“I Wish I was a Bird:” Migrant Workers Communicating with Their Transnational Families

Skagit Valley - Migrant Farm Workers At a recent symposium I developed with a team of adult educators on food justice and popular education, immigrant labor rights activist, Rosalinda Guillen, (Executive Director of Community to Community), talked about the various flower festivals happening on the west coast and across the world in the spring time but without credit to the exploited workers picking and processing them. Their invisibility, as she put it, makes it safe for agribusiness to carry on and even criminalize workers who try to make themselves known through protest or unionizing, for example,see the Sakuma Brothers strike led by Familias Unidas

For readers who return after a long day to clean homes with fresh flowers and bowls of fruit, it’s important to consider the ‘broken bodies’ behind them as Seth Holmes illustrates in:  Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies:Migrant Farmworkers in the United States —- how unsafe it is for migrant workers in both farms and service industries–it is their wrath. This is the plight of many immigrants I am currently interviewing today about their lives and struggles, as they carry the burdens of American society as well as those of their families back home.  Through my research and advocacy I hope to support their struggles, and be part of ‘harvesting justice’ and stopping wage theft.

This blog follows from my study (2006-2010) of highly skilled migrants who were low-paid care workers in England communicating at a distance with their families for support,  based mainly in India, Poland, and the Philippines but also in the states, Canada, Australia and throughout the EU.

None of the participants in this English study had family living in Mexico and none of these workers had anything less than a Bachelor’s degree and all of them had professional qualifications and careers before migrating. However, like the Philippines, Mexico is a very large care labor exporter country of women (to the U.S.) due to similar structural adjustment policies and the impacts of underemployment, poverty, and debt in families. International Migrants Day- Flash Mob

While this feminization of migration may be normalized from these selective countries, it still changes dynamics in these families and often feels to them, as anything but normal. This is especially true at a time when back and forth migration is prohibitive among Mexican workers leaving phones and computers as the only way to communicate with family back home. This feeling is exaggerated in a virtual space, where ‘social presence’ is demanded but with a lack nonverbal cues. I’ll come back to this.

My current U.S. pilot study, focuses on those migrant workers  (documented and undocumented) with less education, and their communication strategies with their transnational families living in Mexico and around the U.S.—how they communicate and why, the ways their families changed after they emigrated, the effects of their work on their communication, as well as what they learn from their away-families, and the supports they offer for their adaptation and mobility. Family separation and reunification are headlined now with recent stories of Mexican and Central American children crossing the border to search for their emigrant parents.

I’ve interviewed fifteen women so far, all of whom only have a primary education, and work in house cleaning or small factories (in Seattle) or in agriculture or restaurants (in rural and semi-rural areas) in Whatcom county—both areas having high percentages of Mexican immigrants. I’ve also interviewed stay-at-home moms who have a number of children but want to work.

The history of Mexican migrant workers in Washington has almost always been associated with working in the fields and this study offers an array of pictures of migration in this state (http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=7901 and http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/farmwk_intro.htm). Washington has had a long history of Mexican migration but has recently had a surge, and which is Washington’s largest minority. However there are other Latino populations and in some areas like Yakima Valley, Latinos make up majority populations–there are over 600,000 Latinos in Washington state currently  and that number is expected to rise (http://www.k12.wa.us/CISL/pubdocs/historylatinopacificnorthwest.pdf). Washington state however has been hit like many other states by record level deportations and hunger strikes have occurred in detention centers (see: http://www.notonemoredeportation.com/2014/05/12/undocumented-leaders-of-nwdc-resistance-meet-with-members-of-house-judiciary-committee-and-homeland-security-officials-in-dc-lawsuit-withdrawn-organizing-continues/).

The deportations have struck fear and intimidation in many of the participants in my study who worry about their livelihoods and those of their families. One of the women participants’ husband was deported to Mexico 3 years ago leaving her with four children, one of whom is a 15-year old who watches them while their mother works both as a hotel maid and a berry picker. Although the husband tried to return, he was injured while crossing the border and now is disabled and can hardly work. She does not know where he lives or how to get in touch with him.

There are also many barriers to their economic and social mobility including a segregated labor market, high housing prices, not to mention institutionalized racism and exclusion.

The sample for this study comes entirely from community-based organizations located in and around Seattle and Bellingham. In addition, I gave two workshops and focus groups in these organizations on communication with transnational familes to test the concepts in the interview protocol and to further select participants. These focus groups and workshops, consisting of a total of  15 participants were conducted in Spanish by myself and interpreters with notes and discussions after about what was learned  (thanks to Brenna Uzcategui and Ivette Bayo).

