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Social Science History 26.3 (2002) 429-445

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The Individual/Agent and Culture/Structure in the History of the Social Sciences

Caroline B. Brettell

In facing up to the problem of structure and agency social theorists are not just addressing crucial theoretical problems in the study of society, they are also confronting the most pressing social problem of the human condition.

(Archer 1988: x)

In 1988, Yamileth Lopez, a supporter of the Sandinista Revolution, left Nicaragua and made her way to Los Angeles to join her sister Leticia. Yamileth and her son Miguel accompanied Leticia's four daughters, who had remained in Nicaragua in Yamileth's care. Yamileth's own departure was made without much forethought. Her mother had died, she had become disillusioned with the revolution (among other things, it had not brought women what it had promised them), and she was concerned about "el que dirán"—what [End Page 429] people would say about her personal choices in her relationships with men. She thought the trip "would be an adventure" (Hart 1997: 9), and her sister assured her that she would easily find work in the United States. The coyote who smuggled Yamileth, her four nieces, and her son Miguel into the United States was Uncle Mundo, her brother-in-law's brother. Despite the comfort of this family connection, her border crossing experience, like that of many others who immigrate to the United States without proper papers, was full of close calls, setbacks, and danger.

In her story of living as an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles, Yamileth characterizes herself as an economic refugee. (As she put it, "There is food in Nicaragua, but only if you have money. The problem is that the majority of people have no work and no money" [ibid.: 8]). But Yamileth also claimed that it was her decision to leave her country (just as it was her brother's decision to remain there). "I talked with my brother Omar. He said, ‘I'm not telling you to go or stay. You're responsible for your own actions and you know what you want, if you want to go or not. Personally, I wouldn't like to go because people tell me it's a lie that you can have anything you want. Anywhere in the world you have to work hard to have something'" (ibid.: 10–11). Yamileth asked Omar to take care of her house because she expected to return to Nicaragua before too long.

Yamileth's longings to return were reinforced by the experience of living in the Pico-Union neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, a gang-ridden place where she could not easily identify the enemy. "There's more tension in Los Angeles, more than in the war in Nicaragua. That's why I would prefer to be in my own country" (ibid.: 56). But equally Yamileth feared la migra, who, if they found her, would send her home without her being able to say good-bye. "I know I'll be leaving, but I don't want them to throw me out" (ibid.: 57). In fact, Yamileth and her son Miguel returned to Nicaragua for a short time in 1989. While at home Yamileth admitted that in the United States it was hard to get a job, hard to earn a lot of money without working long hours, and hard to make ends meet because everything costs so much. A year later, in December of 1990, as the political tides in the country turned against the Sandinistas, mother and son returned to Los Angeles. She bought a bakery (on time) from a Salvadoran. The contract stipulated that if the bakery failed, ownership would revert to him.

The bakery did fail, and a month later, in January of 1992, Yamileth gave birth to a daughter. Her troubles of finding work without documentation continued [End Page 430] through the period of the Los Angeles riots, when she finally decided to buy a false green card. It was a reluctant decision. "People tell me...


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