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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
Changing Social Identities in Southern Mexico, by Kimberly M. Grimes.
Tucson: The University of Arizona Press (1998), xiii, 191 pp.
Reviewed by Pablo Vila, University of Texas at San Antonio
Dr. Kimberly Grimes has written a very informative
book about the dynamics and complexities of immigration processes between
Southern Mexico and the United States. A welcome addition to the growing
ethnography of Mexican immigrants in the United States, this thoughtful
anthropological work analyzes the acculturation, assimilation, resistance,
and social and cultural change many Putlecans undergo at both ends of
their migratory journey; Putla and Oaxaca on the one hand, and their many
different destinations in the United States on the other (but focusing
primarily on Atlantic City, New Jersey, where most of them end up living).
The book is well organized and consists of an introduction,
six thematic chapters and an appendix in which Grimes transcribes the
questionnaire she applied in her fieldwork. Chapter 2, "Negotiating
Borders" deals, in a concise manner, with the history of Putla, a
history that clearly shows why "the town of Putla sustained its position
as an important center of regional commerce, bridging the diverse ecosystems
of the Mixtec region and, to varying degrees, connecting the region to
national and international politics and economies" (p. 34).
Chapter 3, "Before the Road," is a description
of Putla's social structure from which we learn, for instance, that "Although
the elite class rarely interacted socially with the rest of the mestizo
population, the two groups did share the racist belief that they were
superior to the indigenous peoples of the region" (p. 44). The role
of public education in promoting this racist attitude against the indigenous
population is also analyzed in detail: "Even though the romanticized
version of the 'Indian' was revered and praised in artistic and literary
circles in Mexico and though the indigenismo-mestizaje doctrines formed
a central part of the official state ideology, racist ideologies permeated
and placed blame on living indigenous peoples for obstructing progress
and national development" (pp. 45-46).
Chapter 4 tracks the impact of Putla's increasing
integration into Mexico's national economy (and the global economy as
well) that occurred after the completion, in the late 1950s, of the paved
road from Putla north to the Mexico City-Oaxaca City highway and south
to Pinotepa Nacional. From the point of view of the processes of identity
construction that Grimes tries to understand, the new road is also essential,
because as she points out: "Even though many families living in Putla
today are descendants of Mixtecs and mestizos from communities outside
the district who moved to Putla in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, people mark the completion of the paved road as the dividing
line between those who are 'authentic' Putlecans (pre-road) and those
who are 'outsiders' (post-road)" (p. 54). Those considered outsiders
are blamed for all kinds of social problems such as drugs, murders and
the like (p. 55).
According to Grimes, when the economic crisis hit
Mexico in the 1980s, many Putlecan families could not rely any longer
in agricultural production and had to develop new survival strategies.
Migration was one of them:
Chapter 4 also examines the opinions Putlecans have
about their lives in the United States, the importance of the dollars
remittance for Putla's economy, the move of many Putlecans who live in
the hometown toward an American kind of consumerism promoted by the migrant
experience, the class differentials in the migration process toward the
United States, the impact of mass media and other new technologies upon
Putlecans, and the like. Nevertheless, the bulk of the chapter is dedicated
to analyzing the crucial role consumption plays in the everyday lives
of Putlecans, and how through changing patterns of consumption Putlecans
who have migrated to the U.S. maintain, redefine and/or negotiate their
relationship with their hometown:
Chapter 5, "Constructing, Contesting, Defending
Identities," offers a very good analysis of the complex processes
of identity construction Putlecans undergo due to their migratory experience.
As Grimes correctly points out:
For Putlecans, this complex process of identity negotiation
has to take into account the different ways Americans and Mexicans interpolate
people to make sense of their identities. Therefore, where in Mexico the
social categories most people use complexly combine class, racial heritage
and regional origin, in the United States racial and ethnic categories
prevail. Thus, according to Grimes, Putlecans find themselves clattered
with all other Latin American peoples under the label "Hispanics,"
a label they reject to avoid being confused with other Latin American
people they do not want to be identified with, for instance Chicanos and
Puerto Ricans (pp. 83-84). Of course, other Latinos are not the only "others"
in relation to whom Putlecans have to differentiate from to construct
a more or less valued social identity, African Americans and Anglos have
to be assessed too. In this regard, Grimes encountered in her field work
a very negative attitude of Putlecans regarding Blacks and a very positive
one in relation to Anglos or "gringos" (pp. 85-86).
