Tell me the house you live in, and I’ll tell you if you receive remittances
How are the remittances received in Chinandega used? Here are the responses of Chinandegan households. We are what we buy, and what the Chinandegan population has bought in 10 years with the remittances of its emigrants has “civilized, modernized, urbanized, Westernized and gringo-ified”
that patch of Nicaragua, replacing the rural world and the world of work with the world of consumption.
José Luis Rocha
The prudish reaction to consumption—which has its origins in Roman stoicism, hermit-like asceticism and even, paradoxically, the accumulating desire that Weber attributed to the Protestant ethic—has reached our times in the form of an ambiguous attitude. Economists believe that demand must be stimulated in any context and very especially during a recession. But when the object of analysis is remittances—that very special form of income sent home by emigrants that is imbued with almost magical qualities and crushed by a sense of moral obligations—those receiving them are censured for being consumerist. People want to see them become businesspeople, as if the enterprising flair came in the same bank transfer as the remittances and as if capital didn’t use wily deals to undermine the conditions that would allow it to take flight.
From that perspective, the recipients of remittances are cautioned not to waste them on irresponsible consumption, instead using them for productive investment. As most remittances are spent on food, medicines and education, their exclusion from the productive sphere leads to perceiving the acquisition of articles as a waste of the hard-earned money that comes from the far-away North or the nearby South. But, isn’t a well fed, healthy and educated population more productive?
We are what we buyThere has been a tendency to engage in homiletic rhetoric and condemnatory zeal when thinking about remittances and their use. Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini proposes an alternative approach to analyzing consumption in general: “Anxious or obsessive behaviors around consumption may have a profound dissatisfaction at their origin, according to many psychologists. But consumption is otherwise associated, in a more radical sense, with a dissatisfaction that generates an erratic flow of meanings. Buying objects, wearing them on the body, or distributing them throughout the home, assigning them a place within an order, endowing them with functions in one’s communication with others, are resources for thinking about one’s own body, the unstable social order and the uncertain interactions with others. To consume is to make more sense of a world where all that is solid melts into air. That is why, aside from their usefulness in expanding the market and reproducing the labor force, ‘commodities are good for thinking,’” in Douglas and Isherwood’s words, “insofar as they distinguish us from others and help us communicate with them.”
Remittance recipients reorganize their world through the goods they acquire with that money. This new world they are creating is subjected to many conditionings and doesn’t escape the subordinate position imposed by the enormous range of bad colonial habits. But it opens the doors to immense possibilities of combination, hybridization and creation of new forms of being Central Americans, Nicaraguans and, in the case concerning us at the moment, Chinandegans.
I’m taking Chinandegan houses as the main object of study. Through the heavy structures that make them palpable metaphors of what is enduring, houses express cultural changes that already occurred and options with the potential to channel part of what will occur. They are changes inscribed in “solid” globalization, the kind relating to the long haul. “Unproductive” remittances play a primordial role in these changes.
How remittances come and goMigration has many economic repercussions, including the impact of the remittances on education, health, etc., the reduction of unemployed workers in the country of origin, the provision of labor demanded urgently in the countries of destination and the flow of ideas. It is possible that by reducing the supply of labor, migrations are causing an increase in wages in the home country, just as the absorption of large numbers of workers in the maquila assembly plants for re-export has done in some countries. It is thus possible that the terrible route of migration may obtain what union struggle has been unable to obtain. In this article, however, we’ll concentrate solely on one aspect of the economic impact of migration—remittances—given their nature as trans¬national savings that open doors to many freedoms: education, health, food, housing, shows, tourism, contact with other cultures, etc.
Remittances are indisputably an important element in national income. They account for at least 7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in Nicaragua since 1997, and perhaps up to 18% at this particular moment. According to the 2005 census, about 8.1% of all households receive them. Nicaraguan households with a relative who emigrated abroad have many more probabilities of receiving remittances than those that only have a friend or neighbor who went (48.4% compared to 3.6%). But remittances aren’t necessarily reaching the poorest. One statistical model came up with the result that wealthier households whose members have a better education, are headed by a woman, are in urban areas and have several members abroad are more likely to receive remittances. But there’s no doubt that receiving remittances has become a mass privilege.
