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Extending the roads for survival: An ethnography of the ongoing Maya Diaspora


The present ethnographic research examines a diverse group of migrants from the Macro- Maya culture, originally from Yucatan, Chiapas and Guatemala. Findings confirm that there is a longstanding migration pattern in which the Maya have engaged in order to survive, and, now, the Maya have extended these roads of survival to the California Bay Area in the United States. This research aims to address the cultural, political and social migration conditions Maya from Guatemala and Mexico have face both historically and at present. The research questions that guide this research are: How have Maya from Guatemala, Chiapas and Yucatan experienced their migration trajectory northward and what are the social and economic factors that propel these movements? What are the similarities and differences in the migration experiences of my participants? How do these migration experiences support or undermine the representations of Maya that circulate in various American discourses?

I argue that the Maya migrations to the United States have been instigated by the atrocities committed against Maya in Guatemala, Yucatan and Chiapas and the economic marginalization each group has each faced create a movement toward a specific type of refugee or economic exile-- a refugee that utilizes movement as a form of resistance and survival. Furthermore, my data leads to the claim that these migrations must be understood as a diaspora. Establishing economic niches and "hidden" communities in the United States, the experiences of the Maya who share their stories in this research illuminate the differences and similarities among the Maya coming from Mexico and Guatemala. Through my participants' stories, I argue that there is no monolithic "Maya" or "migrant" and, rather, I put forth an analysis of the "unlikely Maya". My participants share a diversity of experiences that undermines the discourses that perpetuate stereotypes permeating monolithic representations of the Maya.

The ethnography includes two levels of observation. In the micro level observations I examine the alternatives lifestyles available and desired by the participants and their trajectories and historical background. The macro level observations include an analysis of the localized struggles of the Maya migrants in relation to wider societal phenomena. More specifically, in the macro analysis their stories are contextualized in the political environment, the broader immigrant struggles and in dialogue with various discourses, such as mass media, labor and government. The Maya participants in this research are undocumented workers. In order to survive in the U.S., they need to harvest a lifestyle that ensures anonymity. Contrary to the discourse on immigration that pins migrants as the "poor rural Maya", the "uneducated non-English speaker or non-Spanish- speaker", or the "victims of history", my qualitative data shows the strong presence of a counterculture migrant community hidden from mainstream representation. The unlikely Maya is not a group of rural individuals who are defenseless against a hegemonic order, but, rather, they are rebels of a system and survivors of social and political forces. I contend that their migration can be understood not only as a result of a survival strategy but, rather, their "illegal" intrusion in to the U.S. is as a form of resistance.

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