Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico

Debra Lattanzi Shutika. Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. $65.00, hardcover. $27.95, paperback. $27.95, e-book.

 Fredericka Schmadel
Indiana University

Folklorist Debra Lattanzi Shutika’s Beyond the Borderlands might appear atypical, but the material remains relevant to folklorists. Folklife and material culture researchers and those interested in a sense of place or identity, a sense of belonging, will find food for thought in chapter 3, which describes the translocal, village-to-village identity of the migrants who moved from a prosperous Guanajuato village to a more prosperous village in Pennsylvania. Shutika goes into detail about the memorials they set up, in their village of origin, to themselves and their families by preserving for decades their pre-migration houses, called casas vacias (vacant houses) which in reality are full of their life stories and dreams.

Chapters 6 and 7 will be of considerable interest to festival researchers. The social organization called “Bridging the Community” did not accomplish the feeling of belonging for the Mexicans in Kennett Square. Instead, the festival of Cinco de Mayo fosters the feelings of unity in the greater community. Beyond the Borderlands also contains a treasury of recent migration-related scholarship that connects to any number of folkloric topics.

Shutika’s book covers 1995 to 2005 in a longitudinal study. Her volunteer work as a registered nurse in a Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, health clinic provided her with an entrée to the Mexican community there. The author did fieldwork in Pennsylvania and in Guanajuato. There are three primary ingredients that combine to form a sense of belonging in a place: legal rights, expression of group identity, and participation in the community’s political and cultural life (95). Belonging is the goal Shutika describes; she does not use the word assimilation.

The first Mexican mushroom pickers in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the mushroom capital of the United States, were young, single men, seasonal workers who went home to the Mexican state  of Guanajuato when the season was over. They lived in barracks, worked six or seven days a week for long hours at piecework wages, and sent most of their money home. Waves of agricultural laborers had picked mushrooms in Kennett Square before them, Italian immigrants to the United States starting around 1900, then African Americans and poor whites from Appalachia. Mexican workers were more like the Appalachians than the Italians in one way – they were not fleeing something, but rather seeking something. They had homes they wanted to return to. They were also invisible; Shutika, driving through the streets of Kennett Square in 1995 caught sight of not one Mexican person, not one shop sign or other indication of any kind of Mexican presence in the town. Web sites and videos celebrating Kennett Square’s mushroom-producing heritage showed clips of gloved hands, not people, harvesting the mushroom crop, or white workers (99).

Shutika uses the term translocal to describe a phenomenon experienced by Mexican families after the Reagan amnesty of 1986, when it became legal, safe, and respectable for families to relocate. Mexico then was suffering from high inflation coupled with high unemployment. At about the same time, technological advances permitted Kennett Square growers to cultivate and to harvest mushrooms all year long, thus providing the pickers with a steady income stream throughout the year (26). The mushroom picking takes place in foul-smelling, windowless artificial caves made of cinderblocks, where workers must perform delicate harvesting operations by hand while standing on scaffolding or balancing on lower-level growing trays to reach higher ones.

Translocal means that the newcomers’ thinking remains local, not national or international, but in two localities, the village where they were born in Mexico and the village in the United States where they hoped to find economic prosperity and entry into the middle class – upon their eventual return to that Mexican birthplace, of course. They came to Kennett Square like miners, planning to obtain wealth and take it back home with them. Long years spent with their families in Kennett Square, of course, complicated that simple-seeming goal. And negotiations are involved. It’s not easy to accumulate enough wealth to return to Mexico and lead a middle class life there without need for employment – while working, living, and raising a family in Pennsylvania. When one grows prosperous enough to manage this, or qualifies for Social Security, which stretches to cover many expenses in Mexico, more questions arise: Where will the children be, and presumably the grandchildren? In Dallas practicing dentistry or in Washington D.C. practicing law?

Homes in the Mexican city, homes maintained by extended family members who have not migrated, homes left vacant and fully ready to be occupied by the owners at a moment’s notice, are expressions of hope as well as memorials that confirm the owners’ local place and identity. Families make pilgrimages to them, decorating them with updated family photos, new stereos, and adding second bathrooms or other facilities. Retaining their Mexican lives and identities in this way, while working elsewhere to enhance the family’s prospects and economic future, requires constant concentration. Do they want the life they have imagined for themselves in that Mexican home village, or the future they, and especially their children, can build in the United States?

First-generation migrants are not careerists; they work to live, not the reverse. Mexicans, as portrayed in United States popular culture, are not known to be anything but short-term thinkers, not disposed to defer gratification. Yet the long-range decisions that confront the economic migrant and his family are testimony to the seriousness with which people undertake migration, and the value they place on making long-range decisions that work for them (83). Readers interested in stereotypes and worldview will find much of value to them in this book, which I recommend highly.


1 Comment

  1. Hey there! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always
    kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

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