A new look at undocumented Mexican migration

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A new look at undocumented Mexican migration

Research reveals surprising effects on traditional gender roles

by Annelise Heinz on Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 12:47pm

When Clayman faculty research fellow Ana Minian went to the Mexican state of Michoacán to interview community members of towns with high rates of outmigration to the United States, she noticed something surprising. She expected to find towns full of activity with cross-sections of the community. Instead, she found them quiet, with most of the residents not lingering in public spaces. Most men of prime reproductive age were entirely absent. Left in the towns were women, elderly men, youths and another group of adult men: those whom Minian refers to as “queer men,” who visibly stood outside traditional masculine norms. Minian knew that most adult men from these towns were migrant laborers in the United States. But why, she wondered, weren't the women who had stayed in the towns more present in public? And why had “effeminate” men not migrated?

Ana MinianProfessor Minian’s work challenges common assumptions about the experiences of Mexican migrants to highlight how gender has shaped migration patterns and the lives of those still in Mexico. In one slice of her larger project, Minian argues that gender norms shaped who stayed and who left for the United States. 

Minian, an Assistant Professor of History and of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, is completing a book manuscript titled Undocumented Lives: Mexican Migration to the United States 1965-1986. Her dissertation on the same topic garnered the 2012 American Studies Association Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize for the best dissertation in American Studies. 

In contrast to much migration literature, Minian’s work also focuses on those who have not migrated: primarily, women and men outside traditional masculine gender norms. Minian interviewed more than 200 individuals who did and did not migrate between 1965 and 1986, when undocumented migration from Mexico to the United States increased as a result of economic pressures and changing government policies on both sides of the border. That time period set the stage for ongoing demographic patterns that Minian observed during her research.

Pressures and opportunities

Gender stereotypes helped determine that traditionally masculine men would have the responsibility and opportunity to migrate north as undocumented agricultural labor. As Minian explained, the sexual division of labor meant that men sent money home to support their families in Mexico when the Mexican economy collapsed. Meanwhile, it was assumed to be the woman’s role to stay home to care for the children and stay within the social and sexual control of her and her husband’s family. In addition, women were dissuaded from migrating by the threat of sexual violence from border patrol officials and smugglers. 

In contrast to the assumption that queer men would have preferred to leave conservative Mexican communities, Minian found that they disproportionately stayed in Mexico. In part, this was because during much of the late twentieth century, gay men in the United States experienced both legal and social harassment. Although queer men had lower status than traditionally masculine men in Mexico, many feared various forms of vulnerability if they migrated. For example, consensual gay sex was illegal in the United States, and not in Mexico. In addition, Minian discovered, queer men who did not occupy the privileges or responsibilities of being “heads of households” experienced an expansion of economic opportunity in Mexico. The service economy grew as migrant workers sent money home. Gender stereotypes promoted the idea that feminine men were naturally skilled in roles such as hairdressers and florists, and they were paid more than their female counterparts. 

Women’s shrinking spaces 

For the women who stayed in towns in Michoacán, where the vast majority of adult men left, public spaces became much harder to enter. The decreased mobility and lack of power that women expressed surprised Minian. In contrast to the stereotype of Mexican machismo, women actually felt more able to move in public when men were present. In part, Minian heard, women felt increased vulnerability through their male partners’ absence and possibility of deportation. Ironically, Minian explains, the increased ability to communicate across the border also meant that male partners could continue to exert control over women from a distance. Gossip spread interpretations of women’s presence in public spaces as signs of infidelity, resulting in direct or indirect violence or a withdrawal of financial support. As a result, women who were economically dependent on husbands and in-laws simply stayed home and felt they could not trust other women.

Translated vulnerabilityus border

The Mexican families Minian interviewed were stretched across the border, but often felt trapped in local spaces—whether from fear of the migrants being deported, or to avoid the prying eyes of neighbors in towns transformed by migration. Women in particular faced multiple areas of gendered vulnerability, including sexual violence during the process of migration, dependency on male relatives’ remittances, forms of social control and limited economic opportunities at home.  

Today, as undocumented migrants become increasingly vulnerable to deportation and violence while crossing the border, pressures on families back home continue to increase.

Ana Minian
Assistant Professor of History and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

Professor Ana Minian’s current book project explores the late-twentieth-century history of Mexican undocumented migration to the United States, the growth of migrant communities, and bi-national efforts to regulate the border. It uses over two hundred oral history interviews, government archives, migrant correspondence, privately held organizational records and personal collections, pamphlets and...

PhD Candidate, Department of History


Annelise Heinz is a PhD Candidate in history at Stanford University.  Her research interests include gender, race, and sexuality in twentieth-century American society, and transpacific exchanges between the U.S. and China. Her dissertation, "Mahjong, American Modernity, and Cultural Transnationalism," examines the American history of the profoundly popular Chinese game of mahjong to illuminate...