The Immigrants: Do the Right Thing but Keep Your Head Down

January 11, 2009

THE WORLD OF MEXICAN MIGRANTS: THE ROCK AND THE HARD PLACE by Judith Adler Hellman, The New Press, 2008, 256 pp., $25.95, hardcover

In the prologue to her new book, The World of Mexican Migrants, Judith Adler Hellman sets the tone for the stories she intends to tell with a brief look at an undocumented immigrant named Luis, whose self-imposed rules of life are “keep your head down, know the terrain, and know the rules.” These watchwords, imposed by day-to-day circumstances on vulnerable people everywhere, prepare us to understand the social and political dilemmas faced by migrants without documents.

In this study of Mexicans who find themselves between “a rock” (the untenable economic situation in Mexico) and “a hard place” (a precarious existence in the United States), Hellman takes us on a narrative journey from the decision to leave Mexico, through the border crossing, to life in the USA. She avoids telling yet another lachrymose or polemical history of Mexico-U.S. migration. Rather, she presents us with a set of stories and testimonies that allow us to grasp the human dimensions of the great northward flow.

Taking on the job of investigator, interviewer, transcriber, and editor, Hellman lets people tell their own stories in their own voice, and she does this with considerable skill. She manages to find lots of people with interesting stories to tell, and then arranges the stories to create a coherent, enlightening, and at times highly entertaining narrative. We learn a lot about migrant life from reading this book, no matter how much we already know about the phenomenon of migration. There are compelling anecdotes in this book about crossing the border with protagonists we end up rooting for. And there are vivid descriptions of the closing of parts of the border and the consequent movement away from relatively safe urban (or semi-urban) crossings to perilous crossings in the desert.

Hellman takes us through the daily lives of a wide variety of migrants, and does so in a way that steers clear of the temptation to make every story score a political point. Whatever political agenda she may have had, and whatever preconceptions she may have brought to this project, none of that gets in the way of the stories—some quite dramatic and others highly ordinary—that the book’s subjects tell.

Indeed, some of the stories are surprising and seem to have caught the author, as investigator, unawares. She talks about the “tyranny of the mother-in law,” for example, a phenomenon that apparently becomes intense for many young women whose husbands—having migrated—are removed as household mediators. This “tyranny” stems from the rural Mexican tradition of a bride’s “patrilocal” obligation “to take up residence in the home of the parents of the groom.” This, Hellman finds, is frequently a spur for young women to attempt to join their husbands in the north.

She reports having been told of the sudden freedom felt by many women in their new lives away from the restraints of the village: “For a woman whose suegra [mother-in-law] would not allow her to cross the street,” she writes, a status of semi-anonymity in the big city allows for “an amazing kind of freedom.” She then addresses a very different kind of phenomenon with tales of cultural incomprehension and mutual misunderstandings, as when a migrant mistakes a waitress in a bar for a dancehall girl and gets beaten up for his error. All this is to say that this book is not your usual sad story (or one-dimensional uplifting story) of migrant life.

In a welcome shift from the standard narrative of Mexican migration, Hellman treats coyotes, the people who broker the movement of undocumented migrants into the United States, as professionals, not simply traffickers, with acknowledged expertise. This expertise includes a thorough knowledge of how to cross the border and then knowing where to go and how to get there. A migrant’s story about being taught how to ride under a train, untie himself, and dismount, and then being accompanied to his U.S. destination, nicely captures the respect in which many coyotes are held by their clients.

Despite the book’s welcome emphasis on storytelling, plenty of political explanation and analysis emerges from The World of Mexican Migrants. In her introductory chapter, Hellman describes the ebbs and flows of migration. It is here that she sets the “framing questions” of her study: Who migrates; why do they take the risk? What are the pushes; what are the pulls? Where do they come from; where do they go? How do they get there? The narrative then takes us from the “sending” places, to the journey, to the unfinished story of life in the “hard place.” (Her U.S. interviews are mainly in New York and Los Angeles.)

She makes sure we understand that the beginning of the process rests in the dismantling of state-supported, small-scale agriculture in Mexico, and that the dismantling has coincided with a drying up of the urban Mexican job market and the emergence of new destinations for rural migrants. She lets us know that the U.S. response to this migration has been highly ambivalent, ranging from a welcome from distant relatives and, more ambiguously, from employers of low-wage labor, to open hostility from competitors on the low-wage job market and from a wide variety of xenophobes.

She also captures a nuanced understanding of exploitation in the “hard place.” A migrant worker explains how he was able to extend his hours at a fast food restaurant. “Wendy’s only hires part-time,” he is told by his Puerto Rican manager and intermediary. “So get yourself another set of papers and come back here as somebody else.” Another worker explains to his wife that even though he has made himself “indispensable” to his boss at a Chinese restaurant, if he asks that boss to sponsor him for a green card the boss will figure out how to get along without him.

All this leads to a very useful discussion of migrants as (without using these words) a reserve army of labor in the U.S. economy. “Turnover,” she explains, “is not a problem for employers,” who can rely on their own workers to recruit friends and relations to fill any vacancy in the workplace as it becomes open.

Hellman is especially good at giving us a glimpse of the routine tensions of daily life; the smart and intuitive calculations of need; the continually postponed plans to return to Mexico; the conflicts among different exploited groups. Mexicans, she shows us, have to work out relationships not only with the “dominant society,” but even more so with others at the bottom of the economic ladder. For example, she narrates the brief California stay of a migrant whose predictable conflicts with jobbers and rival street peddlers, frequently fellow immigrants, lead him to quickly return to his homeland across the border. If it were not a mix of good and bad, she tells us, summing up the overarching theme of the book, it would not be so hard to figure out whether to go back to Mexico.

Not everyone migrates, of course. She tells the story of Beto, a corn farmer who refuses to leave the small plot he cultivates (his milpa), even though his sons and daughters have migrated northward. “I’m a man,” he tells Hellman, “so I plant corn. That’s what my father did, that’s what my grandfather did. . . . I don’t feel right if I’m not planting and harvesting.”

She tells the story of a town she calls Nopal Verde, detailing some of the effects of the northern migration on this sending town; how the town’s survival increasingly depends on remittances, and how both personal ambition and community loyalty require a trip northward for many young men.

There’s lots of dialogue and testimony here: the little victories, the disappointments, and the ironies. She talks about the ways that inter-family obligations—compadrazco—replace public services by way of remittances. This is an interesting description of a kind of privatization to which we don’t ordinarily pay much attention. And it’s a privatization of social obligations that requires migration, at least for a while. Hellman’s ability to capture those nuances makes this a compassionate, respectful, and always interesting book.

Fred Rosen is NACLA’s senior analyst. He is the editor of Empire and Dissent: The United States and Latin America (Duke University Press, 2008).


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