Mexico-U.S. Migration from the Ciénega: An Overview and Analysis

The Ciénega de Chapala has long been a region characterized by net out-migration of population. The first international migrants left the local small towns and farming communities before the Great Depression, many of them gaining steady work in the industrial factories of the North. In the first quarter of the century, such migrants socialized freely with new immigrants from Southern Europe, and their participation in the formation of a U.S. working class culture had political repercussions in Mexico itself, as the agrarian reform movement became more radical in the 1920s and 1930s. Even before the depression there were, however, symptoms of change in the place of Mexicans relative to immigrants from Europe’s rural peripheries. Mexicans turned into U.S. citizens by the territorial annexations of the mid-19th century found themselves the victims of a progressive social exclusion with Apartheid-like qualities. Newcomers from south of the border began to notice a change in their own status by the mid-1920s: residential segregation of their Afro-American co-workers now accomplished, the academic race industries of California and Texas set about the task of categorizing Mexicans as different from southern Europeans and new everyday practices of discrimination emerged.

The next exodus took place after the Cardenista land reform, which left half of the former hacienda work-force without rights in the newly created ejidos. The closure of the Guaracha sugar mill and the difficulties of the 1940s drove migrants towards the metropolitan cities of Mexico, and this process, along with some movement to new zones of rural colonization, was helped along by the patronage of the Cárdenas family. The rural-urban migrants of the 1940s included many disillusioned ejidatarios , some of whom had been prominent "Cardenistas" , as well as landless people. The descendants of many of those who left in this period have gained social mobility through the working class on into the middle class, but my research on internal migration from the region has shown that in the long run ejidatario households have tended to fare better than landless households in terms of gaining more remunerative urban jobs and educational advancement.

This suggests that the main social advantage of possessing rights to ejido land has been the chance it has offered to the next generation to escape peasant life. In the period when most of those who migrated to the United States did so as legal contract labourers under the Bracero Program, which ran from 1943 to 1964, ejidatarios were also at the forefront, for the simple reason that they were better able to raise the loans needed to pay off the host of venal intermediaries, including local politicians, who stood between the needy and the list which authorized entry into the United States. Here, however, the histories of international migration from different Ciénega communities began to diverge.

Some which had been economically marginal achieved high rates of legalization, like the village of Jaripo which enjoyed the support of a native son who became a valuable political patron. Migrants from these communities displayed a pattern of increasing permanence in the United States and moved from migrant camps into urban residential zones and progressively more urban occupations. Others contained fewer emigrados, and displayed a broadening of the social composition of the migrant population to include a greater proportion of people from landless families after the labour contracts ended in 1964 and most migrants became undocumented. To this day, some communities, like the small village of Cerrito Cotijaran which I studied in 1990-91, continue to follow a predominantly seasonal pattern of migration from rural Mexico to rural California and Arizona, concentrating in a few places because of the role played by foremen and labor contractors born in the community. Others, however, like the much larger neighboring community of Emiliano Zapata (formerly Guaracha) have a much more geographically and occupationally diversified pattern of migration, despite the fact that the vast majority of their migrants were undocumented between 1964 and 1988. The latter type of community also revealed relatively early symptoms of what have now become more pervasive tendencies towards extended absences of male migrants in the North, and increases in family and female migration.

These tendencies were, however, accelerated after the enactment of the provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The first legalizations of previously undocumented migrants under the new act took place in 1988, but the legalization program did not work out exactly as the legislation’s U.S. architects had envisaged. The arrangements that they made to satisfy the farm lobby’s demand that steps be taken to ensure it a continuing supply of migrant workers were seized upon by Mexican-born labour contractors and other intermediaries in a way which allowed the legalization of a new generation of young men without previous migrant experience on the basis of falsified documentation, with sons of ejidatarios prominent in their ranks; many of those admitted under this "Special Agricultural Workers" category were joined in the North by undocumented wives and children, and the process of undocumented migration by a new generation proceeded as before once the period of legalizations. This suggests that legislative measures on the part of the United States have little impact on the underlying political economy of international migration and that the social networks established by the migrant population itself are of central importance to the way regions like the Ciénega de Chapala articulate themselves to northern labour markets. But such a conclusion seems only partly correct, when we look at the larger context in which these developments occurred and the impact of the new legislation on the situation of migrants in the North.

