By Kate Tyler
Partnering with Mayan migrants on the Yucatán Peninsula, Bianet Castellanos probes the implications of the new global economy.
When Bianet Castellanos visits Cancún, it isn’t to join the throngs of vacationers lolling about on sundrenched beaches or snorkeling around coral reefs.
A cultural anthropologist who joined the American studies faculty last year, Castellanos visits Mexico’s leading international tourist resort to roam the shadows of its hotels, interviewing some of the many Mayan migrants who make up Cancún’s teeming service economy.
Castellanos’s interview subjects are 45 Mayan migrants and their families who work in Cancún while maintaining strong ties with their native village of Kuchmil (a pseudonym), a day’s bus ride away from the southeast Yucatán Peninsula. Castellanos knows them well, having closely followed the changing lives of all of Kuchmil’s 123 residents for over 15 years, attending weddings and funerals and even living with a local family for long stretches of time. “I’m committed to long-term research relationships,” Castellanos says matter-of-factly, describing the villagers as her “research partners”and conceding that she has “spent more time with them than with some of my own relatives.”
A testament to the expanding reach of American studies research, Castellanos’s anthropological work in southeastern Mexico will soon be published as a book exploring how indigenous communities negotiate their integration into the modern global economy. It will provide an unusually nuanced picture of how Mayan migrants’ experiences as Cancún service workers affect their cultural identity and community bonds.
“As countries adopt economic policies based on urbanization, export production, deregulation, and privatization, what are the lasting effects on marginalized communities and poor communities? That’s one question I’m exploring,” says Castellanos. Another interest is what globalization means economically and politically for Latin America, where, Castellanos observes, “a service economy, increasingly oriented toward the U.S. and Europe, is one of the primary forms of economic development.”
Field workCastellanos first visited Kuchmil, a tiny agrarian village in the most isolated part of southeastern Yucatán, as an undergraduate anthropology major whose adviser had done field work in the area. Initially Castellanos undertook a project interviewing adolescent girls. She found a more tantalizing research vein a year later, when she returned to the village only to learn that most of the girls she’d interviewed were gone. Given the traditional gender roles in Mayan culture, Castellanos was intrigued to learn the girls had left not to marry, but for jobs in Cancún (often under a “respectable pretext” of “taking care of the washing” for brothers working in the coastal resort).
When Castellanos began Ph.D. work in anthropology, the shifting gender roles in Kuchmil seemed an ideal topic. But when she returned to Kuchmil, she found that people there “were more interested in discussing how migration altered local understandings of Mayan identity and community,” she recalls.
“With so many people going back and forth to Cancún and no longer doing farm work, what does it mean to be Maya within an urban context? That became a key question in Kuchmil.”
Complex issuesCastellanos was drawn to anthropology in part by a fascination with “how marginalized groups were discussed in anthropological literature.” Having headed to Stanford from California’s San Joaquin Valley, where her parents were Mexican-American migrant workers, Castellanos had grown up acutely aware of the slippage between lived experience on the margins and the stereotypes and distortions of pundits and scholars.
Her work in Kuchmil, she says, “thoroughly debunks the romantic myth—questioned by intellectuals since the 1960s, but still part of the popular imagination—that indigenous communities in physically isolated areas are frozen in time. The reality is that even highly remote and traditional villages like Kuchmil are complex and integrated into the international global economy.”
Cancún itself is a testament to the symbiosis between countryside and city, Castellanos says—or, more to the point, between the ancient and the modern. Originally a tiny fishing village in the tropical jungle, today’s shiny resort metropolis—population 700,000—was created three decades ago by the Mexican government as an economic development project.
“One of the main objectives behind Cancún was to modernize the countryside and to assimilate people into the nation-state and the international economy,” Castellanos says. Its location in the remote state of Quintana Roo was chosen because it was sparsely inhabited (with space enough for an international airport) and also was home to one of Mexico’s largest indigenous populations.
“There was a large labor force right there, and the government expected people to abandon farm work to become service workers,” she says—a reflection of the philosophy that had led to government-backed vocational training schools for rural communities in the 1960s.
There was yet another advantage to the site: its proximity to pre-Columbian Mayan ruins, several of which had already been developed for tourism. “Part of the plan for Cancún was to latch onto the idea of ‘the ancient’ to draw tourists,” explains Castellanos.
Negotiating a complex relationshipThe first Kuchmil villagers went to Cancún in the 1980s, a time when hotels and restaurants—only recently plunked down on a sand spit—were begging for workers and willing to invest in training them. The earliest migrants fared well, Castellanos notes, becoming head chefs and accountants; in contrast, those who arrived later, to a glutted labor market, could find jobs only as dishwashers. Still, all the jobs looked good to an impoverished agrarian community barely scraping by—growing corn, beans, and squash for consumption, selling chilis at regional markets, and, increasingly also reliant on government subsidies.
