David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
Rockefeller Foundation, May 2005

Transnational communities exists at different stages of development in the flow of migrants from developing to developed countries worldwide. Migrant Rights International asserts that over 130 million people live outside the countries in which they were born, now a permanent factor of life on the planet Discussing the relationship between Mexico and the US in “Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States,” Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado refer to “‘Oaxacalifornia,’ a transnationalized space in which migrants bring together their lives in California with their communities of origin more than 2500 miles away.”

Indigenous migrants from Mexico overwhelmingly belong to transnational communities - they retain ties to their communities of origin, and establish new communities as they search for work. Their ties to each other are so strong, and the movement of people so great, that people belong to a single community that exists in different locations..

These networks have a profound impact on work, families, social movements, and cultural practices. Traditions become a rich source of experience migrants draw on as they seek social justice, and to preserve their culture, in the places they go.

The creation of transnational communities is an historical process. Poverty in industrialized countries is increasingly defined by migration status, and is connected with poverty in developing countries, imposing a social cost on people on both sides of this global divide.

Transnational migrants maintain more than one household, supporting communities of origin with remittances earned in the US, often from very low-paid work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Their US-based communities are immersed in poverty because of the relation between their income and what it costs to survive.

Migration has complicated social costs and benefits in communities of origin. It threatens cultural practices and indigenous languages. Emigration often seems, especially to the young, a profitable alternative to education. It exacerbates social and economic divisions, but has become an economic necessity.

Yet while people decide to migrate to the US for overwhelmingly economic reasons, the pursuit of work is not the sum total of their existence. As social beings, people create community, and pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world,

In “Suburban Sweatshops,” Jennifer Gordon describes a new framework: “The right to seek social change through the political process – a right at the heart of the meaning of citizenship – can be claimed by people who by virtue of their presence and their work are in fact a part of the political community, although they are not yet officially recognized as such.”

While living in a bamboo and plastic tent in the reeds beside California’s Russian River, Fausto Lopez, a Triqui migrant farm worker from Oaxaca, became president of the Sonoma County chapter of the Frente Indigena Oaxaqueña Binacional. He help to lead community residents in demanding drivers’ licenses and an amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

At the same time, transnational communities created by migration face the challenge of maintaining cultural and social practices that are the basis of ethnic identity. The culture of indigenous Qanjobal people from the Guatemala highlands forms part of the lives of transnational communities in and around Omaha. Guatemalan organizers have adapted popular education techniques of Central America's political movements to the campaigns to organize unions among immigrants in non-union meatpacking plants. The demand by Qanjobal migrants for the music of their hometowns is possibly the only hope that the manufacture of marimbas, their traditional instrument, will continue in their highland town of origin, Santa Eulalia.

Residents of transnational communities don’t see themselves simply as victims of an unfair system, but as actors capable of reproducing culture, of providing economic support to families in their towns of origin, and of seeking social justice in the country to which they’ve migrated.

They are those best situated to understand their own situation, and what they have to offer to a larger world. It is up to that world to hear their voices.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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