By Deborah Van Hoewyk
One afternoon I was in a joyería in Santa Cruz, choosing earrings for my sisters. Of course, I was being helped with my selection by an English-speaking guy. The patter always begins with “Where are you from?”
And I reply in Spanish “Estados Unidos, estado de Maine,” and then assure him it’s right next to Canada, trying to ward off the complex issues involved in Mexican perceptions of the U.S.
“Oh, I have been to Maine, I liked it.”
“Wow, why did you go all the way to Maine?”
“Blueberries, I picked blueberries.”
This is not a fun thing to do in Maine. This is long days, bent over the low-bush berries swinging a blueberry rake, which is pretty much a giant (8-pound) aluminum comb. You have to swing the rake through the tops of the plants and then arc it sharply back to drag the berries into the comb. By the end of that long day, it’s really hard to stand up straight.
Ángel (according to his card) fulfilled my cliché idea of a migrant agricultural worker. Young, male, clearly up for a trip to the far reaches of crops to be harvested. The rest of the cliché is that there are huge numbers of Mexican workers in the U.S. – legal and illegal – who contribute massive sums to Mexico’s economy in remesas, the remittances they send back home; in 2019, it was about $35.5 billion in U.S. dollars, and it’s predicted to exceed $37 billion U.S. in 2020. Work hard, help your family, help your village.
Who Is Off to Work Somewhere Else in the World?
Turns out, while yes, Mexicans go to work in the U.S. and Canada and send a lot of money home, guys like Ángel aren’t really a norm after all. All kinds of Mexicans emigrate, mamis and papis among them.
In 2016, 16,348,000 Mexicans were working – legally or illegally – in the U.S., a little over 10% of the U.S. workforce. Although the current U.S. government seems to see immigration from Mexico as a major threat to the American economy and society, the number of Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. has dropped by more than half since the end of 2007, when America’s Great Recession began. And even when the economy began to improve in 2013, Mexican immigration to the U.S. continued to decline. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. dropped by 23%, not so much because deportation was pushing them out, but because the improving Mexican economy has been pulling them home.
In 2018, somewhat more Mexican men (53.4%) than women (46.6%) went north for work, because many jobs available to Mexicans in the U.S. are traditionally done by men. For example, the biggest U.S. employment sector for Mexicans is construction, which provides one-fifth of all their jobs – 97.4% of those jobs are held by men. Men are in the majority when Mexicans head to places where tough work is necessary, Central and South America and the developing countries of East Asia and the Pacific. On the other hand, when you look at Mexican emigration to countries with higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs available to immigrants, women are in the majority heading to Europe, Eastern Europe, the North Africa and the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and the developed countries of East Asia and the Pacific.
Are the Kids All Right?
In and of itself, emigration of one or the other parent changes a Mexican child’s family structure, although it’s only recently that researchers have begun looking at what happens to those left behind. In her book, Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and Their Children (University of California Press, 2010), sociologist Joanna Dreby describes a parent’s decision to migrate as “a gamble; by leaving their children, migrant parents hope to better provide for them. Their migration and hard work represent a sacrifice of everyday comforts for the sake of their children and their children’s future.”
And what are the odds of winning this gamble? Only so-so. Using children’s education to measure the success of the migration sacrifice, Dreby finds that when a father migrates, there is little effect on children’s education, as the mother left behind ensures that it will continue as before. If a single mother migrates, her children, especially girls, tend to do better in school because they are motivated by her courage and sacrifice in migrating. If both parents migrate, and children are left behind with relatives or friends, their commitment to education suffers significantly.
One measure of educational aspiration – the desire to complete your education because you believe it will bring a better future – is, interestingly, the time kids spend on homework. Not whether they get it right, but whether they make the time to finish it. A study done in Puebla suggests that it depends not just on whether the student’s mother, father, or both parents migrated, but on whether the student was a boy or a girl.
When both parents had left the household, nearly 90% of girls wanted to continue their schooling, while only 33% of the boys did. If only the father had migrated, 76% of the girls aspired to further schooling, but, again, only a third of the boys. If only their mother had migrated, 100% of girls wanted to finish school, but only 30% of the boys. It’s been suggested that boys whose parents, especially the fathers, have migrated, the expectation is that they, too, will migrate lessens commitment to more schooling.
In contrast, in households that had not experienced migration, girls were less committed to continuing their education, but boys were more committed.
In two-parent non-migrant households, 73% of girls and 51% of boys wanted to continue their schooling; in non-migrant households headed by a single mother, 67% of girls and 56% of boys wanted to do so.
Having a parent leave the household has another effect on the children left behind – someone has to pick up the responsibilities for the absent parent. The Puebla research asked children about cooking and feeding the family, cleaning the house, babysitting, helping siblings with homework, and feeding livestock. Obviously, more of the burden falls on girls than on boys, so their academic commitment is all the more impressive.
And the Future of Economic Migration?
If migrating mamas and papas work hard in unforgiving jobs under difficult conditions, if the parental gamble that more money buys a better future is showing only mixed results for the kids they left behind (especially for the boys), will Mexican economic migration continue to decline right out of existence? If blunt-force immigration enforcement at the U.S. border but an improving Mexican economy continue, will this be an issue of the past?
Back in the blueberry fields of Maine, according to the Bangor Daily News, the hard work took place in a festive atmosphere, “Mariachi music booms from loudspeakers, a roving lunch truck hawks authentic Mexican fare and workers jibe one another in their native Spanish.” But that was the summer of 2013, and as the number of migrant workers decreases, blueberry companies are investing in machinery to do the work – which, in turn, means even fewer workers. In the midst of a pandemic that has taught Americans that their food depends not on the supermarket but Mexican agricultural labor, “Quien sabe?”