Between the Living Standards Measurement Surveys of 2001 and 2005, the rate of emigrants sending remittances grew. In 2001, 55% of emigrants were doing so compared to 59% in 2005.
What role is youth playing in this remittance flow? The more mature young people, those with a partner and their own children, are the ones sending more remittances. Only 25% of adolescent emigrants comply with what some deem a “sacred duty to the homeland.” Generally speaking, the sending rate of young people is below that of people between the ages of 30 and 65.
According to a survey on financial services conducted in 2008 by the Inter-American Dialogue, 63.7% of Nicaraguans surveyed said that they received remittances from the United States, 23.5% from Costa Rica, 2.9% from España, 1.9% from Puerto Rico, 1.7% from Canada, 1.7% from Guatemala and 1.2% and 0.5% from Honduras and El Salvador, respectively. These percentages don’t correspond to the weight of each country as a destination for our migrants.
The pendulum nature of a large number of intra-regional migrants means that many remittances—considered transnational savings—travel in the migrants’ pocket, or in that of friends and relatives. This accounts for a much larger proportion than travels through the electronic transfers of the big companies that engage in money transfers. This panorama has changed in recent years to an extent that’s hard for us calculate, but we do know that the growing flow of migrants to Spain has undoubtedly multiplied the remittances from that origin, which are also larger and more regular.
Those who receive the remittancesExamining the family links between those who send and receive the remittances, we find that siblings rank first in various age ranges: they account for 24.5% of the remittances received from the 18-24 range, 39.6% of those received from the 25-29 range and 38.2% of those received from the 30-45 range. They are followed by parents, who receive 23.1%, 22.6% and 12.1%, respectively, of the remittances from those same age ranges, and then children, who occupy first place among the recipients of the money sent home by those in the 45-65 age range and those over 65 (51.1% and 60.6%, respectively).
Among the people interviewed by the Jesuit Service for Migrants, many temporary migrants changed the people they sent their remittances to during their different stays abroad: when they were single the recipient tended to be their mother or a sibling and then when they got a partner they started sending the money to that person.
One thing that stands out is the high percentage of “friends” to whom remittances are sent. Just short of a quarter (24.5%) of 25-29-year-olds, 27.6% of 30-45-year-olds and 24.1% of 46-65-year-olds receive their remittances from friends, which is the second highest source of remittances in those ranges. In many confirmed cases, these “friends” are people who had come to Nicaragua for a while, or academics and students who did field research that involved being “adopted” by the family they stayed with and would soon come to call “my Nica family.”
The Youth Survey of the Fourth Nicaraguan Human Development Report revealed that a high percentage of the siblings of those interviewed had emigrated. A full 43% of young people between the ages of 25 and 29 said they had emigrant family members. The demographic weight of the sibling category among the emigrants provides initial data to explain this remittance fraternity. But there’s another more sociological explanation: in the distribution of family labor, remittances are the payment to brothers and sisters who assume the role of substitute fathers and mothers. They have a two-way dynamic: they are presents with expectations of reciprocity in the form of caring for children. “The person who decides about that money is my mother’s sister,” explains Teresa Cruz. “My aunt is like my mom’s secretary. She gives me shoes, clothes, what I need; soap, everything, including school supplies.”
What do they invest the remittances in? Remittances provide the protective security our society lacks—the unemployment, accident and old-age insurance mentioned by Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, thus compensating for the gaps in public social investment. The opportunity for education or medical care is one of the constituent components of development. This focus, which views health and education as ends that are beneficial in themselves, not just for their indirect contribution to the GDP—via industrialization, for example—eliminates the distinction between productive and unproductive remittances. What is invested in education is desirable and generates new freedoms: the capacity to argue to improve political participation or obtaining better pay which in turn means being able to pay for better health services and contribute to a more productive, better quality economic performance.
There is evidence related to the impact of remittances on education. With respect to the alarming and much-debated issue of school desertion, figures indicate that adolescents from households with emigrants are less affected than households with no emigrants: 19% versus 22% for boys and 16% versus 22% for girls.
But there’s a pitfall here, because entering school isn’t enough unless it’s accompanied by a life project and the volition to be the architect of one’s own development. Amartya Sen distinguishes between cumulative outcome and comprehensive outcome. Only the latter takes note of both those outcomes and the process by which they were obtained.
