Reinsertion and social reproduction in Mexico

The continuing need for remittances and the financialization of rural life

Without changing US trade policy and ending structural adjustment programs and neoliberal economic reforms, millions of displaced people will be forced to migrate, no matter how many walls are built on the border.

(Bacon, 2013, p. 276)

Despite the pronouncements of the “end of the Great Migration,” or the somewhat misleading description of Mexican migration to the United States as “below net zero,” people from Pahuatlán and Zapotitlán and hundreds of other communities continue to cross the border. Migration is still fundamental to the economies of such towns evidenced by the record US$35.5 billion sent back to Mexico in 2019 (BBVA Bancomer & CONAPO, 2019). What role do remittances play in daily life in Pahuatlán and Zapotitlán?

An important finding is that remittances, by and large, are channeled into the costs of basic subsistence. As discussed in Chapter 4, providing for families’ basic needs appeared to be “progress” against the backdrop of worsening conditions of social reproduction in Mexico, forming a central motivation for migration. However, the failed attempts to create productive investments illustrate the problems of transferring human and economic capital to disarticulated, “remnant” places (Sider, 2006), such as Pahuatlán and Zapotitlán. For example, although Ursula and her husband (Chapter 6) could draw on their restaurant experience in New York to open their own establishment in the village, they competed with other families who also opened restaurants. Yet, in a town of less than 3,000, the food service market was quickly saturated, and most restaurants were destined to fail. Raúl (Chapter 5) decided to invest his savings in a business in Pahuatlán. He tried to offer inflatable games, tables and chairs to rent for parties, but the unstable and insufficient economy of most households did not allow for luxury expenses. Instead, he bet on a short-lived cleaning supply store whose profits were meager due to the high cost of rent for the downtown commercial space. Many migrants wanted to open a business in Mexico that would support their family and eliminate the need to migrate again to the United States, but this “Mexican dream” is very difficult to achieve. Economic and social capital may be transferred, but it may not sustain productive investments without additional future remittances.

Migrants from Pahuatlán and Zapotitlán who left in the early 1990s and remain in the United States continue to send remittances to their parents and siblings in Mexico to avoid their increasing impoverishment. Remittances and the poverty subsidies (see next section) mitigate the impact of the privatization of services (health, energy, electricity and education). A few migrants have been able to establish successfill businesses (Juana's brother-in-law, Chapter 6). Some of these were established outside the town to avoid the market saturation common in small rural towns.

Missing from the celebratory accounts of remittances and development is the stoiy of how migration contributes to the loss of human and social capital in rural Central Mexico. Migrants transfer their energy, skills, creativity, knowledge and many other talents along with their labor to the United States. While these losses are difficult to quantify, we have heard from women and men throughout this book about the costs of migration in terms of reduced wellbeing of their families. For example, Karina (Chapter 6), a woman whose spouse and children have been in the United States for years, shares her frustration: “[The United States] broke everything up and ruined us. There are many abandoned families, women left by themselves. I have a house, but not a spouse. What’s the point of having a house if the family has split up?” If migration promised anything to people in Central Mexico, it promised a better life. Gilda (Chapter 6) directly questions that premise, telling us that Mexico will be “full of human garbage” because “our children are living fantasies.” She, like many people we interviewed did not feel as though she or her family had benefited from migration in terms of social mobility or improved wellbeing.

The selective hegemony of poverty’ administration: the “poor” and “women”

The privatization of social resources in the neoliberal era resulted in the state's abandonment of broad segments of the Mexican population beginning 40 years ago. State withdrawal from social provisions was accompanied by successive selective intervention programs that configured new fragmented subjects, members of a varied sector of “extreme poor” worthy of assistance. In line with the logic of structural adjustment, programs transferred a substantial portion of their costs of operation to their beneficiaries. If eligible, individuals are coresponsible for their progress, but also their failures. These interventions have resulted in the criminalization of the dependent population for their “addiction” to social assistance and for the irrationality of their consumption habits. Program beneficiaries are accused of squandering social wealth that they played no part in generating. Despite these fundamental flaws, state subsidies, along with salaries and remittances, are essential for the reproduction of poor, rural households.

In 2007, the year in which return migration increased substantially, the student scholarships offered by the state program Oportunidades (later called Prospera), provided 945 pesos (US$87) for each primary and secondary student eveiy other month. In 2013, Programa 70 y Más (Program 70 and More) now Programa Pensión para Adultos Mayores (Pension Program for Older Adults) began operation, providing a “compensatory pension” for Mexico’s elderly population. According to the National Council of the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, this economic support is ten tunes less than a “regular pension” offered by the state institutions serving salaried employees. These programs reflect the fragmentation in the coverage of social protections (Enciso, 2018).

Taking into consideration the distinction Fraser (1997) makes between redistribution and recognition policies, we argue that the neoliberal programs of social assistance focalized and directed toward the relative surplus population displace the tension between capital and labor toward the division and hostility among employed and unemployed factions of the working class, fueling class fragmentation. In this perverse game, the population most marginalized—rural women specialized in transnationalized, stratified social reproduction and care— is marked as inherently abusive, deficient and insatiable; beneficiaries of an undeserved generosity. This discourse informs both nativist, anti-immigrant attitudes in the United States, and the affronts and insults that circulate in origin communities employed against those in need, turning them into targets of contempt.

There is no direct relation between the expulsion and incorporation of so-called cheap labor in deindustrialized economies. As we have demonstrated in this book, gender is one of the strucmres that mediates the selectivity of the relative surplus population. To understand how gender shapes a variety of practices, identities and institutions implicated in migratory regimes, it is necessary to overcome the limited analysis of gender at the individual level of the difference between men and women and the statistical register of their unequal participation in migratory flows. From this perspective, we consider gender not only as an individual status that shapes lived experience, but also as a structure that underpins social inequality. Conceiving gender as a structure and not only as an empirical individual attribute permits the recognition of its manifestation in the global restructuring of work and in the selectivity of migration and return.

The feminization of work in tertiary economies and the feminization of migration are processes that have gone hand in hand in many different parts of the world. The incorporation of the much sought-after labor of immigrants in destination countries mitigates the effects of the disarticulation of the Fordist gender assemblage: male-waged worker-provider-head of family/woman-house-wife-dependent. Although undesirable for their procreative capacities and their claims on the state for recognition of their children, immigrants from neoliberalized zones, both in the Global North and South, constitute a key piece of the social reproductive circuits that sustain the labor force and that have suffered the onslaught of privatizing policies.

For these new classes of workers, migration and return during the years of the 2007-2009 crisis represent important milestones in migrant workers’ oscillating relationship with capital. The experiences documented here through an ethnographic approach, although mediated by particular histories and geographies, account for the forces and tendencies underlying the formation of these new classes of precarious workers.

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