Across the United States, Mexican migrants are playing an increasingly important economic, political, and cultural role in their local communities. At the same time, they are pioneering innovative strategies for cross-border cooperation aimed at sparking economic development and reducing migration pressures in their communities of origin.
As of the 2000 census, Latinos became the largest minority in the U.S., with Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans representing two/thirds of the Latino population. Each month, hard-working Mexicans in the United States send millions of money orders, averaging $200 each, across the border to their communities of origin. These remittances generate more than $9.3 billion a year for Mexico — almost half of the $23 billion total in migrant remittances sent to all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Mexico, a nation of 100 million people, reaps almost as much from remittances as India, with a population of one billion. In fact, remittances are Mexico's third-largest source of income, after oil exports and tourism. In the states of Zacatecas and Michoacán, as well as in much of rural Mexico, they exceed local and state budgets.
The money that these migrants send home has long been understood to be part of an individual and household strategy, in which cash is transferred to families back home from migrants working abroad. However, in the last two decades, remittances between the United States and Mexico have evolved from being solely the province of individuals and household toward increasing involvement of organized hometown associations (HTAs). These associations are based on the social networks that migrants from the same town or village in Mexico establish in their new U.S. communities. Members of these associations, commonly known as clubes de oriundos, seek to promote the well-being of their hometown communities of both origin (in Mexico) and residence (in the U.S.) by raising money to fund public works and social projects.
HTAs are a grassroots response to stresses faced by communities in Mexico undergoing rapid change in a globalizing society. They are products of globalization in other ways as well. These organizations have flourished with the aid of modern telecommunications technology. Previously, the expense and difficulty of long-distance communication and travel simply made it impossible to lead a dual existence in geographically distant places. Today, however, cheaper air travel and other social and economic forces unleashed by economic globalization enable Mexican immigrants to travel back and forth across the border, carrying cultural and political currents in both directions, and pioneering an ethic of community responsibility that transcends national boundaries.
Grassroots Organizing that Spans Borders
Contemporary Mexican HTAs represent values of commitment, solidarity, altruism, and patriotism. HTAs in the United States are heirs to the historical mutual aid societies and welfare organizations created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in order to provide sickness care and death benefits at a time when such services were unavailable for many immigrant groups. Although Mexican HTAs have the longest history and are the best known, an increasing number of Dominican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran hometown associations have been formed in the last decade and are actively participating in the improvement of their communities both of origin and of residence.
Mexican HTAs have a long history — the most prominent were established in the 1950s. In recent years, many additional small HTAs have emerged under the leadership of local immigrant leaders. In the last decade, these HTAs have received financial and technical support from the Mexican government through its consular offices. The growing profile of Mexican HTAs in Chicago is reflective of the steady increase of these organizations. Metropolitan Chicago has the second largest Mexican immigrant community in the United States, following Los Angeles. Current estimates place the area's Mexican and Mexican-ancestry population at between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people, of whom two-thirds were born in Mexico. The states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Michoacán encompass nearly 80% of all Mexican migrants in the Chicago metropolitan area. The number of Chicago-based HTAs for these five states alone quintupled from about 20 to over 100 during the 1994 to 2002 period. There are currently more than 600 Mexican hometown clubs and associations registered in 30 cities in the United States. In Los Angeles alone, there are 218 Mexican HTAs.
Mexican HTAs range from loose clusters to complex and sophisticated organizations. The most common and simplest type is the informal migrant village network. The next level of organizational development involves creation of a formal leadership committee. Such groups range in size from ten to 2,000 members. The next level of structure is a federation of several small clubs. Currently, there are eight federations operating in metropolitan Chicago representing the Mexican states of Michoacán, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Guerrero, Durango, and Guanajuato. In 1999, these federations decided to form a larger confederation comprising not only HTAs but also several Mexican immigrant-led grassroots groups based in the Midwest in order to address human and immigrant rights, absentee voting for Mexicans, cultural and heritage preservation, political participation, etc. Mexican immigrants in Chicago are pioneers in the creation of this type of umbrella organization with multiple agendas as a means of enhancing their leverage and visibility in both the United States and Mexico.
Most HTAs are associated with communities in rural areas that have lost jobs and population as a result of two decades of economic restructuring in Mexico. Migrants from urban areas in Mexico seem not to create U.S. HTAs to the same degree, because Mexican cities send comparatively fewer immigrants, their émigrés are less cohesive, and urban areas do not experience the same level of underdevelopment as rural communities.
Increased Capacity and A Growing Profile
In the past decade, HTAs have received financial and technical support from the Mexican government through its consular offices. In fact, the Mexican government established the Program for the Attention of Mexican Communities Abroad, which fosters the reincorporation of Mexicans living abroad into national economic and, to a lesser degree, political life. The most successful outcome of this program has been the implementation of two-for-one and three-for-one programs that match funds from different tiers of the Mexican government for every dollar raised by the HTAs for approved public infrastructure projects in Mexico. The state of Zacatecas pioneered a three-for-one program in 1997 with $300,000; one year later it was managing nearly $5,000,000 in support of 93 projects in 27 municipalities. Currently, the Mexican states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Michoacán have signed similar agreements with HTAs.
