[URBANTH-L] REV: Barnhill on Cohen, The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Fri May 27 15:37:46 EDT 2005

[x-posted from H-Migration]

Published by H-Migration at h-net.msu.edu (May 2005)

Jeffrey H. Cohen. _The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico_. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2004. x + 195 pp. Tables illustrations,
notes, bibliography, index. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-292-70570-0; $21.95
(paper), 0-292-70592-1.

Reviewed for H-Migration by John H. Barnhill, Independent Scholar,

We all know about Mexican migrants.  All we have to do is read the daily
news, where we are saturated with coverage of the millions of illegal
immigrants, undocumented workers who overburden our social support
structure and deprive our low-end workers of sorely needed employment.
That is the stereotype, and that is less than half the story.  Not only
is the story of the illegal aliens more complex than that, but it also
has another aspect.  Undocumented workers do not suddenly appear from
nowhere. They all come from somewhere.  Most of them come from 
northern Mexico, but not all--and that might be changing.

Oaxaca, the point of departure of the migrants, is the subject of this
anthropological study.  Rather than dealing with the northern migrants,
who have been examined extensively at both the place of departure and
destination, Cohen has selected Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.  This area
is relatively new to migration and to migration studies, but Cohen has
been working there periodically for fifteen years.  Cohen wants to
generalize as best he can, so he made his study broad rather than deep.
He rejected a single-community study for an examination of multiple
communities reflecting the diverse economic, social, and cultural range
of the valley, including its mixture of indigenous and mestizo
populations.  Also, he has not selected communities or individuals but
households as the level of examination.

The methodology seems on target.  Cohen made a random selection of
households within the chosen communities, established back-up procedures
to cover those occasions when a householder opted out of the process,
and developed two surveys--household and cultural consensus, followed by
in-depth interviews as appropriate.  The surveys are attached to the
text, as is a table of population characteristics by community.  The
sample size is 256 migrant households.

The work consists of five chapters.  The chapter entitled "The Household
and Migration" establishes that the decision to migrate depends mostly
on the household.  Other factors are less important.  Household needs or
desires are more important than community or individual; resources,
abilities and traditions; or the attractiveness of the destination.  And
the household remains intact once the migrant heads north.  Most migrant
households maintain contact with their migrant or migrants.

Households are usually poor, and survival requires the pooling of
resources.  Only the rare individual has the wherewithal to be sole
household support.  Migrants do not lose their ties to the community
easily.  Social responsibilities remain to be filled.  The migrant
satisfies community obligations during periodic returns of up to one
year, occasionally more, after leaving the United States.  Roughly 10
percent of migrants cut their ties with those remaining behind, denying
the household remittances, labor, and a parent.

Other patterns apply to the migrants.  About two-thirds of migrants
follow networks of relatives and friends to their new destination.  The
poor and rich do not migrate because one has no need and the other has
no resources.  Proximity to an urban center--Oaxaca City--lessens
migration because good paying jobs are nearby.  In more remote
communities, farming, domestic labor (including selling of tortillas and
such), and low-paying construction and other labor are the sources of
household income.

Although the author does not mention it, Oaxacan migrants resemble
immigrants of the late-nineteenth century to the United States, at least
in why and how they migrate.  As sojourners holding onto their home
roots, they share a pattern with maybe 30 percent of immigrants.

Cohen begins "History, Trajectory, and Process in Oaxacan Migration"
with a section on the 1992-93 experiences in one of the small towns near
Oaxaca that led him to this project.  The anecdotal introduction, which
describes the way of life that the migrants leave and what they find
during their temporary or permanent migrations, is effective as a
transition to the subject of local migration experience.  From the
1930s, Cohen notes, Oaxacan migration has been local, to the larger
Mexican cities, or to the United States.  Currently, Oaxacan sojourners
ignore Southern California as they move past Chicago to Poughkeepsie,
New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Cohen ignores the parallels to other 
migrating groups that initially concentrate then disperse from a given 
locale.  The pattern holds for migrants to the United States, from 
nineteenth-century Poles and Irish to twentieth-century Vietnamese 
and Somalis.

