Rachel Grace Newman
Lupe Gómez migrated to California from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico when he was very young. It might seem that he chose to make his life north of the border, where he went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and established a business (86). But as he took these steps to settle in the United States, he was also building connections to Mexico. He became active in hometown associations (HTAs), migrant organizations that raise funds to make improvements in the communities they left behind. In 2009, as a migrant candidate, he ran for a congressional seat in Zacatecas’ state legislature. Affiliated with Mexico’s right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, his campaign focused on “education and development,” promising to create jobs to reduce the need for people in his state to emigrate (87). Gómez described himself as an anti-establishment figure: in his words, he was “a humble ranchero who left Zacatecas a long time ago and now has returned to do things better than today’s politicians” (89). His opponents argued that Gómez’s long absence from his home state had eroded his identity as a Zacatecano and left him “out of touch” with everyday politics (90). Gómez lost the election, which was widely criticized for corruption and irregularities, but he promised to continue to seek office in Mexico (91). As recently as 2018, he was running for a federal deputy position, again as a migrant candidate, with the newer political party Movimiento Ciudadano.
Though Lupe Gómez is not a household name, his story has periodically appeared in California and Mexican media over the past twenty years. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Gómez with the title “Expatriates are True Patriots in Mexico.”  The phrasing catches the reader’s attention because it inverts a commonplace that migrants leave the homeland behind and betray their country of origin in doing so. But in Adrián Félix’s portrayal of Gómez in Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2018), the Zacatecano features not as a surprising or strange case but as an example of a broader phenomenon that Félix calls “the thickening of transnational citizenship.” Mexican migrants, he argues, “simultaneously cultivate cross-border citizenship claims” both in the country where they were born and raised and in the United States, where they work and raise the next generation (3). Transnational citizenship can “thicken” over the course of migrants’ lives, especially in our current context. In the past generation, institutional and legal changes have made it increasingly possible for Mexicans in the United States to be civically and politically active on both sides of the border. Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen no longer requires Mexicans to renounce their status in Mexico. It is now legal, though practically difficult, for Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections. And there are new laws in Mexico that seem to embrace the transnationality of Mexican citizens outside the national territory: there are government programs that match funds raised by migrant HTAs, as well as recent provisions for electing special migrant candidates such as Lupe Gómez. Félix focuses his work on the subjectivity of the transnational citizen living in this age of institutional transformations. He asks how Mexican migrants today make choices that thicken their web of formal and sentimental ties and expand the scope of their political struggle beyond national boundaries. More specifically, he considers how migrants’ political choices are made in the context of violent, racist hostility in the United States and exclusionary apathy in Mexico. How do they imagine and struggle for their vision of the future in this unforgiving transnational setting?
The book is organized around three stages in what Félix calls the “migrant political life cycle,” with chapters documenting the process of naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, the campaign strategies and policy objectives of migrants seeking political office in Mexico, and the bureaucratic and emotional intricacies of repatriating the bodies of deceased migrants for burial in their hometowns. The life cycle is an evocative metaphor to capture the changing nature of migrant politics over the course of individual trajectories. In each process examined in the book, migrants come into contact with Mexican or U.S. state institutions, but the author’s focus is on the ways that migrants experience and talk about these encounters. Félix’s relationships with his informants were built over years of his involvement in migrant political activism and as a teacher in citizenship classes (5-6).
Although migrant political activism has long garnered scholarly interest, Félix offers a novel approach by expanding the focus beyond HTAs and U.S.-focused migrants’ rights struggles. This book shows that naturalization and postmortem repatriation, clearly not instances of organized, grassroots activism, are nonetheless sites of where citizenship is “enunciated” and “embodied.” Migrant candidates supported by clientelistic political parties in Mexico, such as Lupe Gómez, expose what Félix calls “the contradictions of transnational citizenship”: while their visibility as political candidates engages progressive or leftist observers, their platforms and affiliations can be unappealing (86). He asks readers to reconsider rigid understandings of national citizenship that assume that migrants’ political engagement in Mexico is a sign of disengagement in the United States, and vice versa. In terms of concrete practices of citizenship and more abstract expressions of belonging and identity, Félix finds simultaneity and complexity.
In the chapter on U.S. naturalization, he argues that this moment of “political baptism” does not indicate a migrant’s assimilation to U.S. dominant culture or renunciation of Mexico. Migrants instead articulate the desire for the practical benefits of U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families. Félix emphasizes the context of xenophobia and racism in which migrants make choices about seeking a new political status. U.S. citizenship can shield them from deportation (although the certainty of citizenship has eroded since Félix’s book went to press), but naturalized citizens are not protected from perennial assumptions of foreignness and illegality on the part of the white supremacist state (and a sizeable part of the U.S. public). Given this, many Mexican migrants express their loyalties as did one of Félix’s informants: “When I see the American flag, I feel joy, but I don’t feel the same way as when I see the Mexican flag. I think that even if you become a [U.S.] citizen, you will never stop being Mexican. No matter what you say in the oath” (48-49).
