My research focuses on grassroots agency and what I call “everyday politics.” I am interested in how very marginalized groups of people like indigenous peasants, deportees, and undocumented immigrants struggle for rights and resources, against the odds. I look at how these groups make sense of the systems that oppress them. I also ask what conditions and kinds of support help them fight back. I am deeply concerned with gender, so I also study how ideas about gender get used as instruments of control – and of resistance. Most of my scholarship focuses on Mexico and Mexican migrants to the United States. In particular, I have worked in Oaxaca, Mexico and with Oaxacan migrants since 2004.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston, which was predominantly white and far from Latin America, both geographically and socially. But I was concerned about social justice from a young age. My dad used to tell me stories of participating in anti-Vietnam War protests, and both my parents are active in local politics, even in their late 60s. As a high school student in the 1990s, I spent two summers living in remote villages in rural Latin America, through Amigos de las Americas. The experience inspired me to think critically about where I had come from and to keep learning more. I have since lived and worked in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and especially Mexico. Through these experiences, I also became fluent in Spanish.
My earliest research in college and graduate school was about the Zapatista Movement, a group of indigenous activists in Southern Mexico fighting to defend peasants from the harms of globalization. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatistas became an important face of the global Left. I was inspired by their message, but I was also concerned about the power dynamics between the Zapatistas and their outside supporters. I began to study the relationships between members of this movement and their sympathizers from foreign NGOs. I showed that the Zapatistas were able to demand “downward accountability” from some outside groups by creating circles of supporters whose legitimacy hinged on meeting their demands. Between college and graduate school, I also worked for two years on women’s health programs in rural Oaxaca.
My first book, Undocumented Politics (California, 2018) began as my doctoral dissertation. The book focuses on how undocumented, Oaxacan migrant communities confront a process of globalization in which they are economically marginalized and politically excluded. I look at these politics both in the United States and on the Mexican side. In contrast to many studies of transnational migrants, I contrast two, distinct groups and processes of migration. The comparison enables me to show how migrant communities develop different attitudes about exclusion and take different actions to fight it. I find that local, city-level power dynamics shape people’s ideas about where they belong – as well as their chances to act. In the face of global pressures, inclusive local treatment gives migrant communities a leg up. Even before migrants leave Mexico, communal governance in their hometowns can help them access better opportunities. Likewise, when migrants live in US cities that offer them services and some form of protection, they feel hopeful and begin fighting to prove they should stay in the United States. By contrast, when US cities subject migrants to arbitrary deportation and uncertainty, they feel hostile and alienated. Yet migrants are also creative. Some of them connect to their counterparts in Mexico for a sense of relief, building movements for alternative globalization – or what they call a “right not to migrate.” Migration also weighs heavily on hometown politics. Yet to understand the relationship between migration and so-called “development,” we have to look closely at migrants’ pathways – or histories. Hometown demands of the Mexican state look very different depending on the treatment their migrants face in the United States. In short, resistance is a process: built in the interplay between the places migrants go and the places they leave behind.
Throughout my research, I pay a lot of attention to gender. I am interested in how states use ideas about gender to reinforce power inequalities. I also draw attention to the ways grassroots groups transform gender relationships as they confront unfair conditions, in what I call “gendered jiu jitsu.” I share this institutional and political focus with a group of brilliant feminist scholars I met at Berkeley, many of whom helped write a theoretical handbook I co-edited, called A Social Life of Gender (Sage, 2018). I also co-run the Gender and Power Network, a group of cutting-edge sociologists of gender working to theorize the contemporary complexities of gender, the state, and power.
In 2018, I am beginning a new research project that explores both the broad and the everyday politics of deportation. Together with a fantastic PhD student at UCSD, Fatima Khayar Camara, I am examining the conditions that enable deportees to re-engage politically with Mexico and/or to continue fighting for inclusion in the United States. As part of this project, we also look at how deportees get channeled into even cheaper labor in Mexico than in the US, and at how the fragmentation of deportees’ families shapes their politics. In 2018 and 2019, we are working with a team of undergraduate researchers to do surveys and interviews at shelters in Tijuana which house deportees. Now that I live at the border in San Diego, “global” inequalities between the US and Mexico are just outside my door. I have a two-year-old son and daughter on the way, and I hope that as they grow up they will learn firsthand about the inequities I encountered when I first went to Latin America.
In all of my work, my goal is to identify on-the-ground ways to help excluded groups build more dignified, equitable lives. I hope to reveal how the actions of people of privilege reinforce or alleviate inequalities, and to highlight ways that regular people can work at the local level to encourage social change.