Caught in the Middle: The Politics of Migrant Labor in Mexico and the United States

AHA Session 16
Labor and Working Class History Association 1
Conference on Latin American History 2
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room M301 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Marquis Level)
Maria E. Balandran, University of Chicago
Jose Luis Ramos, Valparaiso University
Ruben Flores, University of Kansas

Session Abstract

This panel argues for new perspectives on the political and social history of Mexican migrant labor in the United States. Focused on diverse aspects—health, race, state sovereignty, and radical politics—the presenters offer a broader approach that challenges previous understandings about the relationship between labor, politics, and culture. Taken together, the presenters will show, first, that the story of Mexican migrant labor is part of both U.S. and Mexican history. In fact, this panel sheds light on the transnational diplomatic, political, and cultural space in which migrants constantly operated. Second, migrants’ bodies have been politicized and stigmatized on both sides of the border. Third, migrant politics are complex: neither government has been able to act on its own. Mexican migrants have been active participants in defining the politics of migration, often challenging the goals of moderate organizations. In this way, while governments have been crucial to how Mexican labor in the U.S. has developed, migrants have also found a middle ground in which to advocate for themselves.

Specifically, María Balandrán turns her attention to the limits of state sovereignty over a time period rarely studied, the post-WWII decades. Her work examines the way in which the Mexican government sought to negotiate the politics of undocumented immigration in the U.S., create links with the emigrant diaspora, and find ways to participate in debates over employer sanctions. Laura D. Gutierrez focuses on the critical link between health and immigration. Gutierrez demonstrates the profound consequences that the guest work Bracero Program had on workers’ health, concluding that their bodies were ultimately treated as diseased and disposable on both sides of the border. Luis Ramos, meanwhile, focuses on the common history of racial discourses and the making of the Mexican immigrant as “unassimilable” over the 1920s. He argues that racial narratives produced in both Mexico and the U.S. were critical to the racialization of Mexican immigrants. Finally, Daniel Morales centers on the making of immigrants’ radical politics. Morales focuses on the 1933 Berry Strike in order to show that rather than seeking to become “American” or merely rely on the Mexican government for advocacy, Mexican migrants organized under radical organizations such as the Communist Party.

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