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Everywhere one turns these days, people are talking about globalization and the open promises of the “new economy.” To some degree, the term “globalization” threatens to replace the old notion of “international,” signifying a move away from the nation-state as the primary organizing body for social, political and economic relations and towards a consideration of emerging forces and institutions that are fundamentally flexible and independent of established physical borders. Central to this idea is a belief that traditional boundaries — between nations, between people, between disciplines — are being interpreted in innovative ways that offer new opportunities and freedoms. Discussions of the new economy are often characterized by the euphoria associated with large-scale structural change, a seductive perspective that threatens to obscure the fundamentally social nature of globalization and draw attention away from complex experiences of people struggling to make sense of a changing world.
One of the most concrete ways in which globalization challenges traditional boundaries is through the growing significance of migration — the mass movement of people spurred by a variety of forces, including rising economic inequality, violent conflict, ecological degradation, persecution and the desire for a better life. It is estimated that nearly two percent of the world‘s population are migrants (both voluntary and involuntary) and that migrant remittances — the money sent by laborers in one place to their families in another — is second only to oil in terms of the overall global transference of wealth.
To arrive at a true understanding of migration, however, requires going beyond statistics to consider the meaning of the lived experience of movement, the shift of people from one place to another. As migrants travel — crossing borders, boundaries and lines of demarcation — they change both themselves and the world around them. Migrants are profoundly impacted by the experience of migration while influencing the communities they travel to and transforming social life in their place of origin. Despite their central role in the new economy, the experience of the growing number of migrants is often unrecognized by those who benefit from their labor. In fact, even where there is a recognition of the economic contributions of migration, there is generally a limited awareness of the nature of migrants‘ experiences and the sense in which migration, as a key element of globalization, binds together disparate people in fascinating and significant ways.
This is certainly the case in the United States, where few Americans recognize our daily dependence upon migrant farmworkers, whose stories can help provide a more pro-found understanding of the human dimensions of globalization. Thinking critically about our nation‘s farm laborers illustrates the ways in which the simple act of purchasing an apple, orange or tomato connects each of us to a network of hidden lives structured by global forces and the shifting significance of borders.
Farmworkers are the poorest and most marginalized of America‘s laborers. They earn an average of $7,500 per year and over two-thirds live in poverty. Regardless of their low wages, fewer than one in five use any form of needs-based assistance, defining farmworkers as the epitome of the working poor. Despite our country‘s growth economy, farmworkers‘ wages have been steadily declining in real terms.
One of the central reasons why agricultural wages and working conditions have declined is that increasing numbers of farmworkers are transnational migrants, people who labor in our country in order to support families living abroad, generally in Mexico. Currently, about two thirds of our nation‘s migrant farmworkers — an estimated 600,000 mostly male laborers — tend and harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat as a means of supporting their families in Mexico, often in rural ranchos where the cost of living is significantly lower than in the United States.
The temporary, seasonal nature of farmwork ensures that there is always steady turnover and new jobs, and its informal structure makes agriculture particularly accessible to undocumented immigrants, who now represent over half of our nation‘s farm laborers. In addition, the seasonal nature of agricultural employment allows transnational migrants to return to their ranchos on the off-season — to visit their families, tend their own fields and care for their children.
Our country‘s agricultural industry is an extremely efficient, highly modern enterprise dominated by large corporations and fully integrated into a professional business world guided by consultants, MBAs and sophisticated marketing and management techniques. Politically, the industry is well represented by powerful lobbying groups and trade associations and, in terms of production, American agriculture relies on the latest in high technology. Because of these factors, fresh fruit and vegetable sales have increased considerably to over $40 billion per year. Most of the growth over the last two decades is attributable to significant gains in global exports, as American produce is now shipped throughout the world, benefiting from advances in storage and shipping as well as increasingly open domestic markets.
Despite the success, profitability and high-tech efficiency of American agriculture, fruits and vegetables must still be harvested by hand-picked off of trees, bushes and vines, piece by piece. As such, our nation finds itself exporting ever larger amounts of produce in a profitable, expanding industry that is increasingly reliant on mass numbers of poor, transnational migrants. While some might view this trend as a throwback to less modern times, it is actually more accurate to view the shift as a central, though less heralded, expression of globalization. In fact, it is as a result of the “new economy” that our nation‘s fresh fruit and vegetable industry is now almost completely dependent upon foreign immigrant workers who labor in the United States, often illegally, and earn so little that they can only support families who live in a different, far poorer, nation.
The story of transnational migrant farm workers, however, is also a tale of how the movement of hundreds of thousands of people each year is reconceptualizing social worlds on both sides of the border. As a result of the demands of American agriculture, there are now thousands of rural ranchos in Mexico in which the entire male population travel north each year to harvest our country‘s crops. These men appear and disappear in a constant migratory cycle, leaving behind communities of women, children and the elderly who are entirely dependent on dollars earned in the United States.