Education, or a high income, can produce many benefits. But if the way of obtaining that income, i.e. remittances, helps perpetuate a dynamic of dependency, it can become a mechanism that underdevelops and disempowers its receivers. Danish economist Lykke Andersen reaches the following ominous conclusions about this perverse effect: in remittance-receiving households there’s not a great increase in the consumption rate or in investment, but there is a reduction in the number of hours worked. He concludes that remittances are replacing other income rather than complementing it. Other economists in other areas have reached the same conclusion: remittances can influence a reduction in the effort made by their receivers.
The vital influx of “social remittances”Andersen also found that the number of emigrants has an effect on income. Households with more emigrants register notable changes in income. That could be attributed to the social remittances that Peggy Levitt defines as ideas, behaviors, identities and social capital that flow from the countries of destination to the countries of origin. Changes in gender roles, the decision to have fewer children and more active insertion into the labor market are some examples of these “social remittances.”
All of this has its repercussions on income and the household’s per-capita consumption. In Nicaragua, the migration boom is coinciding with a drastic reduction in the fertility rate. This correlation is a plausible hypothesis if we bear in mind that the effects of social remittances aren’t limited to the remittance-receiving households, but rather are disseminated throughout society.
It is interesting that Andersen’s study postulates that social remittances are more important for the economic mobility of Nicaraguan households than financial ones, but financial remittances don’t act alone. There’s no way of obtaining purely financial remittances without social ones. The mutual interdependence is leaving profound marks on the day-to-day lives of many families.
Directly speaking it’s leaving them in the 11.6% of Chinandegan households that the 2005 Census signaled as remittance receivers. That percentage puts Chinandega fourth in the top ten of Nicaraguan households with most households benefitting from remittances, only bettered by Granada (13.4%) and Estelí and León (each with 12.5%).
The Contreras’ houseIn the municipality of Chinandega, 12.7% of households receive remittances. How do these remittances represent a financial incentive to stoke a process of cultural “development” that we can trace back over centuries in Latin America and that’s not at all exclusive to this region of the planet?
Let’s focus our analysis on those houses before expanding it to other goods that adorn it and complete the message sent out to us by its inhabitants. But first, let’s go into a different house. In his novel Castigo divino (divine punishment), Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramírez paints with broad baroque brushstrokes a picture of the Contreras family house, a mansion of the León aristocracy whose details both large and small boldly seek to imitate the eroded opulence of the colonial metropolis: “Diagonally across from the Metropolitan Hotel is the Contreras family’s house. It is a one-story construction with adobe walls and clay roof tiles. The corner door, where we’ve seen the Contreras sisters sitting one March dusk in 1931 gives onto the house’s living room… It’s a high, double-paneled door, crowned by a triangular capital supportedby two fluted columns evoked in concrete on the wall’s whitewashed surface. The corner wall is chamfered and down both sides runs a gallery of doors, each also double-paneled, flanked again by columns and crowned in the same way with capitals, painted, like the columns, in Prussion blue. We’re talking as you can see, about a house without windows.
“Towards the west, the wing of the house is occupied by the family bedrooms and the doors appear defended from half way upwards by latticework of green-varnished wood… There’s a Marshall & Wendell grand piano in the living room, a set of Louis XV-style armchairs, upholstered in red damask, and a full-length mirror with gilt molding, as well as a Philco radio set whose wooden case with oval finishing resembles the door to a gothic cathedral…. In the same corridor there’s a set of black lacquered Viennese serving tables and some wicker rocking chairs…. Just a few steps further, right in the middle of the corridor, we can see the dining table, covered by an oilskin tablecloth with blue flowers; and against the wall, the corresponding sideboard with glass doors. All that remains for us to mention, at the back, is the wood-fueled stove, the water closets; the shack where the maids sleep and the bath and washbasins, hidden behind garden plants.”
Civilized, modernized barbarians: This description is loaded with objects, forms, colors and spatial distributions that proclaim the owners’ unconditional decision to establish themselves as a family of proud lineage. The house and its contents are an official declaration by the Contreras family of the high esteem in which they wish to be held. The means for sending this message are the civilizing and modernizing goods.
