When Migration Is Crisis, “It Is The Women Who Run Things”

by Abigail Andrews

In the Mexican village of San Miguel, Mexico, women’s effort to protect an alternative to living in the United States brought them to the center of local politics.

Until 1995, women in the Mixtec village of San Miguel, in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, were not permitted to engage in politics. On the contrary, despite San Miguel’s tradition of participatory self-governance, it was known for excluding women. While their husbands and fathers conducted civic affairs, women were expected to stay in the home. Yet, today, as one resident put it, “It is the women who run things.” In less than a decade, women, who previously could not even approach the town hall, came to be in charge of school committees, health committees, and government social programs – voting and voicing their opinions publicly for the first time. They did so in the context of mass migration to the United States. To understand the connection, I spent a year living in both San Miguel and among its migrants in the United States, and I conducted in depth interviews with more than 50 men and women, both in the home village and in the United States. I found that migration played a central role in driving women to take on these new roles. It did so not by inspiring them to echo US gender practices, but instead because they saw migration as a “crisis,” threatening their valued ways of life. Changing gender roles offered one way to respond.

Early in the research, I learned that every single woman who became a political leader in San Miguel had migrated to – and then returned from – the US. Like almost 90% of rural Mexican communities, San Miguel relies heavily on migrant work, mostly on Southern California farms. Its migrants have primarily gone to North County San Diego, an area notorious for its aggressive immigration enforcement. Because they began coming to the US after the last date of legal admission, more than 70% remained undocumented, facing aggressive policing and remaining trapped in grueling, low-paying jobs. During my fieldwork in the area, migrants from San Miguel hardly left their homes for fear of arrest or deportation. Many longed to return to Mexico, and women were often the first to go home. Indeed, when I asked women about the connection between their return and participating in politics, they explained that their difficult experiences in the US gave them a renewed commitment to sustaining their village.

When these women got back to San Miguel, they realized that with so many people absent, the village itself also faced a crisis: with so many in the United States, and no one to run the many committees that made up its participatory self-government, it might fall apart. Even though the women had never been involved in civic affairs before – and even though they saw participation as a lot of work – they realized that someone would have to take responsibility for the village. Therefore, they began soliciting development funding from the state and taking responsibility for new “productive projects.” As they got involved, women also started to challenge longstanding corruption in the community. Given that government funding was one of their few alternatives to working in the United States, they would no longer tolerate the patterns by which a few village leaders pocketed crucial state funds.

Women did this, they explained, because they dreaded having to go back to California. As embarrassing or taxing as staffing village government might be, it provided their primary hope of sustaining a way of life they had reason to value – and a place where they could live calmly, free of the persecution and abuse that characterized their experiences in the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, men encouraged them in this effort. While men had never included women in politics before, they wanted to return home from the United States as well. As they continued struggling in California to make ends meet, they realized they needed the women as allies on the ground in the village, to advocate for resources and redistribution in their absence.

The story of San Miguel helps us think differently about how migration can provoke changes in gender relationships. Most research suggests that migration reshapes gender relations, because coming to the United States gives migrant women new life chances. Perhaps they earn new wages that finally let them stand up to their husbands and fathers. Perhaps they see more egalitarian marriages and are inspired to go home and ask their own male relatives to help do the dishes or sweep the floor. Yet in this case, migration was not a source of opportunity but a cause of strain. Women and men changed their practices through their own struggles to sustain an alternative way of life. Thus, the story of San Miguel interrupts the idea that low-wage jobs – or exposure to US norms – are in themselves a source of “liberation.” Here, it’s the reverse: women gain leverage not because they assimilate, but because they refuse to assimilate downward, into an undocumented underclass.

In turn, the process of development in rural Mexico got shaped and reshaped by their active responses to the difficulty of living – excluded and exploited – as migrants in the United States.

Abigail Andrews is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Her article, “Women’s Political Engagement in a Mexican Sending Community: Migration as Crisis and the Struggle to Sustain an Alternative,” is published in the August 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read to press release, click here.


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