Transborder Lives

Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon

Transborder Lives

Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 24 illustrations, 12 maps Published: June 2007

Author: Lynn Stephen

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Chicanx and Latinx Studies, Latin American Studies > Mexico

Lynn Stephen’s innovative ethnography follows indigenous Mexicans from two towns in the state of Oaxaca—the Mixtec community of San Agustín Atenango and the Zapotec community of Teotitlán del Valle—who periodically leave their homes in Mexico for extended periods of work in California and Oregon. Demonstrating that the line separating Mexico and the United States is only one among the many borders that these migrants repeatedly cross (including national, regional, cultural, ethnic, and class borders and divisions), Stephen advocates an ethnographic framework focused on transborder, rather than transnational, lives. Yet she does not disregard the state: She assesses the impact migration has had on local systems of government in both Mexico and the United States as well as the abilities of states to police and affect transborder communities.

Stephen weaves the personal histories and narratives of indigenous transborder migrants together with explorations of the larger structures that affect their lives. Taking into account U.S. immigration policies and the demands of both commercial agriculture and the service sectors, she chronicles how migrants experience and remember low-wage work in agriculture, landscaping, and childcare and how gender relations in Oaxaca and the United States are reconfigured by migration. She looks at the ways that racial and ethnic hierarchies inherited from the colonial era—hierarchies that debase Mexico’s indigenous groups—are reproduced within heterogeneous Mexican populations in the United States. Stephen provides case studies of four grass-roots organizations in which Mixtec migrants are involved, and she considers specific uses of digital technology by transborder communities. Ultimately Stephen demonstrates that transborder migrants are reshaping notions of territory and politics by developing creative models of governance, education, and economic development as well as ways of maintaining their cultures and languages across geographic distances.


“[Stephen’s] theoretical framework warrants consideration by ethnohistorians. Stephen writes in an engaging style, and scholars and students of globalization, migration, and indigenous studies will gain much from this volume.” — David Carey Jr., Ethnohistory

Transborder Lives confirms Stephen’s reputation as a leading contributor to North American transnational and migration studies. Stephen’s nuanced, empathetic—and, I would add, physically and temporally demanding—ethnographic work undergirds the study’s elegantly narrated exploration of how indigenous Oaxacans articulate and understand their own individual and collective experiences of daily routines. . .” — Paul Allatson, American Ethnologist

“[Transborder Lives] is a must-read for anyone interested in indigenous migration to the United States, Oaxacan studies, political economy, the construction of race and ethnicity in a bi-national context, indigenous knowledges, and transborder studies writ large. And its clear prose makes it accessible to undergraduates as well as non-academics interested in policy studies. Certainly, for members of communities such as those described by Stephen, the book will be cherished as a historical and ethnographic document.” — Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“Detailed and imminently readable. . . . [Stephen] has produced a fine-grained ethnographic account of the complex world of indigenous Mexicans spread across two continents, and an analysis of the ways they absorb, exercise, transform, exchange, and transmit ideas and practices within different borders. Transborder Lives is a bold attempt to reconfigure the study of Mexican migrants, and it is a good example of what Stephen refers to in an epilogue as ‘collaborative activist ethnography.” — Leigh Binford, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[Stephen’s] contribution to the literature on transnational migrants lies in the concept of transborder existence and drawing our attention to the myriads of borders, geographic as well as sociocultural, that many Mexicans cross. Their movement within Mexico, the United States, and the U.S.-Mexico border requires that they not only transcend gender, racial, ethnic, class, and state borders but also form collective efforts, interlinked networks, and transborder identities. Ultimately, her analysis moves beyond identities and relations defined by any one nation-state—Mexico or the United States—to the multiple ways people are read physically, legally, and otherwise.” — Ruth Trinidad Galván, NWSA Journal

“By introducing a little-known labor union in Oregon that has long organized indigenous Oaxacan workers (PGUN), Stephen makes a significant contribution to US labor studies. . . . Highly recommended.” — E. Hu-DeHart, Choice

“For advanced students and scholars of migration and transnational studies, Stephen’s work is an important contribution that gives voice to rural Oaxacans in a way that is engaging and interesting.” — Jeffrey H. Cohen, Journal of American Ethnic History

“Stephen certainly knows her stuff. . . . The real intimacy and trust she shares with her respondents and her rich understanding of their lives come across powerfully in her frank conversations. Her commitment to telling migrants’ stories and to using social science to promote social change is also clear. . . . This book is valuable for many reasons. . . . Transborder Lives also does an excellent job of placing migration dynamics within the context of broader political-economic factors on both sides of the border and analyzing how these have changed over time.” — Peggy Livett, American Journal of Sociology

“Stephen has produced a comprehensive volume that is generous in representing indigenous Oaxacans through their own words, through her interpretations, and with the help of a great body of theory and literature on international migration. One would hope that Transborder Lives will enhance the study of international migration...” — David Griffith, EIAL

“Stephen has written a well-organized text suitable for several different levels of preparation. Those familiar with the field will appreciate the attention to the formation of Zapotec and Mixtec subjectivities within Mexico and how those subject positions are articulated throughout the migratory experience. Individuals new to the subject will find an easy correspondence between personal accounts historical narratives, and discussions of social theory.” — Jason Oliver Chang, Oregon Historical Quarterly

“This engaging and well-researched book (with 12 maps, 24 photographs and six tables) will appeal to specialists on Mexico, migration and ethnicity. Its author is to be congratulated on her model, multi-site study of a complex and important issue.” — Colin Clarke, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“With over 20 years of fieldwork experience in southern Mexico and Oregon, Lynn Stephen manages to artfully weave together a high readable and analytically rigorous ethnography about the growing transnationalization of indigenous Mexican communities. In so doing, Stephen has written a remarkable ethnography that is both rich in detail and theoretically sophisticated. This is a must read for scholars, students and anyone concerned about the changing face of the Latina/o community, contemporary Mexican politics and society, the impact of globalization and ethnography in general.” — Kara Zugman, Latino Studies

“Lynn Stephen’s multisited ethnography insightfully unpacks globalization from below, revealing the contours of cross-border communities as they reweave the social fabrics of twenty-first-century North America.” — Jonathan Fox, University of California, Santa Cruz

“Where most research on things ‘transnational’ is anchored on one side of the border or the other, Transborder Lives is conceptually and empirically well grounded throughout the geographic, national, social, political, and economic spaces within which its subjects are dispersed in both Mexico and the United States.” — Michael Kearney, author of Changing Fields of Anthropology: From Local to Global


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lynn Stephen is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Zapotec Women: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca, also published by Duke University Press; Zapata Lives! Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico; and Women and Social Movements in Latin America: Power from Below.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations and Tables vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xix

1. Approaches to Transborder Lives 1

2. Transborder Communities in Political and Historical Context: Views from Oaxaca 35

3. Mexicans in California and Oregon 63

4. Transborder Labor Lives: Harvesting, Housecleaning, Gardening, and Childcare 95

5. Surveillance and Invisibility in the Lives of Indigenous Farmworkers in Oregon 143

6. Women’s Transborder Lives: Gender Relations in Work and Families 178

7. Navigating the Borders of Racial and Ethnic Hierarchies 209

8. Grassroots Organizing in Transborder Lives 231

9. Transborder Ethnic Identity Construction in Life and on the Net: E-Mail and Web Page Construction and Use 274

Conclusions 309

Epilogue: Notes on Collaborative Research 321

Notes 327

Works Cited 335

Index 359
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3990-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3972-4
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