The focus group and workshop demonstrated that women migrants are active communicators with family abroad, using ingenious methods to give help, support and receive it, as well as to be in touch with them. Their methods of communicating are not only verbal but include sending gifts, cards, money, and other things plus visits (although more infrequent for those who are undocumented), in addition to phone calls. texts, emails, and facebook interactions. The local Mexican stores might dictate how much they could send with the discounts they offered. When things were sent through the mail, however, they might not know if in fact it was delivered intact but that its receipt was important, especially children’s items which were extremely expensive to buy (even if it was produced in Mexico).

The interview instrument is in Spanish, which I give and the interpreters explain to me the women’s responses and assist with follow-up questions. It is essential that the interviews are in Spanish because it encourages the women to express themselves better, even if they understand a little English. Their English fluency is relatively low in comparison to the British migrant sample. The interviews revealed more in-depth information.

Economics dominated most of the transnational family communication. It starts with the phone which offers a number of cheaper options than other  communication channels. The phone is the primary means of verbal communication, preferred also for the emotionality of voice but also immediacy and trust-worthiness for information. Yet the phone reduces visual emotional markers as would the internet. Phone calls were made through phone cards and were longer when the migrant worker called Mexico. Some phone calls in Mexico were picked up by what the women called, ‘public phones.’ These phones were in people’s homes and required payment in order to use them. Texts were used less often and could also be expensive to send and receive from Mexico. This was especially the case for families living in southern Mexico states like Oaxaca. There was a stark difference in opportunity structures and communication channels of the women who originally came from more rural areas in the south vs. those who came from, or had family living in or around Mexico City and in a couple of the industrial northern states.

Computers were not used as much due mainly to their Mexican families not having access to wifi and broadband, especially in small towns. It was also due to the fact that a number of women had  few opportunities to actively use computers—even ones that owned them. The interviews have revealed that the communication channels and strategies are more complex than just one person calling another across borders.

Transnational families develop communication chains through phone calling, with one trusted member in the states or in Mexico revealing information across distributed settings, and all over the world. This especially happens when a family experiences a crisis such as health problems, car accidents, or deaths.  A crisis could bring a family together or, without any communication, or, the wrong type,  fall apart. Also the amount of calls and the contact is predicated on the type of relationship that was established in the pre-migration stage, much of that related to psycho-social factors. One woman felt alienated from her family as a young girl and which continued into adulthood, when members refused her phone calls to them, and only ‘liked’ her on Facebook.

Many of the women had big families with adult siblings divided between Mexico and California and Washington as well as other states. A number of the women came to Washington state through California, where their immediate and extended family lived in agricultural areas, and were current or former farm workers. These families were often more in touch, being on the same time zone and not as far from one another although they did not see one another as much because of their work schedules and the resources needed for travel. Others had families in the midwest and a few on the East Coast. A few women had no family at all in the states and were pioneers in their families but did not encourage their siblings to follow them, due to the hard circumstances they endured when they first emigrated. Without being asked, one woman told her brutal story of crossing the border and the angst and upset associated with not being able to cross again, especially to see her ailing parents.

Talking about their parents, many of the women, broke down in tears because their communication was very limited, due to where the parents lived (for example small towns ruled out good internet infrastructure) and couldn’t actually see them ‘live’. They sent home money, called when they could, and tried to establish good relations from far away. One woman’s mother said she wished she could be a ‘bird’ who could fly across to see her daughter. Her mother was caring for her very ill husband and couldn’t be in “two places at once.”

This woman participant lived in the middle of berry fields with her children and a large extended family, many of whom were or currently are, farm workers, in a farm house. As I drove away, with Brenna, from one interview, we noticed a large white truck parked next to her house with a man covered completely in protective gear, and wondered to what extent this woman and her children sacrificed to be in  the U.S.

Thank you goes to Araceli Hernandez  of Casa Latina.


2 thoughts on ““I Wish I was a Bird:” Migrant Workers Communicating with Their Transnational Families

  1. This is a really important post. And it makes me think of all the migrant workers here, picking the Tescos strawberries we’re currently enjoying. Also, a wonderful film, Maria, Llena de Gracia, Maria, Full of Grace, which begins with scenes of flower-picking.


    • Corinne, thank you for your comment! Yes berries are the wrath of the workers here and are a bitter struggle with the powerful farm owners who criminilize them if they unionize. I don’t eat strawberries anymore since we grow them in our front yard in Seattle! Also, a friend told me, more than any other fruit, strawberries absorb pesticides the most. I recall Maria Full of Grace too! I recall her processing flowers in Mexico. Write soon and tell me of your own research on rural migrancy!


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