Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Walls: Americans in Mexico

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down."

Mending Wall, Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The United States of America does not sit in splendid isolation on the North American continent; it is sandwiched between the foreign sovereign countries of Canada and Mexico with two extravagantly long and until very recently, relatively undefended borders.  9/11 changed so much as Americans, who had felt protected by the vast oceans between their country and the rest of the world, suddenly realized that they were far more vulnerable then they ever dreamed. 

Thus no one should be surprised that the United States began paying more attention to its "near abroad" in the years that followed that catastrophe and so in 2006 US lawmakers passed a bill to build a 700 mile wall on the border between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico.  A very popular project in the USA;  it passed the House and the Senate with comfortable majorities and was signed into law by President Bush.  A wall is a powerful symbol and one's interpretation and feelings about it depend greatly on where one sits in relation to it.

As the United States government was building this wall, a large number of American citizens were either already on the other side of it in Mexico or were merrily heading past it going south. I am endlessly fascinated by how Americans and their government in the US focus entirely on the flow into the US and pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the outbound flow (unless, of course, it is to focus on the few who go off to join terrorists groups, for example).

Just a few short years after this wall project kicked off Sheila Croucher published the results of a study she made of Americans in Mexico called The Other Side of the Fence.  A lot to like in this book - she asks some very good (troubling even) questions about what she found.  However, I think a few caveats are in order here first.  

The study was limited to two towns in Mexico that have significant American communities. She conducted extensive interviews and spent time in these communities observing them.  What she wrote was a "thick description" of them based on what she was told and what she saw.  Moreover, there is not much distance between her and her subjects :  she is a homeland American academic studying Americans in a different context where language and common culture are a given, not an issue.  An argument could be made that she is simply exposing a kind of narcissism of small differences between these people and their compatriots on the other side of the wall.  Also the strong reliance on personal interviews can be suspect because people are not necessarily honest.  One could argue that she didn't spend enough time there to get a broad enough perspective. I have an extended family member living in Mexico and I did not recognize her at all in any of the portraits painted by Croucher.

Sometimes, thick description looks a lot like writing biography, a perilous undertaking with the dead, much less the living:
"..all we have to do is look and listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures - for they are rather under life size - will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meaning which never struck them..." (Virginia Woolf, 1930)
What saves the book is that she is aware of these things and admits to those limitations.  This is not a definitive book about Americans in Mexico in the first decade of the 21st century.  It's a sketch that leaves out a lot and once we have that firmly in our minds, we can look more closely at some of her arguments and the questions she asks about the meaning of this group in the larger picture of regional migration on the North American continent.

One of the most salient points she makes is that these US citizens in Mexico are significant (a high estimate says that there over 1 million of them living south of the border) and that there are commonalities between Mexicans in the US and Americans in Mexico.  Both, she says, comprise the largest portion of the foreign-born in both places.  Mexicans in the US in 2003 were 30% of the foreign-born in the US and US migrants in Mexico were a whopping 69% of the foreign-born population there:  "In other words, while the absolutely numbers of Mexican immigrants in the United States might be higher, the relative size of Americans in Mexico may be as great, or greater."

Another commonality is that both move at least in part because of economic factors.  In her analysis of push/pull factors she noted that a low cost of living in Mexico is a big "pull".  They can simply live better on less with access to more affordable housing, household help, and cheaper healthcare.  This is international retirement migration and these Americans are doing what many French and UK retirees are also doing - finding a place where their limited retirement dollars buy a better life.  What she finds more interesting are the "push" factors - that life in the US is perceived as unaffordable for people on fixed incomes and that the social and cultural rhythms in Mexico are more attractive and fill a void that they did not know they felt until the left the US.  Some of the features of US culture that they say they are relieved to have escaped are, she says:  "a hurried uptightness about time, a readiness to judge others, a fixation with material consumption" and different attitudes toward family, a warmer social context and a respect for older people.

All of  this is very interesting but where Croucher shines is when she raises uncomfortable questions and at times makes some very keen but unflattering observations.  In a discussion about why Americans living long-term outside the US are so reluctant to call themselves "immigrants" or "migrants" she talks about race and racism. You might not like that very much and neither did I.  And yet rereading an old post about these terms, note how I deftly skipped around the race issue:
People from developed nations who move to to other countries usually refer to themselves as "expatriates." People from developing nations are called "immigrants." What is the difference here other than the supposed "rank" of the country of origin? This makes me very uncomfortable because it feels like those of us from developed nations are trying to elevate ourselves and put distance between us and those who move from poorer countries in search (many claim) of economic gain..
This is one we need to think long and hard about.  What is the difference really between an American who comes to France to live, work and marry and someone from Tunisia who comes for the exact same purposes?   Wealth is not an answer, nor is education.  I know Tunisians in Paris who are far better educated and have a great deal more money then many of the Americans I know. I don't think it's coincidence that Croucher talks about this in the context of Americans in Mexico and Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels talks about it in her book on Americans in Europe.

