The emigration of men to the United States threatens indigenous systems of governance in Mexico. When men leave, the weight of activities in small towns falls on women, but despite this women are still fighting for space in the political arena.
The system of “uses and customs” that governs 418 of the 570 municipalities in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico is based on social and traditional political practices in indigenous communities, founded on community work and assemblies that elect authorities, parallel to the party-based election system. However, these practices have faced a persistent enemy since the 1960s: emigration. In a collective system, the continual departure of large portions of a community takes a real toll on politics and lives, and the flow of people away from Oaxacan lands is leaving behind gaps in the towns’ social and political organizations.
The Institute for Migrant Assistance (IOAM) estimates that around 2 million Oaxacans live in the United States; the population of the entire state is 3.1 million. In 2010, 98 out of every 100 migrants that left Mexico went to the United States. The figure on a national level is 89 of every 100 individuals. The majority of immigrants are indigenous and work as day laborers in agriculture, construction, domestic service, in restaurants, and as cleaners, gardeners and laborers. They are concentrated in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Antonio, San Francisco, Phoenix, Fresno, Sacramento and Tucson.
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), of the 570 municipalities that make up Oaxaca, the municipality of San Juan Quiahije in the coastal region and San Bartolome Quialana in the Central Valleys are, respectively, the top two towns within the national context with the highest levels of migration.
“Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico. The minimum wage in Mexico is approximately 49.50 Mexican pesos per eight-hour day of work. In Oaxaca there are far too many people who earn less than the national minimum wage,” according to the Migrant Counseling Center of Oaxaca‘s website. To make matters worse, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, imported corn became 30 percent cheaper than local corn, which is the basis of the indigenous diet. This caused the emigration of small-scale farmers away from rural regions. The result has been the “abandonment of the countryside and rural areas and the loss of cultural traditions,” according to the website.
Migration away from the region has historically been predominantly male. According to INEGI, of every 10 emigrants from Oaxaca, eight were men. There are many reasons women stay behind. The risk of death in the desert or during river crossings that are required to get into the United States without documentation is one of them. The responsibility of raising children, taking care of the land and providing for the family also fall to women, especially given that they do not always receive remittances from the husband who leaves. This has also brought consequences for women who historically only participated in domestic activities within communities governed by “uses and customs.”
“When the men leave, women stay and then begin to fulfill their designated cargos in schools, in community projects, in community service; even the responsibility for the survival of the household falls on women,” said Carmen Alonso Santiago, an indigenous Zapotec woman and director of the non-governmental organization Flor y Canto (Flower and Song). For her, the necessity of assuming cargos (volunteer community service positions) and roles within the community is one of the principle ways that women begin to deepen their political participation. In this way, the departure of men brings greater obligations for women, but also opens greater possibilities and opportunities for the strengthening of women’s emancipation in communities.