Porous Border

How Mexican migrants change themselves -- and the U.S.


The annual week-long fiesta in the Mexican Indian village of Cherán dates back to pre-Conquest days. But for the past 330 years, its crowning event has been a traditional Spanish bullfight. Each year, on the morning after the popular event, the Purépecha Indians celebrate Mass, where they fervently pray the rosary. Then they make offerings to the harvest god, muttering prayers in Purépecha as a statue of St. Francis and a Catholic priest look on.

"Thus," writes Ruben Martinez in his new book, Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (Metropolitan), "the pre-Columbian symbol of the harvest god who decides whether to make the earth fertile takes its place on the altar alongside the man from Assisi."

In his warm and compelling account, Martinez spins a fascinating story of cultural evolution as he follows several migrant families from Cherán, a rural village in the southern state of Michoacán. His migrant heroes share a common trait: Like their ancestors, who forged the syncretic pagan Catholicism that survives today, the migrants negotiate the cultural and economic influence of the United States with a distinct sense of autonomy. As they move back and forth over the border, mostly illegally, they're defying much more than U.S. immigration officials. They're also flouting traditional notions of citizenship and national culture, reinventing themselves and their communities, new and old, in the pursuit of a better life.

Take the case of Dante Cerano, an Indian disc jockey on state-sponsored radio who organizes rock concerts in Cherán. Though Cerano's not a migrant, Martinez calls him the "embodiment of the clashing and melding that define Purépecha identity in the twenty-first century." Cerano speaks perfect Purépecha and Mexican with hints of urban slang picked up in Mexico City. He wants to play rock 'n' roll on the radio, but the cultural authorities have decided the airwaves should be used to preserve traditional folk music, not to blast U.S.-influenced rock.

To Cerano, both music and migration are rebellion from such authority. By working in the United States, he tells Martinez, Purépecha Indians "improve the material conditions of their lives and also transform their culture. Through culture, people create their identity, their sense of place in the world; they tell their own stories with the aesthetic of their choosing."

That sensibility is keenly in evidence throughout Crossing Over and on both sides of the border. Martinez writes, for instance, of the Enríquez family in Norwalk, Wisconsin, who celebrate a baptism and startle their neighbors by inviting them to slaughter, roast, and eat a pig. Back in Cherán, two- and even three-story houses built with dollars earned in American fields and factories are topped with satellite dishes and, during the holidays, Christmas lights. American football and basketball jerseys are coveted possessions, hip-hop music blares from pickup trucks, and men in the cantinas make themselves into legends with tales of their adventures up North. And though the migrants spend much of the year in the United States, and sometimes settle there permanently, most return at least annually for the week-long fiesta.

To be sure, the migrant lifestyle carries with it many sacrifices, and Martinez details the considerable emotional and social strain of families who spend much of the year apart. While traveling for work is nothing new—for Mexicans, Americans, or any other group—the ability to stay in touch with the homeland has greatly increased in recent years. Through cheap long-distance phone service and air travel, satellite TV, and the Internet, Mexican migrants have managed to escape at least some of the boundaries of time and place.

The one great exception to this is the U.S. border. With every crossing, families fear their loved ones won't make it. Martinez himself is first drawn to Cherán because he's moved by the grim story of three brothers from the village. Their race from U.S. border agents while crossing illegally ended in a fatal car wreck.

One great insight in Crossing Over is that however militarized the border may become, Mexicans will find a way across. It remains, in the end, a fundamentally arbitrary barrier, and hence one that will be ignored. That's an important understanding to apply to culture as well, since every migrant who crosses the border further erodes the false notion of two homogenous, walled-off cultures. More than ever, culture and identity create constantly shifting borders.

Though such a world of relentless mixing frightens many, it's the inevitable result of people striving to improve their lives on their own terms. Martinez sums it up well: "In the end, the joke will be on both the gringo and the Mexican guardians of reified notions of culture. The kids will be neither Mexican nor gringo but both, and more than both, they will be the new Americans, imbibing cultures from all over the globe."