National and Transnational logics in the Yakima borderlands

Serena Maurer
University of Washington, U.S
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Abstract: In the internal borderlands of Washington State ’s Yakima Valley in the United States , flexible national logics appearing in debates over immigration as represented by letters to the editor in the local newspaper both reproduce and question hegemonic liberal and neo-liberal constructions of nationality and difference. These logics simultaneously enable and challenge the transnational capitalist deployment of flexibility in the search for profit that shapes material conditions in the Yakima borderlands. While Mexican migrant women living in the Valley question these logics by exposing the materiality of their migration and representing themselves as transnational or even borderless subjects, they, too, both draw on and challenge the liberal and neo-liberal cultural and material narratives that shape their transnational lives.

Transnationalism in the Borderlands

Since the turn of the 20 th century, Mexican laborers have migrated to central Washington State ’s Yakima Valley in the United States to pick the cherries, apples, pears, asparagus, berries and hops that feed the state’s now $5.23 billion agricultural economy. Until the 1960s, Mexican migrants in the area (as across the United States) were mostly men who came to the Valley during the spring, summer and fall harvest seasons and left the area in the winter months in search of work elsewhere in the U.S. or back in Mexico. In the last few decades, the number of Mexicans migrating to area has risen, increasing numbers of women have joined the Valley’s migrant population, and more migrants have been settling long-term or permanently in the area. Rather than, as predicted by neo-liberal scholars and policy makers, discouraging Mexico-U.S. migration, the liberalization of the Mexican economy and the growing permeability of the U.S./Mexico border to money and goods has encouraged Mexicans, particularly women, to migrate north by reducing Mexicans’ ability to care for themselves and their families in Mexico and fostering cross-border linkages that facilitate Mexico-U.S. migration. At the same time, various U.S. immigration policies, all claimed as means of protecting the U.S. nation-state by restricting Mexican immigration, have further increased the flow of Mexican migrant women and their children into the U.S. and encouraged them to settle long-term or permanently. Some studies indicate that the majority of undocumented Mexicans both migrating to and currently residing in the U.S. are women. In Washington State , the largest concentration of the rising numbers of undocumented Mexican women migrants are settling in Yakima County.

Through their growing settlement in the Yakima Valley, Mexican women and men are transnationalizingthe local space, creating an internal borderlands within the nation-state. This transnationalization is linked to the changing gender makeup of the migrant pool. As migrant women are more likely to work in fruit and vegetable packing, storage and processing plants than on local farms, they symbolize a migrant movement out of the fields and into the towns, challenging existing raced, classed and nationalized cultural and economic borders within the Valley and increasing social and economic interactions between migrants and non-migrant Valley residents. Like the U.S./Mexico borderlands of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. , the contemporary Yakima borderlands is increasingly characterized by multiple examples of cultural and economic coexistences, interdependencies and crossings. Migrant and non-migrant Valley residents depend on one another’s labor and consumption in local banks, restaurants, real estate agencies, homes and social service and healthcare organizations as well as in the farming industry. And Mexican migrants’ culinary traditions, holidays, religious activities, language and artistic production are increasingly defining the Valley’s cultural landscape alongside the European and Asian immigrant and Native American cultural practices that have characterized the region in the past.

Flexible national logics

The cultural logics surfacing in local debates over immigration in letters to the editor in the local newspaper (the Yakima Herald-Republic), re-create and re-position the borders between national insiders and outsiders through gendered and sexualized nationalist logics of racial difference. In debates over a Washington state law granting undocumented students state residency status for the purposes of in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, Valley residents on both sides of the debates respond to the national boundary-troubling shifts in the Valley population by recomposing historical and cotemporary liberal and neo-liberal hegemonic constructions of Mexican ‘difference’ and American national belonging. In these re-compositions, they define the hard-working, law-abiding, responsible ‘American’ citizen over and against the lazy, criminal and irresponsible Mexican. The law’s opponents situate all Mexican migrants as the criminal ‘illegal aliens’ over and against which the American is defined while welcoming the assimilated ‘Hispanic’ descendant of Mexican migrants into the national community. Proponents welcome the ‘almost American’ children of immigrants into the national community of Americans while defining these ‘innocent’ children against their ‘illegal’ migrant parents. Underwriting these and other Valley debates over immigration are veiled depictions of the Mexican migrant woman as the repository of the “alien-ness” against which the U.S. nation and the American national is defined. In these depictions, the hyper-reproductive and criminal Mexican migrant woman has come North to steal taxpayer-funded healthcare, education and welfare resources from their rightful citizen recipients.

