Susanne Jonas, Nestor Rodríguez. Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 310 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-292-76060-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-292-76826-0.
Reviewed by Carmen Fernández Casanueva (CIESAS Sureste)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions by Susanne Jonas and Néstor Rodríguez is the result of far-reaching research into the migratory dynamic that exists between Guatemala and the United States. Enriched by the authors’ extensive experience, the book, through its holistic analysis, examines the complexity, distinct stages, and difficulties of this international migratory movement. It highlights the diversity within human mobility and its multiple causes, and examines how throughout history migration has been transformed and has transformed not just the points of origin and destination but the entire region, including Mexico.
In six chapters and a preface, Jonas and Rodríguez place the origins of the book in context, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the research involved. This latter aspect is itself a novel methodological contribution in terms of how two academics, working on similar areas throughout their professional lives, now conjoin their fields of interest and establish an ongoing dialogue. In the first chapter, Jonas and Rodríguez lay the theoretical groundwork in which they posit that Central American migration is a “transregional space,” since “the social and spatial impacts of this migration accumulated and aggregated into a ‘region’” (p. 6).
The second chapter provides an overview of the distinct phases of Guatemalan migration to the United States, grounded in the region’s social, economic, and political context that encouraged and shaped this migratory mobility. The six stages outlined herein help to contextualize the topics covered in subsequent chapters. During the first phase (1977-85), the most violent of the armed conflict, many Guatemalans took up residence in the United States, particularly in California, while thousands of refugees from the Highlands fled and sought sanctuary on the Mexican side of the border. The second phase (1986-88) coincided with the 1986 amnesty under the Immigration Control and Reform Act (ICRA), shaping the migratory fortunes of those already residing in the United States, particularly in terms of how they would interact with Guatemala and how differences would arise between those immigrants who held residency documents and those who did not. During the third phase (1989-91), some fifty thousand people obtained legal status through the ICRA, thus allowing Guatemalan immigrants to consolidate their foothold in the United States, and in turn establish a more fluid relationship and strengthen ties with their communities of origin. In the fourth phase (1992-2003), in contrast to the previous two, the number of undocumented Guatemalans was estimated to surpass those legally present in the United States; further, a new generation was born to immigrants who arrived, settled, and began families in the United States. During this latter period, Mexico implemented its Plan Sur (Southern Plan), which greatly increased efforts and resources aimed at deporting Central Americans who journeyed through Mexican territory. Jonas and Rodríguez establish a final period, stretching from 2004 up to the book’s publication. There has been no relief in the economic problems and violence that propelled emigration during this postwar phase. Rather, worsening socioeconomic conditions led to greater and more persistent migration to the United States. During this final period, Hurricane Stan (2005) devastated the region, provoked greater migration from both Guatemala and the Soconusco region of Chiapas, and altered migratory routes to northern destinations. The key argument emanating from this overview of the five migratory phases is that each stage had distinct economic, political, and even environmental characteristics that produced differences among immigrants who arrived and settled in the United States, as well as among those who remained in Guatemala or settled somewhere along the route.
Chapter 3 focuses on how Guatemalan migrants set the stage for and developed transregional organizing processes, and analyzes the consolidation of pro-immigrant movements, the differences among them, their evolution, and their differentiated motives and demands. Attention is given to processes both linked to improving conditions in destination countries and arising from the political situation in origin countries. Jonas and Rodríguez note that the origin of these movements lies in the experience acquired through activism that was prevalent during the 1960-90 armed conflict, and, in this regard, they analyze the role played by nongovernmental advocacy organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). Interestingly, the authors allude to the fact that these organizations’ objectives varied in sync with the changing context: at times more politically active within Guatemala, and later, during the postwar period, more focused on the struggle to secure and defend immigrant rights in the United States (i.e., examples of transnational activism). The chapter also deals with how the Guatemalan diaspora community consolidated in the United States, by now the birthplace of immigrants’ children and even grandchildren. Further, the authors refer to how certain Guatemalan organizations forged strategic alliances with other migrant activist groups of different origins, and how this associative and negotiated process unfolded. They also analyze the rise of organizations in Central America and Mexico, their role, limitations, objectives, and causes. This is a particularly fortunate contribution, since research of immigrant organizing and activist processes have generally been centered in the United States, with scant attention paid to other parts of the region. Again, this underscores a fundamental objective of the book: to analyze the entire region and the connections among its diverse venues.
Chapters 4 and 5 analyze two US cities where Guatemalans have settled: Houston and the San Francisco Bay area. In their study of the history of Guatemalan immigration to Houston, Jonas and Rodríguez explore immigrants’ diverse work niches; their community training; the differences between indigenous and Ladino migrants; and the evolution and transformation of the relationship among these two groups, as well as among other groups who settled in this increasingly cosmopolitan city. The authors stress how these settlements play a role in transforming space not just in Houston but throughout the region, based on migrants’ mobility and transnational connections that arise and are consolidated, either informally or through more organized networks. The chapter on immigration to San Francisco highlights how the city has evolved from its previous “sanctuary” status to its current standing as an unsafe place for immigrants, and how gentrification has made the area too expensive for low-income and undocumented Guatemalan immigrants to live in.
In chapter 6, and throughout the book, the authors undertake a holistic analysis of the multiple facets of migration and show how these are interwoven: Mayan migration as well as Ladino migration, causes of expulsion, and conditions at the destination and during transit. They also take into account that population movement is much more than just “transiting” from one place to another, but instead it involves a deeper socio-spatial interaction. The authors cover localized and trans-regionalized movements, disputes among groups due to political differences, the nature of economic refugees, and the movement of refugees to Mexico and their connection to the mobility of Guatemalans throughout the entire region.
In many ways, Jonas and Rodríguez’s book constitutes an inquiry into migratory movements in general, and particularly in Central and North America. It stresses how difficult it is to overlook the wide gamut of causes behind a country’s expulsion of its population, among them profound economic and political crises. Its invitation to reflect on migratory flows through a regional lens is also one of the book’s distinct contributions, since it emphasizes the importance of seeing how the entire region, not just points of origin and destination, is transformed by migration of a particular sector, in this case Guatemalan migrants. We see how this group’s mobility, destination, decisions, and possibilities are at once influenced by the region’s structural conditions: the dynamic relation between agency and structure as a basis for understanding the development of Guatemalan migration through time and space.
In this regard, the book makes a pertinent call on migratory studies to consider the socioregional/spatial dimension by examining how space both transforms and is transformed. Space is not solely a place, a locale where migrants traverse; rather, it is a lived space, where people interact, and in this interaction there are transformations of migrants and nonmigrants throughout their trajectory: their place of origin, the route taken, and their destination. A key element here is the concept of socio-spatialization of the migratory region. By understanding how Guatemalan migration is part of a larger Central American exodus we understand the regional dimension, reinforcing the authors’ idea that studies of migration should transcend methodological nationalism: “the migration region enables us to conceptualize transregional social action that is grounded not in nation-states but in a larger international region of experiences” (p. xi).
Similarly, another of the authors’ vital contributions is their effort to analyze movements that struggle to gain rights, not just in the United States or at the local level but also at the transregional level. By accounting for movements throughout the region, including Central American, Mexican, and US organizations, we understand that migration transforms regions and regions transform the experiences of immigrants and nonimmigrant actors with whom they interact.
A final very relevant contribution of the book is its emphasis on the work of academics throughout the region, not just in US academia. In this sense, viewpoints from a number of latitudes within the entire region round out the debate and allow for a much more holistic overview.
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Carmen Fernández Casanueva. Review of Jonas, Susanne; Rodríguez, Nestor, Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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