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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 327 | Octubre 2008


Central America

María: Mother, Wife, Indigenous Woman,Emigrant and Voluntary Returnee

Mass migration is changing Central America and its people. To what extent has that important experience helped indigenous women who emigrated to the United States and then returned voluntarily to Guatemala free themselves from the millenarian oppression within Western and Mayan culture? To what degree are migration and return factors of personal and social transformation? The different identifies experienced by María provide pointers to some of the answers.

Ricardo Falla

We visited María in Xicalcal, a rural, almost urban village near the city of Zacualpa, located on a plain at the foot of the Chuacús mountain chain. It had been occupied by guerrilla fighters during the eighties. María invited us into her well-plastered cinderblock house built with money earned in the United States. Next to the house was a tank filled with crystal clear water brought down from the mountain, which is a marvel compared to the muddy water that comes out of the pipes in Zacualpa. She showed us her henhouse, fruit trees and kitchen garden with herbs and medicinal plants.

Her husband has been living in the States for over five years, and she communicates with him on an almost daily basis. She spent two years there herself, which is a very short time by local standards, as another five women who left before her have yet to return. María came back a year ago.

A migrant from childhood

Thirty-year-old María is mother to two girls, aged 10 and 12, and a boy aged 9. Like many women from Zacualpa, she was a constant migrant at an early age due to the war, extreme poverty and desire to earn their own money. When she was only 6 the massacres in Zacualpa (1982) forced the family to move to the coast, where she followed her father from coffee farm to coffee farm. She only returned four years later, when the situation had calmed down.

While she still felt young, she decided not to follow her father any more. She realized she had developed and was afraid of men, “who are very abusive, because sometimes when you’re a girl they get the urge to grab you.” So she started to think about looking for work in Zacualpa so she could get her hair cut and buy her own clothes. After that she left home to look for domestic work in the departmental capital and even in Guatemala City, although she never stayed long in each house.

She always found jobs through networks of women doing the same work. In one job she had to keep accounts in a store and realized the importance of a formal education, which she had missed out on while moving around as a girl in the coastal region. That realization would stay with her even after she returned from the United States.

Her future husband was also from Xicalcal, and as she returned home every now and then he started wooing her by letter. After thinking about it a lot, she decided to marry him because she was tired of working so much. She’d have an easier life, particularly with someone like her fiancé who’d been in the United States. They married when she was still 17, after all the normal steps of him asking for her hand and giving her gifts and then both a civil and church wedding. They went to live in the house where she still lives, which was made out of adobe at the time.

Because her husband had worked up North and could afford to be independent, she didn’t have to follow the custom of going to live with her mother-in-law, but had her own house with her husband right from the start. She had her first girl when she was 18, her second two years later and the boy not quite two years after that. During that period she studied two years of literacy, the only formal education course she has ever taken. Then her husband went off to the United States for the second time and three years later she decided to join him, leaving her mother to look after the children.

This is María. A migrant since childhood. An independent woman. A woman who saw the different sides of Guatemala—rich and poor, rural and urban—before traveling north. She liked being a housewife, but was also used to doing paid domestic work. She had no formal education, but was aware of how necessary it was.

The decision and the deal with the coyote

Why did María decide to emigrate? The main reason she stresses is that she wanted to help her husband pay a debt they had both run up by building their house and installing two water pipes as part of a potable water and mini-irrigation project. He returned to the USA to pay it off, but hadn’t managed to get the money together after three years. That’s when, constantly in contact by telephone, María decided to make the journey.

He didn’t force the decision on her; she took the initiative. Reading between the lines, it’s probable he couldn’t pay off the debt because he wasn’t saving, which was something she could guarantee by being at his side. It was like a strategy to stabilize her husband by her presence. María decided to leave her three small children with her mother, but rather than send them to live in their grandparents’ house, opted to ask her mother to move to the recently-built house and be their guardian. Although such a journey was viewed in the village as an almost exclusively male enterprise, the fact that five other women from Xicalcal were already in the United States must have encouraged her, showing that women could also make it across the desert.

Once she had made the decision, a woman who acted as the coyotes’ representative in Zacualpa put her in touch with their network, taking her to Quetzaltenango to meet the main coyote, who accepted María’s payment and promised to take her all the way to her destination. María reckons that the journey cost her 50,000 quetzals (roughly $6,300), including interest, while her husband’s trip three or four years earlier worked out at around 35,000. A small part of that money was provided by her husband from the United States, but most was covered by a loan María took out with a ladino money lender from Zacualpa at 5% monthly interest.

Crossing the desert:
The only woman among men

There were 14 people in the group of migrants that María joined to travel north, and she was the only woman. To protect herself from possible rape she planned her journey with two men from the same religious denomination and the same village, which made her feel safer. Neither was a blood relative like a brother, uncle or cousin, but there was supposedly quite a sacred relationship involved. “One was my godfather and the other a brother from my church,” she explained. “When they went, I went too, trusting them because they were almost family. That’s why I didn’t get raped on the way; I didn’t suffer in that group.”

The journey was relatively quick with no major setbacks. María didn’t stop to explain that part of her story very much. After 12 days, she was in Providence, Rhode Island, close to Boston, where she had met up with her husband, having passed through La Mesilla (the border between Guatemala and Mexico), Puebla and Altar Sonora (in Mexico), then through Phoenix and the Arizona desert to Los Angeles (by car) then Boston (by plane), then again by land to Providence.