From sandals to shoes
In his history of Latin American material culture titled We Are What We Buy, US historian Arnold J. Bauer establishes that the changes in that culture were promoted to a certain degree by the imposition and often enthusiastic acceptance of “civilizing goods” introduced by various colonial and neocolonial regimes over the last 500 years. He argues that since the beginning of the Iberian intrusion, passing through the French, English and, currently, US material regimes, those who made an effort to impose consumption on Latin America as well as the those who voluntarily acquired certain goods, of often came to think of themselves as an active part of a Westernizing process.
That Westernization was first, under the Spanish empire, an attempt to civilize through European, predominantly Spanish, customs and goods. Later, at the urging of the 19th-century Liberal elites, by then Latin American born, the consumption of European goods diversified and expanded as part of a modernization process. Now, in a globalizing dynamic, it is diversifying even more, with a predominance of US brands.
For many years Latin Americans have replaced sandals with shoes, maize tortillas with wheat flour bread, “rough local cotton with Asian silk from the Manila galleon,” the local shirts and shoes of tailors and shoemakers for Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and Gucci moccasins in an unbridled race to be seen as less barbarian and more civilized, less archaic and more modern, less provincial and more globalized, up to date, in the loop, cool…
Everything changes...At the dawn of the colonial period, armchairs, felt table covers and cushions—and other essential articles for “civilized people”—were soon essential ornaments even in the houses of the rich indigenous caciques.
The colonial power encouraged the consumption of merchandise from the Iberian Peninsula through a political-cultural institution known as living “en policía”—or refinement. It meant living in accordance with the European notions of civility, which included clothes, food and hygiene. As Bauer put it, “The new urban design’s stone houses, plazas, fountains, gardens and crosses were elements in a transplanted material culture, yet more examples of ‘goods’ designed to ‘civilize’ the native inhabitants and their descendants.”
The architecture conditioned behavior. The wooden latticework protected young ladies from indecent and indiscreet looks, as required by Manuel Antonio Carreño’s “Manual of Urbanity and good Manners.” Printed in Caracas for the first time in 1853, the manual dedicates various pages to windows, their design and treatment, because “the window is one of the places in which we must conduct ourselves with greater circumspection. Its admonitions are aimed at the women in the home. They must not sit at the windows except at dusk.”
Consumption doesn’t depend only on demographic changes, transport and transaction costs, the functioning of the markets and the skills of the merchants; it is also powerfully conditioned by ideological priorities, what we imagine we are and what we want to become. Escaped slaves, lighter-skinned Africans and mestizos who didn’t want to be taken for Indians and aspired to a better economic situation and higher place in the social pyramid resorted to a metamorphosis of their material culture to transform their identity; they changed what they ate, the way they ate it, their clothes and the materials they were made with, and the architecture of their houses…
They changed everything that had the power to provide them with a new status. They subjected themselves to consumption guided by the colonial nature of the power, by the introjection of the ideas and practices established by codes in which subjection and the dominator/dominated dichotomies were legitimized and fossilized. Consuming or acquiring civilizing goods is part of the practices through which the subjected want to escape their subordinate condition—but who in doing so acknowledge it. As Bauer puts it, “The creation of a material regime takes place in a field of power.”
The modernity inside the housesIn the first third of the 20th century, even in the midst of various piggy-backing US Marine invasions, the Nicaraguan born/Spanish heritage elites known as Criollos, who had invented the nacatamal with raisins and olives, continued to hold up Spain as their model. In 1931 the architecture of the Pacific side of Nicaragua still reflected the civilizing tastes of the Spanish colonies, because housing is the category of material culture that changes most slowly, according to Bauer: the adobe walls and clay roof tiles; the high, double-paneled doors—as if to open ample way for the greats of Spain to pass through; the triangular capital and fluted columns; the chamfered corner of the walls; the wood latticework... Other survivors of Spanish domestic architecture were the water closets, the maids’ rooms and the wood stove, even though it was much less fuel-efficient than the indigenous stove.
But in addition to civilizing goods, Ramírez’s detailed description also includes modernizing ones. As Bauer points out, “Often claiming descent from late colonial landowners and noble families, the republican elite was nevertheless guardedly open to new talent and money.” Houses and their adornments and furniture demonstrate both origin and modernity. Ancestry and fashion. Roots and current options. Noble origin and prosperous present. The houses were motley mirrors of diverse metropolises. To the merchandise from the Iberian Peninsula were added articles that indicated who was at the cutting edge of modern consumption: France contributed its Louis XV armchairs, while the Philco radio came from the United States, perhaps sold by the Sengelmann company to the elites enriched by the coffee boom. The Marshall & Wendell grand piano also came from there, being an essential item for an aristocracy anxious to provide itself with airs of being cultured through an urge for enlightenment so typical of modernity. Austria imposed the Viennese serving tables as an attribute of leisure with good taste. And the Prussian blue was a widespread reminiscence of Frederick the Great’s military expansionism.