In a very interesting analysis of the relationship
between "cleanliness," "dirtiness," social development,
civilization, race and the body, Grimes points out that,
If this is what occurs in the U.S., clothes and lotions
are used by Putlecans back home to differentiate themselves from Putlecans
who have never migrated north, "to make a statement about their success
in the U.S. landscape, and to present themselves as persons who have become
more 'modern' due to their migratory experience" (p. 89). Of course
some Putlecans do not become "racist" because of their migratory
experience, on the contrary, their exposure to the American racial and
ethnic classification system and the process of stereotyping the "other"
and all that it entails only reinforces a hegemonic discourse well learned
while growing up in Mexico (p. 90).
A large part of Chapter 5 is dedicated to the analysis
of gender relations among Putlecans and how the migration process relates
to them. In this regard, Grimes points out how what Putlecans call "liberal
attitudes" of female Americans represent a problem for most of them
(p. 93). Grimes' description of gender relations in Putla talks about
the entrenched nature of patriarchal ideals among both, male and females
However, according to Grimes, the macho image has
been under attack lately and some Putlecan men right now deny they are
"traditional Mexican machos," at the same time, the process
of migration to the U.S. (along with internal changes in Mexico regarding
gender roles) has resulted in a loosening of gender norms (p. 96). Therefore,
it is not uncommon that male Putlecans who have migrated to the U.S. share
household chores with their wives and are more involved in child rearing
upon their return to Putla. In closing the chapter, Grimes states that:
The variety of critical perspectives Putlecans have
about their own sense of identities and their differential experiences
in particular places and times reveal how identities are grounded in the
nexus of unequal relationships of class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.
Alliances and divisions are challenged, negotiated, and defended based
on the heterogeneity and the multiplicity of individual subjectivities
. . . Putlecans manipulate spaces through migration in order to challenge
their current social positions. They can become more "modern"
and maybe "whiter" from their experiences in Mexican cities
or the United States, but they can leave these places when they grow tired
of the foreignness of the new setting or the control over their time exerted
by foreign bosses. Returning home, they struggle with differences in how
they see themselves and how family and community members now see them
In Chapter 6, "Putla, the State, and the International
Economy," Grimes focuses on the relationship between Putlecans' survival
strategies (of which migration to the U.S. is one of the most important)
and the neo-liberal economic adjustment plans the Mexican state has implemented
since the early 1980s. What Grimes finds most striking is that:
Within this general framework Grimes analyzes how
the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) tried to regain some of its
popular support through the implementation of the self-help "Solidaridad
Project" (pp. 121-124). Nevertheless, Grimes devotes the bulk of
the chapter to one of her most important concerns of the book: why Putlecans
are so absorbed by the ideology of consumerism. Her answer in this chapter
craftily knits issues of ideology, class, race, identity and the body,
in which an equation is made by Putlecans, according
to the author, between being white, American, belonging to a first world
country, being civilized and the consumption of goods (p. 125).
In the chapterâs conclusion, Grimes deals with
the issue of contradictions in Putlecan's relation to the migration process,
to the point that many "Putlecans believe that migration is beneficial
to individuals but detrimental to the community" (p. 126). According
to the author:
Putlecan's mixed feelings toward migration are just
one example of how Putlecans live with contradictory ideals and practices.
They want the town and its people to "progress," yet they want
things to be as they were in the past. They strive to increase prestige
by buying more material goods yet disapprove of conspicuous consumption
. . . They compete with neighbors in their local business but share resources
in community fiestas . . . They use birth control and identify themselves
as devoted Catholics. Their full range of beliefs and practices at any
one time includes what Raymond Williams . . . calls "oppositional"
or "alternative" forms as well as the dominant and effectual
. . . Putlecans are neither passive pawns nor revolutionaries. They think
and act within the field of constructed possibilities, accommodating,
modifying, or rejecting meanings and practices as their needs and perceptions
change (p. 127).
