Tag Archives: migration

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

By definition, migration is moving from one place to another, while transition is the process of changing or developing once you arrive. The books listed here tell the stories of both, spanning the globe from Mexico and India to Russia. Accounts of this type have been written since humans put pen to paper. These, I feel, are particularly significant for readers of The Eye.

Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Although pegged as a novel, the immigration story that weaves through these pages is based on the author’s own experiences and family. Akhtar is an American, and he is also a Muslim. In a very personal manner he tells the story of his family in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India: the journeys back and forth and the reactions, attitudes, and beliefs of his family, especially his father.

This modern story of Muslims here and abroad contains a most up-to-date analysis of the US in relation to the rest of the world. Most important to me was the flowing narrative, which appears effortless and addresses a variety of emotions, attitudes, and doubts about modern American society, what it was, and what it has become.

Salman Rushdie calls it “passionate, disturbing, and unputdownable.” It is.

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan (2001)

Of the many novels written about the US transition to life in Mexico, Cohan’s description of building a home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) resonates perhaps most clearly to those interested in modern migration and transition.

As background: Two of the original pioneers from north of the border wandered to San Miguel over 80 years ago from Chicago. Stirling Dickinson and Heath Bowman together wrote books about their Mexican and South American travel experiences. Eventually they built a house in San Miguel. Bowman left, but Dickinson stayed in SMA until his death in 1988 at age 89. He contributed to the art and culture of the area, living a simple life from his arrival until his death

Tony Cohan and his wife, after visiting central Mexico in 1985, returned home to Los Angeles, sold their home, and journeyed to SMA, where they bought and refurbished at 250-year-old property. On Mexican Time is the story of the joy, tribulations, adjustment, and drama of their migration and transition to life in Mexico relating specifically to the construction experience.

Cohan’s writing is poignant, fluid, and funny. Most important, though, he finds the perfect phrasing and words to gift readers with a description of the qualities needed to integrate into a culture not their own. On Mexican Time has become a travel classic.

After the success of his first book about Mexico, Cohan went on to expand his writing geography to other parts of this diverse country. Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico (2007) explores the old and new Mexico of coastal and mountainous Veracruz, the sights and smells of Oaxaca, the modern and ancient culture of sprawling Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán, and the indigenous culture of Chiapas.

Burnt Shadows: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (2009)

The complete and compelling history of this novel’s families spans countries from Japan in 1945 to Delhi and then to the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a time of major world-changing and life-changing events, from the bomb in Nagasaki to the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.

An ambitious project, to say the least, but Shamsie creates a cast of believable, sympathetic characters whose lives are shaped by tragic world events. Kirkus Reviews praises Shamsie for her “rare combination of skill and sensitively.”

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is one of the most visible, influential, and credible writers about migration and transition to grace bookstores in the past few years. She has personally lived the migratory life and experienced its many transitions. She was born in Mexico City, but just two years later Luiselli’s family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From there her father’s work took them to Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa. At age 16 she moved back to Mexico City. She has also lived in Spain and France.

Currently, Luiselli lives in the Bronx. Her work as an intern at the United Nations, interviewing and interpreting for Central American child migrants, led to the two books mentioned here.

Tell Me How it Ends is a simple book that relates her day-to-day work as an interpreter for the children from Central America (not Mexico) who have crossed the US border and have been separated from relatives or have crossed unaccompanied. The title comes from questions her own children asked as she related her daily work to them each evening–they wanted to know “how it ends” for the children. This is a stark rendering of the state of US immigration policy, a short and mostly sad story.

Lost Children’s Archive, Luiselli’s fifth novel, is the story of a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona in which the children learn about their father’s obsession with Geronimo and at the same time are exposed to the grim realities of children crossing the border.

Luiselli is an intelligent and creative woman who writes in a variety of styles. One of her most interesting works is the short book The Story of My Teeth (2015). I won’t say more. Try it. I think you will find it quite amusing … and more.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

Readers are in love with Luis Alberto Urrea, who is probably the most popular and important of Mexican-American writers, acknowledged on both sides of the border as one of the most accurate descriptors of the border-crossing experience. Many of his books revolve around the economic struggle of Mexicans and their desire to cross over to the life of riches they perceive will be available to them in the US.

Urrea’s most famous book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Devil’s Highway is the true story of 26 Mexican men who, in May of 2001, crossed the Mexico-US border into the most dangerous of deserts, the 130-mile dirt road in the Sonoran desert called The Devil’s Highway. Published in 2004, the subject remains as fresh in our hearts and minds as it did then.

Urrea investigates and shares the motivations of the various people involved, from the men who attempted the crossing, despite warnings of danger, to the border agents in the US and the coyotes who are paid to be “in the know” about all aspects of the crossing and to lead the men across the deadly terrain.

The Devil’s Highway has been called a must-read in age of migration from south to north, but his novels also give us insight into the Mexican way of life via brilliantly depicted characters and situations, some based on his own family. Urrea has also earned well-deserved kudos for The House of Broken Angels (2018), Queen of America: A Novel (2011), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (2009), and The Hummingbird’s Daughter: A Novel (2005).

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin (2014)
In 1989, the family of the young narrator of this story, which stretches over continents and years, leaves the Soviet Union with three unusual items and little else in tow: a bear, a backpack, and eight crates of vodka.