The experience of organizing into HTAs has created the potential for building links with other U.S. organizations, and Zacatecans, Michoacanos, and Guerrerenses in Chicago who have successfully negotiated matching fund projects in Mexico, have also obtained concessions from political authorities, such as expressions of support by Mexican state governors, for the political and civil goals of the HTAs. Denouncing corruption at Mexican consulates, many HTAs have recently established successful connections with media outlets in both Mexico and Chicago in order to lobby for absentee ballots, political representation in Mexican state and federal legislatures, and greater transparency in the administration of Mexican consulate financial resources. So far, the state governments of Zacatecas, Oaxaca, and Michoacán have responded to these demands by cosponsoring several binational forums to discuss problems affecting Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and HTA concerns regarding their communities of origin.
Increasingly, national Latino nonprofits such as the Latino United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) are taking initial steps to forge closer ties and establish strategic partnerships with Mexican hometown associations and federations; however, most HTA activities remain largely circumscribed to Mexican spheres. This reflects a persistent distance from non-Latino political and community leaders in Chicago and American political institutions in general, which remain impermeable to the HTAs. In general, U.S. Latino politicians and community leaders have reached out very little to the HTAs and they remain isolated from mainstream nonprofit organizations. However, HTAs could benefit from the expertise of national nonprofit organizations with transnational agendas in terms of capacity building in such areas as coalition building, fundraising, technical support, financial management, and leadership development.
Despite such challenges, there are increasing signs that some HTAs are getting involved in U.S. politics. Most Mexican hometown federations in the Chicago area have been actively involved in supporting programs legalizing undocumented immigrants and providing them driving license access. In the September 2000 rally to support a new legalization program — Chicago's largest street demonstration since the Harold Washington era — HTA leaders mobilized thousands of constituents. And currently, some Chicago HTAs have begun to establish formal networks with different organizations such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, Global Chicago, the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Moreover, Chicago HTAs have increased their visibility among non-Latinos through their annual cultural weeks. Last year, the Michoacanos — the largest group of Mexican-Americans living in the United States — received an official proclamation from the mayor of Chicago that encouraged all Chicagoans to increase their knowledge of Michoacán, Mexico, and to participate in the educational events planned by the Michoacano Federation. HTAs in Chicago have also expanded connections with hometown associations in California, New York, Texas, and Nevada.
Lessons Learned and Implications for the Americas
Immigrant hometown associations in the United States have blossomed in the past decade, as have their activities abroad, spanning a range of collectively funded development projects. The success of these endeavors hinges both on proactive involvement by the governments of migrant-origin Mexican states and on the management capacity and membership of the HTAs themselves.
As a result of their dual engagement in issues in their towns of origin and their U.S. neighborhoods, Mexican HTAs have rapidly built up leadership capacity, solidified organizational identities, and established good track records. This bodes well for future, broader engagement on larger policy issues within the United States and regionally within the Americas. Indeed, the focus of immigrant HTAs on their communities of origin should not belie their involvement in issues like education, health care, housing, and other challenges facing them in the United States. So far, however, their impact on these broader fronts has been modest. For instance, Zacatecan HTAs in Chicago have a college scholarship program that yearly assigns eight scholarships for Latinos. The scholarship amount ranges from $500 to $2,000 and is insufficient, considering the high demand for educational support among Latino communities. Yet, the collective efforts of HTAs reflect the best tradition of U.S. self-help organizations and advance social solidarity among émigrés.
Community activists and philanthropic institutions have much to learn from Mexican HTAs, because they have developed high standards of accountability and serve as a unique model of international, grassroots philanthropy. Immigrants from Central and South America can also learn valuable lessons about channeling substantial remittances into the development of their communities of origin. HTA leaders often stress that the ultimate aim of their investments is to eliminate the conditions that originally led them to emigrate. Thus, the HTA model of sustainable development projects, if carried out by democratically governed and accountable voluntary organizations, has great potential for influencing not only the lives of those directly affected but also the developing transnational societies of the entire Western Hemisphere.
Hometown associations represent a new breed of transnational grassroots organization with real potential to positively affect communities throughout the Americas. As a direct response to deepening global and regional economic integration, HTAs are increasing their capacity to impact regional decisionmaking processes regarding management of globalization stresses. Given their real-life experiences in dealing with economic integration and their strong cross-border development and social connections, these transnational groups have a natural interest in regional development policies. Rather than accepting a role as "victims" of globalization, Mexican immigrants in the Midwest have enormous potential to shape the development of transnational mechanisms aimed at meeting the challenges of economic integration in more equitable and democratic ways.
Xochitl Bada is a doctoral candidate at the Sociology Department and Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame. She can be contacted at the Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame, 230 McKenna Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556.