The IRCA legislation represented a further step down the road towards institutionalizing Mexican migrant workers as an ethnic underclass by restricting their rights to social benefits, even if it did hold out the possibility of the newly legalized "Green Card" holders eventually achieving citizen status. The fundamental problem facing the contemporary international migrant population is, however, as Michael Kearney has put it, that they may be wanted in the United States as labour power but they are being increasingly decisively rejected as "persons". This has had an important impact on the attitudes of those migrants who remain part of the local communities in the Ciénega, in the sense that they maintain social ties and visit regularly, though many of these people are no longer simply working seasonally in the United States, but spending virtually their entire working lives at the other pole of what Roger Rouse has termed "transnational migrant circuits". There is now regular reference on the part of younger migrants to discrimination on grounds of skin colour in the United States. The passage of Proposition 187 in California, which denied schooling to the children of undocumented migrants and access to all but emergency medical care, was seen as symptomatic of processes which were prejudicial to all migrants, irrespective of their legal status, and which fitted into a broader pattern of victimization of the campesino in which the government of Mexico was an accomplice by signing the NAFTA treaty, which excluded labour issues. This represents a substantial switch in local discourses about migration relative to the more ambivalent attitudes I recorded in the early 1980s, towards a more antagonistic stance, in which the United States is cognized in more reciprocal terms as imperial centre to the Mexican "colonial Other" of Anglo imagination, and the migrant sees him or herself as a member of an exploited transnational proletariat.

In the case of the Ciénega de Chapala, however, whilst recent practical experience of life within the ethnicized class system of the United States has reinforced notions of the campesino community as a "community of suffering," an increasingly negative evaluation of the conditions and possibilities of transnational migrant life does not foster strong tendencies towards growth of new collective solidarities, beyond the development of a compensatory ethic of the human value of "The Mexican" which is completely consistent with an individualistic social practice. Various conjunctural factors have combined to produce this outcome: the thwarting of collective political projects of community resistance to neoliberalism within Mexico, new community tensions arising out of the legalizations under the IRCA, and new social tensions which have emerged at the northern pole of the transnational migrant circuit.

The last two factors deserve some additional discussion. The young men who became rodinos on the basis of false documentation generally accumulated debts with kin and neighbours who helped them raise the money to buy into the system and in making their first, undocumented, crossing of the frontier. These "helpers" have often displayed a tendency to make continuing claims on young people whom they see as unusually privileged. In a few cases, the documentation which a young rodino received deprived a genuinely qualified candidate in the same community of his chance of legalization, because the intermediary sold papers like time sheets to the highest bidder. Even in the absence of such trickery, the fact that one short generation of young men had a special chance to gain the right to work legally in the United States was always bound to be socially divisive, not merely because the financial investment required to secure legalization was beyond the means of some families at the time, but because the upcoming generation of migrants after 1990, including siblings and close kin of the legalized, were consigned to undocumented status. The Simpson-Rodino act itself contributed to the increasing demonization of undocumented migrants, but this effect was reinforced by a range of ongoing transformations in California, still the main migrant destination in the United States. Beyond the recession caused by the end of the Cold War and loss of jobs both to Mexican maquiladoras and to non-unionized plants in other states, the situation in California has been influenced by the deeper economic and political changes: white flight to the suburbs and inner city decay, the ending of the dream of economic security and continually rising living standards for the white middle class, and the greater visibility of the apparent threat to Anglo social and political hegemony posed by demographic change. Even Simpson-Rodino itself had an unintended consequence for Anglo attitudes in California specifically, because of the Federal Government’s failure to honour its original undertaking to fully compensate the state for the local costs of its new national migration policy. Nativist reactions and anti-immigrant hysteria are, of course, nothing new in California, although it would, in my view, be unwise to view the current situation as simply a passing phase based on conjunctural economic factors, without considering the deeper crisis of American society in the late Twentieth century of which it is merely one part. What I wish to stress here, however, is not the so much impact of Anglo racism and hysteria on the position of contemporary migrants, but growing tensions within the migrant population itself.

