The great migration of the 1980s saw the forced movement of Central Americans into neighboring Central American countries, Mexico, the USA, and Canada. In accepting their journey northward, they become stripped of their identity only to be seen as exploitive tools for wealth for those in power. My paper is influenced and builds upon the works of Susan B. Coutin, Michele Moran Taylor and Cecilia Menjivar, and J. Thomas Ordonez. My paper argues that the commodification of the Central American migrant has placed them in a space of limbo in which they are never certain whether they will reach their destination of fully arriving.
The great migration of the 1980s saw the forced movement of Central Americans into neighboring Central American countries, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Due to this forced displacement, Central American migrants’ bodies, labor, and lives were transformed into commodities within local and global economies. Throughout their journey northward, they became stripped of their identity only to be seen as exploitive tools for those in power. In migrating, power rests upon various individuals ranging from the coyote, drug cartels, police officials, local business owners, global corporations, and state/legal officials. In the eyes of the State, Central American migrants are deemed as an unwanted criminal presence, but their economic contribution is constantly sought after. Therefore, the commodification of the Central American migrants has placed them in a space of limbo where they are never certain whether they will reach their destination.
To understand the contemporary diaspora that Central Americans are a part of, one must be aware of the distinction between the classical and contemporary diaspora. Cohen in the book The Cambridge Survey of World Migration associates the Jewish community as the quintessential diasporic group. Both the Jewish diaspora and the Greek diaspora fit within the ancient diaspora of the Classical period. In addition, the Classical period is associated with exile as in the case of Armenians, Moors, Romani people Jewish people, and others. According to Michele Reis in her article “Theorizing Diaspora: Perspectives on ‘Classical’ and ‘Contemporary’ Diaspora,” she states “in contrast to the Classical Period, the Contemporary Period covers a much wider range of Diasporic communities, and their reasons for dispersal are far more numerous than the Classical Period due to relations with Globalization” (Reis 45).
"The Central American diaspora fits within the Contemporary Diasporic period due to their dispersal from their points of origin after the second world war, which saw massive shifts in population that were more complex, diverse, and global than previous movements."
The Central American diaspora fits within the Contemporary Diasporic period due to their dispersal from their points of origin after the second world war, which saw massive shifts in population that were more complex, diverse, and global than previous movements. Issues such as the cold war and the red scare attracted U.S. intervention in Central America which led to coup d’états, civil wars, militarization, and US-trained death squads/counter insurgent groups. In this case, the contemporary diasporic period is greatly associated with dislocation and fragmentation. Furthermore, globalization has contributed to the space of limbo in which Central Americans are situated due to being able to live in multiple temporalities. Advances in technology and trade agreements between the U.S. and Central American countries have allowed Central Americans to retain a sense of belonging, but continue to reinforce the feeling of never fully arriving.
Central American commodities are greatly welcomed within the realm of globalism and transnationalism. The article “The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism” by Michael Kearney, analyzes migration and population movement along with the movement of symbols, information, capital, and commodities in global and transnational spaces. Kearney states that “globalization is decentered from distinct national territories and takes place in a global space” (Kearney 548). Transnationalism, on the other hand, is anchored in one home country and transcends one or more nation-states. Kearney claims that both globalization and transnationalism can de-territorialize space, allowing for the presence of Central Americans and the region to cross borders. Within the realm of globalism, the importance lies not in creating or sustaining community bonds, but in producing profit.
In addition, Kearney discusses how globalism is making it difficult to bond a community as a cultural group. The rapid transmission of information, images, and ideas is causing identities to expand into more complex nonunitary identities. Transnationalism continues to sustain community bonds by being anchored in one country while transcending its support to one or more nations. Examples of this are discussed in the article “The Ties That Heal: Guatemalan Immigrant Women’s Networks and Medical treatment” by Cecilia Menjivar, who examines the intricate local and transnational social networks in which immigrants obtain treatment for their own and their family’s illnesses.
