Alison Elizabeth Lee, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
Introduction: This paper examines the process by which one rural town in south-central Mexico was rapidly transformed into an international migrant sending community over the last twenty years. In marked contrast to reports from Western Mexico where international migration experience in the adult population was accumulated over many decades, the prevalence of migration experience rose in accelerated fashion over the course of just two decades in Zapotitlán Salinas, Puebla.. In the mid-1980s, some villagers from this town set out for New York City in order to salir adelante, do well for themselves, in the hopes of improving their standard of living in Mexico. By the mid-1990s, the local impact of Mexico’s deepening economic crisis, the state economic policies implemented to counteract the crisis, and other local and regional factors virtually destroyed the town’s onyx industry, eliminating most local sources of employment. These changes rapidly converted international migration into a necessary economic alternative for a growing number of Zapotitecos. Increasing levels of consumption and consumption expectations among villagers reinforced individuals’ decisions to migrate, particularly in the context of worsening economic and social conditions in Mexico. The case of Zapotitlán illustrates how the process of accelerated migration and the extension of international migration into new sending regions were constituted and experienced locally and related to changes in state economic policy. The development of international migration in the town into a necessary economic alternative was a result of the changes in broader social and economic policy as they articulated with local economic and social relations. Framing the analysis in this manner, I explore how the historical dynamics of capitalism in one corner of south-central Mexico played a fundamental role in shaping the timing and configuration of migration to the United States. I advance this argument in order to lead our thinking away from what some scholars have suggested as the “inevitableness” of migration in the current neoliberal era (see discussion in Binford 2003) by focusing on the particular configurations of capital and labor in a specific time and place, and drawing attention to the contingencies of these arrangements.