Migration: Its’ Causes and Effects within a Mexican Sub-Culture
“Migration uproots people from their families and their communities and from their conventional ways of understanding the world. They enter a new terrain filled with new people, new images, new lifeways, and new experiences. They return and act as agents of change.” (Grimes 1998: 66)
The migration experience is one that has deeply altered and affected the lives of many peoples, including Mexicans and specifically Putlecans. Some say that the vast numbers of these people who decide to migrate is a new phenomenon. But there is actually a rich and complex history to it that goes back as far as the 1600s. This paper discusses the causes that stimulated migration to and from the Putla region, and the effects these migration patterns had on the identity of the Putlecan people.
Only half a century ago, in 1940 a majority of the Putlecan people were not content with the way their lives were being run, and were seeking solutions to their problems. Under President Porfirio Diaz the Putlecan people were offered a dramatic solution: the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program gave workers a new opportunity: migration. By migrating into either Mexico City or even the north, the United States, they hoped to find a more prosperous means of living. The program offered to thousands of Mexican workers the chance to work farms in the United States and get paid good wages. Unfortunately, it had its failings. As rewarding as the program may have seemed, it turned out to be anything other than what these people had hoped for. “Some did manage to save enough to build a home, but most had their illusions crushed by the hard work and the meager salaries paid. (Grimes 1998: 40-41)” Basically, the program was a way for the American employers to exploit Mexican workers and pay them little, so that they would wind up with the benefits instead of the workers. The program ended in 1964. This represented the first major wave of Putlecan migration of the 20th century.
So what is Putla? Where is it? You could say it’s in the state of Oaxaca, in the Mixtec region, in the subregion of Mixteca de la Costa, on the pre-Hispanic and colonial north and south trade routes, or in the Valley of Putla where Mixteca Alta, Mixteca Baja, and Mixteca de la Costa meet. This region has a rich history of triumphs and losses, which helped sculpt what it is today. As a boundary between diverse ecological zones, it has been and remains the site of an important regional marketplace. In the first half of the 16th century, the Spaniards arrived, and the indigenous people’s ways of life were changed forever. One of the first things the European people did was change the political and social systems. On the political side, there was indirect rule, governed by officials, and social hierarchies were implemented. Class, race, and gender were the means by which people were set apart. On the social side, Spain brought the influences of the Catholic religion, including a patriarchal social structure. In that light, women were held in very low-standing. Race became the main justification for discrimination and subordination of indigenous peoples. One huge change in particular that the Spaniards made was how the economy of Putla functioned. On their arrival, they introduced new livestock. They also brought the means of sugar production that flourished for a time but subsequently declined over the years. The principal economic activity became commerce. The indigenous people found themselves in a classic colonial economy where they harvested raw materials for export to their occupiers’ benefit, and then had to buy them back from them as finished goods as consumers. Some say it was a prosperous future the Europeans were bringing to the indigenous people.
Returning to the twentieth century, Porfirio Diaz continued to impose changes on Mexico, Putla and the Putlecans. The government confiscated the land that belonged to the church and native Putlecans so that they could sell it back to them. Sounds good right? I mean, just a couple bucks to get that land back? I don’t think so. “The idea was to make Mexico a country of small-scale landowners, but only rich Mexicans and foreign investors had money to buy land.” (Grimes, 1998: 31) According to Diaz, the purpose of his reforms was to modernize Putla, and encourage foreign immigration, especially of the wealthier whites. “Immigration policies encouraged the entry of white foreigners and prohibited that of people of color in order to “whiten” the population.” (Grimes, 1998: 33) The result was a shift in land ownership from the Putlecans to either white foreign investors, or rich Mexicans from outside the municipos. This change was drastic. Living as a Putlecan under these new conditions became more difficult due to the changes in land ownership, and the increasing presence and influence in Putla of wealthy outsiders. This new shift in power in the region added more reasons for the locals to migrate from Putla in search of new homes and better opportunities.
