Professor’s book named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title

The reason York social and political science Professor Judith Adler Hellman does research is to be surprised. Conducting research for her latest book, The World of Mexican Migrants, recently named a 2008 Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine, Hellman was not disappointed. In her five years of in-depth research interviewing Mexicans, both in Mexico and the US, Hellman was genuinely surprised by much of what she learned.

She heard shocking, near-death tales of men strapping themselves onto the undercarriage of trains heading into the US that have become part of the narrative of the Mexican migrant. “The journeys they have had to endure to get into the US are harrowing, and many of the people I interviewed thought they were going to die, although they did survive to tell their story.” There are many others, however, who don’t make it. Or who perish during the three-day walk trying to cross the Arizona-Sonora Desert in what the border patrol calls the Tucson Sector.

A whole section of The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place (New Press, 2008) is devoted to journeys. “These hair-raising journeys are very common,” says Hellman. She describes the people she interviewed for the book as spunky, gutsy, funny, bright and interesting. They are not “sad sacks”; they are brave and not at all self-pitying. The book is populated with “all kinds of really strong, interesting people from whom I learned so much,” says Hellman. And it’s also full of humour. “Readers keep telling me they thought they would cry, but, in fact, they laughed.”

“But what surprised me the most was the extent to which the Mexican migrants had virtually no contact with people in the dominant society.” She tells how the migrants, before setting foot in New York or Los Angeles, believed they were going to the land of gringos – tall, blond people who would squint at them through steely blue eyes. But nothing could be further from the truth. “They have told me they rarely meet the kind of people they would think of as ‘gringos’,” says Hellman.

Right: Judy Adler Hellman

Rather, their bosses, co-workers and social communities are made up of immigrants from all over the world. “They have little opportunity to learn or use English because they are in this world where not even their boss speaks English. One huge surprise for me was the extent to which tensions in race relations don’t unfold between brown and white people, but between brown and black people,” says Hellman, the author of three previous books, Mexican Lives, Mexico in Crisis and Journeys Among Women: Feminism in Five Italian Cities.

There are an estimated six million undocumented Mexican migrants now living in the United States. Many of them feel trapped. They’d like to return home, to go back and forth between Mexico and the US, but with stricter border controls and immigration laws, they have become stuck. Many haven’t seen their families in Mexico for years, but they can’t leave the US for fear of not being able to get back in, especially when their family depends on the money they send home. So they see their kids in videos sent to them. They talk to them on the phone and through the computer. “The immigrants are present in the lives of people back home, but not physically,” says Hellman.

And that’s where a second surprise comes in. Most of the Mexican migrants Hellman spoke with don’t want to live the “American dream”. They don’t want to stay in the US. They never intended to stay. They want to live the Mexican dream. They want to make enough money to go home, build a house, perhaps start a business and live in Mexico with their families. But the whole immigration debate in the US, says Hellman, is based on the presupposition that Mexican migrants want to live the American dream, that the US is the greatest country on the planet and of course the Mexicans want nothing more than to join the fun. In reality, they don’t.

What happens though, is the small villages and towns in Mexico, the immigrant sending areas, have become like ghost towns. They are populated with old people and children, but even then, there aren’t always enough children to fill a school. Some of the towns haven’t had a priest for their church in years. So the Mexicans living in the US become doubly trapped. There is no longer enough action in their village for them to go home and start a business – there isn’t anyone to buy anything.

The US policy-makers need to wake up and realize their economy would falter in many areas without the Mexican migrant workers to sustain them, says Hellman. Instead of making it more difficult for these workers, they should be making it easier for them to enter the country legally and to enjoy the protection of full labour rights.

The World of Mexican Migrants tells the tale of Mexican migrants from construction workers and restaurant staff to street vendors and deliverymen, as well as those left behind in the dwindling towns and villages in Mexico. The book gives this segment of the population a voice to share their stories – funny and sad – of how they eke out their existence in the US, the issues they face, their desires and their dreams for the future.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer