On Mexican Transnational Families

by Gail Mummert, El Colegio de Michoacán

Reviewed in this essay:

Mexicans in Alaska: An Ethnography of Mobility, Place, and Transnational Life, by Sara V. Komarnisky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018)

Motherhood Across Borders: Immigrants and their Children in Mexico and New York, by Gabrielle Oliveira (New York: New York University Press, 2018)

The contemporary world is increasingly one of persons on the move whose lives unfold across borders, oceans and continents. Such relentless mobility and multiple attachments characterize the quotidian lives of rural Mexican migrants who live in the shadows of the United States economy, and who are depicted in the pages of two recent ethnographic studies. Based on painstaking, long-term, multi-sited research, these two books collect and collate stories of separation and togetherness, and of feeling “at home” and yet simultaneously being out of place and rejected. Through their exploration of the ambiguities and paradoxes of everyday life for Mexican transnational families, these volumes contribute in novel ways to debates among political decision makers and academics pertaining to global care chains, citizenship, place-making, identity politics, and the many meanings of belonging.

Komarnisky, from the global North, and Oliveira, from the global South, are two young female authors joining a rising wave of scholar-story tellers. They deftly bring to bear their training in anthropology and international affairs, respectively, to vividly portray the embodied experiences of multigenerational families navigating the interstices between two nation-states. Taking their readers behind the closed doors of households and into the children’s classrooms, Komarnisky and Oliveira reveal the paradoxes involved in being a mixed-status transnational family—like those they followed over the time and space of generations.

Oliveira tracks undocumented mothers and their work of caring in the urban anonymity of New York City. Her subjects hail from a band of six states in central Mexico. Komarnisky traces the journeys of  migrants as they move  between a particular town in Michoacán state (Acuitzio) and Anchorage, Alaska, and as they become either dual citizens or US permanent residents. Her interlocutors refer to this mobility as “echarle vueltas” (p. 7). Both authors push the boundaries of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands northward in an attempt to show how people understand and shape that frontier through their everyday practices, such as making phone calls, putting down roots, sending text messages, remitting money and goods, caring long-distance, going back and forth, and being involved in both mundane and momentous decision-making remotely.

Komarnisky, as she draws the contours of the transnational space of “Mexican Alaska,” builds her argument around the trope of people “out of place.” She paints on a broad canvas, and her focus moves from the ways in which men and women of three generations in one family network establish a foothold in the frozen North, to how they “get used to” living a transnational life, to the objects that travel to and fro in migrants’ suitcases, as well as the meanings they attach to this material culture. In temporal terms, this migrant saga spans from the 1950s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, challenging the apparent novelty of ties between the migrants’ hometown nestled in the mountains of central-western Mexico and Anchorage—the “last frontier town” that grew into a small city in the circumpolar North.

Likewise, Oliveira—in a study focused on transnational motherhood practices—adopts a multigenerational approach that spans borders and disciplines. While centering her attention on the migrant mothers and their offspring, she insists on including the children’s day-to-day caretakers (mostly grandmothers) in her concept of transnational care constellations. Further, Oliveira follows and contrasts the educational trajectories of three categories of children: those who remain in Mexico, those brought to the United States, and those born in the United States (and therefore the only US citizens). Oliveira documents how the mothers are heavily invested in their children’s education across borders; she argues that maternal concern for the youths’ academic progress is both a key motive for migrating in the first place and an integral part of caregiving.

Both authors interweave their stories with analysis, tracking transnational intimacies and shifts of family dynamics through a variety of qualitative research methods and creative formats. In this vein, Oliveira employs ethnography, in-depth interviews, and surveys as she follows twenty families over the course of a year, and four of these for an additional year. Innovating in her approach to young children, she asked those under age ten to draw pictures of their “split” families. The drawings themselves (five of which Oliveira includes in Interludes interspersed throughout the chapters of her book) opened up opportunities to converse with their creators about how they imagined the lives of their siblings from whom they were separated—either in Mexico or in the US. Oliveira provides rich vignettes illustrating how these comparisons tend to generate resentment and distancing among siblings, some of whom have never met face-to-face.

Komarnisky pays close attention to discourse and actions, teasing out insights from narratives of the past and dreams for the future. Several of her chapter titles echo words used by her interlocutors that aptly capture their awkward feelings of unexpectedness as they crisscross the North American continent and struggle to represent who they are to themselves and to others. For example, Chapter 6 is entitled “It Freezes the People Together: Producing a Mexican Alaska.” Under this title, she considers the activities of four apparently disparate organizations: the Mexican consulate, a dance group, the Migrant Club, and an iconic restaurant. In a simple exercise of visual anthropology, Komarnisky presents three images from a postcard series sold at the restaurant, which was opened in 1973 by a female migrant from eastern Michoacán and is one of some fifty Mexican eateries in Anchorage. As a publicity stunt, Mayan ruins from the Yucatan peninsula were superimposed on an Alaskan mountain chain landscape with the words “Mexico in Alaska Restaurant” written across the bottom. Komarnisky convincingly argues that, in their comings and goings, migrants lay “claims to space” (even facetious ones like this) that serve to establish both novel connections and generational continuity.

In fact, the generational and gendered analyses these two volumes offer have become increasingly pivotal in the field of family migration. By reconstructing how three generations of Acuitzenses carved out a niche in what they initially perceived as a strange wilderness, and then managed to produce notions of a Mexican Alaska, Komarnisky is also able to explore how young and old, men and women, reacted to migration differently and made sense of their experiences in terms of gendered scripts that are constantly remolded. Oliveira also poses questions from a gendered standpoint. She asks, for example, why the daughters she tracked in Mexico achieve higher academic performances than the sons in that same country. Why do the former also compare favorably to their siblings in the New York City school system?

Identifying vital paradoxes, these two scholars manage to breathe new life into the anthropology of mixed-status families in US-bound migration from Mexico. For example, Oliveira (p. 13) posits “’care’ as a concern that both unites and divides families across borders” while Komarnisky (p. 14), argues that “as they [migrants to Alaska] become more mobile, they also work to establish more roots.” This passion for questioning received wisdom is a hallmark of these two contributions to our knowledge of the everyday lives of Mexican migrants, people who stitch together their nation of birth with the United States in unexpected ways, all the while exploring their “Mexicanness,” as it were. However, three shared shortcomings—which are also opportunities for further debate—should be mentioned.

First, given their proclaimed anthropological and transnational approaches, the theoretical and conceptual implications of how time and place are lived by their protagonists remain relatively unexplored. Overall—and not just individually on a case study basis—how do past lived experiences map onto the present and future, impacting family goals and decisions? How does a mother, father, child or grandparent make plans in chronically uncertain and unstable circumstances and recalibrate to adjust for unforeseen developments? Ultimately, how are time and place mutually constituted in unique ways for transnational families?

Second, attention to constructions of class, ethnicity, and race is integral to understanding family dynamics in settings where multiple hierarchies are organized along their intersecting lines. Komarnisky glosses over how today’s mestizo migrants from Michoacán elide ancient indigenous cultural markers with “the beautiful culture that Mexico has,” as one of the adult female dancers described it (p. 178). Similar elisions across ethnic divides also demand further analysis–such as the fact that the founders of the dance group she studied appropriated the name of the Mexica  goddess Xochiquetzal and seamlessly melded it with Tiqun (“wolf” in the Athabaska Dena’ina language of Alaskan native peoples). There is a cruel irony in the fact that mestizo migrants incorporate indigenous Nahuatl traditions in their sense of belonging to the Mexican nation, one that declares itself multicultural while reproducing racism toward those very peoples, even as they are showcased for touristic or political purposes. Similarly, Oliveira overlooks the fact that there is a sizeable indigenous population in the Mixteca Poblana, the region of southeastern Mexico from which most of her migrant mothers hail. To engage with her discussion of ideals of transnational mothering, family values, and gendered roles, it would be important  to know if each one of her interlocutors identified with indigenous traditions, with those of the mestizo majority, or some combination of both.

Lastly, overt policy implications are only mentioned in passing in the conclusions of these two studies. Had they been addressed in depth, valuable lessons regarding immigration and educational reforms might have been gained (to her credit, Komarnisky does include an honest self-evaluation and disclaimers in her conclusions). This omission is all the more evident to the extent that both authors mention activists and policy makers as potential interlocutors in their conclusions. Furthermore, these timely studies offer opportunities for fruitful dialogue with the ample corpus of Spanish-language ethnographies of Mexican transnational families. Unfortunately, this literature is for the most part unknown to scholars in the global North.

Although focused on little-known groups in migratory streams flowing from Mexican hinterlands, the stories told in these two volumes are redolent with themes and experiences that are shared by millions of families around the globe. Together, these books blaze a pathway toward a richer understanding of how senses of belonging shift across the multiple affiliations maintained by these mobile populations: to their family networks, to their communities, and to more than one nation-state.