To make the journey, she had to leave behind her traditional indigenous dress forever and put on trousers and a blouse. This allowed her to move around more easily and conceal her identity as a Guatemalan indigenous woman. When she had worked for families in their houses and on farms in the coastal region, she never had to take off her traditional clothes to hide who she was. This was a new experience, something male migrants don’t have to go through.

María had to walk several segments of the journey. She suffered most crossing the desert, walking for two nights and one day alone in a group of men, adjusting to their pace rather than them adjusting to hers. But unlike the tales of what had happened to other migrants, they weren’t caught and didn’t come across any wild animals. Nor did she experience the crisis of desperation or regret that others suffer.

For María, the “biggest disappointment” came when she was already in the United States. Despite making a deal with the coyote from Quetzaltenango, who was supposed to be better and more honorable than one in Zacualpa, “they stole $2,000 from me over there in Los Angeles.” Her husband wired the fare for her plane ticket from Boston, but the coyote said it was in the wrong name, warning that she wouldn’t go anywhere unless he sent it again.

“That’s what the coyotes do to the people they take...” she explained. “On top of having to run up a debt here... they stole that money from us over there. I said to my husband, ‘Why didn’t you think a bit?’ ‘Well, it’s lost now,’ he said, ‘and at least you got here alive, without any major incident.’” As a defenseless migrant aware of his helplessness, who was he going to complain to? Was he going to pick up the phone in Boston and call the coyote in Los Angeles? Or call the coyote from Xela or that woman who acted as a contact in Zacualpa?

A crisis of “repentence”: not being with him

María didn’t stay in Boston, where her husband was working, but rather went to nearby Providence, home to many indigenous and ladino migrants from Zacualpa, some of them with their papers already in order. Her husband found a place for her there with his brother, under the logic that “there were a lot of people where he was, which was just a small, very cramped house.” He couldn’t keep her there among a bunch of men, with several people sleeping in the same room, and there wasn’t enough money to pay for somewhere else, “because an apartment costs $1,000 to $1,800.”

It was there that María experienced her crisis of regret, telling herself she shouldn’t have come, because on top of being tricked by the coyotes, she couldn’t be with her husband and her brother-in-law’s wife was aggressive, annoyed at having another woman in her house, even away from her home town. “My sister-in-law was very angry. ‘Why had I come?’ ‘Why was I spending money?’ There’s discrimination among family members. Sometimes you’re even embarrassed to be there, because you aren’t earning very much. So I got desperate again. What am I going to do? I shouldn’t have come; I shouldn’t have left my family. And after two months there I already wanted to come back, but as my husband and I had a debt pending... What were we to do? ‘Well, you’re here now, so be patient!’ he tells me.”

It wasn’t hard for her to find work in Providence, but the conditions were very different and hard for her, as she was shut up all day in a refrigerated room, and the $6-an-hour salary was very low, according to María. Although she was accompanied by many women doing the same assembly line work she was, it was like working in a maquiladora sweat shop, and that did nothing to encourage her. “I worked in squid,” she explains. “All the women are there in lines, working with their hands, making trays of squid. But you’re standing up all day, in a freezer house that’s really freezing. You’re there covered up in your sweater, wearing sneakers with two pairs of stockings.”

She was there no longer than a month. Her desperation about where she was living infected her enthusiasm at work, so her husband made an effort to find her somewhere to live in Boston and they moved in together two months after she had arrived in the United States. This cheered her up and dampened her desire to return to Guatemala and her children as soon as possible.

Women for the homeland
and men for the North?

This woman’s gender perspective is illuminating, not because she migrated to the United States to see if a woman could cross the desert as well or show that international migration isn’t just for men. Her motivation was the payment of a family debt, but it led her to confront the difficulties of “a masculinized effort” like migration and prove that a woman is also capable of that feat.

International migration is a “masculinized effort” because the groups taken across by the coyotes are mainly made up of men. The women who go with them not only face the danger of being raped, but also have to adapt to circumstances designed with men in mind: the pace, the sleeping places, the rests and where they defecate on route…

While proving that migration is not an exclusively male effort was not María’s motivation, there was an element of female struggle in the desire to be with her husband, stabilize him and not lose him, all under the guise of paying off the debt. That struggle led María to leave her children behind and break the stereotype that women are for the house and men for work, which in this case translates into women for the homeland and men for the North. Moreover, it wasn’t her husband who took the initiative for her to undertake this journey, although she always consulted with him. She decided, continually proving herself the quickest acting, most creative person in the couple.

A female sense of self-esteem is constantly present in María’s story. She had to break through many prejudices regarding what it is to be a woman, an indigenous woman, a woman-mother, a woman-wife to achieve the goal of paying off the family debt. María is not the only woman who has done this, and she could be criticized as a bad mother (for leaving her children), an indigenous woman who renounced her culture (for shedding her traditional clothes), a non-submissive wife (for going to find him), and a women whose excessive liberation led her to risk the journey among men.

However, when she returned to Zacualpa and was asked in her village church to tell them how things had gone, she didn’t stress this aspect of female self-esteem, but rather focused on what everyone tells, men and women migrants alike: the suffering on the journey and the suffering in the work they do to earn a living. She agreed with other men, stressing that they’re telling the truth, rather than making up boastful stories about all the “great jobs” she had in the United States: “What I told them was how I arrived, how I got on in the desert, how I suffered from hunger, what area we walked in, how many hours, if it was hard and the work I did there.”