Apparently the sumptuous market was much more globalized during colonial times. Literature tells us that the US piano, the Viennese sofa and chairs by Biedermeier were disseminated throughout Latin America. They were equally visible in León, Nicaragua, and Cuzco, Peru. Nowadays, they’re costly museum pieces, with each chair valued at almost $2,000.
Bauer tells of the arduous journeys that these exotic and heavy objects had to make over impassable tracks on the backs of mules or slaves to reach cities or hacienda houses located many miles from the ports. In his memoires, Froilán Turcios includes a horrifying anecdote about a strong man who dies vomiting up blood after carrying three elegant US dressing tables from the port of Trujillo to the remote city of Juticalpa in Honduras, covering “over 80 leagues of terrible tracks, strewn with the steepest slopes and abrupt paths bordering crags.”
The “simplicity” of housesIn El nicaragüense [the Nicaraguan], Pablo Antonio Cuadra establishes the dogma of the Nicaraguan house: “Apart from what we could say later, from another point of view, about our typical thatched hut—which is the room in which 90% of our peasant population lives—there is no doubt that its current inhabitant does not attempt to add to that most functional kind of primitive building any structure, accessory or improvement to alter its absolutely provisional nature and its ultra-simple conception of the human room.”
that no longer exist
“When our typical hut has a more beautiful appearance and fulfils better its protecting role is when it is built with greater fidelity to the millenarian model invented in our proto-history. Its perfection is in its simplicity. And I define that model as the fact of taking shelter beneath an architecturally rendered tree.”
Cuadra delights in describing this simplicity: “Its frame is of unworked beams and trunks—that is, its skeleton is tree-like—a thatched roof of straw or palm leaves; walls of cane, woven palm or boards; earthen floor, schematic furniture (“chicken’s foot” three-legged stool, camp bed); clay oven and the three traditional stones, or tenamastes, of the fire. No decoration. It is the vegetable tent of a nomad of the tropics. It is made of the materials at hand.”
Reality demolished this bucolic vision, and is also leveling the house that Cuadra called the proletariat dwelling: the straw house that “presents itself with the same nakedness as the hut. Its four walls are of clay and as they are rarely whitewashed or painted and as it has no ceiling and the floor is earthen, it doesn’t even offer that passing vegetable liberty of the hut…” The urban dwelling of the capital’s poor inhabitants has long disappeared, that “shack of clay roof tiles, mud walls, most simple as a structure, but also desolated by its inhabitant as if he had made a vow of nudity.”
So what do Chinandega’s houses tell us?The houses of Chinandega, which flee terrified from the austere model Cuadra delightedly fixes as the national ideal opposed to the “dressed-up Costa Rican house,” speak with overwhelming eloquence of the effect of remittances in the department and municipality of that name. Let’s compare their state based on the national censuses of 1995 and 2005. In those ten years a significant percentage of houses passed from being huts or shacks, with walls of palm, cane, wood or debris; a straw or palm roof; and a dirt floor to being dwellings categorized as houses, with plastered cinder block walls, sheet metal roofs and tiled floors. The increases in these latter categories range between 8% and 32%, as can be seen in the table below.
Bauer observed that it was the Spanish women who transported clothes across the ocean, a central element in their effort to establish a home, sometimes a house, in opposition to terms such as choza, bohío, jacál or ruca [all roughly translated as “hut” or “shack”] many Spaniards used to describe the native dwelling, often of adobe walls and a straw roof, which did not fit their notion of house.
