Robert Smith, Barnard College
Professor of Sociology, Barnard College, New York
POV: Mexican hometown associations (HTAs) aren’t a new phenomenon, when you consider the history of immigration in the United States. How are they similar to and different from ethnocultural associations like Italian mutual aid societies or Jewish benevolent associations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
Robert Smith: HTAs are as old as migration itself, and have existed in one form or another in different ages. The most common comparison is between HTAs during the last great wave of migration from the 1860s-1920s and the current period. There are lots of common elements. In both eras, HTAs were used to send back migrants who had died, and to promote collective projects for their hometowns, and to create an environment to nurture the home society culture. What is different now is that communications and other technologies enable migrants to live their lives both in the U.S. and their country of origin more fully than in the past. This happened a century ago, but less easily. For example, in one community I have studied for a long time, the leaders live full time in New York, but can fly back to Mexico for the weekend for meetings and still be on time for their jobs on Monday morning.
POV: You’ve referred to these HTAs as “transnational” organizations. What does that mean? Are HTAs a response to globalization, and in what ways do they reverse the globalization equation?
Celebration in Boqueron, Mexico.
Smith: I have called these “transnational localities,” meaning that these HTAs are not people who think they no longer belong to their home states — what some scholars call “post-national” — but rather people who are able, to a greater degree than in the past, to extend and make the links with their communities of origin meaningful for themselves and their children. They are, of course, a response to globalization, by which I mean the increasing interconnections between distant places on the globe via global markets. But they are also very local creatures — the people involved in HTAs don’t want to be citizens of the world; they still want to be part of their hometowns, and home countries, even though they are also committed to making their lives in a new country, and raising their kids there.
POV: Within the immigration debate in the U.S., the issue of remittances sent home by immigrants can be quite controversial. Some characterize the estimated billions of dollars as a hemorrhage from our economy, some as evidence of a healthy and empowered result/response to globalization. Tell us more about how this phenomenon is quantified. We’ve heard estimates that Mexicans in the U.S. send home more than $ 9.3 billion each year. How are these numbers calculated, especially when the economy of remittances is so cash-based?
Smith: Two points here. First, the argument that remittances are a huge loss to the American economy is short sighted beyond belief. While yes, that money would otherwise stay in the U.S. and circulate here, that position presumes that the migrant’s family is here as well, which would mean that the U.S. would pay for raising the child. As things stand now, Mexico, or other sending countries, spends all the money to raise and educate that child until he or she becomes old enough to begin to contribute to the economy in their late teens or early twenties, and then they go to the U.S. to work. The U.S. gets a huge net transfer of value into its economy. What we have here is a separation of the functions of production, or work, and reproduction, or family. Mexico is subsidizing the U.S.
How is this measured? There is no direct measure, as you point out, because so much money is sent back via friends. But a lot of the money is sent back via remittance companies like Western Union, or through postal money orders, or other measurable means. The Bank of Mexico and other institutions trace these measures. There is also a huge project (learn more ) headed by Douglas Massey, now at Princeton, that has interviewed thousands of migrants all over Mexico and other countries and gotten information on their remittance behavior, which they use to aggregate up to an overall estimate.
POV: HTAs in the U.S. are getting more and more recognition from Mexican federal and state governments. Presidential candidates visit Zacatecan HTAs in Los Angeles as a part of their campaigns and several state governments have established matching funds with HTAs. Can you break down some of the power dynamics at play? Is it possible that HTAs can have a negative effect on a government’s incentive to direct more money to communities, when they are getting better at solving their own problems?
Every Saturday night, Grupo Unión members meet in this make-shift house.
Smith: Some people make the argument that HTAs are replacing the state by becoming an alternative tax base. This is true to some extent in localities for specific projects, but the argument that they are replacing the state goes way too far. But what does emerge is a three-part power dynamic where there was only a two-sided one before. Now the state, in the form of the hometown in Mexico, must approach the HTA in the U.S. to get the “taxes” that will pay for their local public works projects. If you hold the purse strings, you also have political power. Moreover, migrants have become bound up with Mexico’s democratic future in the popular imagination. “Never again a Zacatecas without U.S.!” is the rallying cry of those supporting a recent state law in Zacatecas that will enable Zacatecan migrants to vote from the U.S., unless the law is challenged. For all these reasons, migrants become more powerful when they organize in the U.S. than when they organize in Mexico, in many ways.
POV: With the money they earn in the U.S., Mexican emigrants are able to realize change and gain a status in their hometowns that they might never have achieved had they remained. What can you tell us about how migrant HTA members are perceived in their home communities and do conflicts arise from disconnects between the emigrant vision of the community’s needs and best interests and the vision of those who remain?
Smith: HTA leaders in the U.S. get a great deal of prestige and honor from doing community service, and increasingly they get recognition for their efforts from Mexico’s political leaders, including the President. They are also getting more political power, as many migrants return to Mexico and become municipal presidents (mayors). A few have even been elected to Congress, including Manuel De La Cruz from Zacatecas, who is also a U.S. citizen. Barring some unforeseen challenge, he should take his seat in the next session of the Mexican Congress. Many in Mexico say that migrants no longer understand the reality of their communities in Mexico, that they want to do everything the way it is done in the U.S. While this may be true in some cases, it is also sometimes a ploy to discredit leaders who in many cases know more about their communities because of the close ties they maintain with them than their critics do. There is also the other scenario, where existing divisions in the community get played out transnationally. Natural rivalries between leaders get played out in the U.S. and Mexico.
Robert C. Smith is a professor of sociology at Barnard College in New York, where his research centers on Mexican migration to the U.S. and the Northeast in particular. He is the author of “Mexican New York:
Transnational Worlds of New Immigrants,” forthcoming from the University of California Press in 2004.