A particularly female crisis

Male migrants tell of moments after the coyote abandons the group and they ask themselves why they ever left home: “Was I right to migrate? Did I make a mistake?” They describe that feeling as one of “regret.” Regretting implies that the decision to migrate was incorrect, crazy, bad. María also experienced such a moment, telling herself “I shouldn’t have come, I shouldn’t have left my family…” but it didn’t happen on the way; it happened at the beginning of her stay in the United States.

Questioning the sense of her decision to migrate wasn’t triggered by suffering in the desert, the coyotes’ deception and robbery, or external circumstances to do with Americans and their way of life, as she found herself alongside women who were Hispanic, Guatemalan and even from Zacualpa both at work and at home. So what lay behind her crisis? The first reason was that she had to live away from her husband when she arrived, living with her brother-in-law and his wife in a different city, as though she was living off them.

The second source of her “regret” was her children. Although young, María is a woman with responsibilities, unlike other male migrants, who tend to be adolescent and have no children. María has three and left them for their sake, but then couldn’t bear to be away from them, loving them from a distance. While she broke the stereotype of the mother who must always be at home at her children’s side, we discovered she hadn’t broken it completely.

These two factors—the desire to be with her husband and the distance from her children—churned away inside her, making her crisis of regret a female one that was very different from that of most male migrants. She overcame it by changing where she was living and her work, but didn’t get over it completely. While it was practically impossible for her to think about returning when she arrived, she never completely adapted to life in the United States. For this reason she returned to Zacualpa sooner than the other women in her village. Hers was a different experience than that of other young migrants: the two poles of her identity clash strongly because both are deeply rooted.

How the coyote networks have evolved

Certain information extracted from the interview with María shows the evolution of international migration in Zacualpa, which is slowly transforming the role of women. In 1993, migration was just taking off in the municipality. María left ten years later, when it was already in full swing, probably making female participation in this transnational effort more frequent in both absolute and relative terms. By the time she left, the charlatan coyotes of 1993 had turned into a well-oiled coyote network. There was even a woman contact to respond to requests from other women, indicating a growing complexity in intermediation, which was by then taking women into account as migrants.

Nonetheless, both in 1993 and still in 2003, the coyote system was unfavorable and deceitful for the migrants, whether men or women. Many have been abandoned at the US border and robbed, although María was robbed “cleanly,” without anyone even touching her purse. But there’s a double difference in the scheme the coyotes used in her case. The first one was the amount stolen. María was swindled out of $2,000, which is a lot more than other migrants pay for the journey. This shows that every year more money is being moved around in the coyote business and that both male and female migrants are being tricked into greater losses.

The second difference is in the way María was robbed, which is easier to do to a woman than a man. If a male migrant had been told to cough up $2,000 more in Los Angeles, he would probably have gone to look for another guy to bail him out of the jam. But for a woman like María, that was hardier and riskier. So her husband felt forced to find more money to bail her out of the trap in which the coyotes had her.

In ten years, increasing sums of money have been circulating in the business of travelling north. The money paid to coyotes for the trip has increased 4.5 times in dollars. With the growing demand and the increasing difficulties along the way, the price has risen from $1,400 to $6,300 (8,000 to 50,000 quetzals) from 1993 to 2003. There’s more money available to cover this due to the increase in migrants to the United States, who can pay for a relative, and the increase in wealth in Zacualpa, again due to migration. So María’s case is paradigmatic, because the more husbands there are in the United States, the more wives can be taken up north.

How the village has evolved

As international migration has been changing its forms, so has Zacualpa’s reality been undergoing a transformation. When María emigrated, the town had already emerged from the dark days of the war and terror. Her story didn’t contain that background fear of strangers that appears in the tales told by migrants who left in 1993.

The gradual opening up of Zacualpa to outside influences, which was unthinkable during the war, has also changed agriculture, in the form of mini-irrigation. Ten years ago agriculture was limited to the traditional maize and bean crops. Those changes were also influenced by the remittances sent home by migrants in the United States, and they too involved the women.

Another change in Zacualpa’s reality has been in education. There was no complete primary school when the migrants who left the village in 1993 were children, but there was by the time María’s children were growing up. In peacetime, the state has extended its services to rural areas. But this reality also involves a demand for remittances to pay for the education of one’s children. A good part of the education of María’s daughters was financed by the savings from her time away and the monthly remittances sent home.

A generation of children is thus being raised with more education than the previous one, when children couldn’t study because they were going from farm to farm in the coastal region; or because there was no school providing full primary education in the villages; or because of parental contempt for education as something that just trained people to be lazy. That’s something María said several times to her brother, perhaps to get back at him for the privileges families afforded to the boys. The opening up of educational opportunities is breaking the idea María experienced as a girl that only boys can study. The need to study, which she vividly felt later, has influenced her promotion of education for all three of her children.

Finally, the whole opening up caused by migration during peacetime has been accompanied by the multiplication of means of communication. The telephone is one example. Ten years ago there was a public telephone from which people called their relatives, responding to their calls from the North. Today, practically every household with relatives in the United States has a cell phone.

Cleaning up other people’s filth

How was María’s stay in the United States? Can her process be differentiated from those of young male migrants?

The crisis caused by culture shock in the United States calmed down when María went to live in the same room as her husband, although the cohabitation that soothed her heart didn’t work out at all cheap, as her husband started paying $800 a month in rent. Once in Boston with him, she looked for any work that might come her way, as migrants can’t be choosers. “I went to ask for work at a cleaning company,” she recalls, “because that’s all there is in Boston… a filth you’ve never had in your own house gets into the houses of Americans, who haven’t cleaned in I don’t know how long.”