Chapter 7, "Transnational Migration and Social
Identities," works as a brief conclusion of the book. In this chapter
Grimes advocates for a change in migration studies, from dealing mostly
with economic factors to understand migration processes, to "include
other social variables, such as gender, 'race' and ethnicity, age, family,
sexuality, and religion, which also directly and indirectly affect migration
experiences and the changes these experiences bring" (p. 132). At
the same time she asks for an additional move in migration studies in
order to recognize the U.S. "role in the migration trend and
to show how our ideologies, consumptive practices, and immigration policies
stimulate migration" (p. 136).
In relation to identity formation processes, Grimes
concludes her important book stressing that:
In light of my own work, a few additional comments
are in order. The first thing that surprised me reading the book
was the striking similarities between Grimes findings in Southern Mexico
and my own work on the US-Mexico border (Crossing Borders. Reinforcing
Borders. Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the
U.S.-Mexico Frontier. University of Texas Press, 2000). My surprise
was not only related to the fact that her work was done in Southern Mexico
and mine in Northern Mexico, but also because we have used very different
ethnographic methods in our endeavors (she used interviews and questionnaires;
I used group discussions around everyday life photographs); we occupy
different subject positions in life (she is a married female without children;
I am a single parent of two); and we were influenced by the linguistic
turn in the social sciences quite differently. Interestingly enough, despite
all those differences in our "encounter with the Other," some
common themes appeared: the "anti-Chilango" stance of many Mexicans
from provincial Mexico; the racist attitudes toward "real Indians"
many white and mestizo Mexicans uphold; the "before" and "after"
(where always the "before" was much better than the "after")
in the history of the city linked to the arrival of some "undesirable"
newcomer (more Indian-like people from the surrounding areas in the case
of Putla; people from Southern Mexico in my field work); how those who
stay home sometimes criticize the bragging attitude of those who have
migrated and attained a better standard of living; the complex process
of identity negotiation that Mexicans undergo when they discover that
their way to classify people (usually based on a complex mixture of class,
racial heritage and region) does not coincide with the American one (usually
based on race and ethnicity almost exclusively); the resentment that often
surfaces when Mexicans interact with Mexican Americans; the difference
between "cleanliness" (the U.S.) versus "dirtiness"
(Mexico) as metaphors for development and under-development; and so forth.
At the same time some differences between my own field
work in Northern Mexico and Grimes' in Putla are also worth mentioning:
Grimes has found a very positive attitude of Putlecans regarding gringos,
while I have found many negative portrayals of white North Americans;
she found a very negative attitude of Putlecans regarding African Americans,
something that was not so widespread in my sample; and the like.
The second thing that caught my attention reading
the book was how "traditional" her ethnography was. What do
I mean by "traditional?" I mean an ethnography that does not
seem influenced by the crisis of representation that struck anthropology
in the mid-1980s. While in page 5 Grimes acknowledges that "(r)ecognizing
past errors of asserting authoritative claims about the 'other' has led
to a questioning of the anthropologist's role and goals in anthropological
research," she does not explain how she avoided, circumvented, or
relativized her own "authoritative claims" that what she is
describing in the book is what "really happens" with Putlecans.
In other words, while recognizing that she does not want to "silence
other voices" (p. 5), she nevertheless preserves her voice as the
one omnipresent throughout the text, and the voice of the "other"
only appears here and there to "confirm" what the anthropologist
is claiming "happens to the people." Basically, she has written
a "realist" account of Putlecans' processes of migration without
any reflexivity about how she is "constructing" what she supposedly
On the other hand, Grimes seems to be in touch with
the last developments in anthropology that ask for "multi-sited"
ethnographies to account for the complex postmodern world characterized
by multiple diasporas, exiles and the like. Therefore, if Grimes wisely
describes the contradictions many Putlecans undergo in their everyday
experiences, I am here pointing out what surprised me as a contradiction
in Grimes ethnography: a recognition of the problems involved in "representing
the other," an awareness that the uni-site traditional ethnography
cannot account for the postmodern situation in which "traditional"
societies like Putla are involved, but a "realist" account of
Putlecans migration processes in which she always has the authorial voice.
Despite this unresolved contradiction, this is a very informative book about the migration processes of people who live in a small town in Southern Mexico and who modify, negotiate and articulate their identities in very complex ways due to their relationship with "el otro lado." If Grimes' account is somehow contradictory, it is because that seems to be the postmodern condition, not only for our "subject of study" as she so well proves, but also for us, those who want to understand them.