The chapter breaks Mexican migration into three historical periods.  The
first covers the Mexican Revolution through the Depression, with a
proto-Bracero program of World War I providing seasonal work for west
and central Mexicans.  The second historical era covered the true
Bracero program from the 1940s into 1967.  This program turned into a
source of cheap migrant farm labor, and both employers and migrants
worked around it. In its later stages, illegal migration became rampant.
The third phase, after the Bracero years, is dominated by illegal

Within this third phase, beginning in the 1980s but not taking off until
after 1995, the Oaxacans began international migration in numbers.
Previously, they migrated to work in the local cities and even Mexico
City in the first half of the twentieth century.  And they found work on
the Pan American Highway.  Overall, the 1962 Oaxacan participation in
the Bracero program was only 2.9 percent of the total.  Internal
migration to the cities increased in the 1950s-1970s because cities
meant opportunity and amenities such as electrification.  Mexican
economic conditions in the 1980s altered the pattern.

Once Oaxacans migrants began moving to the United States, they quickly
became an important element in their households.  In 2000, 34 percent of
Oaxacan families had a member in the United States, even as internal
migration continued.  Cohen makes an important point:  by 2000 the
migrations had become self-sustaining; the original push or pull
persisted, but migration continues even when conditions change.
Migration paths were now clearly marked, with family or others support
at the other end.  Still, only about 7 percent of Oaxacans migrated to
the United States versus 23 percent or more from states closer to the

This chapter also discusses the push factors in the 1970s and 1980s.
>From some rural areas, it was easier to migrate to the United States
than to commute to Mexico City or even Oaxaca City.  Demography also
mattered--as infant mortality declined and the population density grew,
and as more families expected cars and other expensive goods, the
migration increased. For some indigenes, moving to Mestizo cities 
meant facing racism--going to the United States meant being just 
another Mexican.

The chapter entitled "Contemporary Migration" deals with the decade
since 1994.  This chapter attempts to define the typical migrant, with
caveats that no one is truly typical.  The "typical migrant" is probably
married, in his mid-twenties, with two or three children and lives in
close proximity to his siblings, who provide support as necessary and
possible. He farms and his wife tends the house, while earning extra 
income from selling produce or tortillas or bringing in such work as 
ironing and laundry.  He migrates out of a desire to add on to the house 
or otherwise improve his material condition.  He takes a route established
by earlier migrants, whether internal or external.  He has established
avenues for getting the migration money, and he leaves his wife to take
on a greater role in preserving community affairs and tradition.  This
chapter includes statistical analyses of the differences among the four
types of community--three with migrants (commuter, internal, external)
and one without.  Cohen finds that it is impossible to generalize about

"Migration, Socioeconomic Change, and Development" begins by
establishing that people go where the money is.  Then it quickly gets to
remittances and their impacts.  Migration leads to remittance--where the
patterns are as variable as the causes of migration.  From an initial
negative impact on economic well being, over time, they become positive.
Cohen provides several pages of tables showing frequencies as well as
explanation and examples gleaned from the surveys.  He makes an
interesting point:  a mature migration community has fewer remittances,
because the remitters have grown away from their home ties, but it also
has at least potentially 100 percent access to migration, so those who
would otherwise receive remittances are able to migrate themselves
instead.  Migrant families have more income and expenses, on average and
excluding remittances, than non-migrant ones.  Migrant families mostly
use remittances for daily needs, perhaps home improvement, and those
that migrate for investment purposes stay away much longer, sometimes
twenty years or more--or they make more trips.

"Nonmigrant Households" include about 40 percent of households in the
valley.  These are the households where people choose not to migrate
because they lack kinship networks, are too poor or too well off (or
satisfied with being in the middle), and find the same rewards in Oaxaca
City as migrants do in Los Angeles.  Although the border crossing has
become more dangerous and expensive since the mid-1990s, this is not a
deterrent if the other conditions are favorable.  It is, however, more
reason to stay longer to recoup the expense.  Potentially, Cohen notes,
it may lead to a future diminishment of migration

Cohen's concluding chapter recapitulates the earlier chapters.  Then it
moves beyond to stress that migration should not be taken in isolation.
Cohen's communities have incorporated it into their culture as they
adapt to other changes.  Urbanites are moving into the rural areas for
safety, evangelicals are a new presence in a traditional Catholic
community, government supports such as crop subsidies are declining, and
land is shifting to private rather than communal ownership.  Isolation
is harder to maintain as the Oaxaca valley globalizes.  The culture of
migration is a new of the process and it bears examination over the long

The book shifts the traditional focus of migration studies.  Rather than
the destination, it examines the community of origin.  There has been a
smattering of work with this emphasis, but much more remains to be done.
Perhaps future studies will look more at non-anthropological works,
maybe incorporate a bit of European or Asian history.  This book shows
how to do it and how much such studies can improve our understanding of
why the same community and conditions make some people into migrants
while keeping others at home.

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