Miroslava Chavez-Garcia: What Migrant Stories Can Tell Us About Ourselves

Migrant Longing by Chavez-GarciaToday we welcome a guest post from Miroslava Chávez-García, author of Migrant Longing:  Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, just published by UNC Press.

Drawing upon a personal collection of more than 300 letters exchanged between her parents and other family members across the U.S.-Mexico border, Miroslava Chávez-García recreates and gives meaning to the hope, fear, and longing migrants experienced in their everyday lives both “here” and “there” (aqui y alla). As private sources of communication hidden from public consumption and historical research, the letters provide a rare glimpse into the deeply emotional, personal, and social lives of ordinary Mexican men and women as recorded in their immediate, firsthand accounts. Chávez-García demonstrates not only how migrants struggled to maintain their sense of humanity in el norte but also how those remaining at home made sense of their changing identities in response to the loss of loved ones who sometimes left for weeks, months, or years at a time, or simply never returned.

Migrant Longing is available now in both print and ebook editions.


What Migrant Stories Can Tell Us About Ourselves

In the last several weeks, we have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of Central American immigrants and their families fleeing their impoverished and increasingly dangerous countries for the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping to cross to safety. Like immigrants of Mexican origin, many, perhaps most, have family members already in el norte and seek to reunite with them. Many of these families, however, are detained at the border and unable to complete their journey to the United States. Detained, the families are separated, with parents placed in adult facilities and children, infants included, put in makeshift camps, or tent cities, unable to see or hear or know any details about their parents’ whereabouts. Parents, too, are given little information as to their children’s final stopping place. Recent footage from inside the minors’ detention centers have shown the emotional anguish, fear, and violence experienced by the youths. While many voices are crying out for an end to the policy of separating families, calling it an ill-conceived attempt to deter migrants and their families from crossing, the White House administration remains adamant that it is following the law. The administration is not alone. Many Americans, too, support the approach. The national debate over immigration and immigrants is not new, as we have seen many instances of the larger national loathing, vitriol, and hostility directed at migrants, documented and undocumented, young and old, and, today, almost always brown.

They bring crime. They commit crimes. They steal our jobs. They drain our resources. They refuse to be like us. They can never be like us. They don’t belong.”

They bring crime. They commit crimes. They steal our jobs. They drain our resources. They refuse to be like us. They can never be like us. They don’t belong.”

What has been lost in the current debate surrounding immigration and immigrants is the humanity of migrants. We forget that they seek many of the same things most us want and need: safety and security, food and shelter, education and health care, stable families and communities. Their only “crime” is having crossed the border at a time in which Mexicans are unwelcomed, as they were in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Had they crossed in the 1910s and early 1920s, when the demand for cheap laborers was intense, they would have been ushered in with no questions asked. We forget, too, that they were recruited to work in the United States for much of the twentieth century, especially in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and that they were already here before American migrants from the Midwest and east coast flooded the southwest in 1880s. They are here because their history and experience are intimately bound up in this country’s growth and development.

For me, writing Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, which is what I call a slice in the life of my family’s history of migration, is about humanizing the experiences of migrants who are despised and demonized as well as scapegoated in today’s society. My family archive, consisting of more than 300 personal letters, written in Spanish with sprinklings of English and exchanged across the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1960s and 1970s, has allowed me a deep dive into the personal, emotional, and social world of Mexican migrants, who appear in the letters as self-making agents taking control of their lives to carve out a better future for themselves and those they left behind or, those who stayed at home, depending on your perspective.

Written in the immediacy and vibrancy of their lived experiences, the letters provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to understand the human experience of migrants, that is, the hopes and dreams as well as their pain and failures (fracasos) in reaching their aspirations. These stories of struggle resonate with our own of persistence in the face of adversity. “We didn’t come to the United States for the American dream (el sueño Americano),” my tío Paco explains in Migrant Longing. “We came to eat, to live. Yeah.” His goal, and that of his brothers, was to provide for his family, his parents and youngest sister, in Mexico and to build a nest egg to be able to return to Mexico to live out their remaining days with economic stability. In many ways, that was and remains the transnational dream.

Equally important to rendering the personal, emotional, and social worlds of migrants is uncovering the intimacy or intimate spaces and places in the lives of recent and long-term arrivals. Indeed, the correspondence reveals the migrants’ personal desire for romantic love as well as fears of abandonment and loss by loved ones who stayed at home. The letters indicate that, while some desired the domestic comforts a marriage and household could bring, others sought sexual gratification from a partner. Many, too, pined for childhood friends with whom they could pass the time as adults, enjoying a cold drink, recounting their migratory experiences. When they could not see, touch, or embrace their loved ones from home, they found alternative partners in United States who could meet their needs as loving and living human beings with all of their faults. Migrants were not without fail. They failed to communicate, to send money, and, sometimes, to keep their word. They were, however, fully functioning individuals and family and community members looking to improve their lives and to bring material and emotional comfort to those left behind.


Miroslava Chávez-García is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.