Rural Economies of the Americas Program

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Rural Mexico Research Review, Volume 1

Editor: Peri Fletcher
Guest Associate Editor: Jane Margold

Transnational Communities
Peri Fletcher and Jane Margold

This premier issue of Rural Mexico Research Review is dedicated to "transnational communities." The term "transnational communities" has come to refer to groups of people whose daily lives, work and social ties extend across the borders of two or more nation-states. Migrants from rural Mexico develop and maintain multiple relations--familial, economic, social, organizational, religious, and political--that span borders and are part of the increasingly transnational context of their lives. What distinguish transnational migrants and communities are attempts to orchestrate meaningful lives under global political-economic conditions that routinely position them "neither here nor there, but at once here and there" (Smith, 1994:17). Members of transnational communities routinely manage two distinct ways of life, often maintaining homes or close ties in two countries and accommodating to two languages and two different societies and cultures. The frame of reference for household decision-making spans international borders, with some individuals moving back and forth not only over geographic terrain but across class sectors and racial and ethnic categorizations, as well.

When communities span national borders in these ways, new theories and frameworks are needed to comprehend how identities, relationships and meaning are constructed in a context that includes both communities of origin and communities of migrants. Theories of transnationalism represent a shift away from dualistic perspectives of migration, which view migration as occurring between fixed and stable locales. They also represent a departure from assimilation or adaptationist views, which assume that immigrants gradually forsake their native country as they participate, politically, economically, and culturally in the country where they have settled. (See Rouse, 1991, for a critique of the adaptationist literature and for a discussion of the complexities of understanding "settlement" in the context of transnational communities.) A groundbreaking volume, edited by Basch, Glick-Schiller and Blanc-Szanton (1992), is devoted to theorizing about the various ways in which a transnational perspective is needed in order to comprehend and understand the changing consciousness and experience of migrants whose "lives cut across national boundaries."

Transnational theory explicitly links contemporary migration across borders with the transformative effects of global industrial restructuring and new flexible patterns of corporate investment and disinvestment. As Mexico faced a deep economic crisis through most of the last decade, movement by rural and urban Mexicans into U.S. labor markets compensated in some measure for the inability of local and regional economies to absorb expanding supplies of workers, as well as for institutional constraints on development at home. Transnationalism has been in part a response to economic and social dislocations in the context of globalization, as Third World countries have been unable absorb their own labor supply. Transnationalism is especially evident in rural Mexico, with its long history of labor migration to the United States, limited employment opportunities at home, and dependence on cash from migrants working abroad.

Transnational communities, intimately linked to migration, reshape the context in which social scientists find themselves conduct research in rural Mexico. They have obvious implications for doing ethnographic research. And they may profoundly alter the context and constraints within which economic decisions are made and the impacts of policy changes (NAFTA, Mexican agricultural policies, macro—e.g., exchange rate policies, etc.) are observed. Even research on the environment and biodiversity cannot ignore the role of transnational communities, which may alter the incentives for small farmers to invest scarce labor and capital in such activities as sustainable crop production, land and forest conservation, and maintenance of traditional seed varieties.


Historical Precedents of Transnationalism

For generations, as the literature has widely documented, Mexican migrants have built dense transnational connections between the U.S. and their communities of origin through a constant circulation of people, money, goods and commitments (see Guarnizo, 1998 below; Roberts, Frank and Lozano-Ascencio, 1999; Gamio, 1930). To succeed as smallholding farmers in Mexico, rural villagers have learned to send members of their families north of the border, greatly extending the reach of their households in order to participate in the global, capitalist economy and send home cash remittances needed to sustain their agricultural activities (see Fletcher, 1999, below). Such economic arrangements are not unique. As Kearney (1998) argues, modern capitalism has relied on transnational labor migration to some extent for centuries. Transnationalism is in part a response to economic and social dislocations brought about by globalization--the inability of third world countries to absorb labor coupled with the growing demand for cheap labor in the industrialized west has led to increased transnational labor migration. However the inability of labor migrants to gain a secure living in either their home country or their new country creates the need to construct a transnational existence. Like immigrants today, earlier participants in the "last great wave" of migration to the United States in 1880-1923 were involved in ideological and political projects of their homelands and received the attention of governments in their country of origin (Foner, 1997).

However, the global and local contexts within which Italians, Irish, Greeks, Germans, Poles, Armenians and other European immigrants maintained linkages with their homelands differed substantially from what happens in today’s international political economy. At the turn of the century, the United States was a rapidly industrializing society in which unskilled labor was in high demand. The global governance regime formed by such multilateral institutions as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, United Nations and similar organizations dominated by the most powerful nation-states did not yet exist or exercise a dominance that regulated and limited the actions of less powerful governments (Guarnizo, 1998).


Distinctive Characteristics of Contemporary Transnational Migration

In contrast, the last decades of the 20th century have been characterized by a shift to a system of globalized capitalism in which the United States holds economic, political and military sway. Industrial restructuring in the developed economies and the emergence of unstable, low-paid service jobs have made it difficult for all but the most highly-trained professionals to gain a secure living at home or in a host country. Partly by economic necessity, transnational labor migration has "become a major structural feature of communities which have themselves become truly transnational" (Kearney, 1998:125).

Transnational communities are characterized by the density and complexity of the networks of active social relations they maintain in their homeland and at their destination. This is partly a result of their displacement and lack of full inclusion in host societies interested only in their labor. According to several observers, such ties operate as a safety net and source of economic opportunity (Smith, 1994:17). Transnational migrants take actions, make decisions, feel concerns, and develop identities within these transnational social networks.

The sheer scale of transnational migration and the reduced time, cost and effort involved in air transport and communications have created economic opportunities for migrants, their source families and communities, and migrant-"exporting" countries. Transnational entrepreneurs, taking advantage of some of the same efficiencies that technological advances have brought to corporate capital, have developed businesses that respond to rising consumer aspirations at home or meet the needs of communities abroad. A few, such as the Mexican chileros described below (see Alvarez, 1994, below), have stepped into economic niches created by increased receptivity to Mexican-American and Mexican cultural products on the part of local U.S. populations. The hardships they endure have not prevented many recent arrivals in the United States from becoming the most important sources of foreign exchange for some nations (see Landolt, Autler and Baires, 1999) and to have complex and often profound impacts on their origin countries (Taylor, et al., 1996a) and communities (Taylor, et al., 1996b).

