New York In Mixteca; Mixteca In New York

September 25, 2007

“XIX Antorcha para Padre Jesus”––"29th Torch Run for Jesus Our Father,” say the banners on the buses carrying 80 runners from a village in rural southern Puebla which I’ll call Ticuani, to the Basilica of the Virgin just outside Mexico City, a five hour trip.[1] Starting the next day at dawn with a mass and a blessing at the Basilica, the runners––joined half-way by 80 more––participate in a 30-hour relay race in honor of Padre Jesus, finishing with a jog down the town’s main street, and five laps around the town square while jubilant Ticuanenses shower them with flower petals.

The runners climb the steep, cobbled hill to the church, and make a path for the newly-elected Reina de la Misa (Queen of the Mass), 18-year-old Nancy Mora. They are given seats in the church and listen intently as the Reina invokes the help of Padre Jesus in uniting Ticuanenses everywhere.

There is more than meets the eye in this colorful scene of Mexican village life. The Reina is a college student in New York City, who was born in Brooklyn and has never lived permanently in Ticuani. Her parents are from the town and a neighboring village I’ll call El Ganado; she visits during school breaks in the summer and winter. About 30 of the 80 runners were born or reside in New York City. Some have returned to Mexico for the first time in a decade after receiving amnesty through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, while others are U.S. citizens, the children of Ticuanenses visiting on vacation. The $3,000 to pay for the buses was raised in a raffle in New York and the T-shirts were donated by a Ticuanense who owns a T-shirt factory in Brooklyn. The priest in his sermon thanks the Ticuanenses in New York for their help, and asks God to protect them en el norte. The “Antorcha para Padre Jesus” is an essential act in constituting Ticuani as a transnational community,

Ticuani was probably the first community in the Mixteca Sur (a region composed of parts of the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla) to send migrants to New York City, beginning in the 1940s. Hence, it is more transnationalized than other more recent migrant-sending communities. Yet Ticuani is emblematic of a profound transformation occurring in southern Mexico as migration integrates this region with the New York area.

Mexican migration to New York City dates from the summer of 1942. “On July 6,1942 we crossed the border,” Don Pedro told me, referring to himself and his brother Fermin. They had moved out of Ticuani in the 1930s because of unrest related to the Agrarian Reform (their father had been a trusted lieutenant of Gen. Emiliano Zapata) and were running a car shop in Mexico City. They had been trying unsuccessfully to get “bracero” contracts to emigrate as agricultural workers when a friend introduced them to David Montesinos, a New Yorker who vacationed every summer in Mexico. Montesinos drove them to New York, put them up in a hotel, and found them restaurant jobs within two days. From both sides of the border in the intervening 50 years, Don Pedro has watched the migration that he started become a defining feature of life in Ticuani and the region.

Mexican migration to New York was not a product of the 1942-1964 bracero program that brought millions of Mexicans to work in the United States as contract laborers in agriculture, mainly in Texas and California.[2] The flow to New York City, never institutionalized by government, responded to a wide variety of labor markets and conditions, and proceeded more slowly, at least until the mid1980s when it suddenly exploded.

The extent of this explosion is only suggested by U.S. Census data. The Mexican-origin population in New York City grew from 7,364 to 21,623 between 1970 and 1990, and to 61,722 by 1990. My research leads me to believe the 1992 Mexican population is closer to 96,000, of whom 15,000 to 20,000 arrived in the last two years alone.

The reasons for this explosion lie both in New York and in the Mixtcca Sur. The Mixteca was hit espcially hard by the extended economic crisis of the 1980s, the effects of which were heightened by the liberalization of agricultural and trade policies.[3] Then, U.S. amnesty programs offered a powerful incentive forfamily reunification, whether or not the new immigrants were documented. In New York City, Mexicans were second only to Dominicans in the number of applications for amnesty they filed (approximately 9,000 and 11,000 respectively), thus providing a large base of support for newcomers.

A third reason has to do with the nature of New York City’s economy, which has led many employers to prefer hiring Mexicans for the burgeoning service economy. New York’s economy has become polarized, the city populated increasingly by high-income individuals who manage global businesses and low-income workers who serve them.[4]

The upshot for recent Mexican arrivals are working conditions and wages that are considerably worse than those of previous immigrants. One Mexican garment worker described the situation this way: “They (employers) give you what they want, less than minimum wage, and the people have to accept it because there is no other way to live. There are too many people. Before it was not like this. Before they would teach you [to use a sewing machine]. Now, you already have to know or they don’t give you work.” Economic polarization has also spurred the city’s informal economy. Since the late 1980s, street vending of flowers, oranges, jewelry, sugar cane, snow cones, and just about any other thing has spread throughout much of the city’s public space.

