Adolescent Migration to Cancun: Reconfiguring Maya Households and Gender Relations in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

By Castellanos, M. Bianet | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Migration to Cancun: Reconfiguring Maya Households and Gender Relations in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula


Castellanos, M. Bianet, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


In 2001, Alma Kauil Tun left her natal village of Kuchmil to find work in Cancun's service industry. (1) With help from relatives, she procured a part-time job doing laundry for a middle-class family. Over time she would acquire the necessary skills and social network to obtain a job as a full-time domestic servant. Alma's experience is similar to that of many rural Latin American women who have sought domestic work in urban centers neighboring their hometowns or located abroad. The growth of the service and manufacturing industries has attracted an increasing number of female migrants and spurred the feminization of the labor force. (2)

What makes Alma's experience distinctive from these migrations, however, is her age. Alma was fifteen years old in 2001. I have encountered many youths like Alma since I began doing ethnographic research in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in 1991. In Cancun, adolescent migrants as young as age eleven work in the service and construction industries. They can be found cleaning hotels and private homes, selling goods on the street, and mixing cement for building crews. Not surprisingly, domestic service is one of the most common forms of child labor. (3) Indeed, adolescents and children are increasingly brought in as workers in global systems of production. While we know much about the global economy's dependence on adult migrants, we know very little about how late capitalism restructures local constructions of adolescence and childhood and necessitates the mobility of youthful bodies. (4) Studying adolescent migration offers a new context through which we can investigate migration as a gendered and generational process.

The construction of Cancun in the early 1970s intensified migration in the region, particularly from indigenous communities, and stimulated the local economy's reliance on service work, a gendered division of labor, and global capital. The resulting migration of adults and, more recently, adolescents has deeply affected the social life of indigenous communities in the peninsula. To engage with these transformations, this article focuses on an ethnographic case study of adolescent migrants from the rural Maya village of Kuchmil who work in the international tourist city of Cancun. My analysis is based on participant observation of the Kuchmil-Cancun migrant circuit over a fourteen-year period (1991-2004). (5) During this time, I also conducted oral histories, open-ended and semistructured interviews, archival research, and household economic surveys.

Through this case study, I argue that for Maya migrants the transition to a global economy entails experiencing a childhood and youth that are gendered in new ways. Before the increase in adolescent migration in the late 1960s, Maya children and youth remained at home and participated in a gendered division of labor. However, by becoming wageworkers during their adolescent years, young Maya men and women experience an early departure from their nurturing households and become important economic contributors to their natal families. To retain access to their migrant children's wages, Maya families grant these migrant youth an important decision-making role in the household. Young women use this recognition to negotiate for greater autonomy within their natal households. Thus, this shift in Maya social and household relations calls for adolescent migrants to forge new relationships with their family members that alter the meanings and practices of traditional gender roles in Maya society.

AGE AND GENDER IN A GLOBAL ECONOMY

With its emphasis on trade liberalization, market deregulation, and the privatization of public industries, the global economy has generated plentiful low-wage jobs in the service and manufacturing industries. Since many of these jobs are concentrated in paid domestic work, maquiladora (assembly) work, and care work (e.g., nannies and nurses), women disproportionately fill these positions. …

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