Greater political participation in the affairs of the homeland even while abroad is another distinguishing characteristic of contemporary transnational communities. While not entirely new, involvement by ordinary (non-elite) people in grassroots political mobilizations may be unprecedented for particular groups. One example is indigenous Mixtec migrants, who seek social justice and better working conditions for their fellow Mixtec on both sides of the border. Their ability to do so is enhanced by a climate of growing support for universal human rights and protections that are not dependent on citizenship or documented status (see Smith, 1994, below; Kearney, 1990).


The Literature on Transnational Communities

Much of the work shaping the literature on transnational communities has been carried out in Mexico. Transnational community and migration studies have formed a diverse field, in part because the existing literature refers to a variety of levels of activities, from the entrepreneurial efforts of individual migrants to the initiatives of home country politicians and elites to elicit support and resources from overseas communities. Portes (1999, see below) usefully suggests a typology that distinguishes between and among economic, political and cultural transnationalism and between individual/familial activities and the practices of powerful institutional actors, such as nation-state governments. "Transnationalism from below" and "from above" expresses the latter distinction succinctly (see M.P. Smith and Guarnizo, 1998).

Current scholarship on transnational communities in Mexico includes Rouse's transnational circuits that pay particular attention to the process of class transformation, Kearney and Nagangast's long term work on an increasingly transnational community of Mixtecs, Fletcher's work on transnational migrant communities from the Mexican perspective and Goldring's work on transnational social fields. Earlier work focused on social networks that link villagers to migrants (see Massey, et al. and Velez-Ibanez). Another area of inquiry reviewed here because of its importance to Mexican communities is the relationship between the state and migrant sending communities (Smith and Guarnizo, eds., 1998; Guarnizo, Smith, Kearney). Torres (1998); Gomez-Pena (1998) and Vila (1999 ) examine the political and cultural dimensions of identities of transnational migrants.

Moreover, a growing body of economic research explores influences of policy changes on rural communities linked to U.S. labor markets through migration—as well as migration’s impacts upon these communities (Taylor, Yunez and Dyer, 1999; Taylor et al., 1995). For the most part, economic research does not explicitly refer to "transnationalism" or "transnational communities;" however, their role in shaping economic behavior is implicit in recent economics research.

The summaries of articles included in this journal have been selected with a view to illustrating the range of recent scholarship that has dealt with Mexican transnationalism in particular, or that illuminates aspects of Mexican transnational practice. The journal concludes with a review of papers from various world regions that deal with some of the challenges of conducting research in transnational communities.


General: Transnational Communities as a Field of Study

Portes, Alejando; Luis E. Guarnizo and Patricia Landolt (1999). "The Study of Transnationalism: Pitfalls and Promise of an Emergent Research Field", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22(3), pp. 217-237.

Portes and his co-authors seek to illuminate what is distinctive about transnationalism and transnational communities. They emphasize that it is the scope, complexity and regularity of activities spanning sending and receiving countries that merit fresh theorization. Such activities, they note, run the gamut from campaigns by home-country politicians among overseas expatriates to the development of new pan-ethnic identities among indigenous peoples who migrate across borders from once-isolated, rural villages. While Portes and his collaborators call attention to the historical precedents of contemporary transnationalism, they argue that prior immigrant economic and political enterprises were not linked to global capitalist expansion. Nor were such initiatives undergirded by easy, low-cost travel and communications that make it possible for transnational communities to sustain a thick web of contacts and exchanges. The result, broadly, has been the emergence of new economic opportunities for small-scale transnational entrepreneurs and the creation of new cultural possibilities for immigrants who no longer need to abandon their unique cultural and linguistic endowments to succeed in the new society. Yet another noteworthy aspect of regular back-and-forth movements is the broadening of a "labor standards" movement (p. 229), which aims at protecting workers’ rights in less developed and advanced countries. Portes and his collaborators suggest, however, that scholars and policy-makers attend not only to these general phenomena but to the unique forces in different countries and immigrant communities that have led to shifts in migratory flows, such as the change in Mexico-United States migration from a temporary to an increasingly transnationally-linked system.


Landolt, Patricia, Lilian Autler and Sonia Baires (1999). "From Hermano Lejano to Hermano Mayor: the Dialectics of Salvadoran Transnationalism", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22(2), pp. 290-315.

In an article that has potential utility in examining the political consciousness of particular subgroups of Mexico-to-U.S. migrants, Landolt and her co-authors propose that the conditions of migrants’ exit from their homeland and their reception in the host society are critical factors in determining whether the migrants will create and sustain transnational ties and practices. Using the case of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States as an illustrative example, they argue that Salvadorans chose a transnational frame of reference for their household decision-making as a result of their view of themselves as sojourners who were deeply obligated to kin who remained at home, amidst violence, chaos and poverty. Entering the U.S. in the 1980s, Salvadorans also encountered an atmosphere of fiscal crisis, a hostile political climate and prejudicial treatment from the Reagan administration. According to Landolt and her co-authors, the combination of economic, political and legal adversities in the U.S. and the uncertainties of war in El Salvador led migrants to engage in a variety to transnational enterprises and strategies. As a result of these ventures, Salvadoran migrants have not only been key contributors to their homeland economy, through the sending of remittances and investments in new local and transnational businesses, but have also become a heterogeneous political voice that has engaged with and challenged El Salvador’s political elite. Transnationalism and transnational communities, Landolt et al argue further, thus give rise to a field of action that is not necessarily "liberatory" (as some scholars have contended) but does provide "a terrain in which established structures of domination and exploitation are contested, altered and reconstructed." (p. 292).


Smith, Michael P. and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo (eds.) (1998). Transnationalism from Below, (Comparative Urban and Community Research, Vol. 6) New Brunswick, N.J.: transaction Publishers.