Polarization does not, however, tell the whole story. Much economic activity in New York City is organized along ethnic lines: Greeks and Chinese own restaurants; Dominicans and Koreans own corner stores and green-groceries; and Italians and Jews own small factories. Within particular niches some Mexicans have achieved the immigrant success story: through hard work and long hours at low pay, immigrant dishwashers have become restaurant owners.[5]

Some non-Mexican immigrant employers apparently identify with their Mexican immigrant employees in a way that they do not with native-born blacks and Puerto Ricans. One Greek restaurateur told me that he preferred Mexican workers because they worked hard, the way he did when he came to the United States 30 years earlier. In addition, some restaurant owners (Greeks among them) are hiring Mexicans because they cannot find employees from their own ethnic group as migration from their country has fallen off.

One Mexican success story is Javier, an immigrant from the state of Guerrero, who now owns a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He worked in a Dominican-owned restaurant for five years, and got along well with the boss, who always praised Javier’s work habits. When the employer sold his interest in the restaurant to his partner, he offered Javier $10,000 to start his own restaurant. Javier was flabbergasted, but recovered quickly. He said, “What’s $10,000? Once the money is gone, it’s gone. Come and teach me how to run a restaurant and that will help me more.” Javier’s former boss agreed, and worked for his protégé for free for two months. Javier learned the ropes, and has been serving up Mexican fare for more than a year now.

A third way Mexicans have joined New York’s economy is through the traditional “ethnic enclave,” most notably in tortilla factories but also in restaurants.[6] Through ethnic solidarity, immigrants create an internal economic logic that allows them to pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps. For example, Féfix (“EI Guero) and Fernando (“El Gordo”) Sánchez, cousins from Piaxtla Puebla, cultivated an ethnic market by going house to house with tortillas in the late 1970s. Their market grew literally each time another Mexican arrived. “Never in all of my dreams did I dream of this,” El Gordo told me, pointing to his tortilla factory, which sometimes runs 24 hours a day, in three shifts. El Guero just opened a business in Puebla exporting chiles to the New York area.

The dramatic increase in the Mexican population of New York City corresponds to a great emptying of much of southern Puebla.[7] While migration now emanates from the entire Mixteca Sur, the nucleus of migration to New York City is southern Puebla, where 22 of 45 townships experienced absolute net losses in population ranging from 5% to 40% between 1980 and 1990. While many of these migrants went to the city of Puebla or Mexico City, at least 13 of these townships have significant populations in New York.

One town’s population decreased from 3,837 in 1980 to 2,483 in 1990, a net loss of 35%.[8] The mayor told me that during the late 1960s they had 700 students, today they have only 350. He estimates that more than half and perhaps as many as 80% of the towns people now live in New York; those who remain are mostly the elderly, children, students or young women. The township has become as much an extension of its population in New York City, its alter ego, as an entity in itself a truly transnationalized community.

The well-being of many, if not a majority, of households depends at least as much on what happens in New York as on what happens in the Mixteca. Many subsist entirely on remittances from New York, and others, even professionals, depend on periodic remittances from relatives or on work-stints in the United States. One local teacher told me, “To have a family here, YOU must have family there.” Most of his family lives in the United States, and he works there every summer. The extra income allows him to buy things he cannot afford on his teacher’s pay and to save a little––something he says is usually impossible without a connection en el norte.

Two rural townships in southern Puebla that share a post office received more than a million dollars in remittances in 1991 in postal money orders. With a population of less than 9,000, this means that each inhabitant received $118. However, more money is remitted through cash and money orders carried personally. Three million dollars a year is a more likely total, equivalent to $350 per inhabitant. A local businessman who changes money and cashes money orders puts the figure much higher. Based on conversations with money-changers in other towns, he estimates that about $1.9 million is remitted each month to three townships which together have just under 18,000 inhabitants. This converts roughly to $22.8 million per year, or $1,300 per-person per-year. This year remittances are down, due to the recession. “In 1986,” the businessman told me, “the amount remitted was double...”

A second aspect of the “dollarization” of the Mixteca is its effect on local prices. Land is now said to be more expensive in the center of Ticuani and El Ganado than in the city of Puebla, and one must wait several months to have a house built in the township since few day laborers have not imigrated to New York. Meat that cost 18,000 pesos per kilo in Mexico City in the summer of 1991 cost 30,000 pesos in Ticuani; a bottle of water that cost 2,500 pesos in Mexico City cost 4,000 pesos in Ticuani. While remittances have enabled many to live better, those without remittances or good jobs have come to form a sort of transnationally created “underclass” in rural Mexican towns.

In addition to the economic and demographic aspects of transnationalization, there are cultural and political effects as well. The fundraising for Ticuani’s “Antorcha para Padre Jesus,” for example, migruted north seven years ago with one of its primary sponsors, now the owner of the T-shirt factory. In both Ticuani and El Ganado, those in charge of organizing religious festivals have increasingly come from el norte because people there have more money.

For ages these festivals have helped forge a communal identity based on dedication to both Mexico and Padre Jesus, the nation’s protector. The relocation of much of the fundraising activities to New York means Padre Jesus is being asked not just to protect Ticuani or EI Ganado, and Mexico, but also to protect Ticuanenses and Ganaderos in New York or wherever they may be.