The flexibility these liberal and neo-liberal logics evidence as they move back and forth across both sides of Yakima Valley debates over immigration emerges out of and feeds back to capitalist discourses and practices of flexibility that shape migrant and non-migrant Valley residents’ relationship to their labor and consumption in the transnational borderlands as well as migrants’ histories of labor and consumption in Mexico. As Frederic Jameson has argued, flexibility is a central characteristic of the “postmodern logic of late capitalism” (in Aihwa Ong 1999: 18). David Harvey (1989) argues that global capitalism employs flexibility as a new means of producing profit. Flexibility defines contemporary corporate philosophies and practices, the organization and management of production and labor, and consumption trends. It shapes laborers’ relationship to capital in Mexico and the U.S. and their Mexico-U.S. migration. In Mexico , the “maquilization” of paid work processes resulting in low wages, job insecurity and “flexible” work schedules form the contemporary conditions under which Mexican men and women are migrating north. In the Yakima borderlands as in other U.S. locations, Mexican migrants’ farm labor is also highly “flexible,” characterized by low wages, no benefits and a lack of job security and coverage under worker protection laws. While the logics informing Yakima Valley in-state tuition debates arise out of a context shaped by these flexible material relations and work to reproduce these relations, they also challenge particular aspects of hegemonic cultural and material constructions of the nation-state, as, for example, through the law’s proponents’ attempts to re-position undocumented migrant students as “residents” for the purposes of in-state tuition and through opponents’ inclusion of ‘Hispanics’ within the national community.

Consenting and contesting transnational logics

In “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,” Roger Rouse (1996) explains that globalization’s creation of “border zones” within the nation-state has the potential to challenge popular notions of difference between a national “us” and a non-national “them”. In my interviews with them, Mexican migrant women in the Yakima Valley offer stories of migration and transnational subjectivity that both draw on and question hegemonic local liberal and neo-liberal constructions of ‘Americans’ and ‘Mexicans’. Central to these stories are explanations of the transnational economic conditions that shape Mexican women’s migration to the Valley. In these explanations, Valley Mexican women argue that, on the one hand, their reasons for migration are multi-faceted and imbedded within complex cultural/material relations and, on the other, their migration is fueled by the need to locate the opportunities for paid labor that will enable them to support themselves and their families.

For example, Margarita1 explains “yo no tenìa ninguna intenciòn de inmigrar. Porque era mi vida…era…toda mi familia vivìa en Mexico” (I didn’t have any intention of immigrating. Because it was my was…my whole family was living in Mexico ). Rather, she argues, her migration emerged out of a “necesidad” (necessity) that “viene a raìz de muchas cosas” (comes from many roots), a necessity fueled by her need to provide for herself and her soon to be born child. In re-writing herself asa productive laborer crossing borders in search of work that will enable her to care for her family, Margarita refuses the figurations of all Mexicans as “lazy illegals” underwriting Yakima Valley debates over in-state tuition. She also challenges hegemonic Valley representations of Mexican migrant women as leaches who universally desire life in the U.S. as a means of taking advantage of U.S. taxpayer-funded healthcare, education and welfare resources. She does so by inverting the neo-liberal constructions of Americans’ ‘personal responsibility’ and Mexican migrant women’s ‘irresponsibility’ grounding hegemonic Yakima Valley logics of immigration through her construction of Mexican women’s northward migration as exemplifying the practices of the hard-working and determined ‘American’ neo-liberal capitalist ‘man’. While this move challenges the neo-liberal logics of racial difference fueling in-state tuition debaters’ exclusion of Mexican migrant women from the national community, it simultaneously reproduces neo-liberal logics of personal responsibility in order to situate the Mexican migrant woman as responsible.