This edited volume examines the ways in which local transnational formations challenge the position of the national state. The first section, "Theorizing Transnationalism" and in particular the first chapter, by the editors, provides an overview of the scope of current scholarship on transnationalism. In "The Locations of Transnationalism" Smith and Guarnizo note that many writers who analyze transnational practices "from below" see these practices examples of resistance against the forces of domination and control. A case in point is, Bhaba's characterization of transnational practices as "counter narratives of the nation-state" (Bhaba 1990 cited in Smith, p. 5).

Smith while asserting the counter-hegemonic possibilities of transnational practices to redefine accepted categories of class, race, ethnicity and nation, questions the degree to which they are truly emancipatory (5).

Contributors to the volume stress the ways in which local and grassroots activism and ethnic nationalism can be seen as instances of transnationalism from below--as ordinary people engage in border crossings and negotiate identities to challenge the control and domination exercised by the state.

Several essays grapple with the question of the degree to which transnational practices and relationships are temporary phenomenon of the first generation of migrants, and to what degree they are long lasting structural characteristics of continuing globalized capitalist forms of organization.

Other essays focus on the problem of how and to what extend nation-states, and especially countries of the periphery, dependent on remittances, reconstruct citizenship as transnationalized in order to shape their emigrants as transnational citizens who maintain loyalties to the home state.

Of particular interest to this journal are the chapters by Luin Goldring and Robert Smith (reviewed below) which look at different aspects of transnational communities between the United States and Mexico.


Portes, Alejandro (1996). "Transnational Communities: Their Emergence and significance in the Contemporary World-System", in Roberto Patricio Korzniewicz and William C. Smith (eds.), Latin American in the World Economy, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press.

Although not dealing specifically with Mexico, this article assesses the prospects for transnational communities of migrants to intervene in the dynamics of economic globalization and protect themselves from some of its destabilizing effects. Portes views transnational communities as a "potentially potent counter" (p. 153) to processes of globalization, to the extent that the sustaining economic activities of these communities take advantage of cross-border differences in prices, incomes and capital and credit resources and enable their members to escape exploitation at home and as immigrant workers. Pointing to such examples as Dominican and Ecuadorian entrepreneurs, Portes discusses the ways in which a class of transnational immigrants often imitate the strategies of large corporate actors by benefitting from the same set of communications and transport innovations that underlie large-scale industrial restructuring. Unable to rely upon financial muscle, however, the transnational migrants depend upon the creation of dense, long-distance social networks held together by shared difficulties and uncertainties. Thus, using remittances from kin, Dominicans regularly travel from home to Puerto Rico, Miami and New York to sell their wares, buy garment designs and other inputs and expand their bank accounts and business contacts. Similarly, with the help of semi-permanent enclaves of Otavalan groups abroad, indigenous Otavalans from the Ecuadorian highlands market their clothing and musical performances in Europe and North America, transversing the world to achieve a prosperity at home that challenges the traditional dominance by white and mestizo elites. Such entrepreneurs, Portes concludes, not only deny their own labor to First and Third World employers but act as conduits of information to other members of the global proletariat with respect to different labor conditions and novel entrepreneurial opportunities.


Gledhill, John (1995). Neoliberalism, Transnationalization and Rural Poverty, Boulder, Westview Press.

In this densely-argued but clearly-written book, Gledhill examines the impact of neoliberal economic policies and global restructuring on rural Mexican communities swept up in transnational migration. He emphasizes that contemporary social and economic conditions on both sides of the Mexican-United States border are now "radically" different from those experienced by earlier generations, not only because of recent shifts in Mexico’s political economy but because of the maturation of Mexican-U.S. migratory networks and their accompanying ideological, cultural and generational transformations. Gledhill begins with several chapters that take a close look at the economic crises of the 1980s to early 1990s. He follows the "twists and turns" of Mexican agricultural policy, suggesting that neoliberal initiatives should be judged against broader criteria than economic development, such as the quality of rural social life and opportunities for political expression that are linked with reform policies. In this context, he argues that the threat of state violence "is subtly interwoven in the fabric of everyday existence," making rural areas "zones of heightened anxiety" (pp. 69-71) in which people must weigh how much risk to take in participating in new political movements that challenge the existing power structure.

Migration, Gledhill contends, should be treated as a socially-organized process that responds to an array of problems, from resource scarcity, poverty and restricted opportunity to limited political voice. Migrant behavior "reflects the formulation of expectations about an entire quality of life and not simply relative wage levels" in places of origin and destination. Basing his analysis on ethnographic fieldwork in two Michoacan communities (Guaracha and Cerrito Cotijaran) and the United States. Gledhill provides a detailed portrait of two migration streams that include different generations of documented and undocumented male and female migrants whose destinations, networks, types of economic niche and processes of international household formation and dissolution are highly variable. He argues for a focus on the different ways in which contemporary class relations have become transnational as a framework for understanding the "new kinds of deterritorialized migrant communities of people who reside in the North but are not completely incorporated into Northern society nor cut off from their roots." (p. 54)

These mobile populations, which continue to provide labor-intensive U.S. agroindustries with a steady, reliable and growing supply of workers, are economically integrated into a transborder system of agricultural production (not only as producers but as consumers of industrialized farm input at home). However, they complicate the modern nation-state’s efforts to define, bureaucratically classify and integrate its different members into a nationally-unified whole. Transnational communities may thus offer some possibility for new forms of collective identity and social solidarity, Gledhill notes. But he points overall to the "chronically contradictory" nature of a Mexico-U.S. migration that imposes the disciplines of proletarian labor upon the majority of migrants while pressuring them to participate in consumer culture, since those who dress smartly, drive nice cars and live in single-family dwellings are less likely to be targeted by police and immigration authorities. Further contradictions are linked to the internally-fractured nature of existing transnational communities, some of which may be hostile to new undocumented migrants who appear to threaten the livelihoods of those who are long settled in the United States. Unresolved tensions are also inherent in the pressures to retain a mode of life that depends on solidarity and struggle and one in which "everyone should watch their backs, be wary of the envy of kin and neighbors and recognize that the ambitious and clever ...usually come out on top" (p. 210).


Transnational Communities

Rouse, Roger (1992). "Making Sense of Settlement: Class Transformation, Cultural Struggle, and Transnationalism among Mexican Migrants in the United States", in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 645, pp. 25-52.

