Latino Migration and Neoliberalism in the U.S. South: Notes toward a Rural Cosmopolitanism

By Popke, Jeff | Southeastern Geographer, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Latino Migration and Neoliberalism in the U.S. South: Notes toward a Rural Cosmopolitanism


Popke, Jeff, Southeastern Geographer


This paper examines the relationship between the discourses of neoliberalism and understandings of Latino migration in the rural U.S. South. As a set of economic policies, neoliberalism has provided the framework for the rapid globalization of rural areas and recent increases in Latino migration. At the same time, however, neoliberal discourse depoliticizes economic decision-making and promotes an ethical individualism that narrows the ambit of responsibility toward those same migrants. In opposition to such thinking, I explore the possibilities of a rural cosmopolitanism, which would expand a sense of obligation and mutual regard, and thereby promote a wider net of ethical responsibility.

Este articulo examina la relacion entre discursos del neoliberalismo y entendimientos sobre la migracion latina en el sur rural de los EE.UU. Como un conjunto de politicas economicas, el neoliberalismo ha proporcionado el marco para la rapida globalizaci6n de las zonas rurales y el reciente aumento de la migracion latina. Al mismo tiempo, sin embargo, el discurso neoliberal despolitiza la toma de decisiones econdmicas y promueve un individualismo dtico que reduce el ambito de la responsabilidad hacia los migrantes mismos. En oposicion a este tipo de pensamiento, exploro las posibilidades de un cosmopolitismo rural, el cual expandiria un sentido de obligacion y respeto mutuo, y por lo tanto promoveria una red rods amplia de responsabilidad etica.

KEY WORDS: neoliberalism, Latino migration, ethics, cosmopolitanism, rural South

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It is now widely noted that the U.S. South has witnessed a dramatic demographic transformation over the past two decades. The most salient dimension of this change has been what Raymond Mohl (2003) has called the "Latinization" of the region, resulting chiefly from an increase in Latino, and particularly Mexican, immigration. For residents and communities of this Nuevo South, both new and old, this has entailed coming to terms with a host of changes that have altered everything from labor markets and social institutions to interpersonal interactions and the performance of cultural identity. Across the region, from the largest urban centers to more remote locales, the nature of lived experience and the meaning of Southern identity are being redefined by the dynamics of globalizafion and transnational mobility.

This process poses a particular challenge in many of the South's rural communities, some of which have seen their Latino populations grow by 1000 percent or more over the course of a decade. Rural areas often have little experience dealing with ethnic or linguistic diversity, and many are hampered by stubborn legacies of poverty, inequality and economic stag-nation. In many areas, this has led to a deep sense of disquiet over the increasing presence of "others" within the community. As the debates about immigration become more contentious, it is perhaps an opportune moment to consider this change, as well as the prospects for expanding the scope of responsibility and regard to include these new Southerners.

My argument in what follows is that an assessment of these prospects requires an engagement with the discourse of neoliberalism, which has generally served as the guiding political and economic vision within American society since the 1980s. It is no coincidence that this time span corresponds with the increase in Latino migration; neoliberal notions of free trade, culminating in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, lie behind the economic restructuring and regional integration that have fueled immigration (Delgado-Wise and Covarrubias 2007). Less often noted, but just as significant, is the fact that neoliberalism has also helped to flame the social and cultural interpretations of Latino transnational migration. One of neoliberalism's defining features, I will suggest, has been to instill an increasingly narrow and individualized sense of responsibility and ethical agency. …

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