During that search, María gradually came to understand that she had the new identity of a migrant, a social identity applied to those who did the work most looked down upon and who lacked the papers for working legally. “We migrated there without so much as a piece of paper to defend ourselves,” María explains. “Not just me, but all the people who are working buy false papers, because if you don’t have them you can’t get any work. I had to buy that piece of paper and it cost me $125.”

María immediately noticed that the women did heavier work there than in Guatemala, because they have to do the same heavy work as the men. Her husband also worked for a cleaning business: “Over there, women do the same work as men. If the men do cleaning work and carry things like vacuum cleaners—that’s what they call machines that suck up trash off the floor—the women carry them as well. And if the men clean up the rubbish, make an effort with those things or clean the stove—those stoves that are really splattered so the dirt doesn’t come off because they haven’t been cleaned for years—so do the women.” So in the apparent equality between men and women, the women come out worse off.

Neglect, tiredness, worries...

The work María did eroded her female identity in some way, because it affected her appearance and beauty. She compared it to her work in Guatemala: “Maybe here I can still manage to paint my nails, but not over there. Over there your nails are to scrape things, to scrape grease off dirty ovens… Over there you earn some money, I’d say, but you suffer, you get ill.”

She was also affected by the lack of rest, working more hours because she wanted to earn more money. The result was more neglect of her appearance and a lack of interest in developing social relations. Her concern was her family back in Zacualpa, not integrating into the migrant society. “You have to work for hours there,” she said. “If you have the ability to work for 12 or 16 hours, then you can do it, but you get so tired. Every day! There in Boston, cleaning those buildings that sometimes don’t have elevators, you have to climb five floors by foot. Oh my god! My feet were killing me I was so tired, every day.”

She fooled herself at the beginning when she accepted cleaning work, viewing it as a housewife’s work. But the difference made an impact, because at home she did it for her children, didn’t have so many appliances to clean and didn’t use the toxic chemicals the company forced her to use to clean the grease off the cookers. It wasn’t a housewife’s work over there, and it was ruining her health. “You see quality there,” she explains, “but there’s filth… What most affected me were the chemicals we used, what’s it called? Those grease-stripping sprays you breathe in… you feel bad, your head really hurts.” The company didn’t give her any medicines. She had to go to the hospital where they asked for residency papers, which she didn’t have, so she was only given a check-up. There were translators from Spanish to English, but not from her Mayan Quiché language. She didn’t have any problems because she could speak Spanish, but there were monolingual indigenous women who couldn’t. “I went to ‘apply’ to a hospital—that’s what they say… They examined me and took a blood sample. I didn’t have anything; it was just tiredness. What I needed were vitamins. And I was also worried about things.”

The Guatemalans discriminate there

There was multiple discrimination in the work relations. María mentions discrimination by both male and female migrants who could speak English and therefore found themselves inside the command structure of the company where she was working. Their discriminatory treatment was felt through orders and threats of dismissal.

That this could happen when there were so many people from Zacualpa there was something that disconcerted María: “It’s sometimes the Latinos, people from our own families who set out from here, who discriminate against you just because they’ve already learned English. They’re supervisors now, they can check the work and say, ‘She can’t work, she’d better leave.’”

The male supervisors from Zacualpa exercised another kind of discrimination, offering preferential treatment in return for sexual favors. “That didn’t happen to me,” she stated, “but it did happen to one girl who couldn’t clean a window or a table…. They said, ‘She’s pretty, she can sleep with me. Then I’ll give her work.’”

María uses the word “discrimination” both for patriarchal work situations and for working relations among women whenever power is used to legitimize the maltreatment of another, even when both are Guatemalan. María is amazed how such profound changes can occur in people with the same needs and from the same homeland. Everyone, men and women alike, experience this identity transformation. “They discriminate against you,” she explains. “I imagine they went through the same thing when they arrived, but they don’t want to remember that and treat you like you don’t know anything. Like they’re not Guatemalans anymore.”

The discrimination is more drastic in the relations with private homeowners. There’s no discussion and no verbal maltreatment; you just get fired. And not just for not carrying out an order. No matter how docile and hard-working the migrant domestic worker is, not understanding what she’s being told is tantamount to refusing to carry out orders. “I had to leave about three jobs,” recalls María, “because the language there is English. You have to speak English to understand what they’re saying, and if you don’t understand, you’re out.”

The husband-wife relationship

How did the work affect her relationship with her husband? On the one hand, there was strict coordination and equality in payment of both the costs involved in staying in the United States and the remittances sent home, which they each paid every other month. They paid the family debt off together.

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any friction. “I was earning $9 an hour there, but they only gave me three hours. I started at 6 and returned home late at 9. Sometimes I had some minor problems with him because I’d leave and he’d still be there... Also I had another job from 7 to 4, then I’d rest for an hour and leave at 5 for that job, and sometimes I’d get home and he wasn’t there; he was out in the street. Sometimes he’d come find me… And I could see he was a bit upset because I was working all the time… I earned a little more than him, but we always shared to cover our needs. You have to pay the telephone, electricity, gas and apartment bills. He’d pay one month, I’d pay the next. Sometimes he’d send back to the family, sometimes I’d send back…”

One aspect of their relationship doesn’t appear in the interview. If she went there to work, then she couldn’t have children as long as she was in the United States. When they lived together in Guatemala they had three children in quick succession. The journey north implied planning, and thus a change in her image of what it meant to be a woman, which now didn’t necessarily involve being a mother. This almost certainly generated tensions and worries for her.

