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Women Left Behind Develop New Economic Models

This article is the fourth in a series by Dawn McCarty on the impact that undocumented immigration to the United States has on families and communities left behind in Mexico. Dr. McCarty teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown.

During long road trips to rural communities in Mexico, I would have a reoccurring daydream: the women of Mexico would rise up and march across the country until they reached the US border, millions strong, demonstrating for human dignity until our politicians and media figures had to take notice of their plight. It seemed to me when I first got to Mexico that such a grand display would be the only way to draw attention to the burdens that these women carry, otherwise the immigration debate would always focus on how it affects us .

However, as the months went by, and as the number of interviews of these women left behind when their husbands and relatives migrated to the US looking for work passed 100, I began to see the situation very differently. These Mexican women taught me that change and reform happen in small places, with no grand gestures required. They taught me hope.

Looking back over the transcripts of my early interviews, I can see now that the hope was always there, but I was missing it because of the heart-wrenching situation these women were in. For them, the worst part was the loss of their children.

It is more and more the youth, adolescents and young adults that comprise the “illegal immigrants.” The globalization of the rural Mexican economy has created an economic and social tipping point. The very real economic pressures to help put food on the table for their family coupled with the lack of employment opportunities in post-NAFTA Mexico create overwhelming push factors for young people to migrate to a land that promises at least a chance to find work.

But economic factors are not the only reason for their young people to leave their home and country, according to the women I talked to. The normal developmental need of young people around the world to seek a purposeful future (Kroger, 2000), the need for the youth to form identity, to develop productive and meaningful lives for themselves was ever-present on the minds of the mothers as opportunities for their children vanished from their communities. The “rite of passage” to adulthood for young Mexicans in poverty-stricken areas of rural Mexico is now a journey, without documents, to a land that wants their labor but does not want them. This journey is so difficult, physically, emotionally and spiritually, that the mothers fear the worst.

Salome (all names have been changed) in talking about the determination of one of her sons to get to the US, portrays a level of desperation commonly reported among the interview participants:

“…after those two weeks (of no contact), I was at my mother-in-law’s house and I saw him through the window and I saw him walking down the street, and I said, ‘there’s my son!’ and I ran after him, and when I got here, he was already in the house, taking his shirt off. I said, ‘Son, what happened to you?’ and he said, crying, ‘They left me.’ And he was so thin, and very pale. And, he was in a shirt that wasn’t his, and pants that didn’t fit, and when he took off his shoes without socks, he had big blisters. I said, ‘How is it that they left you?’ and he said, ‘When we ran away (from immigration) they left me behind.’ I asked, ‘What did you do?’ He said he got lost (on the US side) but he found some other people, but his money was all gone when the others found him. He told them where he was from, and one of them was from Celaya or Comonfort, and they said, ‘Let’s go, we won’t leave you.’ He gave them his father’s phone number so that he could come get him, and on the day that (his father) was going to come, Immigration got them and sent him back. When they were back in Mexico, they had to beg for money, it was very embarrassing. The others who were from Comonfort, said from this (the money they begged for) I will pay for your passage to San Miguel, and he got off at the intersection in San Miguel, and from there he walked up the Caracol highway, still all blistered….He came here walking all the way. When he found out that all the others got there, and he was the only one who didn’t make it (across the border), he cried. And two weeks later he left again.”

Fearful about the future of her son, Deanna reported a common concern:

“I was thinking, my son is growing up and what is he going to do? I don’t have enough to give them studies; for sure he is going to want to go to the US. He’s only 15 years old and he’s saying he’s going to go to the US. ‘I’m going!’ We don’t know if we will ever see him again, he may get lost, they disappear and you don’t know what happened”.

Women in traditional societies such as rural Mexico face cultural barriers and conditioning that insist that they remain passive, defer to the men, avoid the wider world and confine themselves to caring for their young. But the destruction of the economy of rural Mexico has changed everything.

“Defer to the Men?”

“Defer to the men?” I visited villages where the men were gone, in some cases, every able body. No one left but women, old men, and boys. And increasingly, the boys were either leaving or preparing to leave for the border.

This increasing loss of their children at younger and younger ages is proving too great a loss to bear. Against significant cultural barriers and in the face of opposition of those in power, I found women who were engaged in economic organizing to save their way of life. They realized that, in order to maintain family life in Mexico, jobs were needed, and these jobs were not about to come from either the government or the “private sector.” They were going to have to create their own opportunities.