There are other observations in her book that I am sure will raise some hackles but I personally found the book to be a breath of fresh air.  Americans abroad are people, not archangels, for heaven's sake. This book does not exactly extol our virtues but that makes it a much better read for me than someone who presents me with comfortable platitudes about all the good we do abroad,  or who casts us all as villains in a morality tale about tax evasion.  The terms we use and the stories we tell about ourselves should be scrutinized more thoroughly.  

Are these the walls we build in our minds? 


Bruce B. said...

Very interesting observation about the unspoken emotional weight of "immigrant" vs. "expat". After the first few years here in France, I found myself using the word "immigrant" occasionally, if mostly in the joke "nous, les immigrants, on perd tous sauf l'accent" (and yes, I'm conscious of using the passive voice in that sentence ;) ).

As a long-time US emigrant resident ;) (and French citizen), I started using the word "immigrant" more and more frequently, and now I almost never use the word "ex-pat" unless I'm talking with someone from the US or Canada. But I wasn't really conscious of why I made that change, it just seemed, somehow, "more appropriate". Appropriate to whom? Maybe I was becoming "more French"? As I understand it from conversations here on the subject of French expats in other countries, the French often view their ex-pats as somehow "less successful", or "they couldn't 'make it' here, so they went elsewhere". Possibly a left-over from when France was a colonial power?

In any case, I think talking about the emotional baggage of the words "immigrant" and "ex-pat" is very useful, with expat somehow being "more prestigious", and not having the frankly racist (and usually unacknowledged) US overtones of "those dirty/brown/uneducated/etc. people from 'over there' ".

kermitzii said...

I never saw my myself as an immigrant but we do not live in the 1800s when immigrants came across by sea from Europe to NA. That was one-way gene flow. Now it is much more balanced it is a two-way flow. In the genetics terminology, it is a "network". See this article. All definitions do not mean anything when you have the evolutionary perspective.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Bruce, Delicate dance, isn't it? :-)

We use these words without thinking but they aren't neutral. I used to use the word "guest" which I realized at one point was simply ludicrous. The problem with the word "immigrant" in France is that the French are reacting badly to the immigration they have and who wants to be in (or identify with) a group that the natives don't want and feel resentful about? So when we use "guest" or "expat" are we trying to protect ourselves? If that's true then we are recognizing in a roundabout way that we are weak. An assertion of superiority masking our incredible vulnerability. That's another way of looking at it...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

And that is a point that Croucher made that I didn't talk about. That Americans in Mexico are very very vulnerable. If Mexico deported them or made them feel unwelcome there is very little they can do about it since they have almost no political influence with the Mexican government. As for the American government, what would be their reaction to Mexico kicking those Americans back across the border? I suspect that the reaction would be indifference....

northernstar said...

I enjoyed reading this. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants to the USA. I always thought of myself as an immigrant to Canada. It was not until FATCA came to my attention that I thought of myself as an ex-pat too, when I found The Isaac Brock society blog. I met many other ex-pats there. I knew few Americans who came to Canada until then. I was already a Canadian citizen by then.

Arun Kapil said...

Good post, Victoria. Two points on immigrant vs. expatriate. First, the "immigrant" label is invariably employed by nationals of the host country (US, France, etc) to designate resident foreigners, not by the "immigrants" themselves. One won't find too many Mexicans in the US, Moroccans in France, etc who refer to themselves this way (and in France, the "immigrant" label is also freely applied to the offspring of immigrants - born and raised in France - who naturally reject being designated as such). As for "expatriate", this is the self-designation of certain rich-country citizens living abroad, who regard their foreign residence as temporary. But few Americans who live in a foreign country more or less permanently refer to themselves as expats (none whom I know, at least).