This article expands the boundaries of transnational theory to encompass an understanding of the cultural struggles associated with the "reproduction and transformation of class relations." Rouse argues that these struggles should be viewed from a perspective that emphasizes the importance of transnational forms of organization (27). Bipolar models, which assume that migration takes place between two autonomous communities, overlook important consequences of the reorganization of international capitalism, especially labor. Flexible capitalism has led to new arrangements, including a transnational existence that means migrants occupy a position that spans both borders and class. A transnational "circuit", characterized by the constant circulation of money, goods and services, becomes the main arena in which migrants live their lives and develop and maintain social relations, and it is the context for social relationships and cultural meaning.

Based on research in the municipio of Aguililla in Michoacán and in Redwood City, California, Rouse asks what disciplinary pressures are brought to bear upon transnational migrants and in whether new behaviors mean that the migrants have internalized new values. He notes the disciplinary pressures that work upon migrants in the United States to shape their daily socio-spatial practices to conform to the dictates of capitalism. Within the process of proletarianization, both private and public space and life are reorganized so that these disciplinary practices work "discursively through techniques aimed directly at the ways in which people evaluate(d) and construe(d) the world around them" (34) and "non-discursively through techniques directed primarily at the ways in which people act(ed)." People's choices and behavior are transformed as they learn to be good consumers, as they are less likely to be apprehended when well dressed, driving newer models cars and living in single-occupancy homes. From INS and police control to housing policy and zoning, through learning to be good consumers and to comport themselves in a way that will not attract INS attention, migrants are subject to "complex process of habituation" that work "indirectly to shape people's values and beliefs".

Rouse points out that, although the migrants may appear to internalize these values, an underlying language of criticism against the United States reflects earlier values instilled in their lives in Mexico, so that migrants develop a cultural repertoire that includes both, often contradictory, sets of values.


Fletcher, Peri (1997). La Casa de Mis Sueños: Dreams of Home in a Transnational Migrant Community, Boulder, Westview Press.

This book explores the complexities of social and cultural reproduction in a transnational community that extends from rural Michoacan to the Los Angeles area. By examining the efforts of villagers from the village of Napizaro to build their "dream houses" through participation in transnational labor migration the author shows how migration has usurped traditional routes to success as migrants' houses become the locus of growing consumerism as well as a site for contested ideas about family, gender and community. By focusing on the daily social and spatial practices of the transnational community Fletcher shows how, despite the "deterritorializing and possibly fragmenting forces of globalization, social and cultural practices remain embedded in local places" (xi).

In a chapter that challenges and reworks reified constructs of the community, the author traces the transformation of a marginalized agrarian community into a transnational community. A history of involvement in the bracero movement in the 1940s and 1950s set in motion an increasing involvement in labor migration, leading to the current situation where migration is no longer a short-term solution for specific needs such as buying a pair of oxen, but is now part of the fabric of daily life. At the same time the transnational community rather than the ejidal-based leadership becomes the context with which status is sought.

Another chapter explores how a changing built environment reflects an increasing consumer orientation, especially in the building of large concrete houses. These houses create new configurations of power and engender contradictions within the family as well as within the community. The theme of a changing moral economy is also pursued in a chapter that shows how the jural, economic and social bases of the village-based community are transformed as remittances, (and remittance-financed livestock production) become the main sources of income. The traditional ejidal-based structure of authority attempts to maintain its power base (in the face of the dismantling of the ejidal apparatus by the federal government) by presenting one version of a moral community. However, their claims to status and legitimacy are challenged by transnational migrants competing claims to status and power.

The themes of family and household are pursued in two chapters which show how transnational practices influence, in often contradictory ways, how family members relate to one another and the various households they support.

Throughout, Fletcher anchors her understanding of global processes by showing how the global and local intersect in complex and contradictory ways. By examining the daily sociospatial practices of a transnational community she shows the extent to which place, even in a transnational world, retains an irreducible characteristic.


Grieshop, James I. (1997). "Transnational and Transformational: Mixtec Immigration and Health Beliefs", Human Organization, 56(4), pp. 400-407.

Grieshop discusses the impact of transnational migration on the health beliefs of transnational communities of Mixtecs from Oaxaca who reside in rural California. Two study populations, one in Mexico that had migrated regionally but not internationally, and a second that had migrated to California, were interviewed with respect to their beliefs about the source, prevention and control of illness. The pattern among the California Mixtecs was to externalize the ability to prevent and treat illness, a response explained by Grieshop as the result of the transnational migrants’ exposure to powerful new medical institutions, services and technologies and to a more general sense of limited control over their daily reality.


Goldring, Luin (1998). "The Power of Status in Transnational Social Fields", in Smith and Guarnizo, eds. 1998. Transnationalism from Below (Comparative Urban and Community Research, Vol. 6). New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Goldring argues that an examination of social relationships is a fruitful way of exploring the tension between of groups whose transnational practices cross and challenge national borders and the structural processes which shape and constrain these processes. In her essay, based on research conducted in Zacatecas and California, she looks at the complex dynamics through which that migrants claim, alter and valorize social status. This is done in part by participating in transnational social fields, often through community projects that benefit their Mexican community. When community leaders participate in transnational social contexts they can extend their social and political capital within the community, while challenging existing hierarchies of power and status at regional and national levels within Mexico and within the United States.

At the same time, Mexican state policies encourage transnational relations through programs such as "Programa para Communidades Mexicanas en el Extranjero" whose goal is to reinforce national identity through education and political and social outreach and through the creation of hometown clubs and state associations linking communities across borders.


Grimes, Kimberly M. (1998). Crossing Borders: Changing Social Identities in Southern Mexico, Tucson, University of Arizona Press.

Grimes’ ethnographic study of a transnational community is based on more than a year and a half of field research in the town of Putla in the mountains of Western Oaxaca and a much shorter period of research in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the destination for many Putlecans. After observing that studies of migration have often prioritized the importance of economic factors and neglected other variables that shape peoples’ decisions and practices, the author of this book sets out to investigate a number of other variables that shape migration processes, including changing social relations, changing racial ideologies and new ideas brought into play by shifting cultural and educational influences. She looks in particular at the effects of Putlecan’ exposure to higher material and living standards, through transnational migration, the expansion of public education and increased access to mass media images.

