Economic crisis and the social reproduction of Mexican transnational working classes


Through the details of the daily lives of women and men from rural Central Mexico, this book analyzed the impacts of economic restructuring in Mexico and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, and the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2009. By following people from Pahuatlân and Zapotitlân for more than a decade, we learned how individuals such as Aleida (Chapter 3) and Gilda (Chapter 4) experienced the erosion of their life conditions as poverty worsened in the 1980s. Lucia (Chapter 3) and Beatriz (Chapters 4 and 6) described their experiences as workers in the United States and what kind of life they expected to create for themselves and their children. Finally, Julia (Chapter 5), Carla (Chapter 6) and others explained why they stayed or returned to Mexico as the dark days of the Great Recession pressed down on the working classes.

In these conclusions, we will summarize our main findings by drawing together the experiences of Pahuatecos/as and Zapotitecos/as through whose lives we can detect broader economic and political transformations. We will also discuss the implications of our research for the study of migration-return, class and gender particularly through the lens of social reproduction. We believe our contributions have not only something to say about the Mexican migrant lives we analyze here, but also about the forces and tendencies that produce new classes of precarious migrant workers and how gender structures the selectivity of return and migration.

From migration-return to the social reproduction of working classes across spaces

Throughout this book we have situated migratory flows within broader historical processes of capital accumulation. From this perspective, “migration” or "return” do not capture the whole field to which we are referring. Rather, they invoke methodological nationalism (Glick Schiller & Salazar, 2013) and confine the analytic gaze to only one or another dimension of what we view as a complex, multidimensional process. Methodological nationalism runs the risk of reifying dichotomous thinking—here/there, us/them, citizen/“illegal”—that, in

Crisis and transnational working classes 157 turn, shores up xenophobic thinking and praxis. As Gupta and Ferguson (1992) argue, “[t]he enforced ‘difference’ of places becomes part and parcel of a global system of domination” (p. 17). They urge us to denaturalize cultural and spatial divisions by mining our attention to how these are “produced and maintained in a field of power relations in a world always already spatially interconnected” (1992, p. 17).

In order to heed Gupta and Ferguson’s call, we have attempted to maintain a holistic gaze on capitalism as a heterogeneous global system (Wolf, 1982). We have sought to understand how Pahuatecos/as’ and Zapotitecos/as’ labor is included in productive processes, while they are simultaneously excluded and devalued socially and culmrally (Heyman, 2012). Instead of dichotomies related to space and identity, we can think in terms of migrants—differentiated by class, gender, ethnicity, “illegality”—inserted into different assemblages of capitalist relations. This vision requires not only a focus on the productive sphere—the insertion in labor markets, wages, employer-employee relations, etc.—but also on social reproduction and the daily struggles beyond the workplace to secure a dignified life. This wide-angle lens in our research is an attempt to come to terms, ethnographically, with the notion that capitalism is a total system: one in which the labor to produce commodities and the labor to produce people are intimately connected (Bhattacharya, 2017b, p. 3). Therefore, our understanding of class takes into account both production and social reproduction.

By focusing on the formation of a transnational, mobile working class, our approach goes beyond methodological nationalism in order to bring into view the fundamental reshaping of migration-return flows between de-capitalized and disarticulated areas of Central Mexico and areas renewed/remade by recent capital investment on the East Coast of the United States. By using the term working class, we are not simply referring to a group of people who have jobs (Bhattacharya, 2017a, p. 68). Instead, we start from a broader notion, one outlined by Marx but more recently fleshed out by feminist thinkers like Bhattacharya and Fraser (Fraser, 2014). In their view, a fuller understanding of workers takes into account their lives beyond the tasks they perform while on the clock. "In thinking about the working class,” Bhattacharya argues, “it is essential to recognize that workers have an existence beyond the workplace. The theoretical challenge therefore lies in understanding the relationship between this existence and that of their productive lives under the direct domination of the capitalist” (Bhattacharya, 2017a, p. 69).

Workers surplus to capital in Central Mexico were and are absorbed into labor markets on the East Coast as illegalized, racialized and therefore, cheapened labor. In this view the border is not the boundary between two self-contained socio-political spaces, with Mexico on one side and the United States on the other. Rather it is a “value-filtering” mechanism (De Genova, 2005; Heyman, 2001; Kearney, 2004) cheapening labor by activating the symbolic violence of the “illegal” racialized discourses and the immigration industrial complex (Golash-Boza, 2009) that over-determines the value of bodies out-of-place. Not only are we referring to the value of their labor performed for capitalism, but also to Mexican immigrants’ social value, of how they are judged to be deserving, or not, of belonging to society more generally.

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