This leads to the second point, which is that difference between an "immigrant" and "expatriate" mainly has to do with one's legal status in the foreign country, of whether or not one is a permanent resident with the right to work, enjoys full access to social benefits, and with the possibility of naturalization. E.g. a couple of days ago I was with a former American student of mine, who's in her mid 20s, born and raised in Washington DC, and a 100% product of the American educational system. She appears to be 100% American but is, in fact, an American-Uruguayan dual national, whose parents - both educated professionals - came to the US in their 20s. Her father, who has a PhD from UC-Berkeley, has spent his entire career in international organizations in Washington (mainly the World Bank). But while my former student is an American citizen (via jus soli) her parents are not and, given their visa status, cannot be (though they could probably change it if they wanted to). Her mother has thus not been able to pursue her career (as an architect), as the US labor market has been closed to her except for short term contracts. So despite the fact that they've been living in the US for 30-35 years - most of their adult lives - they remain Uruguayan expatriates. They cannot be called immigrants.

So when it comes to immigrant vs. expat, it all comes down to the Green Card, Carte de résident, or whatever it's called in other states whose nationality law is not based exclusively on jus sanguinis.

Iris said...

Interesting post. The words "immigrant" and "expatriate" take on different meanings and different connotations in different countries. Even within Europe, differences are great between France and Germany for immigrants. As an American living in France thirty years ago, I discovered the German “second generation immigrant.” A friend born in Germany, speaking German and culturally German was legally Turkish because her parents were migrants from Turkey. Droit du sol et sang. My husband came from India to the U.S. as a graduate student. We married and he took American citizenship and considered himself American, never an immigrant. He said America is a club one joins, not a tribe one is born into. If we had lived in India, I could never have been considered Indian.

Social pressure in America is to assimilate. Years ago I would ask a person with a slight accent, "Where are you from?" but usually the question was so resented that I found more indirect ways to satisfy my curiosity. When meeting a person who is obviously foreign born and has English as a second language I do ask and most accept the question as normal. The phrase "new American" helps to put her/him at ease. The hyphenated American identity is used by many immigrants for the first and second, sometimes third, generations. In the 1950s I did a fieldwork study of migrant workers from the Texas-Mexican border who were finding factory jobs and settling down in a Wisconsin town. Although most were born in Texas they originally identified as Mexican. In Wisconsin they gradually came to think of themselves as Mexican-Americans.

I consider myself a former expat because I, my husband and our children lived abroad as a family “on the economy,” very much part of a part of that country’s life. Individuals one would designate as expatriates recognize the term as applicable to themselves but I've not known anyone other than myself identify as an expatriate. I’ve written about the meaning of “expatriate” Rich country nationals creating a community of their own in a less developed country, like in Sheila Croucher’s book, for the economic and status advantages it gives them has a long, well recorded, history under colonialism. As you write, people in Little Americas in Mexico and elsewhere are more vulnerable than they may realize.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Arun, That is a very good point, Arun. Legal status is another way to look at it but is not, I think, definitive. I have known folks with Green cards (and folks with cartes de resident) who nonetheless consider their stays to be temporary. Settling was not their intent, nor their desire. How that might play out over time is unknown.

Lot of blogs out there with "ex-pat" in their names. Books, too. I have an email from a friend in Japan telling me where I can connect with the "expat" community. In some places I hear the term "international community." As Bruce said there is emotional baggage attached to these things. Whatever the legal status, there are issues of identity in there as well. And I suspect some signalling on the part of developed country migrants. When dealing with the US gov or any authority figure in the US, "ex-pat" or "American abroad" is less likely to raise hackles.

@Iris, And isn't it interesting how the US manages (or did anyway) assimilation without things like language laws and a national curriculum? And yet those forces were one of the reasons (there were others) my husband decided he wanted to leave the US. He was tired of America, tired of being an exotic beast, and he didn't want his children in American schools. They will never learn French properly , he said, and that was a deal breaker for him.

I'm in the process of applying for my accompanying spouse visa for Japan which has led to some teasing about me being an "expat wife." And that term really bothers me.... :-)

Iris said...


It seemed to me when I lived in Paris that France and the U.S. are both nations that have a mission to save the world -- one as the center of culture and the other as the fount of democracy. And both are economies strong enough to provide jobs that keep potential emigrants at home. I married a man from India; we did not move to India because with a foreign wife his job, and certainly career, prospects there were extremely poor.

Also, both France and the U.S. expect assimilation, although in different ways. A Turkish man I know went to school in Paris, loved France, spoke fluent French, had a great job and looked forward to French citizenship and life in France. However, he was told that to rise in his career he would need to change his name to a French name, which also indicates he is Christian rather than Muslim. At that point he and his wife, also Turkish, decided to return to Ankara. His is not the only such experience I know of. American culture more readily accommodates a mixed sense of identity.

As for "expat-wife" -- I agree the connotation is negative. Yet worse is "trailing spouse."