According to Grimes, a "modernizing attitude" has spread in such once-isolated communities as Putla, as the result of factors ranging from the linking of the town to a national road system and declining production to the increased mobility of family members, the diminished flow of goods produced locally and regionally and the rise of cash needs for new services and goods (74). The result, she argues, is that "most Putlecans now believe that commerce is the only viable economic option" for those who want to remain in Putla (132-3). To have a home with kitchen appliances, indoor plumbing and comfortable furniture, well-paved highways and stores with a great variety of goods is to "progress" and to live a more "civilized" or "modern" life, in the Putlecans’ view (132-3). Migration and the existence of transnational communities, Grimes concludes, has meshed with the interests of the dominant social order by strengthening class and racial ideologies constructed in the home community. Putlecans use material goods, such as clothing, cars and home furnishings, to emulate the white, middle-class north Americans to whom they have been exposed in the United States. The display of such goods at home also attests to particular families’ success on United States terrain (133). Putlecan consumptive practices thus support the state’s agenda of opening market doors to transnational capital and enhance dependence on outside economic inputs. These processes "bind Putlecans irrevocably to the national economy and to the Mexican state," which are themselves inextricably tied to the global economy (134).


Brian R. Roberts, Reanne Frank, Fernando Lozano-Ascencio (1999). "Transnational Migrant Communities and Mexican migration to the U.S.", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22(2), pp. 238-266

Roberts and his co-authors reflect upon the structural character and likely persistence of Mexico-U.S. transnational communities, as a pattern of movement and settlement distinct from temporary and permanent migration. Making use of their findings from preliminary fieldwork in a rural community in the southwest of the Estado de Mexico and a review of the literature, they underscore the increasing diversity of the migrants of the 1980s and 1990s, in terms of their geographic and rural-urban origins, age, gender and propensity to move alone or with their families. Accompanying this diversity, they argue, are different rates of access to labor market opportunities in sending and receiving countries and accordingly different strengths in transnational commitment. Less-skilled, poorer migrants from rural areas and small towns and villages are more likely to be part of a transnational migration system, they hypothesize, because Mexico’s increasing economic integration with the United States make it more difficult for those with low-end economic opportunities to subsist at home without year-round subsidies of income from abroad. Temporary migration is thus less economically viable than it once was. Members of this "transnational semi-proletariat" are also more dependent on transnational ties to counter their marginality on both sides of the border than highly-skilled professionals or large-scale entrepreneurs, who can enter into social and business relationships with people in the United States of any group. Transnational migrant communities are likely to persist, Roberts and his co-authors conclude, because the geo-economic and political factors that underpin it are unlikely to change substantially in the near future.


Transnational Politics: Grassroots and State Responses

Smith, Michael Peter (1994). "Can you Imagine? Transnational Migration and the Globalization of Grassroots Politics", Social Text, No. 39, pp. 15-33

Smith observes that we do not yet have the language appropriate for analyzing a globalized political space in which households and ethnic communities have extended themselves across national borders to partake of two nation-states. "Bifocality," "polyfocality" and "the politics of simultaneity" are among the concepts he suggests to capture, for example, the coalitional strategy pursued by indigenous Mixtec groups from western Oaxaca to improve the abusive conditions encountered by many Mixtec farmworkers in California and Oregon. As evidence of the Mixtecs’ "transnationalization of political consciousness and action," Smith (citing the work of Nagengast and Kearney 1990) points to simultaneous efforts by the migrants to operate at a variety of institutional and geographic scales: raising money for community development projects in certain Mixtec villages in Mexico; reducing the need to deal with exploitative labor contractors by organizing a labor contracting association to negotiate directly with United States growers and participating in transnational human rights conferences and international law seminars. To Smith, an indicator of the promise of this emergent transnational grassroots politics was the willingness of the Oaxaca governor to travel to California in 1989 to hear the grievances and demands expressed by Mixtecs vis-a-vis the Mexican state. He notes, however, that these new political practices may call forth renewed efforts by established power structures to reassert themselves and "resubjugate" newly-politicized migrants.


Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo (1998). "The Rise of Transnational Social Formations: Mexican and Dominican State Responses toTransnational Migration", Political Power and Social Theory, vol. 12. (Diane Davis, Ed.). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. pp. 45-94.

Guarnizo compares the effects of transnational migration on Mexican and Dominican societies by examining recent changes in the relationship between the Mexican and Dominican states and their nationals abroad. He points out that considerable attention has been devoted to xenophobic, nativist movements in labor-receiving countries that attempt to revalue citizenship and national identity, with the aim of excluding immigrant populations and restricting their rights and privileges. Less noticed are simultaneous processes unfolding in labor-supplying countries such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic, which also seek to redefine nationality, nationhood and citizenship but in the direction of an identity that is more inclusive, to the extent that it encompasses each nation-state’s own migrants and expatriates abroad.

Guarnizo argues that the Mexican state’s interest in its migrant and Mexican-descent population in the United States dates back to 1848, manifesting itself as a series of attempts to inculcate a strong nationalist loyalty in its expatriates and defend and advocate for Mexican workers’ rights in the north. However, what distinguishes the contemporary state’s renewed interest in its migrant population is the formalization of the relationship between the state and the national "community" that exists beyond territorial borders. The practices that sustain this relationship are no longer a set of ad hoc measures. They are incorporated into the national constitution and the regular operations of the state apparatus and implemented through programs that provide state agencies with an overall vision and framework for action. According to Guarnizo, a "drastic shift" in the official definition of a national identity and Mexicanness has taken place, with the move from a territorially-based designation to an essentialist, transterritorial definition. Unlike earlier ad hoc actions, he argues, these processes have not been triggered solely by the state’s interest in gaining popular legitimacy through display of its sovereign power to protect its migrant populations. Rather, in his view, the reforms have been shaped by the interests of political and economic elites attempting to reposition the country in the world political economy and with respect to the United States in particular.

