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Departures and Returns: Migration, Gender, and the Politics of Transnational Mexican Communities


Over the past three decades, free-market policies have debilitated life in rural Mexico, driving migrants to seek work in the United States. Meanwhile, on the US side, Mexican migrants have faced increasing repression from US immigration control, shunting them into an economic and political "underclass" and reverberating in their sending communities across the border. On both sides, this interplay - the largest cross-border migration in the world - has sparked political struggles and transformed the relationships between women and men. Yet, the relationship between Mexico and the US varies across sending and receiving sites, taking dramatically different forms, in ways that existing research does little to explain.

Based on the historical pathways of two, contrasting Mexico-US migrant communities, this dissertation examines how local-level politics shape the interplay between development, migration, and gender. I focus on two transnational, indigenous villages from Oaxaca, Mexico, which I call "Retorno" and "La Partida." While Retorno and La Partida appear comparable socioeconomically, the articulation of politics, migration, and gender - meaning both the expression of these processes and the connections between them - diverged across the two migration paths. In Retorno, the relationship between the village and its destination in North County San Diego revolved around returns: entering the United States as rural farm workers, its migrants felt they were treated "like slaves." Mostly men, they set their sights on going back to their village. By contrast, the Mexico-US interplay in La Partida reflected departures, that is, both exits and divisions. Its migrants, particularly women, left the village to escape traditions and patriarchy; concentrating in urban Los Angeles, they felt "free." In turn, these patterns sparked qualitatively distinct politics. While Retorno forged a transnational movement for resources and against exclusion, La Partida's migrants embraced the United States, provoking those who remained in their hometown to re-entrench its communal political structure. Both struggles politicized women, bringing them into civic life for the first time. But they did so in different geographic areas and through distinct relationships to life in the United States.

To explain the differences, I propose the concept of a community migration pathway. I define a community migration pathway as a historical process that links particular migrant hometowns to their destinations, producing different expressions of migration, development, gender, and politics on both sides of the border. I argue that while macroeconomic processes and national political structures create constraints and opportunities, the local-level political dynamics of each hometown and destination mediate these effects, crucially shaping the consequences for communities and individuals.

I use a relational, multi-sited, comparative ethnography of Retorno and La Partida to develop this theory. To explain their divergent migration patterns and gendered political struggles, I trace the historical emergence and ongoing dynamics of each hometown's relationship with a specific receiving site. In particular, I ask what political conditions led Retorno to forge a home-away relationship based on return, while La Partida built a different interplay, based on departure. I begin by examining the rise of these different migration pathways from the sending side, illustrating how the political history of each village constructs a particular pattern of movement. Then, I show how the treatment of immigrants in each US destination re-constructs each migrant community's relationships to the United States. Finally, I consider how members respond to these experiences, transforming gender relations and their communities as they fight to avoid "integration" into an undocumented underclass and defend their capacity to live dignified lives - that is, in their own words, their "freedom."

This theory is distinct from other research in three core ways. First, my approach is relational. Sociological studies often divide development, gender, and migration into different subfields, as if they are independent phenomena that can "impact" each other. Often, they focus either on the receiving or on the sending end, rather than examining how the relationships between them get made. By contrast, I emphasize the articulation of these processes and places, meaning both the interrelationships (or joints) between them, and the particular expressions they take under different local circumstances. The concept of articulation is particularly important for understanding how the meanings of gender, class, and race evolve in relation to each other during the process of migration. Gendered understandings are central to any community migration pathway, and they change over time. Gender also intertwines with ethnicity, and the concept of articulation highlights how their meanings emerge in particular locales. Second, I treat migration as a dynamic process: a history that changes over time. Rather than seeing immigration as an event, I trace the histories through which it arises. Then, I look at the ways sending and receiving sides get transformed by their members, as they interact across the Mexico-US border. Third, I highlight that migration pathways take multiple forms. While the intertwining of places like Mexico and the US is structured and constrained by macroeconomic and national-level political processes, it takes shape at the local level. Therefore, even villages as apparently similar as Retorno and La Partida can diverge in dramatic ways. Their differences illustrate how on-the-ground practices mediate the structural conditions of migration, its relationship to development, and the ongoing politics that result.

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