Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality Among Transnational Mexicans. By Deborah A. Boehm (ed.). New York: New York University Press, 2012. 178 pages [plus 4 pages acknowledgements]. $49.00 Cloth.
Version of Record online: 5 JUN 2014
© 2014 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. All rights reserved.
International Migration Review
Volume 48, Issue 2, pages 567–568, Summer 2014
How to Cite
Mahler, S. J. (2014), Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality Among Transnational Mexicans. By Deborah A. Boehm (ed.). New York: New York University Press, 2012. 178 pages [plus 4 pages acknowledgements]. $49.00 Cloth. . International Migration Review, 48: 567–568. doi: 10.1111/imre.12096
- Issue online: 5 JUN 2014
- Version of Record online: 5 JUN 2014
In this ethnography, anthropologist Deborah A. Boehm examines broad and important issues of how undocumented Mexicans manage to conduct their transnational lives in the face of sustained harassment by the U.S. government. Boehm begins her research in Albuquerque and then follows the migratory networks she detects to the small village or rancho San Marcos in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. Boehm utilizes the richness of her ethnographic data to illustrate how living undocumented lives overshadowed by the hypervigilant and even tyrannical state inflects the very social glue that holds people together – the intimate bonds of family. This intimate side of migration is the book's central focus: the day-to-day adjustments and negotiations between kin – spouses, parents and children, and other relatives of “extended” families – made all the more difficult owing to both the pressures of long-distance relationships and the stresses from a state and society that do not want them or care about their struggles.
Boehm's theoretical contribution is “to understand the nexus of intimate and state spheres,” and she sees her book as bridging scholarship “on gender, family, and migration with scholarship focused on the construction of (il)legality” (p. 13). In so doing, she joins, yet also expands upon, the work of such scholars as Nicholas De Genova, Susan Coutin, Mae Ngai, and Sarah Willen. Turning popular accusations that “illegal” immigrants alone are responsible for their situations and fates, these scholars collectively implicate states – particularly the U.S. government and, to a lesser extent, other countries and their states within – for structuring political and sociocultural statuses around (il)legality and belonging. Toward this end, Boehm weaves social and spatial concepts frequently discussed in anthropology and geography – such as home – into her writing, problematizing the connotation that home is a simple, unified place of belonging. Rather, for the Mexicans she studies, belonging is not simple; people talk about feeling that they don't belong fully to one side or the other. “We are from both sides,” they insist, not fully from one side or the other. This is classic borderlands subjectivity, and Boehm links her subjects' experiences nicely to this literature, aiding the book to speak to a diverse disciplinary audience. Moreover, the prose is exceedingly readable, full of first-hand stories and wonderfully “illustrative” quotes that truly capture her subjects' perspectives and dilemmas. For example, in examining how gender is inflected by the fact that men migrate and women and children largely stay put, she quotes one woman as saying, “Without my husband, I do it all” (p. 81). The finding that with men largely absent, women occupy their past roles, and gain greater authority and autonomy is not new, but the quotations nail the point so perfectly that the findings seem new. Similarly, her discussion of how men both gain masculine status by migrating and feel emasculated while in the U.S., leading to hypermasculine performances abroad as well as when they return, is not completely new, yet Boehm pursues and captures such detail and ethnographic nuance that the material resonates more powerfully with me.
While I find this book strongest in its detailed examinations of spousal dynamics and gendered lives, the last section of the book addresses how children, and not just their parents and other kin, are caught up in legal and emotional limbo. We read of familiar, but nonetheless important cases of young adults deported back to their “homelands” despite having lived nearly their entire lives in the U.S. And Boehm emphasizes how disinterested the U.S. state is in the lived quotidian schizophrenia – not to mention fear – suffered by families whose members' varied legal statuses signify that despite sharing kinship bonds, they are never truly together, nor truly secure.
Intimate Migrations richly critiques the state's influence on migration at the private, familial scale. Rendering her points through interviewees' stories adds depth lacking in so many migration texts, although I wish Boehm had included more of the wonderful voices – and quotes – that she sprinkles throughout the book. In my experience, people tell their stories best. Given that she used visual anthropological methods, it would also have been wonderful if Boehm had added pictures to this volume, but I know how resistant presses are to finance these costly additions. A minor issue I have with the text is its discussion of U.S. legislation and its effects on families. The discussion is occasionally thinner than it should be, given the author's objective. For example, the 1965 Act, which Boehm rightly identifies as supposedly based on family reunification while managing to keep families apart, needs to be coupled with the annual caps on immigrant visas per country which produce long backlogs and contribute to familial separation. I also found myself wondering why the U.S. government was the only one implicated in structuring these families' lives. The Bracero Program certainly exacerbated male over female migration and subsequent privileges but was orchestrated by both U.S. and Mexican states. Similarly, the Mexican government's treatment of returning migrants, and female migrants in particular, could be scrutinized. Indeed, one expects to be less than welcome “on the other side” but at home? It took decades (and billions in remittances) for Filipinas to become “heroines” of the nation after generations of being labeled traitors.
Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality Among Transnational Mexicans was fortuitously published just as the U.S. enters new discussions about what to do with the legal status (and, thus, lives) of the very undocumented Mexicans she studied. Hopefully policymakers will read it and hear voices not likely to be at the negotiating tables. It is precisely this type of serious yet humane and deeply human scholarship that might change a few minds.