The results are varied and complex but generally reproduce preexisting class, gender and other inequalities. Guarnizo notes that the Mexican state’s extension of cultural, commercial, education, health and other social welfare programs and services to its population abroad has stimulated the emergence of a lively participatory democracy, in which migrant organizations summon local and state officials to Los Angeles to address problems raised by their relatives in Mexico regarding joint projects. However, he concludes, the overall benefits of the Mexican state’s transterritorialization of citizenship are primarily monopolized by those already in power and by an emergent migrant elite from certain Mexican regions (p. 70). The case of the Dominican Republic is analogous, with migrants coming from the poorest areas in the country tending to be underrepresented among the entrepreneurial and political elites who seek power in Dominican circles in the United States and on the island.


Kearney, Michael (1998). "Transnationalism in California at End of Empire", en Thomas Wilson and Hastings Donnan (eds.), Border Identities: Nation and State at International Frontiers, Cambridge University Press.

This essay explores the issue of transnationalism within the history of the rise of the nation state, as well as through a critique of the fundamental epistemological structures of anthropological thought which distinguish between the "knowing anthropological self and a categorically distinct ethnographic other that is to be known." He argues that this dualism is rooted in colonialism and reflects a political asymmetry in which power and knowledge are unevenly distributed. A dualistic epistemology such as this is inappropriate for understanding spatially dispersed and interspersed transnational communities.

In terms of Mexican migration, a process of distinction between "Anglos Self" and "Mexican Other" was characteristic of the colonial situation including territorial conquest and spatial separation. Kearney argues that in the current transnational age there has been a political, economic. and sociocultural transformation which has reordered the capitalist nation-state. Firm, absolute boundaries of the nation-state of the modern era are giving way to a transnational era in which the cultural, social and epistemological distinctions of the modern period are blurred. These processes are particularly apparent at the border. Kearney maintains that the de-facto U.S. immigration policy is to regulate the flow of undocumented entrants rather than to prohibit their entry and in so doing to attempt to separate labor from the jural person within which it resides. The surveillance and policing activities of the Border Patrol and INS serve to discipline an undocumented work force, as fear of apprehension keeps wages low and represses any possibility for dissent.

Kearney's work shows how Mixtecs from Oaxaca--marginalized in both Mexico and in the US--construct a new, transnational, identity in the form of a reworked ethnic consciousness. This ethnic consciousness is especially evident in the form of various grass-roots organizations and in the assertion of a reordered traditionalism. This ethnicity is brought to bear as a type of defense on part of individual to defend his or her person and labor and at the level of the community to defend the social body and its collective capital. Ethnicity becomes "a primary form of symbolic capital expended in the construction of community in the age of transnational migration".


(1998). "Transnational Localities: Community, Technology and the Politics of Membership within the Context of Mexico and U.S. Migration", in Guarnizo and Smith (eds.).

Like Kearney, Robert Smith employs a "post-national" model to understand social formations and political action in a transnational community that includes villagers in Ticuani in Puebla state, and migrants in Brooklyn New York. He shows how the post-national model challenges orthodox views of membership in a political community. The orthodox view, which he terms the "citizenship model", assumes an exclusive link between territory and community. This means that immigrants must ultimately break with their community of origin as they settle in a new country. In the post-national model immigrants are seen to "have transcended the individual nation-state, thus escaping its hegemony."

Ticuanese, both in the municipio and in Brooklyn, negotiate limits and boundaries of membership in the political community. The transnational community draws on indigenous traditions and uses contemporary technology to build "syncretic institutions" that are part of transnational public life. Transnational community members combine multiple strands of identity--at times as marginalized rural Mexican whose claims to an "authentic" Indian past in some instance draws on a idealized Indian past, at other times as transnational migrants and as residents of migrant communities in Brooklyn.

Of particular importance to transnational public life is the role of technology in allowing migrants to participate simultaneously in life in two locales. The role of a fundraising community, based in Brooklyn, and its efforts to raise money to install a municipal water pipe in Ticuani, is an essential part of constituting a transnational community. The municipio has given the committee political legitimacy by allowing the committee to take over the responsibility of the state (in form of the municipal government) to "perform one of its essential functions --to extract revenues, to re-produce the state and perform public works" (215).

The increasing influence of the committee in municipal public life is not without conflict, as evidenced by contested elections and conflicts within the committee leadership in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, 1996 saw the first visit of Ticuani's municipal president to New York and municipal leadership's increasing acceptance of the right of New York Ticuanese to be part of Ticuani public life.


González Gutiérrez, Carlos (1993). "The Mexican Diaspora in California: Limits and Possibilities for the Mexican Government", in Abraham Lowenthal, Katrina Burgess (eds.), The California-Mexico Connection, Stanford.

This chapter appears in a volume dedicated to exploring the many ways, historically, politically, and culturally, that California and Mexico are joined together. It examines how Mexicans in the United States can influence policy both in the United States and Mexico. Gonzalez Gutierrez argues that despite its size and obvious heterogeneity, the Mexican diaspora has a profound influence on U.S. policy. Examples of this are the Mexican diaspora's ability to influence the provisions of IRCA and NAFTA. Even more significant, he argues, are the opportunities for the Mexican government to build ties with the transnational diaspora. For example the Mexican government, with its 40 consulates in the United States, has a long tradition of protecting the interests of its citizens in the United States.

More recently the government has actively promoted ties with the Mexican immigrant community, through educational and cultural programs and regional clubs such as the Federacion de Clubes Zacatecas Unidos, a confederation of several clubs from Zacatecas migrant communities in Los Angeles. This club meets with the governor of Zacatecas annually, sponsors public works in their home towns, and sometimes participates in joint projects with the state.


Transnational Cultural Identities

Torres, María de los Ángeles (1998). "Transnational Political and Cultural Identities: Crossing Theoretical Borders", in Frank Bonilla, Edwin Meléndez, Rebecca Morales and María de los Ángeles Torres (eds.), Borderless Borders, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, pp. 169-182.

