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The Remittance Landscape: Space, Architecture, and Society in Emigrant Mexico

  • Author(s): Lopez, Sarah Lynn
  • Advisor(s): Groth, Paul
  • et al.

Across the United States migrants work in service sector jobs and live in cramped apartments while in their home countries their newly built houses stand empty. Remittances--funds sent from economic migrants abroad to family members who remain in the home country--have radically altered everyday built environments throughout the developing world. In rural Jalisco, Mexico, remittance construction, which once meant building a dream house for oneself and one's family, has evolved into a community-wide project of rebuilding entire hometowns. Such construction has been formalized and institutionalized by the Mexican government's Tres Por Uno (3x1) program, which triples dollars dedicated to development projects with federal, state, and municipal funds. I argue that migrant use of remittance dollars to improve and develop their hometowns, encouraged by the 3x1 program, simultaneously demonstrates a newfound independence and agency for the rural poor and results in a host of unanticipated consequences for migrants and their communities, including familial fragmentation, the financialization of traditional society, and emerging conflict between migrants and villagers.

A disjuncture between migrant aspirations and project outcomes is revealed through analysis of what I call "remittance space"--the sum of individual migrants' and their communities' construction practices and narratives, as well as the macro-scale political and economic processes, and symbolic and spatial transformations that are collectively shaped by and shaping remitting as a way of life. Focusing on a series of villages in the south of Jalisco, I begin my analysis by tracking the evolution of the "remittance house" as both a site of architectural hybridity and domestic change. Next, I explore the Tres Por Uno development discourse as it interfaces with the spatial legacy of rural Mexico, formalizing remittance construction. The heart of my research consists of "building ethnographies"--my term for fine-grained ethnographic research of the envisioning, construction, and use of building projects--on three Tres Por Uno projects that identify the social and spatial consequences of what I term the Remittance Development Model (RDM). The rodeo arena produces a spectacle of traditional culture and gendered expectations amid the commercialization and financialization of the jaripeo or bull-riding event; the cultural center imports U.S. norms of public space and participation that destabilize the traditional social hierarchy based on compadrazgo or extended familial networks; meanwhile, the old age home, an attempt by migrants to prepare for aging and death, raises questions about the lack of public services for rural constituents, and the relation between social capital and societal obligations. These projects contribute to understanding the RDM and its implications.

The Remittance Landscape brings a material analysis of migration to Latina/o scholarship and a perspective of mobility and transnationalism to the study of architecture and place. Anthropological and sociological studies on migrant subjectivities often overlook the built environment as a medium through which individual and group identities are formed and contested. Urban and architectural historians who address ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods do not theorize migration itself, nor do they address the places immigrants come from as constitutive of the places where they arrive. Similarly, a material analysis of migrants' here-there connections contributes to migration scholarship both methodologically and epistemologically. North American migrant urbanism cannot be understood without addressing migrant hometowns that have become, in a sense, the distant hinterlands of American cities.

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