Félix then turns to a group of Mexican migrants who seek political office in the country of their birth. These politicians are virtually all naturalized U.S. citizens and registered Democrats, with prior experience in migrant civic and political organizations, who are also affiliated with Mexican political parties across the ideological spectrum. There is a paradox, for Félix, in this form of transnational citizenship: though U.S.-based migrant activism is broadly progressive and often radical, when activists become candidates, they become cogs in a political machinery that is “notoriously corporatist” (57). Félix suggests that the leftwing Mexican parties that could coherently adopt a radical pro-migrant agenda cannot actually deliver the votes to elect a migrant candidate. Instead, the elected migrant officials he interviewed belonged to the establishment parties, particularly the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional. A follow-up study could show how things have changed since a newer “antisystem” party (Morena) has taken over the political establishment, having ascended to power with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 (7).
By definition, life cycles conclude with death, and Félix pays attention to the choices migrants make around end-of-life rituals in a chapter on postmortem repatriation. Those choices are spiritual and personal, but they are also deeply political. “At least for a considerable subset of migrants, who very well may have been settled in the United States for decades, cross-border loyalties live on and often materialize after death,” he writes (133). The desire to be buried in one’s native land is hardly unique to Mexican migrants, but Félix shows that this particular wish is widespread and culturally significant in the diasporic Mexican community. He recounts stories told in conversations with rural Zacatecanos about their transnational maneuvers to bring family members back to their hometowns for burial. Community members contribute to the expense of postmortem repatriation. This commitment to a smooth farewell means that the dead do not always travel alone. In one story, a young migrant murdered in Colorado was returned to his rancho by a co-worker, and in another, no fewer than 52 family members, filling an airplane, accompanied the body of a migrant going back home (127). Migrants’ desires for a posthumous return are tepidly supported by the Mexican state, but resources are distributed as a form of humanitarian aid that is inconsistently allocated (122). The migrant family network and transnational community are the most important support systems for postmortem repatriation.
As Félix concludes, “Mexican migrants are tenaciously transnational, defying the border in life and death” (141). After three decades of scholars documenting evidence of migrant transnationalism, Félix’s finding might seem unsurprising at first. But by calling attention to migrant tenacity, he draws readers’ attention to the many barriers to acting or feeling transnationally that migrants struggle against and shows how they do so at an intimate scale. The bureaucratic hurdles of naturalization demean Mexican nationals even as they are formally admitted to the citizenry. Yet migrants overcome those hurdles to obtain a legal status that can produce tangible improvements in their lives. The Mexican state has its own ways of including migrants only to show that they do not and cannot really belong, as migrant candidates have discovered as they seek to effect change from within, navigating mainstream Mexican party politics. To be a politically active migrant requires determination, and his revelations about U.S. and Mexican institutional mechanisms of exclusion indict political elites on both sides of the border.
In telling these stories, Félix also opens up new avenues for additional studies of migrant politics. Félix makes clear that his informants are not meant to be statistically representative of the diverse population of Mexican citizens in the United States: most people we meet in the narrative hail from Zacatecas, are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and are legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Mexican migrants to the United States are a highly diverse group that today includes members of indigenous communities and people coming from states whose migration histories do not stretch back as far as that of Zacatecas; these migrants are far less likely to have a path to legal status of any kind. These differences matter a great deal when looking at cross-border mobility: as Félix recounts, undocumented family members of deceased migrants in the United States cannot go to Mexico to accompany the body or attend the funeral (127). Though women appear periodically in the narrative, Félix notes that the exercise of transnational citizenship is always gendered. Félix is careful not to generalize from male migrant experiences. While many migrant women naturalize as U.S. citizens, migrant political candidates in Mexico are overwhelmingly male. Among migrant bodies repatriated to Mexico, women’s cadavers are underrepresented (111-112). His brief vignette about a young Mexican woman, based in Las Vegas, who sought political office in Mexico only to be targeted by misogynistic vitriol, suggests that there are many more migrant experiences to document to render the full repertoire of transnational citizenship. Félix’s book will be an important touchstone for the scholars who take up that work.
Rachel Grace Newman is a Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in International and Global History at Columbia University. She writes about education, inequality, and migration in twentieth-century Mexican history. Her website is rachelgnewman.com.
Copyright: © 2020 Rachel Grace Newman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/