Mixteco Women on the Migration Route
Siguiendo el viaje de algunas mujeres mixtecas que salieron de su pueblo
y se instalaron, hasta ahora en Tijuana, aparece el dinamismo de la migracion.
Cambios como la adolescencia, el noviazgo, el casamiento o la union, la
llegada de los hijos y a veces la muerte, son sucesos tenidos por los vaivenes
de la migracion.
. . . Una vez que se sale del pueblo la vida cambia. O se encuentra novio,
o se casa, o se tiene un hijo. Ya no es Ca misma que salio . . . .
--Laura Velasco Ortiz
Translated by Hector Antonio Corporan
Back home it rains hard. That's why rivers overflow and bridges fall
down. When our house was flattened, everything got soaked, totally destroyed,
even the birth certificates.
I was born in San Miguel Aguacate, a district of Silacayoapan, in the
Mixteca region of Oaxaca. As a child I helped my parents pull the weeds
in the field. Otherwise, I looked after the cows. I didn't last long in
school, because the teacher hit me a lot, and I would spend a lot of time
hiding under chairs.
I married at age 13. When I turned 17, I left San Miguel, traveling with
my husband to Veracruz and Tres Valles Potreros to cut sugar cane for Boss
Manuel. I used to cut 120 or 125 bundles per week, and my husband, 80 or
85. They paid us 50 pesos for our combined work. Of course, the money was
given to him. He was the man.
When my parents died, I left that man. He beat me a lot. I put up with
him because of my parents. But, "It's over," I told myself--and
grabbed my children and moved to Mexico City, and from there to Juarez.
Along the way I would sell peanuts, seeds, candies, and apples. One day
my oldest son said to me, "Look mother, let's go to Tijuana. They say
there is plenty of help for poor people there."
And here you have me in Tijuana telling you all this. Go back? No, I
won't go back. Everything there is very sad. I tell my children, "If
you want to return, go ahead--to each his own." My life is here.
--Dona Guadalupe Santillan 1
The Mixteca region of Oaxaca still maintains
the humble beauty of many of Mexico's indigenous regions--and also their
poverty, erosion, uncultivated parcels of land, and old trucks that come
and go loaded with migrants. Listening to the stories of Mixteco women who
have migrated from their community, one sees in their faces the imprint
of these landscapes. Dona Santillan's departure from home, though less common
than that of men, is a familiar individual and cultural experience. Mixteco
women do domestic work in middle and upper-class homes in cities like Mexico
City, Oaxaca, Puebla, and more recently Guadalajara, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez,
and Tijuana. They also work as street vendors.
For a long time Mixtecos have been part of the labor migrations to agricultural
fields in Veracruz, Morelos, what could be called the northwestern agricultural
strip of Mexico--Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja, California--and even further
to the fields of California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and occasionally
Idaho. Mixteco women use this route in lesser proportion than the men, and
their experience of it differs markedly, for unlike most men, they usually
travel in the company of a family member. In migration, one's environment
is continually changing, a picture that emerges in experiences narrated
by some of the Mixteco women who left their towns to settle for the present
in Tijuana. One's experiences of adolescence, engagement, marriage, birth,
and death are shaped by the to-and-fro activities of migration. To create
their culture, Mixteco men and women migrants have combined urban and rural
knowledge; they have spanned short and long cultural distances. In this
versatile, regional, migrant culture, migration is a "permanent event"
that becomes part of life, not a brief experience that can be told as an
adventure. For these migrants, adventure is all of life. In the shortest
time, unexpected change can happen.
I married at the age of l4. My husband was 35. I did not love the unfortunate
man--I was already too grown up, and he was from another town. But before,
when a man asked for the hand of a girl and the mother said yes, there
was no question. You had no choice but to marry.
I went with him to live in his town, but not for long because he was
killed in the hills. He used to sell dried pepper that he would bring from
Pinotepa Nacional. On his way back, he was attacked on the road by robbers.
So, after 11 months I was back at home.
I stayed there for a while, and when I turned 16 an aunt took me to
Mexico City to work. I took care of a woman who lived alone; I swept, washed,
and ironed for her. When my oldest brother became widowed he came to get
me, but my employer offered to raise my wages, and she gave him a tip.
That's how I ended up staying longer with her. But then my mother became
ill, and then there was no choice. I had to return home to care for my
brother's children and my mother.
-- Dona Elisa Hernandez
Although the reasons a woman first migrates are different in each case,
fairly constant factors are her youthfulness and a contact with another
migrant that shapes her future. The majority of Mixteco women became migrants
in their adolescence, just like the majority of all migrants in our country.
As far back as I can remember, my parents used to send us to haul water
on a donkey from a distant river. In those days school was not mandatory
like nowadays. Not at all! One was dedicated to keeping house-getting up
early to make tortillas or going to the fields to help plant corn. That
was the life there-corn, cows, and goats. When things went well we harvested
a lot of corn. Otherwise we sold the animals.
My mother worked very hard. When there was a shortage of corn-as we
have had in recent months without a good crop -my father would go to yoke
the animal, while she bought or borrowed corn, carrying it on her back
for three or four kilometers (two to two-and-a-half miles).
