Domesticity and Pan-American Migration in the Age of Populism

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Eileen J. Findlay, American University
Throughout the Americas during the populist decades of 1940-1960, state exhortations to create benevolently patriarchal families coincided with mass migrations of people. Mexico and Puerto Rico, in particular, promoted “prosperous domesticity” as an integral part of state drives toward modernity and economic development and to motivate the migration of hundreds of thousands of men to the U.S. as agricultural contract laborers. Ideally, men would leave women and children behind, sending wages home which would facilitate creating a “modern” domesticity. Such an arrangement ironically required the absence of fathers—the very figures who were expected to rule over a properly domestic family.

Those left behind struggled to manage the stretching of their families across international borders. Migrating men might send remittances home, but women who now headed households experienced heightened pressures; wages earned abroad did not reliably translate into increased familial income.  Women’s simultaneously heightened social autonomy and economic vulnerability created new tensions in heterosexual partnerships; many women resisted male expectations of wifely deference while intensifying their economic demands on their partners.

Women also migrated to the United States. Childless women often left in search of social and economic opportunities. Migrating mothers more often than not had to leave their children behind in the care of other female extended family members, increasing the latter’s burdens. Mobile mothers felt these extended separations from their children keenly and struggled to retain connections with them.

Thus, laboring Mexicans and Puerto Ricans drawn into the massive mid-century labor migrations to the U.S. rarely attained their yearned-for domesticity and experienced added stress in their familial relationships. Desires for domesticity could fuel physical departures from familial homes and homelands and, in some cases, could animate sharp critiques of the very states and political leaders who had helped invigorate the fusion of “development”, “modernity”, and “domesticity”.

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