At first glance, the ranchos where there are no men seem simply quiet, though there is clearly an uncomfortable stillness to the silence. The ranchos exude an emptiness, a weighty sense of absence. Even the most casual conversations reveal the fact that these communities exist in a state of constant waiting. The women and children who remain at home speak longingly of the several months each year when the men return, when husbands come back to their wives and fathers see their children again. When migrants come home, people say that the ranchos feel alive again. Families in these communities learn to bear a steady burden of insecurity, born of the cyclical absence of men and the enormous space that separates the men‘s homes from the distant fields where they work. Residents of ranchos who once spent their whole lives within the same small circle of relatives, friends and neighbors must now cope with divided families and the extended absence of men.
Despite the strains and difficulties of migration, the ranchos that send men to the United States often exhibit striking economic prosperity, revealing the transformative power of dollars. Many communities display large, multi-story houses filled with modern conveniences: stereos, video recorders, giant screen televisions, washers and dryers. Often one sees new cars and pick-ups bearing United States‘ license plates parked in the street and many people wear fashions brought down from the north. Sometimes entire communities have been materially transformed in less than a decade, a testament to the tenacity and dedication with which Mexican workers save their money to invest in their homes and provide for their families.
As the beneficiaries of migrants‘ labor most Americans are unaware of the ways in which our economic system influences and structures the world beyond our borders, not only regarding macroeconomic shifts, but also on a more intimate, human scale. In fact, the mass ebb and flow of farmworkers back and forth across our southern border is not only restructuring life in Mexican ranchos, but is also changing American society. Migration involves interdependence, even when the connections are hidden and the long-term consequences remain shifting and uncertain.
Our society is characterized by enormous material wealth and the almost magical
availability of a diverse array of commodities whose production often seems automatic and effortless. Increasingly, there is a growing divide between those who make things and those who consume them within a global economy where labor-intensive commodities are typically made in foreign countries. Globalization encourages the invisibility of production which, in the end, is really a form of social forgetting, a politics of glossing over the real structural and economic relations that allow for our high standard of living. As the care and harvest of our nation‘s fruits and vegetables grows increasingly dependent upon a transnational workforce, our country‘s agricultural system redefines the significance of our borders and binds us, as consumers and citizens, ever more closely to the struggles of distant families and their changing lives. By listening to the voices of these transnational migrants, we can see how we are connected with a weave of interconnected lives, whose logic reveals the nature of our global world.
Below is a selection of voices of transnational migrants laboring in our nation‘s fields and their families living in Mexico. These stories are edited versions of longer narratives excerpted from my book, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today (Harcourt Brace 1998; revised paperback edition, University of California Press: 2000).
Augustín MagañaAugustín Magaña is the mayor of La Yerbabuena, a rancho with a long history of migration to the United States.
La Yerbabuena used to be really poor. The houses were made of stone. The streets were unpaved, pure dirt. When it rained you couldn‘t go out in clean clothes because there was so much mud, water, and sewage. There were also animals in the streets —pigs, burros, horses, dogs. There were no gas stoves and no electricity. In the hills, you sowed by hand. If you had a piece of flat land, you plowed with a pair of oxen, but most of us used hoes. It was hard work. Life was tough. In the old days we suffered just to grow old.
Now, we have nice houses filled with conveniences — clean water, electricity, televisions, satellite dishes. Everyone now has radios, tape decks, stoves, refrigerators, electric irons, and freezers. We talk to our children about what things were like so they‘ll appreciate what we‘ve done. Some remember when we first paved the streets, put in electricity, and installed clean water. Even those who never saw what our lives were like, even those who weren‘t born into the same world as us, know that back then everybody was poor. Life is better these days, thanks to God and the chance to go to the United States.
Maria GutierrezMaria Gutierrez is 45 years old and has five children.
When your husband is away, you worry a lot. You think about so many things. You worry that he might be caught by Immigration or have an accident. You worry that an animal might bite him as he crosses over the hills in the desert, or that he might drown in the river. The men don‘t go over there to enjoy themselves. They go there to suffer.
The children miss their father a lot. They understand the situation, but they don‘t accept it. The five months while he‘s here pass so quickly, and when he‘s gone, time passes so slow. We have a calendar and we count each day with an x. We make it, from year to year, but it‘s difficult. Towards the end of September, I tell the children, “Soon your father will be back.” Before he returns, we‘re tense and nervous. We wait for the knock on the door. When my husband finally arrives, I feel protected. Then, everything is different. What can I say? I am like so many women. The men go to the United States. That‘s what they have to do and the women are left behind. We suffer — cousins, nieces, neighbors. Here, there is sadness, a lot of sadness. Sometimes in order to lessen the pain, I put on music. There‘s one song I really like. My husband likes it too:
Rodolfo GutierrezRodolfo is Maria Gutierrez‘s eldest child. He is 17.
My father left for the first time the year I was born. Since then he‘s gone north every year. It was difficult when I was young, but I gradually began to understand Still, you never really stop missing him. A father is like the foundation of a house. A father makes a house strong, so it doesn‘t collapse in on itself. If the father leaves, then the house seems false and insecure.