According to Menjivar, she states, “Immigration laws and local labor markets determine whether immigrants will be eligible to access society’s benefits – including education and health – or will be denied them and thus become some of society’s most vulnerable and marginal members” (Menjivar 441). Given their legal and economic status, Central American migrants will be unable to access adequate health care. They must then rely on the information given by fellow immigrants or receive packages of health treatments from relatives in their home countries. Despite coming to the U.S. for distinct reasons, their uncertainty of receiving medical care causes them to revert and depend on the medicine that their family members can obtain and send to them. In addition, Menjivar states “In cases where immigrants are unable to travel back and forth to their homelands, due to financial or legal constraints, transnational activities remain confined to a relatively small group of people – professionals, couriers, and commercial distributors – who cater to people in both places” (Menjivar 454) This demonstrates the transnational process they must go through to obtain their medicine.
Besides receiving medicine from their homelands, they also consult with their loved ones about which over-the-counter medicine or herbal concoctions are best for their ailments. Central American migrants often consult their elders before they seek the opinions of doctors. This is often done because their inability to see a doctor prevents them from feeling comfortable seeking medical opinions. In addition, technological advancements in telecommunication have allowed for the transmission of information to move beyond borders. Furthermore, the information and medicine that Central American immigrants receive are critical for their survival due to their uncertain and unpredictable settlement within foreign countries. Hometown associations also illustrate the Central American diaspora’s sustained link to their community. The article “Latino hometown associations as agents of development in Latin America” by Manuel Orozco, discusses how a growing number of hometown associations have begun to send collective remittances back home for community development projects such as paving roads, building schools, and buying ambulances.
Despite Central American immigrants living within a space of limbo in the countries they are in, they continue to send money to help their hometowns in specific areas that are needed. While Central American immigrants are seen as nationless and stateless, their contributions to the places they once lived are extremely critical and desirable given how local governments try to highjack the remittances of Central American migrants by trying to dictate where the funds must go. Central American migrants thus must rely on community leaders to inform them about the communities needs and are the ones who directly receive the financial contributions to accomplish the projects. By sending remittances, it allows them to retain their connection with their homelands despite not living there physically.
Yet, the arrival of the Central American immigrant is never guaranteed. The article “Crossing Mexico: Structural Violence and the commodification of undocumented Central American migrants” by Wendy A. Vogt, describes how Central American migrants are transformed into commodities within local and global economies. The journey of migration for Central American migrants is a site of intense violence, exploitation, and profit-making within the realm of capitalism. Historically, Central American migrants journeying into Mexico after the great migration of the 1980s were at risk of encountering abuse, rape, dismemberment, and death.
"The journey of migration for Central American migrants is a site of intense violence, exploitation, and profit-making within the realm of capitalism. Historically, Central American migrants journeying into Mexico after the great migration of the 1980s were at risk of encountering abuse, rape, dismemberment, and death."
Currently, direct violence and exploitation have become far more systemic and inescapable. While Central American migrants contribute to the informal labor market, they are also exposed to the possibilities of being exchanged within the black market (kidnapping, smuggling, trafficking). According to Vogt Central American immigrants are categorized as being part of the “Cachuco industry” (Vogt 764).
To read the full analysis, see the document linked below.
Cohen, and Cohen, Robin. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
J. Thomas Ordóñez. “The State of Confusion: Reflections on Central American Asylum Seekers in the Bay Area.” Ethnography, vol. 9, no. 1, 2008, pp. 35–60.
Kearney, M. “The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 24, no. 1, 1995, pp. 547–565.
MENJIVAR, Cecilia. “The Ties That Heal: Guatemalan Immigrant Women's Networks and Medical Treatment.” The International Migration Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, pp. 437–466.
Moran-Taylor, Michelle, and Menjívar, Cecilia. “Unpacking Longings to Return: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Phoenix, Arizona1.” International Migration, vol. 43, no. 4, 2005, pp. 91–121.
Narvaez Gutierrez, Juan Carlos. “Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles.” Migraciones Internacionales, vol. 2, no. 3, 2004, p. 188.
Orozco, Manuel “Latino Hometown Associations as Agents of Development in Latin America.” Inter-American Dialogue and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2009, pp 1-10.
Reis, Michele. “Theorizing Diaspora: Perspectives on ‘Classical’ and ‘Contemporary’ Diaspora.” International Migration, vol. 42, no. 2, 2004, pp. 41–60.
Wendy A. Vogt. “Crossing Mexico: Structural Violence and the Commodification of Undocumented Central American Migrants.” American Ethnologist, vol. 40, no. 4, 2013, pp. 764–780.