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Oaxacan migrants support family and community

Penn State

The majority of migrants from southern Mexico come to the U.S. for financial reasons, but have strong ties to communities back home, according to a Penn State anthropologist.

"Unlike the Mexican migrant, who is a loner, focused on self, and uninterested or unable to think about households and communities, the Oaxacan migrant thinks about his or her family and is deeply concerned for the future and the changes that are ongoing in the region," says Dr. Jeffrey H. Cohen, assistant professor of anthropology, in his recent book, "The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico," published by University of Texas Press.

Cohen believes that the two theories on migration currently used to describe Mexican-U.S. migration - the norte_o model and the traditional geographic approach - are inaccurate for describing migration from the Oaxaca area. He sees a cultural approach to migration - an approach that shifts from an emphasis on the individual to one that portrays migrants as part of families and communities.

The norte_o model looks at migrants, almost always young men, who move back and forth across the U.S./Mexican border. They rarely learn English well enough to migrate fully and return to Mexico only for fiestas and brief visits. They are motivated by money, but as individuals. The economists' model suggests that "traditions and geography are the critical determinative forces in a migrant's decision to leave," according to Cohen. High-paying wages, not available in Mexico, lure migrants to the U.S. These migrants return, wealthy by Mexican standards, and entice others to cross the border.

However, the geographic model suggests that the migrants are ruled by traditional pressures. In this model, migrants do not decide where they go, what they do or how they will get there. They simply respond to cultural influences.

"In this model, migrants follow certain patterns as they move, because they are rural, traditional folk, and that is what rural, traditional folk do," says Cohen. "To suggest that traditions, culture and place drive people in their decision making, maintains the fiction that we are at the mercy of superorganic forces beyond our control."

Certainly, not all families in the Central Valley of Oaxaca have a family member who migrates. For the slightly less than half the families that do, the decision is not always to migrate to the U.S., but sometimes to another part of Mexico, but the majority of migrants from southern Mexico do migrate to Southern California.

According to Cohen, rarely is the decision to leave fueled by the desire for an adventure. Rather, men and women leave to find jobs with wages that cannot be found in the Central Valley area. For the most part, they send what little money they can back to their families and communities.

"We found that most migrants return at least a little something home and that only a minority does not remit," says the Penn State researcher. "Most migrants remit to support their households, construct and renovate their homes, and pay for education, small purchases and health care."

The Penn State researcher notes that a smaller group sends money home for investment in businesses, land, agricultural implements or animals.

"The majority of Oaxaca area people who migrate do so for no more than about a year total," says Cohen.

Oaxaca area villagers who migrate still participate in the systems of "cooperacion" and "tequio" that are traditional models of rural Mexican life. Cooperacion is the moneys assessed by village leaders to pay for basic services like water, sewers and electricity. Tequio is communal labor organized by the community leader for projects and programs in the village. Typically, each household supplies one person each year for some community project.

Households in the Oaxaca area also have responsibility to provide members for various positions within the community structure. These service cargos range from a year to three years of responsibility and, while voluntary, affect the status of the household. Individuals from households serve on some political or civil committee about every other year.

Money sent home by migrants is often used to pay cooperacion, fulfilling that obligation to the community. While the responsibilities of cargo and tequio may be waved or postponed, eventually they must be fulfilled.

According to Cohen, migrants often return to fulfill the service requirement of sitting on committees or provide the labor necessary for tequio.

"By participating in tequio and servicio and by paying cooperacion, a household creates a social identity that translates into status and prestige," says Cohen. "Wealth, whether it is earned locally or in the U.S., makes people envious, but status comes from using that wealth in service of the community."

Even though Central Valley of Oaxaca inhabitants frequently migrate to Mexico City or, more commonly the United States, they retain their ties with their home communities and fulfill their obligations to those communities. While individuals and families could choose not to participate in the structure and culture of their communities, the fact that they chose to remain connected and participants is what makes the local systems work.


The National Science Foundation sponsored the research conducted for "The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico."

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