I know a lot of guys from here who‘ve gone north and returned really different. They change — their personalities, their ideas, their clothes — their whole way of being. When they come back, they don‘t show their parents the same respect. They think that because they‘ve earned money they can run their own lives. There are some students who go north to spend their school vacations working. They say that when they come back they‘ll continue studying, but once they go to the United States, they leave school and just keep traveling north to work.
Until I was 15, I never wanted to go north. I still don‘t have a strong desire to go, but I‘ve grown more interested. My father says it‘s better to study. He doesn‘t want me to go through what he‘s suffered. My mother also wants me to stay here. I know it‘s difficult over there, but I want to see it firsthand. I want to know if it‘s really as hard as they say. I wonder if going north will harm me, if I‘ll return changed like so many others. Still, if I go north, I won‘t stop studying. I just want to open my eyes, to see what life is really like in the United States.
Alberto MosqueraAlberto Mosquera is a priest among the Missionaries of San Carlos, who are dedicated to serving the pastoral needs of migrants and refugees.
Young men here dream of going to California, making money, coming home to get married, and building a house. They think this is what a man must do. They build American-style houses, extravagant two-story brick homes with satellite dishes, big garages, and electrical appliances. These large houses filled with things have enormous symbolic power. They draw attention to themselves, showing everyone in town that the man is a migrant who‘s returned with lots of money. They buy things to show that they can control something in the world. The houses, appliances and things migrants buy are acts of protest, reactions to the poverty and suffering they endure. Some houses are so big, they look like temples.
The problem here is one of social injustice. The men migrate because they have no opportunities here. They see emigration as the only solution. They have no alternatives, no goals, no plans. They never say, “I want to study,” or “I want to be a doctor, a professional. “They don‘t stay in school and they won‘t even talk about careers.
The migrant‘s suffering is the spiritual embodiment of our world‘s problems. We need to understand that migrants are the children of God. We need to look beyond borders because, in the end, we are all brothers. Each migrant wears the face of Christ who was himself a migrant, a wanderer who said, “Because I was a stranger and you gave me shelter.”
Elvia NuñezNuñez is 20 years old.
The women here are afraid, really afraid. Over there, it‘s all men. We know that they have little adventures. There are even some who have second families. With all the freedom that the men have over there and with all the things they do, the wives are afraid that their husbands men might come back with some kind of illness. The women who are most afraid are the ones whose men stay in the United States for a long time. That‘s when they worry that they‘ll lose their husbands. The men always say that they‘ll be back, but there are some who leave and never return.
Like my friends, I also want to get married, but I don‘t want to end up like the women here, always complaining because their men spend more time in the United States than at home. Perhaps it would be better to stay here and be poor, eating just a little, but living together — two people together. That‘s my way of thinking, but in the end I‘ll probably be just like all the other young women here: get married, start a family, and live torn apart by migration. It‘s not what I want, but I suppose that will be my future.
Manuel LopezManuel Lopez works in the apple orchards of southwestern Michigan.
There is no life sadder than that of a migrant. Sometimes you feel so screwed you can‘t even dream, living here, far from home, far from your family. Every year, I tell my wife what it‘s like here. She asks me questions, but it‘s rare that a woman can understand our lives and our suffering.
In some ways, it‘s our fault. When our families ask us to send them pictures, we put on our best clothes and stand somewhere nice, surrounded by flowers. We‘ll send them a picture of a big, beautiful house that a rich gabacho owns, with two brand-new cars out front. Back home, they‘ll say, “Look at my husband. That‘s the house he lives in. Look at those cars. He‘s living so well up there.” We never take pictures of ourselves on top of a ladder, the way we really are, covered in dirt. We should take photos of ourselves working in the orchards, coming home each day tired, cooking up beans, washing our clothes.
I know everyone on this labor camp and they‘ve known me since I was a child. On Sundays, we gather together to talk, eat, drink beer and spend time together. Sometimes we gather as many as a hundred people from back home. The mayordomo here is related to many of the workers. He gives all of us jobs when we arrive each year.
As long as Mexico has no good jobs, people will keep coming here. These days, so many men are coming to the United States that there are little ranchos that are disappearing. All of Mexico is coming here.
Santiago LopezSantiago Lopez is Manuel‘s brother. He has worked in the United States every year since he was 18.
I‘d like it if the Americans would work with us in the fields, even if it was only for a day. It would be a good experience for the gabachos to pick with us, carry a ladder, and listen to us talk. It would help them understand our lives. Then, when they saw workers in the fields, covered with mud, they‘d know that we‘ve come to the United States from the ranchos of a poor country in order to work. Then, they might understand that we‘re just trying to get ahead.
Daniel Rothenberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the U-M and a Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows He has also taught in the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago and in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Rothenberg has conducted research on a variety of issues, including Mexican migration to the United States, transition from military to democratic rule in Latin America, social and economic development and democratization, truth com-missions, human rights and the social impact of state terror and violence in Latin America. Parts of this article are excerpted from With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today (Harcourt Brace 1998; revised paperback edition, University of California Press: 2000).