The current national census categories—designed by ultramodern or postmodern United Nations technocrats—echo what the Spanish found desirable or abhorrent. To a large degree, remittances make possible the transformation from one category to another. The fact is that both remittance senders and receivers know that what Bauer noted about the colonial age still applies: “Construction materials helped define social hierarchy. The degree of a people’s civility could be determined by ‘a hierarchy of elements’: stone was more ‘noble’ than wood; ‘people who built with wood were less civil than those who built with stone.’” Ceasing to be barbarians, civilizing or westernizing oneself, meant stopping being rural. Chinandega leaves behind its “barbarian” nature to the extent in that huts, shacks, straw, cane and well fall into disuse, replaced by more “noble” materials. That urge for westernization and globalization is currently exploited in a television ad in which the very folkloric “Filomeno the Indian” proclaims: “Holcim Cement! The cement of the First World!”
In all honesty, Holcim cement is as Nicaraguan as the traditional “quesillo” (string cheese) sold wrapped in a tortilla with onions and cream. Both are from Nagarote, the location where that Swiss company has its factory in Nicaragua. But in this case, appearing to be from the First World is as good as actually being from there. At least it attracts the same dividends.
While Bauer asserts that houses are one of the aspects of material culture that take longest to change, it happened here in Chinandega in the incredibly short spell of just 10 years. As average Nicaraguan remittances are less than those received by our neighbors in northern Central America, they haven’t produced the kind of mini-palaces of up to four stories with bizarre designs that an interesting regional study on “Remittance Architecture” found in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Although we can’t actually be certain to what extent we can attribute these transformations to the effect of remittances, we can presume it’s overwhelming if we contrast the municipality of Chinandega with that of Jinotega. The department of Jinotega is home to under 6% of Nicaraguans and just 1.7% of our migrants. The municipality of Jinotega is one of those with the lowest percentages of remittance-receiving households (4%) and is the seat of the department that benefits least from migrants’ money, with just 2.2% of its households receiving remittances. By contrast, the municipality of Chinandega is one of the top remittance receivers (12.7%) and the department of Chinandega tops the list of remittance-receiving departments.
Although 21% of the municipality of Jinotega is urbanized compared to 19% of Chinandega, the improve¬ments to the Chinandegan housing were far superior to those in Jinotega. The houses in Chinandega that stepped up to the “house” category increased by 8% while those that now have cement walls and sheet-metal roofing increased 16% and 35%, respectively, but in Jinotega by only 4%, 6% and 10% in that same 10-year period. There was a 25%, 8% and 6% drop in the use of clay roofing tiles, straw/palm thatching and dirt floors, respectively, in Chinandega, compared to only 7%, 2% and 3% in Jinotega. Only in two categories—potable water piped into the house and electricity—did the two munici¬palities present the same relative increases.
Another way to track the extent to which these transformations can be attributed to remittances is the study of access to different goods whose possession complements the message emitted by the materials and architecture of the houses, based on whether or not the households are remittance receivers.
Sixty percent of the households in the municipality of Chinandega that received remittances in the 12 months prior to the 2005 Census had a mobile phone. That proportion dropped by 50% among households that did not receive remittances. There is an even greater contrast in the possession of conventional (landline) telephones, which are present in 32% of household that receive remittances and only 13% of those that do not. A computer is found in 8% of remittance-receiving homes and 3% of non-receiving ones. There is a cable television connection in 36% of households that receive remittances and in half that number of those that do not. And 65% of remittance-receiving houses have two or more bedrooms, a figure that drops to 46% in non remittance-receiving ones. The picture is similar with respect to butane gas cookers, sound systems and TVs.
We don’t know for certain whether the mobile phone, landline phone, cable television service, etc. came directly from the remittances, as it’s possible that the emigrants came from families that were better off even before the support sent from abroad. After all, they are families that were able to fund the journey of these relatives and temporarily do without their labor and income. It’s hardly late-breaking news that emigrants don’t come from the poorest households. But it’s significant that in aspects not linked to what we might call the socio-cultural spectrum of migrations—such as the use of the household’s own toilet rather than a collective latrine, for example—the percentages for households that receive remittances and those that don’t aren’t so different: 92% and 87%. The same is true of the manufacture or sale of some kind of product, possession of a motorcycle or car, and a separate room for cooking.