The "modernization" of the Ciénega ejidos under the auspices of the interventionist state of the Seventies could be seen as a further stage in a series of "bilateral adjustments" which forged a systemic link between the evolution of California agribusiness and parts of the land reform sector in Mexico. During the years of the Bracero contracts, the pace of technical modernization in U.S. agriculture was dampened for a period by the availability of plentiful cheap labour, but the widespread use of braceros did not, in the end, put paid to the union organization of labour and, in the longer term, the export of Green Revolution technology and consequent lowering of world grain prices forced a more radical reorganization of the California farm sector. Highly technified fruit and vegetable production displaced grain and dairy farming at an accelerating rate after 1975, and with this shift, a more sedentary migrant farm worker population became desirable from the growers’ point of view, as anthropologist Juan Vicente Palerm has noted. Although the demand for casual workers supplied by seasonal migration continued, a significant number of workers could now find work all-year round on Californian farms, and increasingly lived there with their families. As Palerm has shown from his studies in the United States, the IRCA played a significant role in breaking this emergent labour market stability, by adding a flood of young, legalized migrants, to the already swelling number of undocumented work seekers from a variety of rural and urban social backgrounds produced by the Mexican crisis during the 1980s, which saw a sea change in patterns of Mexico-U.S. migration towards much greater social and geographical heterogeneity than in the past, when most migrants came from Michoacán, Jalisco and the Bajío states of western and north-central Mexico. The effects were more drastic than simply the depressive effect of numbers on wages, although this problem is proving serious enough in both rural and urban areas. The threat of employer sanctions and the volume of paper-work demanded by the IRCA provisions led even the best intentioned of growers to rely more on the mediation of labor contractors, at least in Southern California and the Central Valley. The expansion of contracting work encouraged the entry of some disreputable new businesses. Yet even established contractors with close affiliations to particular regions and communities within Mexico were forced by competition to recruit the cheapest workers available, either within Mexico or the border areas, even when this meant putting settled workers out of a job or denying work to their own regular clientele and paisanos (people from the same village or locale). Thus personal bonds between settled workers and growers often shattered as the former lost security of employment. Considerable tensions also emerged within the farm communities between ‘‘settled’’ workers and rodinos, and between legalized and undocumented migrants. Furthermore, Palerm has demonstrated, since rural California is subject to the same processes of "white flight" to the suburbs as urban California, there is an increasing tendency for farmworker towns to become "Mexicanized" enclaves of rural poverty, lacking adequate public services and access to the better paid agroindustrial jobs, which have moved, along with the middle class and citizen workers, to the suburbs.


The impact of these tendencies were prominent in my more recent interviews with migrant workers in the Ciénega. There were many complaints that trusted contractors and labour brokers had been "refusing" people the work to which they were accustomed, and whilst people acknowledged that work was hard to come by because of the numbers seeking it, it was clear that this was not accepted as a complete explanation. Some contractors who had maintained ties with their communities of origin ceased make visits, and even their kin were tending to leave. Some had damaged their already ambiguous relations with their clients in the period of the legalizations, but the increasing sense that profits took precedence over traditional social obligations when it came to hiring was removing the remaining traces of ambiguity. There were also many stories of violence, including murder, within the migrant communities in the North.

The impact of progressive habituation to the behaviours and values associated with the practice of everyday life within U.S. class culture aside, the increasing competition for work would, of itself, no doubt have promoted individualism and envy. These problems have, however, been exacerbated by the categorical distinctions emerging between different types of migrants competing for the same jobs and the moral values assigned to those distinctions. If settled migrants felt resentful of rodinos, rodinos themselves might equally well feel antagonistic towards undocumented competitors, even perhaps towards their own kin. It was not simply that they had invested a substantial sum to gain legal access to a labour market which they had at least expected to offer them regular earnings. They could also easily be drawn into thinking that the presence of so many undocumented people would make their own lives in the North more problematic, both from the standpoint of police harassment and of abuse or worse from the rest of the "native" population.

