Nov 172012

As long ago as 1885, Ernst Georg Ravenstein, a German-English cartographer, proposed seven “laws of migration” that arose from his studies of migration in the U.K.

The original seven laws, as expressed by Ravenstein, were:

  • 1) Most migrants only proceed a short distance, and toward centers of absorption.
  • 2) As migrants move toward absorption centers, they leave “gaps” that are filled up by migrants from more remote districts, creating migration flows that reach to “the most remote corner of the kingdom.”
  • 3) The process of dispersion is inverse to that of absorption.
  • 4) Each main current of migration produces a compensating counter-current.
  • 5) Migrants proceeding long distances generally go by preference to one of the great centers of commerce or industry.
  • 6) The natives of towns are less migratory than those of the rural parts of the country.
  • 7) Females are more migratory than males.

These laws, though certainly not accepted uncritically, have provided a basic framework for many later studies of migration. Surprisingly, despite the wording of law 7, there has been remarkably little focus on female migration in the literature, with far more attention being paid in most studies to the migration of men.

Wilson-Tamar-Diana-coverRecognizing this, anthropologist Tamar Wilson provides a detailed account of several important aspects of female migration in her Women’s Migration Networks in Mexico and Beyond (University of New Mexico Press, 2009).

Wilson’s book focuses on the experiences and thoughts of doña Consuelo [all names are pseudonyms], a woman she met while researching in Colonia Popular, a Mexicali squatter settlement, in 1988, and her daughters Anamaria and Irma.

Over a period of several years, and in small part due to marrying a man from Colonia Popular, the author was able to become an insider, invited to all family functions, helping pay for expenses of other family members for such things as tuition, gaining a unique perspective that extends far beyond that usually available to researchers. Yet, at the same time, she remained an observer, recording conversations and impressions and arranging interviews as she felt necessary in order to tease out the details relating to the migration network involved.

The book is solidly grounded in migration theory and the early chapters call heavily on secondary sources. The first chapter (Herstories) provides a useful summary of the history of Mexican migration to the USA since the mid-nineteenth century, and of the increasing participation of women in international migration from Mexico.

Chapter 2 summarizes the history of female employment in Mexico over the same time period, and changes in gender relations in recent decades, while Chapter 3 provides the theoretical background, emphasizing the key concepts of migration networks, social capital and the peculiarities of transnational migration.

Wilson summarizes the findings of previous studies as suggesting that, “Women migrants within Mexico tend to be disproportionately single and either separated, abandoned, or widowed, and single mothers tend to accompany parents. Young, single women seem to be attracted to the border by the possibilities of finding work in the maquiladoras, underscoring women’s generally ignored status as labor migrants. ” However, based on her fieldwork between 1988 and 1992, she found that  “None of the women in Colonia Popular had migrated to Mexicali in order to work in the maquiladoras, but some of their teenage daughters were employed in those assembly plants”.

Six chapters then focus on the personal experiences of doña Consuelo and her family and friends. Extensive quotations (translated into English) from interviews are linked with a clear narrative. These chapters are full of interest as the reader is drawn into the lives of the women and family members involved.

In the final chapter, Wilson draws nine general conclusions from her research:

  1. Poor women in Mexico engage in a variety of income-producing activities in both the formal and informal economies that may involve migration.
  2. Many if not most women accept the system of male domination but may opt out of an unhappy marriage if men do not live up to certain standards they consider fair. This is especially true in urban areas where women can find work.
  3. Although many women migrate under the auspices of husbands or fathers, women’s migration in Mexico can take [place independently of males.
  4. Extended family migration to a given city often also involves migration to a specific colonia or neighborhood within that city.
  5. The social capital provided by networks exists on individual, familial and community levels
  6. Strong ties can be either reinforced or weakened over time and the family life cycle, and weak tie can be converted into strong ties or abandoned. Transnational migration networks multiply in urban centers when siblings or offspring marry.
  7. Transnational migration networks can be anchored in a multiplicity of locales, including place of origin, place of anterior (internal or transnational) migration, or place of one’s current residence or that of one’s parents, spouse’s parents or other kin
  8. Adaptation networks for urban-origin migrants at destination may be, to a great extent, composed of work-site acquaintances converted into friends or ritual kin, and both friends and ritual kin may introduce migrants to future friends and ritual kin.
  9. Transnationalism involves individuals embedded in households, families and networks who, through their ability to cross borders, provide connecting links between kin in Mexico and kin in the United States.

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