Told through the eyes of the young son, this memoir begins in Ukraine and ends in the US, with stops in Europe as the family makes its way from repression to freedom. Lev leads a life of confusion, not only about where they’re heading, but of his own identity as a Jew.

The tone at the beginning of this book is amusing and entertaining, but as Lev ages he finds that he needs to address his identity and the people in the past who helped him. His formative years were spent moving and settling, in doubt and even fear. The light touch at the start of the tale becomes heavier as we watch Lev develop into a man.

There are many tales of desperate groups of people seeking refuge and freedom, but Lev’s feelings and his adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances present different challenges. The constellation of emotions evoked in this memoir make it one that will stay with you – it’s also an ideal book for discussion.

The subject of migration and transition has always been with us and will remain a dominant issue for novelists and writers of memoirs for years to come. And, of course, they will provide seductive material for this column.

To Hibernate, or To Migrate?Bats in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Mexico is well-known for hosting migrating birds and butterflies on their seasonal journeys north and south. Bats? Maybe not so much, but it’s hard to tell. In cooler climates, the majority of bats just hibernate for the winter. It’s apparently very difficult to track bat migratory patterns, so there’s only one bat that’s well known for migrating south to winter in Mexico.

Bats have been getting a lot of bad press these days, given that they were the most likely source of the spillover, the technical term for pathogens jumping from animals to humans, of the COVID-19 outbreak that started near Wuhan, China last year. Bats were also responsible for the SARS virus outbreak in 2002 and are notorious vectors of rabies. Bats carry a huge assortment of viruses to which they are not susceptible. Spillovers generally occur when we humans encroach on a wild animal’s habitat. It can happen in reverse as well, as COVID-19 is known to have recently passed from humans to the mountain gorillas of the equatorial African rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Humans have passed a nasty fungus to bats, called the white nose syndrome, most likely from Europe, that has led to huge die offs of this essential mammal, particularly when they are hibernating and vulnerable. This is unfortunate, because bats are extremely important in many ecosystems. They consume insects that would otherwise damage crops, and pollinate numerous species of plants, including agave, or maguey, as it is called here in Mexico. Besides insects, nectar, pollen, and fruit, some species also eat vertebrates. According to science writer David Quammen, “A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States.”

Bats are a hugely diverse group of mammals, varying in habitat, behavior, diet, morphology, longevity, you name it. They are the second most diverse group of mammals following rodents (mice, rats, rabbits, and other chewing animals). There are over 1,400 species of bats – among them is the much maligned but well named common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, which occurs from Uruguay to Mexico, including our lovely Parque Nacional de Huatulco. The rotundus part of the name, which means “portly,” comes from the fact that they get so fat after drinking blood they can’t fly again until they pee away a substantial amount of urine.

The two traits in combination that uniquely characterize bats are that they have “colonized” the air and they are nocturnal; they fly and feed at night. Bat species that eat insects have an extraordinary capability – they hunt by “echolocation,” that is, they emit high frequency sounds that bounce off their prey (e.g., swarms of mosquitoes) and bounce back to the bats’ highly sensitive ears.

Bats in Huatulco

The National Commission on the Protection of National Areas finds that here on the Oaxacan coast, and more specifically in the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, have six species of bats in the park.

Great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus). Obviously, this bat eats fruit, and occurs from Mexico through southern Brazil, and on some islands in the Caribbean. They are polygamous with groups called harems, one male and two to five females. They change their feeding behavior with the position of the moon, decreasing feeding time when it is full, most likely to avoid predators that hunt by moonlight, like owls.

Jamaican, common, or Mexican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis). This is a large, stout bat that roosts in caves, hollow trunks, and under palm leaves. Its range is Mexico to northwestern South America. It loves figs, which don’t grow in the Parque Nacional in Huatulco, but does eat other fruit and vegetation. Because it carries its food all the way back to its roost, it is an important seed disperser. The Mexican fruit bat also has harems, and can live as long as nine years.

Little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium) is another frugivore, critical for seed dispersal. It is opportunistic in its eating habits, feeding on whatever is available.
Palla’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga soricina). This nectar-feeding bat is super interesting. It has the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, similar to that of a hummingbird. Although it uses 50% of its stored fat over a day, over 80% of its energy comes directly from simple nectar sugars as soon as the bat consumes them. Its tongue is are powered by bloodflow and the tip can increase by over 50% in length.

Vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), described above.

The fishing or greater bulldog bat (Noctilio leporinus) occurs from Mexico to northern Argentina and on most Caribbean islands. It uses echolocation to detect waves made by fish, its prey.

As for the bat that migrates, it’s the Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tailed bat, which likes to live in caves, although it will make do with a bridge underpass if it has to. In the summer, it lives – and breeds – in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; in the winter, it moves to southern Mexico and Central America. The Mexican free-tailed bat makes a formidable migrator: if they get a tail wind, they can cruise along at 60 miles an hour, and they’ve been tracked at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

A 2013 study in Ecosphere, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, located winter cave roosts for the Mexican free-tailed bat in Hidalgo, Michoacán, Jalisco, Querétaro, and Chiapas, but who knows? In Huatulco, a popular cocktail-hour pastime in Santa Cruz is to take your margarita and beach chair to sit on the greenspaces atop the Sector E canals. Bats about the size and color of the Mexican free-tailed bat emerge in droves at sunset.

Mamas and Papas – On the Road

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?”