Positive sociality has certainly not broken down within the ever-growing proportion of the Ciénega de Chapala population which is now moving within the migrant circuits which link the capitalist pole of this increasingly transnationalized class system to its rural zones of labour force reproduction within Mexico. Acts of solidarity and mutual aid, even across ethnic boundaries between Mexicans and other immigrant Latinos, do still occur and are perceived as "right". There is, nevertheless, a widespread acknowledgment and even a conscious objectification of the fact that "people do not help each other as much as they used to do/should do." The need to be realistic and to look after one’s own immediate interests (more colourfully, no hacerse pendejo, "don’t behave like a prick") is frequently alluded to in musings on the existential dilemmas of contemporary life. These are communities which have taken some hard historical knocks, not least from those non-peasants, including the Cárdenas family, who claimed to be able to deliver them a better life. They thus have every reason to manifest a certain "realism" in the face of calls to collective action. Yet the more insidious processes of fragmentation and division at work in recent years are consequences of the way the capitalist accumulation process is being restructured through the alliance of Mexico’s transnational social elite and U.S. capital. They strike at the very fabric of everyday social life in a way which is manifest ethnographically in petty quarrels and old friendships under strain. They do not simply undermine the capacity of people to stand together in defence of their interests, but they turn them into a different kind of people and further diminish the quality of their social life.

The current tensions within the migrant population are not wholly without past precedent. The logic of the incorporation of Mexican workers into a U.S. economy in which their position is influenced by racist and neo-colonial ideological constructions has always worked to separate generations: the initial distinction between Mexicans trapped in the North and new entrants from the South has been replicated in subsequent waves of migration, albeit in new forms. The bracero contract-laborers of the 1943–1964 period often enjoyed tense relations with Mexican-Americans. Undocumented migrants of the 1970s sometimes found established immigrants unwilling to acknowledge shared origins. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act produced conflict between settled migrant families and the young rodinos who were able to acquire work permits with false documents. And the latest wave of undocumented migrants are finding themselves victimized not only by other Latinos, but by migrants from their own communities who established themselves in the urban economy in the previous generation and are now experiencing the frustration of seeing steady jobs disappear, along with prospects of social mobility for their children, as U.S. labour markets are restructured. But what is most disturbing is not simply the impact of the transition to "flexible" labour markets, but the way Mexico’s peculiar integration with the U.S.A. through the NAFTA acts to perpetuate a "special" position for Mexican labour.

The treaty framework facilitates international mobility of capital without relaxing control over labour movement. The structured disadvantage of Mexican labour has now been reinforced by the new Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which came into force in 1997. The Act is being implemented in a way that discriminates against Mexicans, continuing a long-established pattern through which the on-the-ground practice of immigration control through the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) influences the way Mexican workers are incorporated into the U.S. labour market. By obliging Mexicans to engage in what Josaiah Heyman has noted are by and large "relatively successful conspiracies to avoid the law", immigration control indirectly (and without any conspiracy on the part of capitalist elites) reinforces the vulnerability and exploitability of migrant workers. The new legislation is also having a knock-on effect on the placement of all Latinos in U.S. society, legal residents and citizens, as well as undocumented workers. Other legislation enacted together with the new immigration act links undocumented migration categorically with "terrorism" and "drug trafficking." The package thus creates a regime of truth for other social actors that has enormous implications for the everyday experience of legal and undocumented alike. It directly fosters a climate in which abuse of human rights and sexual abuse by officials can be seen by the public as semi-legitimate, and has a much broader range of indirect effects on the everyday behaviour of migrants and non-migrants, shaping the way people live, shaping the way they work, shaping the way they respond to exploitation, shaping the strategies that they use to "get by", and shaping relations between equally exploited groups in ways that encourage them to establish grounds for their "difference" from each other in a search of some kind of social dignity. Thus puertorriqueños victimize Mexicans, and Mexicans stigmatize puertorriqueños as drug-traffickers and criminals. Tendencies to stress difference rather than common problems are, to a modest extent, counteracted by a growing incidence of inter-marriage across ethnic categories among migrants, but the fact that divisions and antagonisms of a strong kind emerge between different groups of Mexican migrants is sufficient to indicate the scale and scope of the problems now faced by the growing number of people who have been obliged make their futures north of the border. There are continuing shifts in the geographical location of Michoacano migrants in the USA: xenophobia and low wages have encouraged many to abandon California for new "boom" areas such as Atlanta (where 150 Guaracheños were working in 1997) and to retrace the steps of earlier generations towards the North-East of the United States, especially New York and its suburbs. Whatever the destination, however, the prospects are attractive only in comparison with the economic desolation that lies back home in regions like the Ciénega de Chapala.