That's how it was until we, the children, grew up and began to make
it on our own. My parents had never gone outside the town. My brother was
the first, and then I followed. He went to Mexico City to work as a bricklayer,
and my aunt got me a job with a lady in her house. I was able to visit
I finally decided to leave home because it was very difficult for me.
My mother would have me prepare six or seven kilos (13-15 pounds) of tortillas-
there were about eight of us in the family -for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
It was too much. That's why one day I said, "No, I won't stay here
any longer," and left.
--Dona Paz Vera
In some cases, like that of Dona Paz Vera, migration is the alternative
of choice, while in others it is a result of marriage.
At the age of 15 I met a man of 27. He was a migrant who traveled to
and from the fields of Sinaloa . . . We dated for a year before I married
him . . . When I was 17 years old, he went to the United States. He later
returned and said to me, "This time we go together." . . . And
we went to work in San Quintin, Baja, California.
--Dona Natalia Flores
But migration is also sometimes inherited, the destiny of progeny. For families
with a migrant tradition, mobility is a fundamental strategy for survival.
Children experience their parents' migration as personal and family destiny,
integrating it into their lives as an inevitable part of the future.
I migrated when I was 14 years old, about five years ago, now. I left
with my father and a younger brother. My mother could not come because
she was nursing, and there was no one else to take care of the house. It
took us a month to reach Tijuana because we left without money. My father
would play the saxophone while my brother and I passed the hat. I am now
married to a man I met here. He is from my town back in Oaxaca and works
on the other side, the United States.
--Dona Juana Flores
It could be said paradoxically that change is a constant in these women's
experiences: change in residence, life cycle, and historical moment. These
combine to shape the life of a woman who first leaves home under circumstances
that bring together personal reasons, family ties, and misfortune.
Once you leave your hometown, life changes. You either find a boyfriend,
get married, or have a child. You are not the same one that left.
--Dona Guadalupe Santillan
In the course of migration, unforeseen events take place. Guadalupe migrated
for the first time to Mexico City and later returned to her town, where
she lived for some time. There she gave birth to a child and, after a period,
again migrated to agricultural fields in the northwest:
After my return home from Mexico City I took care of my widowed brother's
children. I spent seven years raising them until I married my second husband.
I stayed three years with him and had three children. My husband migrated
regularly to Culiacan until one day he found another woman and did not
return. I was left alone with my children and my mother, without anyone
to wait for. And so I also went to work in Culiacan. My children stayed
home with my mother. In the fields I met another man. I started to live
with him, and together we went to work in Obregon.
--Dona Elisa Hernandez
Migratory routes of Mixteco women are shaped by events of the life cycle.
For example, marriage in the life of the young woman who migrated at 14
to do domestic work in Mexico City might cause her to choose a different
migration alternative, perhaps to northern Mexico with her new husband,
or with her children alone after a separation. The arrival of children coincides
with a return to the place of origin. The growth of the children again changes
women's migrations. When the children reach adolescence they usually get
married, and then the women seem to stabilize themselves. They settle for
longer periods and, like their parents, care for their grandchildren while
sons and daughters migrate to California or Baja, California.
Constant migration makes "place of destination" a relative
concept, referring to a month in Mexico City, another in Culiacan, others
on the coast of Hermosillo, afterwards a few years in Tijuana, or many more
in the United States. But the final destination seems to be a Mixteco's
own place of origin. This seems the principal ethnic feature of this migratory
movement: the constant link with the community of origin.
In this venture women play a notable role. By preserving the home, whether
in their Mixteca towns or in intermediate destinations--Mexico City, Ensenada,
Tijuana--they make it possible for other members of the family, men and
women, to achieve the mobility necessary for travel on old routes or new
ones. Their keeping of the home fires includes not only awaiting and welcoming
but also supporting family members who remain at home.
Tijuana is one such migrant home base maintained by women at an intermediate
destination. Its location on the Mexico- United States border allows cross-border
mobility for some family members, especially the men, to travel between
the agricultural fields in northern Mexico and southwestern United States.
Mixteco women in Tijuana, in domestic roles and as wage earners, support
the growth of the largest ethnic group that settled in Baja, California.
About the Author
Laura Vehsco Ortiz received her master's in social psychology at the
Universidad Autonoma de Mexico. For the last six years she has been studying
Mixteco migration to the northwest order of Mexico. She is a researcher
at the Department of Cultural Studies of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte
and author of the articles "Notas para estudiar los cambios en el comportamiento
migratorio de los mixtecos " and "Migracion femenina y reproduccion
familiar: los mixtecos en Tijuana."
1. These testimonies by Mixteco women who settled in
the border city of Tijuana are not intended to be a unified portrait of
the female migration from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. In addition to expressing
individual and often unique experiences, they reflect different sub-regions
of Oaxaca. The majority of the families established in the Obrera neighborhood
of Tijuana are from the Silacayoapan district, especially from the towns
of San Jeronimo del Progreso, Santa Maria Natividad, and Nieves Ixpantepec;
in notably smaller proportion are families from the district of Huajuapan
de Leon and Juxtlahuaca. [Back]
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