The decision to return

Sometimes it’s said that a woman gets trapped again in the patriarchal system when she returns from the United States. Is this true? Why did María decide to return?

“I could see that I’d managed to pay off those debts, and the debt of my journey out there,” she explained. “So I thought I don’t want to be here anymore, because I felt I was getting sick, my body was starting to hurt. I was getting headaches and thinking more about my family… Also, because we were a couple and shouldn’t be living with other people, we had to live in a room that cost us $800. Well, it sometimes took my husband two weeks to earn that $800. So he pays the rent and sometimes I send money back to the family, or I pay the rent and he sends home to our family and his mom as well. We always divided the money. When we look at it, we’re in the same position. It’s going to be about three years and we haven’t saved anything… And I didn’t want to be there anymore. I couldn’t sleep at night worrying so much about my family. And I felt almost sick with being there. It was better to come home, because I’m happier being with my family even if I don’t have so much money.”

Although María went to work in the United States without assuming the identity of a permanent migrant, she wasn’t originally thinking about returning immediately. However, her doubts undermined her decision to stay longer, which was also something that came from her, not him, although she consulted him about everything.

Economics didn’t weigh heavily in that decision. On the one hand, she’d already paid off the debt with the coyote, so she was free from those chains, but the cost of living in the United States meant they were hardly saving anything. On the other hand, illness is an objective element with economic effects, because when there’s pain, the body and head work less…

In addition to these material aspects, there was the element of identity related to seeing happiness where others don’t see it. Guatemala is a poor country, but that’s where her children were and she’s a mother first and foremost; it’s her main identity as a woman. She couldn’t stand being in the North any more and would get even sicker if she stayed. So the element of identity mixed with economics and consolidated the decision.

María’s case leaves us with a question that is also a general hypothesis: Is it more difficult for a woman who is a mother to integrate into migrant society over there if she has children here and a husband there? In this case the answer is affirmative.

Back in the village—has she changed?

How did María reassume her local identity when she returned to Zacualpa? How does she view herself? How do others see her? Has she changed?

María returned by plane, traveling alone. Her father, brother and eldest daughter were waiting for her at the airport and took her back to her village. In twelve hours she had traveled from Boston to Zacualpa. “I said hello to my family and went to bed with my conscience more or less clear, because I was with my family again. Well, my husband stayed behind, but that’s not as sad as being without your children. It’s not such a worry, because he’s an adult now, he knows how to look after himself. If he doesn’t do it, that’s his problem now.” Three very similar feelings—worry, guilt and sadness—that reinforced each other when she was in the United States could be distinguished once she was back in her village. The guilt disappeared and the other two diminished. She’s a returnee in peace, although she finds it hard being separated from her partner.

The village learned of her arrival and the Catholic community invited María to welcome her back. But she was embarrassed about presenting herself in public because she’d gone north without telling them and she now looked different from the other people there. Back in the village, she started worrying about her appearance again, but it wasn’t about dolling herself up. Quite the opposite: she wanted to ruralize herself. It took her a month before she was able to present herself at the oratory.

“I was embarrassed, you know!” she laughs. “Because when I went, I didn’t leave any message for my brothers and sisters, and coming back here my whole face and body had changed. I was different when I looked at myself in the mirror, because my cheeks looked like those of a 15-year-old girl; all filled out. Everything was a bit lighter, my eyes and hands as well… as I’d turned a little paler over there… It made me feel embarrassed… What was I going to do? I started working at home, cleaning up the house and going to feed the chickens. And as I ran my errands here in the village, I let the sun burn me a bit. I carried on like that for a month. By then my ‘over there’ appearance had disappeared a little. They didn’t welcome me until then, because it was only then that I went there.”

There was some kind of fracture in María’s identity with the community when she left without telling them: she didn’t trust them enough to confide in them about a resolution that could lead her to no longer be from “here,” like other women who stayed away. Her external appearance could also confirm a change of identity, as she no longer looked like a Zacualpa villager, but rather a well-fed Americanized migrant with a fairer complexion. Her shame was the emotional expression of recognition that the community saw something improper in that fracturing of identity. Like a girl who knows she’s done something wrong to people she esteems and is ashamed to stand among them and have the eyes of the community fixed on her. Such shame is greater among women than men, because they aren’t used to standing up in public in any event.

It was a feeling of transition. She felt as though the community’s eyes would undress her and she would feel very ashamed to be naked. Then the community would dress her back up in the community identity and the fractured identity would be reestablished.

“I’m not thinking about going back”

After being presented and well looked upon, the questions started. María followed five other women from her village, none of whom had returned yet. “They always asked me why I came back,” she recalls. “And I told them the truth: I couldn’t stay there any more because that place is very hard. And just as she isn’t embarrassed about saying she was weak in the face of suffering, she also has no feelings of inferiority or failure in relation to other people in the community. Her words are based on her experiences, which they can’t refute, because she knows all about migration, the journey, the stay and the return.

The other kinds of questions have to do with her identity as a returnee: is she going to return to the United States? The people want to know more about her identity with respect to the community. Has she returned for good or is she just visiting? She replies that she isn’t thinking about going back and defines herself as a voluntary, permanent returnee. But do people believe her? Might she not suddenly take off again without saying anything? “When they ask me if I’m going to go back again, I saw who knows… maybe some day out of the blue. I don’t know, but I’m not thinking about it.” Nobody complained that she’d left without warning.