Does being urban = being civilized?The urban or rural location of a home is very important. The fact that fewer animals—beasts of burden for working in the countryside—are owned in the case of those that receive remittances (4.3%) than those that don’t (8.5%) shows that that the former are more urban. Categories such as trash collection and possession of refrigerators, computers, conventional telephones and butane gas cookers are marked by the greater provision of certain services (electricity and telephone lines) or by economic and cultural conditioners more present in urban areas—the difficulty of obtaining firewood for cooking and opting for the quickest, most practical option. The total volume of income is another element that has its impact. The amount of income defines the possibility of jumping from the level of mere subsistence to the purchase of household appliances.
Smaller cities tend to have outlying belts where recently settled rural migrants remain faithful to their uses and customs, such as firewood, dirt floors and wood walls. Many squatted on the land and haven’t yet managed to get connected to the potable water and electricity systems.
Our own ethnographic studies allow us to identify a socio-cultural spectrum of migrations that involves a) a more pronounced investment in goods that guarantee frequent and timely communication between the migrants and their relatives; b) articles and services that announce the economic boom in a sometimes luridly visible way; and c) products that introduce substantial improvements into the standard of living, providing them with more city-oriented architecture, diet and life styles.
Globalized, civilized... and conditionedCultural urbanization can’t be entirely isolated from remittances, which are strongly tied in with the process leading from rural to urban. According to the 2005 Living Standards Measurement Survey, most of the country’s emigrants (67%) are from urban areas, leading us to assume that a greater proportion of urban households than rural ones receive remittances.
There’s obviously a strong, but not determining, correlation between households with emigrants and the receiving of remittances. The 2005 Census shows that 48.5% of households with a family member abroad received remittances and 51.5% didn’t. In contrast, a paltry 3.6% of households without emigrants received remittances.
So where there are emigrants, the probability of remittances is 13 times greater than where there are none. To this statement needs to be added another element characteristic of “the urban question”: urban emigration is much better remunerated as the most profitable destinations—the United States and Spain—are more within city-dwellers’ reach.
Of course other factors that help explain the origins of the transformations are both more sinister and prosaic than the one we’ve been concerned with here, including the impact of drug trafficking and drug routes, and the nearness of borders with their wave of free and thus more voluminous circulation of merchandise. But none of these factors have been quantified nor can they be presumed to have had the same kind of impact as remittances.
The absolute power of remittances proves that Chinandega’s displaced workers are constructing globalization in their own way. They reinserted themselves into a system that had rejected them and helped their relatives insert themselves into dynamics with a global scope. But that volition for reinsertion and the strategies for incorporating their families helped the world of consumption push the world of work off its pedestal. Mobile phones, sound systems, TVs, sheet-metal roofing, ceramic tiles and Holcim cement are civilizing, westernizing and even gringo-ifying the Chinandegan population.
Productive goods, whatever they may be, don’t escape from being Westernized. The mere idea of dedicating remittances to productive investment is a Western ethic. At the end of the day, what John Gray said in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern is true: no country can refuse the imperatives of the modern world Europe has created. We could paraphrase that to say that Chinandega can’t refuse the imperatives of the modern world globalization has created.
Transnationalized savings are the condition sine qua non of the imperatives implied by the growth of conspicuous consumption, which while possibly sounding like a contradiction in terms has created a new proletariat class of Adidas and Ray Bans. If the food preparers of Managua’s Oriental Market were called the “aproned bourgeoisie” due to their capacity to accumulate capital through the parallel market that prospered in response to the impotent economic centralization promoted by the Sandinista State in the eighties, we could fairly call many of the remittance receivers “poor people in Calvin Kleins” or “jobless in Levis.”
In a happy worldWithout taking a position opposing that of García Canclini, we mustn’t underestimate the conditionings of consumption, whether in its net material character or in its acceptance of the search for meanings. The penetrating and telling futurist satirical novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley talks about these conditionings when explaining that we will be conditioned through hypnopaedia—sleep-teaching—based on repeating the phrases that will condition our judgments and actions when we’re awake: “In the nurseries, the Elementary Class Consciousness lesson was over, the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. ‘I do love flying,’ they whispered, ‘I do love flying, I do love having new clothes, I do love…’ ‘But old clothes are beastly,’ continued the untiring whisper. ‘We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending, ending is better than mending, ending is better…’”
Consumption reflects political options but, like ideologies that express predilection for one candidate or party, those options can be conditioned. And that’s where the danger lies, because all conditioning is aimed at making us love our inevitable social destiny, to happily resign ourselves to the unhappy world in which we live.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.