Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico
by Debra Lattanzi Shutika
The hottest and most contentious debate currently occurring on the United States political front concerns immigration. Borderland issues, whether physical or phenomenological, also play a starring role in social sciences topics (as was exemplified in last year’s AAA conference theme) which is what makes Debra Shutika’s book especially relevant. In Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico (University of California Press) Shutika studies the impacts of migrant communities that journey between Textitlán, Guanajuato, Mexico and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, USA.
Shutika took great care in studying the intricacies of a binational existence over a 10-year period, and it shows in her purposeful analysis. She captures the hybridity of the migrant perspective and the uncomfortable space of coexistence in both towns. These invisible laborers have a massive effect on two local economies, yet they are still a marginalized group on both sides of the border. The description of the Kennett Square Mushroom Museum is telling, having no mention of those that pick the produce and now make up a large part of the town’s working class (99). On the Mexican side of their borderland existence, the migrants are never really seen as the same community-members that they used to be. Upon making a “pilgrimage” to Textitlán they partake in symbolic community ferias, but these once a year occurrences do not seem to make up for their annual absence (200-202).
There are multiple instances in which the migrants are labeled “invisible” but not entirely through the author’s omniscient knowledge, rather in consideration of policy and actions on the part of the town. Little things like excluding information on Mexican farmworkers from the town website to a yellow-ribbon campaign with racist undertones all coalesce into a feeling of discomfort, not for myself, but for the Mexican immigrants (211, 148). What must it be like to be literally shunted into the worst homes, have to do the most grueling work, and not be recognized as an important piece in creating a local economy? Why is it that the town’s annual Mushroom celebration ignores the very hands that pick and package them?
I think it is clear she has opinions on how the immigrants are treated in Kennett Square, but I appreciate her care in writing about the more controversial issues (like the moving of the Cinco de Mayo celebration to parking lots and alleys instead of the main street)(203-238). She approaches the issue carefully, laying historical context out before delving into the local history and finally the recent occurrences, presenting quotes from the organizers and the participants. Her distaste with the town’s handling (or rather mis-handling) of the event comes through only at the end, when she has allowed readers to consider all the scaffolding she has constructed.
The theme of “home” and what that means is a major theme throughout her studies. For these migrants the physical location of a “home” may not be static, but there is still a symbolic association with the structure itself as a totem of the family. Immigrant families from Textitlán generally try to keep the homes in Mexico because there is the hope of returning, and when they do return they inhabit a strange place that is no longer native, and not-quite outsider. Money is sent for renovations and family or friends are recruited to keep up the appearance of someone living there. At the same time they are striving to create a comfortable home in the USA, where they spend most of the year. The chapters on home, and the complexity of belonging, would be prime to read alongside Michel de Certeau and Doreen Massey (12-15).
Overall I feel that Shutika keep a steady consistent distance from her subjects when it came to observations. It wasn’t until the end, when certain incidents in Kennett Square became particularly unreasonable that I feel her opinion really came out, but not in such a way as to negate all of her tireless work or sully the overall takeaway from the study.