As part of my research, I spent time with multiple cooperatives of women working not only to support their families in Mexico but also determined to imagine and construct alternative means of future survival. They were growing rare mushrooms, cultivating tomatoes in greenhouses, making hand-crafted quilts, sewing reusable shopping bags for US consumers, and more. They have discovered that if they organize themselves economically and work collectively they can create structures that will allow their family members to stay, and others to return home (Bezaury, 2007; Stephen, 2005).

In the words of Elizabeth, from a co-op in the state of Hidalgo:

“When they’re just thirteen years old, they’re already thinking about going to the United States to make a house for you. ‘I’m going to the United States in order to be able to give to you what you haven’t been able to give to us.’ But if we have a source of work, they don’t think about going, they can think about staying here…and what we can do here in order to be able to, well, to live. In reality, more than doing it for ourselves, we do it more for our children. That’s why we have gotten together, because I alone, I can’t, so we get together with the others in order to be able to have something so that the family of my partners as well as mine can stay in our country.

Despite her fears about her son, Deanna goes on to say, speaking about her cooperative:

“…in January we’re going to sow…continue working, continue struggling. To work, and work. I hope that one of my children come to see what is in the house (the mushrooms)… that my children come and see, that with all my sisters (co-op members) that we have work and see they don’t have to go.”

My intent was to end this series with some suggestions on how we can help these women of rural Mexico. I was going to offer some thoughts about desperately needed reforms to the US system of immigration. The current system seems designed to separate and destroy families and futures; it calls out to heaven for justice.

But since then, the US economy has hit a wall and the fallout has hit Mexico very hard. However unfairly, the malfeasance of the financial power elite in this country has had a much more devastating financial effect on Mexico than it has here. They have done nothing wrong, but the value of their peso has collapsed, remittances sent to families back in Mexico are down, their stock market has declined more than ours, and the country is hemorrhaging jobs ( Detrixhe , 2009; Economist, 2008 & O’Bolye, 2008).

From the point of view of the women left behind in rural Mexico, however, the crash of the economy has a silver lining. The economic benefit of migrating to the US is going to be far less than it was before the collapse. If there are no jobs, it makes little economic sense to migrate, so some (not all) of the incentive for their children to leave home will be gone, for a time at least.

And if worse comes to worse, if the economic system we call l aissez-faire capitalism and they call neo-liberalism is as unsustainable as it is unjust, if the world-wide economic system collapses into a Great Depression or worse, well, I suspect that they will do a much better job of surviving than we will. They are used to a subsistence economy, to doing without, to making do on their own resources. And they know that relationships, with God and with each other, are far more important than possessions.

Many people over the past few years of my travel in Mexico have asked me if I was afraid; afraid of drug traffickers, illness, the police, whatever. I am always taken aback when this happens. I forget that it is a common misconception among Americans that fear for personal safety is the impediment to confronting injustice.

It is not. It is the fear of failure or of the unkind judgment of others that paralyzes. Collectively, and starting today, in small groups and large, we can practice the bravery needed to use this recession/depression as an opportunity to make basic changes in an economic system that all but compels us to do the evil we hate, whether it is exploiting the labor of poorer countries or despoiling the environment.

I learned the valuable lesson from Salome Deanna Elizabeth and many others that the power to right a wrong comes from the love and concern we have for each other. Nothing more is required.


Bezaury, J. A. (2007). Organized coffee producers: mitigating negative impacts of outmigration in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mountain Research and Development, 27 (2), 109–113.

Detrixhe, J. (2009, January 30). Mexico Peso declines to record low as U.S. economy contracts. Bloomberg.com . Retried February 15 th , 2009, from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601086&sid=aD.wHLcr1wXc

Economist. (2008, December 11). Remittances to Mexico: The end of the American dream.Economist.com . Retrieved February 15 th , 2009, from http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=12775579&CFID=42479971&CFTOKEN=84050119

Kroger, J. (2000). Ego identity status research in the new millennium. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24 (2), 145-148.

O’Bolye, M. (2008, December 5). Mexico’s peso slips after grim U.S. payroll decline.Reuters UK . Retrieved February 15 th , 2009, from http://uk.reuters.com/article/marketsNewsUS/idUKN0544132520081205

Stephen, L. (2005). Women’s weaving cooperatives in Oaxaca. Critique of Anthropology, 25 (3), 253-278.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, March-April 2000.