She leaves the future open and compares what she tells people to what people said ten years ago, before her husband left for the first time. It isn’t possible to invent the same kind of “lies” any more. “Oh my God!” she remembers. “Many people made things up; they said a lot of things before. They said people left dollars lying in old cars; that if you searched old cars you’d find dollars there. And if you wanted a car you just went to the place they left the old cars, asked for permission and got yourself an old car. People made a lot of things up. My husband had already been once, and when he returned he said, ‘What a lie, it’s real hard work!’ And when I went, I was only working with fish, just with fish…”

“I’m hardly ever worried now”

How does María see herself now? Doesn’t she clash with the community’s customs and mentality? How does she feel the change upon returning? Has she deconstructed what she learned in the North?

“I’m living like a housewife now,” she explains. “A housewife does her chores quickly, cleans the house, looks after the children, feeds her animals, eats calmly, without any worries at all. It’s not like being there. And although you’re not getting paid by the hour, the way I see it you’re having a good time. That’s what I’ve picked up from my experiences, being in your own little house, feeding your hens, eating well. Over there, on the other hand—oh my God!—eating on the run… because if you get there after work starts, they say you must not need to work, that it’d be better if you left, that they’ll look for someone else who does need work… Here you’ve got your animals, you go to the square to sell them, and you’ve got a little money. And if you’ve got some crops, vegetables, and look after them, you can go to the square and make a little more money… And so we get by. I’ve got two lime trees that give a lot of fruit. I planted them. And I’ve got that furrow of sugar cane I planted with my husband. And I sowed that over there myself… And I’ve planted my guava bush… We’ve also eaten guavas during the past season. And my avocado tree there also produced avocados this year. So I’m always happy. I’m hardly ever worried.”

From wage earner
to independent woman

María no longer has a supervisor standing over her. Now she’s independent and her own boss. There’s nobody giving orders or on her back to eat up, nobody correcting her and threatening to fire her. However, some features of her work in the North are still present in her independent work.

The first feature is the awareness that the work she does has the same value and can be measured in terms of hours and minutes, even though in Zacualpa it’s not paid and not valued as work. Another is relating the speed with which the work is done with the measurement of its value. And the third, related to the other two, is the limited appreciation of household “chores” compared to other work more related to agricultural production.

María feels proud of what she has sowed and harvested and it shows. She has built her agricultural identity here, not directly through the work in itself, but by presenting her own worth to the others through that work. Trees or their fruit bear that feeling of identity, as if María were present in them in a way that could never be possible with money. Any wound inflicted on those trees or any violation of the fruit through theft would feel like an attack on María herself.

María uses the remittances her husband sends back to pay the laborers who help her when the water pipes have to be fixed. She has two kinds of money: remittances and the “little money” she earns selling “the little hens” (everything is diminutive). Money is always money, but for her the “little money” corresponds to a system of life that while more modest, slower and more monotonous, is also calm and enough to live on.

When she returned, María went from being a wage earner who was paid in dollars, but suffered pressure from her supervisors, into an independent woman who is recovering her own agricultural work and paying others to do the work she considers inappropriate for a woman in her village. Her love of trees and fruit indicates the recovery of a female agricultural identity in a woman who is responsible for her house. Will this identity change when her husband returns?

“How far I’ve come!”

How does María feel in relation to her two daughters and son? They were her big concern in the United States, but how does she view them on her return? How does she view herself as a mother?

María has an image of what a woman should be that doesn’t correspond to what she has been. Realizing that time can’t be turned back, she projects that image into her daughters’ future, particularly that of the oldest one, who’s a pre-adolescent. She thinks her daughter can now decide between the two models of being a woman: the one she and her mother followed and the one she’s proposing. María is 30 and her daughter 12. María married at 17 and wants to avoid such an early marriage for her daughters.
How does she view her past and what future does she dream of for her daughters? “Sometimes I sit here looking at the mountains and say: ‘How far I’ve come! Going to the United States and back. And before that going to the capital alone, to the coast alone, to Quiché alone.’ And I was still a girl, about my daughter’s age. I sometimes tell her that when I was her age, I was working because I already knew about money. She says to me now, ‘Give me a quetzal, give me this, give me that.’ I couldn’t say that to my parents. I had to earn it, because they didn’t earn very much.”

María is laconic and not very poetic, but there’s a certain poetry in these words. She gazes off into the mountains that watch over the Xicalcal valley where she was born and now lives. What do those mountains have that awakens the memory of her past? For the people of Zacualpa they are signs of a very ancient, pure and authentic past. They are a symbol of Zacualpa’s identity and tradition, although they are also signs of poverty and, in a certain way, backwardness. At their peaks are some of the Mayan altars that even today attract a lot of people; the clean water that irrigates the valleys flows from their folds and the firewood comes from their forests. But the poorest peasants also come down from those mountains to sell their produce in the markets.

For María they are also a symbol of the here and now from which she contemplates them. After so much travelling, she’s again before the mountains that witnessed her birth. She has returned! And she’s amazed that she never got lost, despite always wandering alone.

The tone of that story is appropriate for someone who tells of great feats. The bravery that has accompanied her is almost the guiding thread. She considers that she was brave enough to travel to the United States alone, and while there have been limitations she wouldn’t like to see repeated in her daughter’s life, she doesn’t assume them with guilt and defeatism. The big difference between her life and her daughter’s is poverty. María had to start working when she was still a girl, while her daughter is freed from her tasks to concentrate on studying. María was constantly moving around looking for a better paid job, while her daughter has never left Xicalcal. And the biggest difference of all is that María never studied and married early, while her daughter is studying, and will hopefully continue, so she won’t be like her mother.