The once short-lived Bracero Program had come and gone. Diaz’ land reform policies had failed to improve the lives of the average Putlecan. Many Putlecans still had hopes that they could do better for themselves in the bigger Mexican cities or the U.S.A. Those who decided to migrate soon found themselves earning more money, but they also experienced an unexpected transformation of their identities. Upon arriving in America, Putlecans had to start over with a new reality as they “discovered that they are lumped together with other Spanish-speaking people and are referred to as Hispanics’ by the dominant society.” (Grimes 1998: 83) Their identity becomes relative, they’re at the “bottom of the barrel” to start in the eyes of many Americans. So why was it that some Putlecans were willing to go through all this? Remittances! About 2/3 of migrants sent remittances to their families and spouses to provide them their basic needs (Grimes 1998: 61). One of the main areas that they preferred, and continue to prefer to migrate to, is the East Coast: specifically Atlantic City. “Little Putla,” in Atlantic City, has done well in aiding Putlecans in succeeding. Little Putla is a six-block area that consists of small businesses and restaurants that allow Putlecans to promote their culture, and even persuade tourists to visit Putla (Grimes 1998: 59). It is similar to Chinatowns in New York City or San Francisco, or even “Little Italy” in nearby Hartford. The emergence of these kinds of communities that keep their culture distinct can be seen as a rejection of assimilation. However, the Putlecans do not always find themselves this fortunate in other parts of the country.
Another more recent obstacle Putlecans encounter in the United States is the influence of its mass media. Film, television, radio, magazines, each of them serves as a mean of telling newcomers what they need to have and do to be “progressive” and “modern” (Grimes 1998: 72). Consumerism, which is such a major part of American culture, finds its way back into the Putlecan society. Migrants returning to Putla are proud of their financial gains which make them feel superior to the folks at home.
These confusions and changes in Putlecan perception of their identity are the results of the migration experience. Due to the influence of the media and their experience in America, being “modern” and “successful” depends on the false impression that whoever “dies with the most toys wins.” “Even though their income level may make them poor by U.S. standards, they use dress and bathing habits to create an illusory transcendence of class with the hope that they will succeed in achieving their desired economic gain and change the illusion into reality.” (Grimes 1998: 88)
Speaking of illusion, the prospect of consumerism presents the illusion that one day they can become as “civilized” as the wealthy and elite white if they work hard enough and abide by their rules. It may sound like a good thing, but it is indeed an illusion. In reality, it is a form of the carrot-and-stick. The carrot represents the wealth and status they so desperately want, and the migrant is the rabbit who keeps chasing after it, but ultimately, never attaining it (desirable wealth and status). One of the most disastrous examples of this dynamic was the events leading to the 1982 oil crisis and the structural adjustments to the Mexican economy and society that ensued. What happened during the 1982 oil crisis was that up until then, Mexico had plenty of oil that would earn them enough profits to cover the interest payments on loans taken from the World Bank. Unfortunately, the price of oil dropped and they could no longer compete at the lower prices. There was at least one Middle-Eastern country that under-bid Mexico (can you say, Saudi Arabia?). This left Mexico in a bad financial situation. Part of the conditions of their World Bank loan stated, “In order to receive loans, countries must accept their demands, which include the privatization of state enterprises, and the transfer of resources from production for internal consumption to export sales aimed at debt payment in currency that has international backing’ “(Grimes 1998: 119) This also had a negative effect on Mexican (and by extension, Putlecan) prestige. Basically, Mexico found itself in a situation similar to bankruptcy; and they remain at the mercy of these “structural adjustments” which pretty much gave control of their economy to the Bank, whose leadership is dominated by powerful interests wanting to get richer. Thanks to an ever-increasing interest of billions per month, Mexico is still paying off that debt today by cutting government programs and slashing workers’ wages. This only generates more motivation to emigrate from Putla or Mexico to the greener pastures of el Norte (the North).
At this point in the discussion, I would like to dispel one somewhat racist American myth. In today’s debates over the increasing unemployment, people in America seek scapegoats; the defining reasons as to why there aren’t as many job opportunities as there used to be. One place the label of scapegoat has been given to often is the number of Mexicans who have migrated to the U.S. There are citizens who make statements along the lines “it’s all those dirty Mexicans’ fault that we can’t get jobs,” and “we should not let anymore of them in.” What most Americans, even the rest of the world, do not take into account is that Putlecans are not unlike many other societies or people who have been exploited by imperialism and globalization. It is this exploitation that brings about migration and all sorts of changes to their culture and identity. What we see is that the causes of Mexican immigration to the United States is a multi-faceted story of historic cause-and-effect that has taken place over centuries and continues today.
The introduction to this paper mentioned that migration from the Putlan region implies both a departure and a return. The story has influences from the 16th century to this very day. It is a phenomena where one effect is the cause of another effect and so on and so forth. Like the landscape of a land, the identify of a people is one of evolution, that bears the scars of its past and has within it the seeds of its future.
Crossing Borders. Changing Social Identities in Southern Mexico.
University of Arizona Press. Tucson.