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Unapologetically bicultural: how my grandfather’s migration journey shaped my connection between the United States and Mexico


Photo of the author's grandfather taken in Central Park, New York, 1975. Courtesy of the author's family.

Preserving photos is an integral part of my family’s culture, and this has been shaped by US immigration policies that restrict my family’s mobility across the US-Mexico border. My family relies on photos to remember relatives that have passed away on either side of the border and as a means for staying connected with our loved ones across space and time. Although I was born and raised in the US and have the privilege of travelling between Mexico City and New York, my family’s photo albums bring comfort. There was a specific family photo of my grandfather taken in 1975 standing in Central Park that sparked my curiosity in understanding and documenting his migration journey to the US. His struggles as a bracero, as a former undocumented migrant in New York City, and as a forced returnee significantly shaped my bicultural identity – that is, my connection and sense of belonging to Mexico and the US. My grandfather’s struggles and precarity on both sides of the US-Mexican border pushed me to develop a connection across both countries grounded on solidarity, mobility and the strife towards the liberation from bordering regimes. 


My grandfather was the first person in my family to migrate to the US in 1959 under the Bracero Programme. The Bracero Programme (1942-1964) was the largest temporary guest worker programme implemented under a series of bilateral agreements between the US and Mexico. My grandfather was one of the approximately 4.6 million braceros to work in the US. In the eyes of the US government, the role of braceros was to serve as ‘suppliers of labour’ to fill in shortages brought by World War II. But braceros did not fill in American jobs; they laboured in large agricultural and railroad companies, and these companies benefited from cheap, flexible and temporary Mexican labour. Braceros like my grandfather experienced exploitative and unsanitary conditions at the hands of contractors. Although my grandfather held temporary status, he and other braceros had to prove it daily in the agricultural fields and in public spaces to avoid arrest and the possibility of deportation at the hands of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). He had to carry a mica, or an ‘alien laborer’s identification card’, which served as proof of his temporary status. 


After his six-month contract ended, my grandfather returned to Mexico and worked at a local carton factory, but he was eventually laid off. With a growing family at home and limited economic opportunities, my grandfather migrated again to the US in 1975, but this time to New York City, a growing destination for Mexican migrants. He decided to migrate to NYC because working conditions were less exploitative, and wages were higher. Furthermore, in a city located miles away from the US-Mexico border, he thought there would be less immigration law enforcement. One early morning around 8 a.m. a man stopped my grandfather on his way to work, as he headed to the subway station. The man, who turned out to be an undercover INS officer, asked my grandfather if he had ‘papers’. My grandfather responded, ‘No señor no tengo papeles’ (‘No sir I don’t have papers’) and was then arrested and forced into a vehicle along with other migrants. After arriving at the INS office my grandfather was questioned and given the ‘option’ to leave the US under a ‘voluntary departure’ or a formal removal proceeding. The officer explained that if he left under voluntary departure, the federal government would not impose on him a travel ban for reentering the country in the future. According to historian Adam Goodman, voluntary departures were a convenient tactic for INS back in the 20th century as they ‘functioned as a cost-saving measure, since they minimized detention-related expenses and reduced the number of immigration hearings’. My grandfather was detained for three days and on the fourth day he was taken to the airport by an INS officer. It is estimated that 90% of the migrants expelled from the US in the 20th century under voluntary departure were Mexican. 


Upon his forced return to Mexico in 1975, my grandfather was traumatised and displaced. It took him time to secure employment and mentally recover from the conditions of precarity that he experienced in NYC. When I asked him if he had received support from the Mexican government upon his forced return, my grandfather sarcastically laughed and said, ‘The Mexican government only cares about us [Mexican migrants] when we reside in the US’. His experience as a returnee has motivated me to analyse how Mexican institutions have responded to the mass deportations of Mexicans from the US through interviewing federal and local state officials, and members of local NGOs. Although return migration is not necessarily a new migratory pattern in Mexico, since the 1970s the number of deportations from the US has skyrocketed. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, roughly 6 million Mexicans were deported from the US between 2002 and 2017. 


Contemporary waves of return migration to Mexico from the US are characterised as involuntary, and a significant portion of those returning lived extended periods in the US and thus have strong cultural links with their former communities – complicating parameters of citizenship and membership upon their forced return. This poses unique challenges for the Mexican government. The federal government’s responses to the mass deportation of its citizens remain minimal and low in reach. The federal government has implemented the Programa de Repatriación Humana (Human Repatriation Programme) that aims to assist deportees moments after being ‘dropped off’ by US immigration officials along Mexico’s northern ports of entry or at Mexico City’s international airport. The programme provides deportees with a small lunchbox and referrals to shelters, hospitals and employment agencies.


However, this federal programme does not provide guidance on how to interact and navigate Mexican political institutions nor does the programme assist deportees with applying for identification documents such as birth certificates and the INE (Mexico’s voter identification card). These are essential documents for accessing employment and educational opportunities, opening bank accounts, and accessing health and social services. In short, Mexico’s federal government responses lack mechanisms to support the wellbeing of deportees, leaving them in conditions of vulnerability and precarity. As a result, grassroots organisations are filling the gaps that governmental institutions are unwilling to address. 


Although my grandfather is no longer with us, the photos he left behind such as the one taken in Central Park in 1975 are a powerful daily reminder of the complexity, struggles, and trauma of the multifaceted movement of Mexican migrants across the US-Mexico borderlands from the 20th through the 21st century. This particular photo sparked curiosity in capturing my grandfather’s daily experiences as a bracero, as a former undocumented migrant and as a returnee through a series of interviews and conversations before his passing. This search has pushed me to develop a critical perspective on how the US and Mexico address migration, and participate in political struggles on both sides of the border striving for mobility, family reunification, and access to social rights for undocumented and deported communities. Overall, my grandfather’s migration journey has allowed me to become critically and socially engaged across borders, shaping my bicultural identity – an identity that is linked to multiple spaces that transcend frontiers, and an identity that is not necessarily grounded on nationality or citizenship but on struggles and solidarity. 

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Guadalupe Chavez

Guadalupe Chavez will begin her DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford this autumn. She previously worked at the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) as the interim editorial and production assistant where she managed the administrative and editorial process of CMS’s peer-reviewed journals including International Migration Review and the Journal on Migration and Human Security.  Guadalupe is also a recipient of the 2018-2019 Fulbright-García Robles research fellowship in Mexico City. Her research interests include the politics of post-deportation in the Latin American context, migration comparative politics, and theories of citizenship.

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