Other Valley Mexican women echo Margarita’s representation of Mexican women’s migration to the U.S. as fundamentally shaped by their need to find work that will enable them to care for their children, work they are unable to secure in Mexico . Mirabel explains:

Well, there (in Mexico ), how can I tell you about it/explain it to you? There’s little work. …and they pay little. If there’s no work…if you don’t have work…how are you going to feed your children? …Because there the government doesn’t help you. What are you going to do? You’re going to rob, you’re going to kill to have the money to buy food for your kids to eat.

Mirabel’s argument points to the ways Mexican women are negotiating the gendered effects of structural adjustment in Mexico . Mexico began instituting a set of structural adjustment measures in 1980, measures the World Bank and International Monetary Fund encouraged Mexican state officials to adopt as a means of addressing its substantial foreign debt. Focused on reducing barriers to foreign trade and investment and rolling back the state, the measures lowered wages, limited social services and other state-funded programs, revised existing tax policies, reduced access to subsidies and public credit, devalued the peso, and privatized public enterprises. As Carlos Heredia and Mary Purcell (1995) explain in “Structural Adjustment in Mexico” (, the first decade of the program was characterized by widespread lay-offs and a dramatic decrease in wages. Amidst the decline in wages and increase in unemployment, Mexico has seen a drastic increase in poverty. Intertwined with the rise in poverty has been growing inequality in the distribution of capital, as evidenced by indicators demonstrating that a small sector of elite Mexican billionaires hold assets greater than the combined income of the approximately twenty-percent of Mexicans living in extreme poverty. Central to the production of this gap is micro, small and medium-sized Mexican businesses’ inability to compete with cheap foreign imports as structural adjustment policies have decreased their access to credit (reserving loans for export-oriented producers) and increased interest rates to draw foreign investors and/or decrease their withdrawal from Mexico .

As Marxist feminists have argued about structural adjustment across the Global South, Mexico ’s structural adjustment program drastically reduced women’s ability to care for themselves and their children. It did so by reducing public funding for the state programs that enable poor women to fulfill their gendered responsibilities for reproductive labor. Like other adjustment programs, Mexico ’s focused on the reduction of spending for so-called “non-productive” public programs like healthcare (Heredia and Purcell 1995). As state funding for healthcare dropped from 4.7 to 2.7 percent of the budget during the first decade of the program and the World Bank urged the Mexican state to privatize particular health care services, malnutrition drastically increased amongst poor Mexicans for whom private healthcare was economically inaccessible (Heredia and Purcell 1995).

Mirabel’s expression of anxiety about how Mexican women can nourish their children when jobs aren’t available and the state won’t “help you” must be read in the context of the rollback of state supports for reproductive labor under structural adjustment. When work is not available, poverty is rampant, and the state cuts back its supports for poor families, gender codes dictate that women are those who must figure out a way to feed and care for their families. In demonstrating that women like herself choose to migrate for work rather than “[robbing]” or “[killing] to have the money to buy food for [their] kids to eat,” Mirabel rejects Valley figurations of Mexican immigrants as lazy criminals by positioning these figurations against the law-breaking activities she represents as women’s only other options for fulfilling their reproductive labor responsibilities. Like Margarita, Mirabel inverts hegemonic Valley representations of Mexican migrant women as irresponsible by re-writing Mexican women’s migration as adhering to gendered neo-liberal ethics of personal responsibility. In both these accounts, Valley Mexican women both call up and question neo-liberal logics of personal responsibility as they re-situate migration to the U.S. as an exemplary exercise of personal-as-familial responsibility, an exercise in which Mexican women give up the people and lives they desire in Mexico for the insecurity, danger, loneliness, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty of migration and life in the U.S. precisely in order to make good on their commitment to finding the work that will enable them to support their families.

‘El Nuevo Mexicano’ y ‘El hombre no tiene fronteras’
/ ‘The New Mexican’ and ‘man has no borders’

In addition to insisting on a material analysis of Mexican migration to the Yakima Valley that both calls up and forces a questioning of hegemonic Valley constructions of American national belonging and Mexican ‘difference,’ Valley Mexican women offer national boundary-troubling figurations of themselves that both draw on and challenge the representations of national subjects underwriting Valley debates over immigration. For example, Lola represents herself as an example of “el Nuevo Mexicano,” a “new Mexican” who picks and chooses practices she deems desirable from the ‘old’ Mexican and ‘new’ U.S. contexts that shape her life. She explains: “Neither all the new is good, nor all the old is, well, bad. Neither is all the old beautiful, all the new bad, rather, one tries to find the good things in what we have and in what we can acquire…and this allows us to be healthier.”

