type village, adult men serve in unpaid civic posts (known as cargos), do collective labor on public-works projects (tequio), and make decisions in community assemblies. A male villager might rotate into a new cargo once every few years, starting at the lowest rank, such as night watchman, and moving up to town president. While these posts confer traditional status, they are also onerous. Thus, the name cargos, meaning "burdens." Historically, Usos y Costumbres has also been entwined with collective landholding. As of 2007, 72 percent of Oaxacan land was technically communal, 61 percent held under communal titles granted in the colonial era (including Partida and Retorno), and the rest as ejidos, collective holdings granted during Mexican land reform in the 1930s. Villagers typically had usufruct rights to parcels of communal land. If they reneged on their political duties, the pueblo could expel them or reclaim the plots they tilled.

Despite this "standard," the combination of local autonomy and state neglect meant that nearby pueblos could be run in starkly different ways. On one extreme, communities like Partida redistributed land and rotated political posts. In such villages, the cargo system mediated class hierarchies by assigning burdensome positions to those who were best off. Collective practices also helped these villages resist co-optation by the state, landlords, corporations, and even NGOs. On the other extreme, pueblos like Retorno converted ostensible participation into exploitation, clientelism, and elite control. As mentioned, the Mexican state tolerated Usos y Costumbres as part of a clientelist bargain, in which peasant communities delivered votes to the PRI in exchange for autonomy. In the process it converted some indigenous leaders into PRI clients and political bosses, who managed their pueblos arbitrarily and with little accountability.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Legacies of (In)Equity
2. “Illegality” under Two Local Modes of Control
3. Stoicism and Striving in the Face of Exclusion
4. Cross-Border Fights, Rifts, and Ties
5. Pathways to Hometown Change

Methodological Appendix: Listening to Difference

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