Torres points out that the scholarship on immigration has viewed the nation-state as the principal organizer and regulator of politics and cultural identity. Yet, transnational communities often reside in multiple nation-states. As a result, their cultural identities exceed the boundaries of their homeland and their host countries. To Torres, the prevailing assimilationist model of immigrant political identity is also based on geographically-determined definitions of political consciousness and activity. Recent immigrants are seen as reluctant to pursue participation in host country politics because they are still preoccupied with home country issues and with adaptation to a new environment. The second generation is expected to have lost its affective and cultural ties to the homeland. However, as Torres observes, the assimilationist model does not explain the persistence of ethnic consciousness among many Latinos in the U.S., such as the third-generation Mexican-Americans in Chicago, who founded the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

In reviewing the ways in which Latino artists and writers have begun to rethink these multiply-influenced "border identities," she notes that this new work usefully recognizes identity as contradictory, ambiguous and highly flexible, as multiple loyalties and influences are brought into play. However, she cautions, while immigrant communities have participated in both home and host country politics in the 1990s, the dilemmas of balancing specific ethnic and national rights against global human and civic rights have not been adequately addressed. What remains in question, as well, is how decisions about a transnational political identity or citizenship will be made, given the dominance of a few nation-states in the international political order.


Gómez-Pena, Guillermo (1998). "1995-Terreno Peligroso/Danger Zone: Cultural Relations Between Chicanos and Mexicans at the end of the Century" (translated by Clifton Ross), in Frank Bonilla, Edwin Meléndez, Rebecca Morales and María de los Ángeles Torres (eds.), Borderless Borders, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, pp. 131-137.

This is an article on the cultural impact of transnational migration and the creation of transnational communities. Gomez-Pena characterizes cultural exchanges between Chicano artists and their Mexican counterparts as a "chronicle of missed encounters"(p.136). In his view, Mexicans have an antiquated notion of Chicano creative work, believing that Chicano and "post-Mexican" artists are still caught up in producing barrio murals, protest poetry, Tex-Mex music and low-riders. This vision, he argues, ignores the diversity and complexity of artistic communities who draw upon the influence of the Central Americans, Caribbeans, Asians and gays and lesbians of color who have moved into Chicano neighborhoods. He also underscores the importance of the dual cultural dynamic, in which thousands of Mexicans who cross the border every month bring a fresh experience of the "other side" (p. 136) to the north, "re-Mexicanizing" (p. 137) popular music and fashion. At the same time, a reverse flow takes Chicano iconography and Spanglish to the south, making it impossible to explain the multiple Mexican and Latino/Chicano identities that exist at the end of the century except in relation to each other.


Transnational Entrepreneurs

Alvarez, Robert R. (1994). "Changing Ideology in a Transnational Market: Chile and Chileros in Mexico and the U.S.", Human Organization, (53)4, pp. 255-262.

Alvarez focuses upon a form of small-scale transnational entrepreneurialism that involves the marketing of chile by Mexican entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Terminal in southern California. Over the past few decades, the "chileros" who buy, transport, distribute and sell varieties of chile and the growers and workers they rely upon have constituted a type of transnational community bound together by hierarchical relationships of patron-clientage, reciprocity, loyalty and trust. However, as the market for chile has burgeoned in the United States and competition for the product has intensified throughout Mexican production regions, such as Baja California, southern Sonora, southern Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, Zacatecas and Guanajuato, Alvarez illustrates that the system has broken down. Increased dependence on capital in relations with larger buyers has forced chileros to rely less on their investments in social contacts in growing areas than on high immediate cash payments and the promise of high future prices. The result has been bankruptcy for smaller entrepreneurs who are unable to compete.


Economic Studies of Transnational Migration and Communities: A Synthesis

Cornelius, Wayne (1990). Labor Migration to the United States: Development Outcomes and Alternatives in Mexican Sending Communities, Washington, D.C., Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development.

Massey, D. S., J. Arango, G. Hugo, A. Kouaouci, A. Pellegrino, and J. E. Taylor (1998). Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Massey, D. S., Rafael Alarcón, Jorge Durand, and Humberto González (1987). Return to Aztlan: The Social Process of International Migration from Western Mexico, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Stark, O. and D. Bloom (1985). "The New Economics of Labor Migration", American Economic Review, 75, pp. 173-178.

Stark, Oded and J. Edward Taylor (1989). "Relative Deprivation and International Migration", Demography, 26, pp. 1-14.

Stark, Oded, J. Edward Taylor and Shlomo Yitzhaki (1986). "Remittances and Inequality", The Economic Journal, 96, pp. 722-740.

Taylor, J. Edward and Irma Adelman (1996). Village Economies: The Design, Estimation and Application of Village-Wide Economic Models, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Taylor, J. Edward and P. L. Martin (2000). "Human Capital: Migration and Rural Population Change", in B. Gardener and G. Rausser (eds.), Handbook of Agricultural Economics, vol. I, Amsterdam, Elsevier (in press).

Taylor, J. Edward and Antonio Yúnez-Naude (2000). "The Returns from Schooling in a Diversified Rural Economy", American Journal of Agricultural Economics, (May, in press).

Taylor, J. Edward, Antonio Yúnez-Naude and George Dyer-Leal (1999). "Agricultural Price Policy, Employment, and Migration in a Diversified Rural Economy: A Village-Town CGE Analysis from Mexico", American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 81, August, pp. 653-662.

Taylor, J. Edward, Antonio Yúnez-Naude and Steve Hampton (1999). "Agricultural Policy Reforms and Village Economies: A Computable General Equilibrium Analysis from Mexico", Journal of Policy Modeling, 21(4), pp. 453-480.

