BERKELEY - I'm home. I'm sitting comfortably among the soft pillows and down comforter of my own bed. No more dirt roads, bottled water, private taxis, or sleeping on floors. I'm slipping back into the comfortable comings and goings of good friends and familiar places, sights and smells. It's an easy and natural transition, really.
Although it feels good to be here, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that lingering in the back of my mind is a yearning for the uncertainty and adventure that filled my days in Mexico. More than anything else, what remains of my summer are the impressions and questions that I'm left with after a seven-week investigation of the factors that drive and sustain migration from rural Mexico to the United States.
I wrapped up my work in Mexico with a whirlwind few days in Mexico City. I wanted to interview a few more people working in the city to compare their stories to those that I heard in the countryside. I wanted to be able to identify gaps in theory, rhetoric and practice, to see if I could pinpoint miscommunications, mis-intentions, or maybe just plain old misunderstandings that increasingly mean that rural communities have nowhere else to turn than to migration.
As always seems to happen to me, whether it's luck or persuasion, I managed to get into some unique positions to collect data that would help me achieve these goals. My first night back, I found myself sitting in a restaurant with a couple of academics, the director of AMUCCS (see Dispatch 11), and Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi, who are the director and star of a new hit movie called "A Day Without Mexicans." We had all just seen a special preview of the mock-umentary, in which Californians wake up one day to find that one-third of their population - that is, anyone with Hispanic roots - has gone missing. After a highly successful debut in the States, the movie was about to make its first international appearance; Arau and Arizmendi were in town for the premier.
Being a mixed company group of people, our conversations slipped comfortably between Spanish and English, often mid-sentence, and wandered from the stars' busy schedule for the week to the idea for the movie. Arau and Arizmendi were gracious, open, friendly, kind, and mostly enthusiastic and passionate about their work. They designed the project with the idea that the movie could help acknowledge the sheer impact of migration and create a forum for bringing the topic to the forefront of social and economic debates.
Meanwhile, they managed to make my job a whole lot easier. As it is, everyone in Mexico is already acutely aware of migration's impact, but with the movie's exciting debut and its billboards and advertisements wallpapering the city, migration was on the tip of everyone's tongue. So I took the momentum and ran with it.
In my last days, I must have made a zillion phone calls. I talked to trade representatives, migration authorities, human-rights officials, graduate students and representatives from the private banking firms. I had meetings and phone interviews that confirmed suspicions, others that added more questions, and still more that gave perspectives on the multitude of challenges that institutions must face if they are to comprehensively and appropriately deal with the 'migration issue.' I left wondering if my 'wrap up' week had really helped me to wrap up, or if it had just led to more questions and an ever-greater appreciation for the complexity of migration.
And then, just like that, I'm back in Berkeley, trying to figure out what it all means. A couple of central questions come to mind. As my friend Julian asked, Is migration the problem, or the solution? The answer is neither. On the contrary, migration is just one of many responses, one piece of Mexico's dynamic and ever changing socio-economic structure. Is migration an opportunity, or a last-ditch effort at survival? The answer is, it's both: In some places, people leave because they have the option, they know what's out there and they want to go after it. In other places, the road is unfamiliar and dangerous, but there is simply no other choice for survival.
What does the future hold for migration trends? This is perhaps the hardest question of all. But after all I saw and learned this summer, one thing is clear: if the conditions of rural development in Mexico stay where they are, migration is destined to continue. With the lack of resources and political will to make a real difference in rural communities, it looks as though rural Mexico is mostly on its own.
Further, Mexico's dedication to economic integration and the proliferation of free-trade agreements throughout the Americas will likely do little to curb the poverty that is one of the driving forces behind migration. According to one free-trade negotiator with whom I spoke, Mexico is working to move as many low-wage jobs as possible to its southern neighbors in favor of developing more profitable value-added industries within the country. In other words, Mexico wants to dump its low-paying jobs on Central American countries, even though the poorest regions of Mexico - those with the highest migration rates - share many economic characteristics with their Central American neighbors. Like these countries, Mexico's poorest regions could greatly benefit from any job creation.
Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean that I'm in favor of sweatshops as the engine of economic development. My point is simply that poor rural Mexico has been completely ignored in the nation's long-term economic planning. The free-trade negotiator also told me that migrants make this plan possible. As long as they continue to send money home, they ease the government's burden of providing for its citizens and thus enable bureaucrats to focus on moving the free-trade agenda forward.
There are lots of places to go from here, and certainly there's a lot more work to be done. We need to better understand what causes migration, how mobile populations impact people and places, and what policies can best protect migrants and enable individuals to make the decisions that are best for them and their loved ones. We need to demystify the ideals and institutions that govern who has the freedom to come and go, who doesn't, and why. My work this summer has just barely chipped the surface of such questions, and I feel as though this research is only the beginning of a long and exciting adventure not just for me, but for the future of rural Mexico.
Before signing off for good and heading to the classroom for another academic year, I want to extend my most sincere thanks to all of the incredible people in Mexico who offered me their homes and insight into their lives and minds. Many of them have become not just informants, but good friends. I also want to thank Jeff Kahn and all the people at the UC Berkeley NewsCenter for giving me the opportunity to share my work and ideas through the Student Journal; in particular, Bonnie Powell, who edited all my pieces, worked absolute magic! And mostly, thanks to all of you readers who followed along and dropped me encouraging notes. Getting your feedback was wonderful and helped me to keep moving forward!