Department of History, Politics, Society, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA, USA
The social pathways by which international migrants move between countries are typically well worn, following previously established networks of relatives and friends. This commonly manifests in the creation of communities where substantial numbers of people are from a single “sending” community. For example, in Plymouth, Indiana most of the people of Mexican origin originated from the small town of Santiago Capitiro, in the Central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Since migration typically follows established social pathways, what started as a single individual temporarily leaving to work in the USA eventually led to over 1200 people from that one pueblacito (small town) who have settled permanently in Plymouth. However, while they have settled in Plymouth they maintain significant ties and involvements back in Capitiro. The end result illustrates the principle outlined by anthropologist Glick Schiller et al., that Capitiro and Plymouth have become intertwined within a larger “transnational social field” composed of family ties, social networks, clubs, and associations of co-nationals (paisanos), and participation in government programs of Mexico, all of which allow people to stay socially, politically, and economically involved in more than one community. What makes this situation “transnational” is that people maintain economic, political, and social involvements in both countries simultaneously.
Even when people are not physically present they can use other means, notably financial remittances, to stay involved in their home community. The Mexican government actually initiated a program to encourage investment back home. Known as “tres por uno” (3 for 1), it matches each dollar intended for community infrastructure projects with three dollars from the federal, state, and municipal government. Researchers in the Mexican Migration Project identified a common pattern among Mexican immigrants in the USA, who joined social clubs with conationals and invested their savings and remittances in a home, business, or community improvement, a practice that signified continued membership in their home community.
The increasingly common practice of living transnational lives has pushed the boundaries of understanding the meaning of community. Transnational migrants are in fact constituting multiple sites of what were originally specific, geographically bounded communities. The annual festivals in the “hometown” often become times when its citizens from transnational branch communities celebrate and reestablish their communal identity.
Transnational lives are also stretching our understanding of political loyalty. People in transnational communities claim to be able to make significant contributions to social and political institutions in both societies, not limited to one or the other. In fact both Haiti and Mexico consider their citizens who live in the USA to be important actors in the political and economic life of the nation.
Transnational migration creates different types of family configurations. Migration in general is challenging for families. Transnational communities often have families in which one or more parent is gone for significant amounts of time. It is not uncommon for children to be under the care of extended family, grandparents, or aunts, as parents seek to find means to secure the longer term well-being of the family through labor migration.
Transnational communities are not new, but the pace of migration, globalization, and means by which people can move and participate in multiple communities is unprecedented. More than ever, in the words of anthropologist Karen Richman, communities have become “intimately linked” through migration. Ultimately, the ability to understand the lives of immigrants is realized through understanding the transnational and “multi-sited” nature of their lives.
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Glick-Schiller, N., Basch, L., & Szanton, C. (1995). From immigrant to transmigrant: Theorizing transnational migration. Anthropological Quarterly, 68(1), 48–63.
Grey, M. A., & Woodrick, A. C. (2002). Unofficial sister cities: Meat-packing labor migration between Villachuato, Mexico, and Mar-shalltown, Iowa. Human Organization, 61(4), 364–376.
Levitt, P. (2001). The transnational villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Richman, K. E. (2005). Migration and vodou. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Stephen, L. (2007). Transborder lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon. Durham: Duke University Press.