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  • The Remittance HouseArchitecture of Migration in Rural Mexico
  • Sarah Lynn Lopez (bio)

In the rural Mexican town of Vista Hermosa, Jalisco, a four-story colonial style mansion built by locals who emigrated to Napa Valley, California, towers above modest adobe and concrete houses. Since construction began in 2004, the house has been the talk of the town. Local farmers, mothers, shopkeepers, and factory workers gossip about the Italian marble floors, two-story columns, copper antique elevator (to carry its owners to the fourth floor in their old age), private movie theatre, personal gym, oak pool table, and mini-bar, even though few of them have ever been inside.

Nestled in a poor Mexican town reliant on sugar cane and corn farming, this mansion is an exceptional example of what I call the “remittance house.” This term refers to a house built with money earned by a Mexican migrant in the United States who sends dollars—remits—to Mexico for the construction of his or her dream house. More broadly, I use this term to emphasize remitting and migration as key components of contemporary transnational building practices across the globe.1 Remittance houses are built in small increments over extended periods of time and represent both local and imported construction techniques and architectural styles. While exhibiting similarities, every remittance house is unique and embodies the specific circumstances of the migrant who finances and builds it. Some migrants and their families build informally, adding rooms as the need arises, while others make use of architectural plans to construct entirely new houses on their land. Understated façades may blend into the existing fabric or highly ornamental designs announce a migrant’s success abroad. In Mexico, dating back to at least the middle of the twentieth century, the remittance house has crystallized migrant narratives and desires amid shifting cultural milieux. Artifacts of complex relationships, these houses are also embedded in the macro processes of globalization and transnational migration.

For at least a century, U. S. immigrants’ remittances have dramatically affected the vernacular rural landscapes of their hometowns. As early as 1913, the New York Times made this observation about Italian immigrant laborers: “They go back when they have accumulated American money, buy property and restore it” with the result that “in squalid villages stand new, clean houses.”2 Today, Turkish migrants in Germany, Portuguese migrants in France, and Chinese migrants in the United States use hard-earned wages to build new houses in their hometowns.3 However, in contrast to Mexicans, many migrants with homelands far from the United States are not able to return home until retirement.4

The current scale of remitting and the continuous movement of migrants between countries are unprecedented. According to the World Bank, in 2007 the developing world received $251 billion in remittances sent by migrants to their home countries.5 Of that total, migrants living in the United States, the world’s top remittance-sending country, sent over $40 billion overseas. Within individual countries the scale of remitting has also increased. Mexico received approximately $9.8 billion in 2002; that amount grew to a record $25.2 billion in 2008.6

This fast-growing sector of the economy is spearheading social and cultural changes for [End Page 33] migrants and their families that are manifested in the material world.7 However, the consequences of imagining, building, and living in these homes on local communities, family life, and local construction practices and markets have received scant attention.8

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Figure 1.

This two-story unfinished remittance house remained unaltered between 2007 and 2008. Houses in various stages of construction and habitation mark the landscape of Jalisco. Migrants begin building houses with the intention of completing them but often cannot predict when or how they will. Photograph by the author.

Several migration scholars study the influence of remittances on household economies and family life, but anthropologist Perry Fletcher’s work in Michoacán is the main study that focuses on how migration is interwoven with the hopes and dreams of building a house in one’s hometown.9 While recognizing the importance of building, Fletcher stops short of analyzing the spaces...


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