In constructing herself as un “Nuevo Mexicano” who refuses to situate the ‘old’ Mexican ways and the ‘new’ American ones in a dichotomous relationship to one another, Lola refuses the Mexican/American binaries and the calls for assimilation emerging in Yakima Valley debates over the in-state tuition law. While in-state tuition opponents situate assimilated ‘Hispanics’ as ‘real Americans’ and the law’s proponents figure undocumented students as either ‘almost’ or ‘already’ (assimilated) Americans, Lola represents herself as a multiple, flexible self who draws from both ‘American’ and ‘Mexican’ cultural practices to craft a subjectivity that refuses assimilationist logics. Her refusal, however, also draws on hegemonic Valley logics of immigration in so much as she must reproduce local notions of Mexican and American difference in order craft her transnational ‘Nuevo Mexicano’ self.

Paloma offers another figuration of Mexican migrant women’s multiplicity and flexibility:

…us, we are already mestizos. We’re already children of…this Spanish descendant and this descendant of those that come from another place, but we have already become mestizos. We’re all mestizos, this is the classification that we are. And we’re nomads, right? Because we go from one place to another. Traveling from one place to another. And man has no borders. In this way…amnesties and amnesties come and they don’t allow one to cross (the border) and…they put up the Berlin Wall like they have. Man isn’t going to have borders because man is free…. human beings are free and are going to go where they want to.

Paloma’s figuration of herself and other Mexican migrants as human beings who are borderless and ‘free’ offers a different kind of response to Yakima Valley transnationality than that found in the logics fueling the in-state tuition debates. Rather than, like in-state tuition debaters, working to re-draw national borders between Americans and Mexicans, Paloma makes sense of the transnationality that defines her life by calling up a ‘mestizo’ identity that, like Lola’s “El Nuevo Mexicano,” both recreates and challenges hegemonic racialized constructions of the national subject on which local visions of the national ‘imagined community’ rest. As with Lola’s “Nuevo Mexicano,” Paloma’s self-representation as a ‘mestizo’ both, on the one hand, emerges out of the transnational conditions that shape her life in the borderlands and, on the other, offers her a means of making sense of and imagining her own relationship to this transnationality. But Paloma also moves beyond the ‘mestizo’s’ boundary-troubling mixing of two national identities by writing a universalist notion of the human ‘race’ as a borderless people. With this latter move, she calls up the liberal notion of freedom on which in-state tuition debaters’ constructions of Americans rest in order to destabilize the sexualized and gendered boundaries of race in-state tuition opponents and proponents draw around the body of ‘men’ they deem worthy of such freedom.

The two sets of logics I trace here–those emerging in the in-state tuition debates and those surfacing in my interviews with Valley Mexican women—both draw on and challenge hegemonic liberal and neo-liberal gendered and sexualized constructions of racialized citizenship. In-state tuition opponents and proponents reproduce and re-write nationalist logics of belonging as they re-draw the lines of inclusion regulating Americans’, ‘Hispanics’’ and Mexican migrants’ relationship to the nation-state. Valley Mexican women question the nationalist taxonomies of global subjects that underwrite these logics of belonging by arguing that they draw from ‘different’ Mexican and American ways as they craft their transnational selves. While Paloma’s argument that ‘el hombre no tiene fronteras’ pushes the hardest at Valley logics of immigration, it, too, relies on and reproduces liberal notions of freedom (notions that continue to be devoid of raced, sexualized and gendered inequalities in practice) even as it works to subvert them. Through this process of calling up and refusal, both sets of flexible logics of immigration emerging in the Yakima borderlands demonstrate the ways in which they emerge out of, enable and put into question transnational capitalism’s pursuit of profit in Mexico, the U.S., and the transnational space in between.


1 In the interest of confidentiality and particularly because I am working within and against nation-state discourses and practices that mark many of the women I interviewed for this project as “illegal aliens,” who are, therefore, deportable, all the names I use for the women I interview here are pseudonyms.