Two models of being a woman

María turns her story into advice for both daughters in the future. “They’re both big now and I tell them, ‘Why did I go risk myself? Because I went to earn a little money and I’ve got it saved up so you can study more later...’ Money is the most important thing for studying. If there isn’t any money, you can’t study. So I tell my daughters that I hope they won’t get stuck half way, because if they’re thinking of getting married, then it’d be better if they didn’t study, because if you’re studying and then get married, you’ll end up like me: staying at home and looking after the children... I’ve seen that studying is necessary. But I’ve seen girls who’ve studied then gone to the United States. And what do they do there? They wash toilets... If I had studied, I’d be thinking about getting a job in the capital or right here…”

For María there are two models of woman for her daughter to choose from: marrying early and studying. She sees studies as an investment. You have to be consistent and finish them, otherwise you lose that investment. That investment involves the savings María made through her journey north. She keeps them in an account in the Banrural bank in Zacualpa. But she doesn’t think they’ll be enough to cover the education of her three children. In time, they’ll have to help pay for their own education. María, who hasn’t studied, sees education almost exclusively as an economic good. She doesn’t invest it with any sense of vocation or enjoyment and it causes her uncertainty and insecurity. Will she end up losing the capital she’s invested in them? Another way of losing the investment is migration. What if she spends all that money on studies and her daughter graduates then goes off to clean toilets…?

As a returnee migrant, María feels she wouldn’t have had to emigrate to save money for her daughters to study if she had followed the same model she now wants for them: the studied woman. So the journey north has influenced her idea of what it means to be a woman, although it obviously reflects negatively in her own case.

Him earning over there,
her planning over here

And as a returnee, how does María feel about her relationship with her life partner? What has changed in the way she feels about him? Does her identity have a transforming force in relation to him in the way it does regarding her children?

María’s not like many Guatemalan women whose husbands have traveled north but don’t know what life’s like over there. They depend on the information provided by their husbands, who in the ongoing haggling over the amount sent home in remittances tend to invent things that aren’t actually true. She explains her phone communication with him and the fortnightly wiring of remittances through Banrural or Western Union like this: “He talks to me every day, sometimes he calls me every other day. He asks how we are. He says, ‘I’m tired of being here, of doing so much work every day, I’m really tired.’ ‘You do get tired, but we had a commitment and it’s not finished yet,’ I say to encourage him a bit, because I can see that we still can’t manage if he comes home, because there are still things he and I want, too. And it’s just not possible here. Well, it is, but not and also have any life left. It costs a lot to earn money over there, but you can always get it together little by little.”

María is very economical when it comes to verbally expressing the words of love exchanged over the phone. We only know that it’s a relationship with very frequent contact, almost every day. He asks for details of their everyday life, how they’re feeling and if they’re well. The remittances are at the center of the conversation. She wants him to send more money, and often insists that he does, “because the situation here is very hard.” He defends himself, arguing that his costs are going up. In this continuous haggling, each plays up how hard life is where they are. They no longer refer to the debt, but rather to their shared “desires” to get ahead, so they’re not just getting by. She wants to make a step up, breaking with the cyclical monotony of life resigned to tranquil survival. She’s more strongly motivated than he is to make that leap, which is viewed as qualitative, if maybe not spectacular.

So unlike the stereotype of women praying to heaven for their husband’s return, she tells him to stay there, to grin and bear it, to be patient until they’ve saved the money they budgeted between them. She’s the one providing the initiative in this kind of family business in which the husband earns over there and the woman plans over here. However, her words aren’t an imposition or a command. She’s just “encouraging” him, although her encouragement contains the clear reminder of his obligation: “you have to work a little more.”

Her position may seem cruel, wanting to keep him over there for longer, but she fears he’ll return without enough for them to get ahead and he’ll have to go back to the United States, then come back to Guatemala too soon again, and so on like a pendulum between the two countries, making a habit of spending the savings on the outward and return trips.

Female initiatives with a male veto

Being a permanent voluntary returnee means she has economic plans. In her telephone conversations with her husband she has brought up various small projects, although she’s waiting for him to return to start some of them because either she can’t do them without him or has to tread carefully not to make him jealous.

Of the two projects in the pipeline, one requires her husband’s presence and the other doesn’t. Installing a bread oven next to the track where people pass by requires him “to make the little house,” to cover it, as their house is too far in, among the bean fields in a wooded area. The other project, which involves sewing—apparently blouses—has the advantage that it can be done at home, meaning she can do it alone, without his help. María is the inventive one, as she’s there on site. He, on the other hand, is outside, not following the village’s economic movements, and doesn’t have the same kind of ideas as María, who is immersed in that world. He does, however, have veto power. “On two or three occasions I told him my ideas and he didn’t accept,” she admits, explaining that she yields to that, because “I don’t want to fight.”

Why doesn’t she want to fight? Because of the children, within an indigenous religious conception in which fighting can make them ill. Her female identity as a wife is in a state of tension. Her ideas about small niches of economic opportunity would get her out of the house and moving, but in the interest of peace at home and for her children, María contains those impulses. It could annoy her husband if she’s leaving the house and generating her own income. Although they haggle over the size of the remittances, they’re actually a bond of dependence for the woman. The wound that could be caused by her steps towards independence makes him imagine her intentions. As María puts it, “Suddenly he springs things he’s invented on me.”

So his long-distance jealousy conditions her economic implementation. We don’t know whether the same is true for him. But at the same time, the economic relations between them keep the couple united and she contains her economic imagination for the sake of peace in the home.