The existence of transnational communities has important implications for doing almost any kind of economic or policy research in rural Mexico. Taylor and Adelman (1996) find evidence that, because of migration, village economies in rural Mexico are more sensitive to changes in the U.S. dollar-peso exchange rate than to changes in Mexican agricultural policy. Peso devaluations increase the value (in pesos) of dollars remitted by migrants to Mexico. This stimulates migration, increases spending by remittance-receiving households in Mexico, and creates "remittance multipliers" in the rural Mexican economy. Transnational migrant links with the United States alter income inequalities and raise new questions about the meaning of "rural income inequality" (Stark, Taylor, and Yitzhaki, 1986). They also shape the impacts of policy changes in rural Mexico. Taylor, Yunez-Naude, and Hampton (1999) and Taylor, Yúnez-Naude and Dyer (1999) find evidence that households adjust to agricultural policy changes, including decreases in maize price supports and input subsidies, in part by shifting some of their limited resources into migration. Migrant remittances may not only help compensate for crop-income shortfalls; they also may help finance investments in farm inputs, new technologies, and new activities, including livestock and non-agricultural production (Massey, et al., 1987). Of course, as Wayne Cornelius (1990) and others have suggested, migration also may compete with, and crowd out, local production activities in some source areas. Studies that ignore migration are likely to produce biased and misleading estimates of the impacts of policy changes on production, incomes, and welfare in rural Mexico, because transnational migration both shapes, and is influenced by, these impacts.

The role of transnational migration in economic research is not limited to the analysis of policy and migration impacts. Taylor and Yúnez-Naude (2000, forthcoming) found that the presence of transnational migration significantly alters estimated effects of the economic returns from schooling in rural households. As rural Mexicans’ schooling levels increase, so does their likelihood of participating in Mexico-to-U.S. migration and sending remittances to their households of origin in Mexico. That is, higher schooling not only increases incomes within activities (including crop production); it also alters individuals’ and families’ allocation of resources among activities, including migration. The total effect of education on rural household incomes includes the effect of schooling on migration and remittances. Past research on the economic returns from schooling, in Mexico and elsewhere, ignored the role of migration. Economic research on other crucial topics related to rural Mexico (e.g., technology adoption, sustainability, and biodiversity, to name a few), more often than not, suffers from the same affliction.

The economic studies outlined above, centered at El Colegio de Mexico’s PRECESAM and at UC Davis, represent a major departure from traditional economic models of migration, policy, and microeconomic analysis in rural Mexico. Microeconomic models typically treat agricultural households in isolation, rather than as part of economic communities in Mexico or as part of transnational communities spanning Mexico and the United States. Traditional models of migration (e.g., Todaro, American Economic Review, 1969) treat migrants in isolation of their households of origin, reflecting the bipolar view that migration is a movement of individuals between two autonomous locales (see Rouse, 1992, above). Studies based on such models are, by construction, partial. They ignore the myriad ways in which impacts of policies, market changes, etc., are transmitted among households in Mexico and how they wend their way through what Rouse calls "transnational migrant circuits," producing sometimes unexpected outcomes. In recent years, a new genre of economic research, coined the new economics of labor migration, or NELM, has begun to displace the traditional, atomistic perspective (Stark and Bloom, 1985; Massey, et al., 1998; Martin and Taylor, forthcoming). Rather than viewing migration as being entirely the domain of individuals, the NELM views migration decisions within larger contexts—typically the household, which potentially consists of individuals with diverse preferences and differential access to income, but also communities of households of which the migrant household is part. Migration and its impacts are influenced by this social milieu. The perspective that migration decisions are not taken by isolated actors, but rather, within larger units of related people, is a trademark of the NELM. So is the contention that, in their role as economic actors, people work collectively not only to maximize income but also to minimize risks and loosen constraints created by a variety of market imperfections, including missing or incomplete capital, insurance, and labor markets pervasive in rural Mexico and elsewhere. In rural Mexico, transnational migrants, in addition to subsidizing consumption, often play the role of financial intermediaries, providing households (and their communities) with liquidity to invest, income insurance in the event of crop failure, illness, or other misfortunes, old-age insurance, etc. In this way, they substitute for the rural bank, insurance institution, or social security system that are missing for most small farm families. Finally, the effect of migration and remittances on economic welfare may not be the same across socioeconomic settings (Stark and Taylor, 1989).


Methodological Considerations in Researching Transnational Communities

Stoller, Paul (1997). "Globalizing Method: The Problems of Doing Ethnography in Transnational Space", Anthropology and Humanism, 22(1), pp. 81-94.

Writing as an anthropologist, Stoller considers the complexity of studying transnational communities, as opposed to focusing on one narrowly-defined cultural element such as the religious practices of a particular ethnolinguistic group. He uses as an example his ongoing study of West African vendors working in New York as members of larger transnational networks that radiate outward from bases in Senegal, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. Stoller observes that the difficulties have ranged from gaining a sufficient grounding in the global restructuring processes that forced African traders to pursue entrepreneurial activities in such inhospitable locations as New York to doing street ethnography among a diverse mix of people, many of whom were in violation of immigration laws, city regulations and trademark and copyright laws governing their inventory for sale. A commitment to long-term, multi-year research and the deployment of multidisciplinary teams of researchers are Stoller’s major recommendations for building trust among an unstable study population that is understandably suspicious of outsiders and confronts, on a daily basis, the necessity for finding regulatory loopholes, resolving daunting financial problems, enduring dangerous living conditions and otherwise surviving a situation in which "the traditional concept of culture, society, nation and citizen," Stoller notes, "are as anachronistic as the solitary anthropologist salvaging pristine knowledge


Bruner, Edward (1999). Return to Sumatra: 1957, 1997. American Ethnologist 26(2):461-77.

Bruner argues that while transnational practices mean that people are increasingly dispersed, and culture is no longer localized, communities such as the one he studied in a Tuba Batak village in Indonesia share webs of meaning that bind them together. He argues that anthropological ethnographic methods with their attention to social and cultural practices and the use of participant observation and to understand specific cultural meanings, are appropriate to comprehend transnational practices. Different concepts that have arisen in anthropological research, such as the post community, the transnational space, and the touristic borderzone "problematize the notion of locality". He notes their conceptual similarity to Bhabha's "third space" (1990), Pratt's "contact zone" (1992) and the literature that explicates a specific identity formation in the border regions (Anzaldua 1987; Gomez-Pena). He distinguishes these approaches, which distinguish a third space or border zone from Marcus' methodological and theoretical proposal for a "multi-sited" ethnography, which emphasizes discontinuous spaces (461).

For further discussion see: Appadurai, 1996; Gilroy, 1993; Gupta and Ferguson, 1997; Hannerz, 1996; Lavie and Swedenburg, 1996; Stoller, 1997; Bruner, 1996b, 1999; and Marcus 1997.

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