How communities experience transnationalization and dollarization can vary according to economic experience of migrants. More Ganaderos than Ticuanenses have opened their own businesses in New York, for example; Ticuanenses are more likely to work for someone else. These differences are reflected in the social organization of each town’s immigrants in New York. To gather funds for the Antorcha or other investments in Mexico, Ticuanenses go from house to house in New York asking for donations of $100 or less, while Ganadero fundraising is usually restricted to a small group of restaurateurs and owners of tortilleras who give several thousand dollars apiece.

The way in which Ticuanenses and Ganaderos participate politically also differs. The Ticuanenses, who have been organized for more than 20 years in New York, for example, are currently gathering funds for a potable water system in the town. They remain actively involved in local politics. For Ganaderos, the less institutionalized nature of the New York community has led to more sporadic participation in Mexico.

Transnationalization has become a regional phenomenon as more and more migration emanates from the Mixteca. Such towns as Ticuani and El Ganado have become legendary as harbingers of the future. Townsfolk are saturated from birth with talk and images and evidence of life en el norte. This talk travels. Indeed, Ambal, a New York resident from nearby Xochihuehuctlán, Guerrero, which began sending migrants to the United States only eight or ten years ago, told me that he took his video camera to Ticuani’s feast of the patron saint in January in order to record “Xochi’s future.” Meanwhile, parts of New York become more “Mexicanized” every day. El Gordo of Tortillera Piaxtla made perhaps the most trenchant comment on the future of Mexicans in New York City. In ten years, he predicts, you’ll see a taco stand on every corner.

Robert Smith has studied Mexican communities for four years and is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.

1. This article was written while the author was on a fellowship for dissertation research on the urban underclass from the Social Science Research Council with funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation. He gratefully acknowledges that support.
2. There were West Indian bracero workers in New York and New Jersey, but very few if any Mexicans. On the Bracero Program, see Manuel Garcia y Griogo, “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States, 192464: Antecedents, Operation and Legacy,” Working Paper #11 (San Diego: Center for USMexico Studies, 1981); Richard Craig, The Bracero Program Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977); Ernesto Galarza, Merchants of Labor: the Mexican Bracero Story (Charlotte: McNally and Loftin, 1964); and G. and M. Kiser, eds., Mexican Workers in the United States (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977).
3. The explosion in out-migration from this region has also been directed by scholars on the Pacific coasts of the United States and Mexico. See Wayne A. Cornelius, “Los Migrantes de la Crisis: The Changing Profile of Mexican Labor Migration to California in the 1980s,” (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1988); Jorge Bustamante, and Cornelius, eds., Flujos Migratorios Mexicanos hacia Estados Unidos (Mexico: Comisión Sobre las Relaciones México-Estados Unidos, 1989); and Jorge Bustarmante, “Interdependence, Undocumented Migration. and National Security,” unpublished ms. (1992).
4. See Saskia Sassen, The Global City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), and The Mobility of Capital and Labor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
5. This “musical chairs” theory was put forth by Roger Waldinger and Thomas Bailey. See Waldinger’s “The Social Networks of Ethnic Entrepreneurs,” unpublished miss. (1990); and Through the Eye of the Needle: handgiants and Enterprise in New York’s Garment Trades (New York: New York University Press, 1986); as well as Thomas Bailey, Immigrant and Native Workers; Contrasts and Competition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987).
6. Work on the enclave theory of incorporation is commonly associated with Alejandro Portes. See Portes and Robert Bach, Latin Journey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
7. Regarding transnatiorialization, see Basch, I. et al. “Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration; Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered,” at the Research Institute for the Study of Man, New York, NY, May 3-5, 1990; Alarcon, R. “El Proceso, de ‘nortenización’: Impacto de la migración Internacional en Chavinda, Michoacan,” in Thomas Calvo and Gustavo López, eds., Movimientos de Población en el Occidente de Mexico (Mexico, D.P. and Zamora, Mich: El Colegio de Michoacan, 1988); Georges, Eugenia, The Making of a Transnational Community: Migration, Development and Cultural Change in the Dominican Republic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Goldring, L. Development and Migration: A Comparative Analysis of Two Mexican Migrant Circuits, Commission for the Study of fInternational Migration and Cooperative Economic Development, No. 37, May 1990; Massey, D. et al., Return to Action: The Social Process of International Migration from Western Mexico, (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1987); and Robert C. Smith, “Los Ausentes Siempre Presentes: The Imagining, Making and Politics of Transnational Communities Between the U.S. and Mexico,” Working Papers, Institute for Iberian and Latin American Studies, Columbia University, 1992.
8. This loss is underestimated. Assuming a 3% rate of population growth for the 1980s, Ticuani’s population would have been 3,952 in 1990, and hence the adjusted net population loss for the 1980s would be 1,469, or 38%, This figure still undureestimates the outflow because it excludes the considerable number who left Prior to 195O. I examined the townships birth and death records from the l900’s to 1989. In 1939, there were 142 births in Ticuani; in 1959, 208; in 1968, 251; in 1979, 208; in 1989, 120. Deaths follow a similar thend: in 1939, 30; in 1951, 60; in 1969, 31; in 1978, 39; in 1989, 20.

Tags: US immigration, Mixteca, New York City, transnational

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