Unafraid of the racism and sexism

How does María feel in public settings that tend to be threatening for women in general and indigenous women in particular? Does she maintain an identity based on fear?

She tends to talk about a lot of things with her daughter, one of which is her position on society’s racism and sexism. By touching on these issues, she doesn’t intend her daughter to try something she herself hasn’t managed, but rather to present herself to her daughter as an example of courage: “‘If I hadn’t left,’ I tell her, ‘maybe now I’d have been afraid to go to Quiché or Guatemala City. Wherever I want to go, I’m not afraid. Before, I was afraid when I went into a bank, but not now. Even in the United States, I went into a bank, cashed my check and even got money out of an ATM… I’m not afraid even if there’s a bunch of guys there… If I have to buy something where they’re standing, I don’t feel ashamed in front of them just because I’m not saying anything to them. If they say something, let them, but I’ve got something to buy so I’ll buy what I want to. Wherever I go, I’m not afraid, I’m not ashamed.”

These two situations María points out are ones in which women normally feel excluded. Although there is no express prohibition, women feel an invisible force blocking them from passing, entering, walking into various spaces.

The example of banks can be generalized to all institutions of power, luxury restaurants, fancy stores, where indigenous women wearing traditional dress feel afraid of what might be said to them when they enter and of not being able to answer back if they don’t want to be scolded. This racism is worse for them than the men, because their dress clearly marks them out as indigenous.

The other situation is when a group of young males are gathered near a counter or a stall, talking among themselves and mocking passers-by. There’s no formal prohibition in this space either, although it’s different from the enclosed walls of the bank, but women hear an invisible voice telling them that if they pass through someone might say something that will embarrass them. It’s a sexist environment, not an explicitly racist one, although it could be that as well. The reaction of women with no awareness is one of fear and shame, which stops them passing.

María isn’t afraid in either situation. That’s something she owes to her experience as a migrant: “If I hadn’t left perhaps I would’ve been afraid.” She feels she has the right to enter anywhere and buy anything. It’s a right she has become aware of in Guatemala, not in the United States where she learned it, because over there she was constantly haunted by the fact she was “illegal.”

Courage has been a constant factor for her. When she returned to Guatemala alone in the airplane, “I had great courage not to be afraid because God has looked after me.” And when she sums up her life with her gaze lost in the mountains, she marvels about herself: “How far I’ve been! To the United States and back!” Now she tells her daughter to “be like me; don’t be afraid.” This is one characteristic that marks this returnee migrant woman and runs through all the others. It is perhaps her underlying characteristic.

Who is María today?

When she returned, María became an independent farmer with extra jobs she does herself to make “a little money” and others she hires laborers to do. At the same time she’s part of a transnational micro-business with her husband, because while he’s earning dollars, she’s administering them with her own initiatives, even though she consults him by phone. In the investments she makes, she feels limited by her lack of education. She’s investing in education so her daughters and son can be what she couldn’t. Her woman’s mind is focused on the future of her daughters for whom she wants a model of being a woman who’s not tied to domestic chores, but enjoys comfort and salaries appropriate for office work. The same is true for her son’s future.

Despite this, María is still a peasant woman the sweat of whose brow and the ability of whose hands are symbolized in fruits such as jocotes and mangos, while she dispatches her domestic chores with the speed of someone who’s learned to measure them in terms of time. Although it would appear that on returning she has backtracked in her awareness of the value of her work, what’s really happening is that her identity projected on her children has taken a leap forward.

Four stages for María’s family

María’s family has passed through four stages. The first was she and her husband having three children in Zacualpa in a model modern nuclear family—modern in the sense of not being an extended family with the paternal grandparents. The second was her with three children in Zacualpa at an age when they limited her a great deal, with her husband in the States and she missing and very dependent on him; in other words, the typical transnational family. The third stage was she and her husband living together over there, but without their children, who were living with their maternal grandmother in Zacualpa. This is another, also common, type of transnational family: the grandmother looking after the grandchildren. But she couldn’t stand this structure and returned. The fourth stage is she and her children in Zacualpa and her husband still in the States, with the difference that she has now experienced migration.

She undermined the patriarchal system

María’s identity contains a new image as a mother. She isn’t a better mother for having more and more children, but rather for educating them better. It’s a more educational than biological focus. It also contains a new image of being a wife, one in which she’s now on the same level as her husband, even though she depends on the remittances he sends home, because he depends on her administration of that money and on the attention she provides to their children. This relationship has been made possible by two technological advances: having a telephone in the house—as opposed to a community telephone—and contraceptive methods.

Although María is not the leader of any movement defending women’s rights, by stepping into spaces in the street and in institutions that are normally perceived as threatening, her ego has taken possession of the public sphere, aware of her right to be there. Although she did participate in women’s groups before migrating, the force of her awareness as a woman on the public level comes more from her migratory experience, starting with the adventure of going to the United States in a group of men.

Guided by the hypothesis that identity is built up through relations of experience and that in the case of the female identity we have to look at relations within the family to find out how they’ve been reinforced, we can conclude that María is one more of those women whose life, in Castells’ words, helps “undermine the foundations of the patriarchy.” These small experiences and struggles nurture a fabric of women’s voices on the planet that form the basis of feminism in Third World countries.

Ricardo Falla, sj, is an anthropologist and envío correspondent in Guatemala. The above are excerpts from his latest book, Migración transnacional retornada, Editorial Avancso, Guatemala, 2008.

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