Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants

by Ramses Teon on February 16, 2006

Robert Courtney Smith’s “Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants” is ethnography of a Mexican community living and establishing itself in the Big Apple that focuses on the transnational experiences of two generations of Mexican migrants. The modern term “transnationalism” paves the way to understanding how such migrant communities live multiple experiences in the U.S., striving to maintain and forced to “renegotiate” their U.S. identity and Mexican nationalism.

Prof. Robert Courtney Smith of the City University of New York studied for two decades this New York Mexican community’s relationship and experience with its native hometown of Ticuani—a small town in the southern Mexican state of Puebla—while living and working in New York City. Smith does a great job analyzing and comparing the first-wave of migrants from Ticuani with the second generation.

Such comparisons include immigration status for first generation as mostly undocumented, and the second generation beginning to achieve working visas or permanent residency status—facilitating travel across the border—through the 1986 Amnesty and later family reunification acts. Such differences between immigration statuses affect each generation’s identity and relationships to their home country.
Hometown Associations are a way for migrant communities to aid their hometowns while living and working in the U.S. The Ticuanense community in NY managed to create an association that has provided finances for public works projects superseding the local and federal Mexican governments’ own contributions.

This association’s great influence has politically influenced as much as the governorship of the state of Puebla. This represents a modern political era in Mexican politics where the lives of migrants are an important inclusion to the politics of internal Mexico. In some places in Mexico, migrants living in the U.S. have been approved to vote in some local elections, powerfully asserting the influence of remittances sent to the hometowns. In the U.S., the idea of sending money abroad can be taboo for non-immigrants because it is often argued as a “drain” on the domestic economy. Alternately, we can view migrant communities as a free trained labor force educated by their native countries and taking their investments into our own economy.

Smith presents a traditional “outsider” analysis with the term “renegotiate.” His analysis around racial and class hierarchies that Ticuanenses experience living in New York—including going to public schools, working along with other ethnic or marginalized ethnic groups and sharing geographical neighborhoods with them—is evident of a traditional academic standpoint when viewing a community. We must credit Smith for placing himself as the “gringo muy preguntón” (loosely, “white guy who asks too many questions”) for his approach. However, he depends on his ethnography to be based on his best portrayal of how he studied the Ticuanenses in New York. This becomes particularly problematic when analyzing gender relations among Ticuanenses’ experiences along a patriarchal area of Mexican culture. Rather than analyzing root causes of gender oppression, Smith leaves the analysis pending his best portrayal. For example, he observed a migrant couple where the man strives to keep his macho identity as a way to keep his Mexicanhood.

However, this observation I argue equates social issues of male supremacy wrongfully with that of having a Mexican identity. Alternately, he could opt to study the way that male supremacy works in the community and can be hurtful and disempowering to it. Another more direct approach would be to research direct stories of womyn and gender-oppressed folks living in these communities. The “outsider” approach is respectful, but it seems to keep itself too much at a distance for issues that deserve more attention. As a Mexican migrant myself, I would require more depth around gender issues.

“Mexican New York” is a great read for understanding the interconnection of migrant communities in the U.S. and the global economy. It is important to detail the experiences of the people in these migrant communities living in the U.S. While the study undertaken is limited to the observations of Smith, the book maintains itself highly informational about a type of community that is becoming an important part of our domestic and international cultures and economy.

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