Since the 1980s, remittances sent home from Cancún have improved the standard of living in Kuchmil, even bringing a new road and thus access to pure drinking water (from traveling trucks). But the remittances also have a deeper importance, says Castellanos.
“Living away from their community for long stretches, in a place where they don’t wear traditional dress or speak Yucatec Maya, some markers of identity get lost. Migrants in Cancún have to find new ways to enact what it is to be Maya and to be good sons and daughters. Consumption is one way they do it.”
Migrants send home expensive electronic products, Castellanos explains, “as a way of showing ‘I love you,’ that they’re still part of the community—and to make their labor visible, as it was when they worked with their families at home in the cornfields.”
The migrants’ ties to their home community are strong, Castellanos has found. “They’ve spurned opportunities to go to the U.S. and Europe, because they’re deeply grounded in their indigenous community. That’s fascinating, because it’s not typical.”
Besides the ties of family, Kuchmil is an “ancestral homeland” in a very real sense, she says. Any migrants who tire of the strain of negotiating between two worlds, who become fed up with living in Cancún’s worker shantytowns, or who can no longer brave the risk of tourist downturns and hurricanes (Hurricane Wilma hurled thousands out of work in Cancún in 2005) can always go home to share a plot of communally owned land.
“Some do leave,” Castellanos notes. “They go home to a life that’s hard, but that provides security.” Some migrants, she says, describe Cancún as “‘the new slaver’—the ‘old slaver’ being debt servitude on Mexican plantations. One of the things I’ve learned is that for tourism workers, the new global economy can be oppressive and very tenuous.”
Larger questionsCastellanos does not shy away from posing larger questions raised by her study of Mayan migrants. “That’s one reason I’m glad to be in American studies,” she says. “I can combine my interest in social-political issues and my interest in culture in Latin America, see the big picture, and also make it relevant to our understanding of the United States.”
She stresses that the government-constructed world of Cancún, reliant on migrant labor, is part of the same economic development model that gave rise to maquiladoras (assembly plants) along the U.S.-Mexican border.
“Indigenous people are being pulled into the service industry all over Latin America, because poor countries have become reliant on export production to compete in the global economy,” she says. The Mexican border factories make garments or computer chips for U.S. or European companies who export them globally. In Cancún—and four other tourist projects constructed by the government—“what is exported is sand, sun, and sea—and Mayan ruins.”
The long-term implications are unclear, not only for the marginalized communities supplying the labor, but also for the Latin American countries fashioning themselves as service economies on the world stage. “What are the implications for relations with other nation-states?” asks Castellanos. “Are Latin American countries going to reenact the same relations with the United States and Europe as in the past?”
About Bianet CastellanosBIANET CASTELLANOS, assistant professor of American studies
FOCUS: Indigenous communities in the Americas; their relations with the modern nation-state and global capitalism
EDUCATION: Ph.D. and M.A., anthropology, U of Michigan; women’s studies certificate, Programa Internacionale de Estudios de la Mujer, Colegio de Mexico; B.A., anthropology, Stanford University
VITA: Previously a postdoctoral fellow in ethnic studies at the U of California, San Diego. Earlier, spent two years with Teach for America, teaching second and third graders, mostly poor immigrants, in East Palo Alto and Oakland. (“That’s what motivated me to go to graduate school. I wanted to understand and solve the structural problems that I saw my students and their families struggle with everyday.”)
TEACHES: Thinking through Transnationalisms: Race, Gender, Class, and Nation; Latinos in Global Culture; Boomtowns and Borderlands: Life on the U.S.- Mexico Border.
HOME: An apartment in Dinkytown, a few blocks from campus.
RECENT READS: “A whole bunch of books on tourism,” including: Behind the Smile by George Gemelich and Paradise Laborers by Patricia Adler and Peter Adler; and books on writing, including Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. Also, Inez by Carlos Fuentes and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (“I love her writing style, and the way she’s able to use her writing to grieve and recover from the death of her husband. I also use her book Miami in my classes”).
MOVIE RAVES: “I’ve been fascinated by this year’s trio of ‘Mexico director films’—Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Children of Men. Pan’s Labyrinth, especially, made me realize the particular take Mexican directors have on the world—very dark, yet seeing beauty in the darkness … offering a nuanced way of dealing with pain, grief, and war.”
OTHER PURSUITS: Biking along the Minneapolis riverfront, pilates/yoga, and knitting, “which I just took up.”
NEXT PROJECT: Building on her work examining Mayan migration within Mexico, will look at Maya migration to the United States, examining how migrants sustain ties with their community in spite of the tighter enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.