- Del Otro Lado: Literacy and Migration across the U.S.–Mexico Border by Susan V. Meyers
Susan V. Meyers
Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2014. 209pp.
There are few researchers today in rhetoric and composition, particularly in emerging literacies, who are talking about transnational literacy practices and the effects of a changing global economy on migration and thus on literacy. In Del Otro Lado: Literacy and Migration across the U.S.–Mexico Border, Susan V. Meyers, a bilingual ethnographer, set a huge task for herself as she immersed herself for a full year (with a Fulbright Fellowship) in rural Mexico and then traced the migratory patterns of students in Mexico to the U.S. and back. Her reflective critical ethnography calls into question stereotypes about Mexican immigrant students—that they are lazy or disengaged or even that they are victims of a callous school system. And she shows us with insightful reasoning, passionate and personal stories, and carefully documented historical research that “migration and literacy are intimately connected—and that migration complicates and is a catalyst for literacy acquisition” (7).
Meyers argues that the literacy contract—what she calls that implicit and sometimes explicit understanding that literacy is a resource and if families participate, that is, subscribe, to the activities and value systems of the institution of public education, then there will be a reward. This reward is almost always supposed to be improved economic circumstances. But in rural Mexico—and I would argue in hundreds of other places in the world where there is not a wage-labor economy—the promise of literacy is seriously overrated. Indeed, the idea that literacy improves one’s economic status is one of the greatest colonizing myths of our time as it is simply not true for most of the world. This book shows us how a local community with “few resources positions itself with respect to larger more powerful institutions” (12) that sponsor, endorse, define, and institutionalize education. While the book traces the development of this “literacy contract” in both the US and Mexico, thus setting the context for significant similarities and differences in the promise of education in both countries, it really sings when [End Page 99] Meyers gives voice to the people who live in the village of Villachuato, Mexico (pop. 4000), and migrate to Marshalltown, Iowa (pop. 24,000). Their voices stay with readers as they challenge much of what we think we know about literacy. As Meyers writes, “language is explicit; culture is not” (13). This book helps make that culture visible.
In chapter one, “Crisis and Contract: A Rhetorical Approach to Transnational Literacies,” we learn about various rhetorics of crisis around literacy, tracing multiple definitions and concepts around literacy from those of the funding agency UNESCO to many in the US and in Mexico. The many sponsors of literacy include everything from religions to civic groups. Most important, Meyers makes visible the levels of awareness (implicit and explicit) that rural Mexican communities carry with respect to their life conditions and opportunities to attain resources. How these rural Mexicans position themselves socially with regards to schools is ultimately what permits them to assume what Meyers calls a more “flexible, rhetorical stance toward literacy: one that reads the implicit lines of institutions’ rules and finds ways of complying, though tentatively and selectively” (36–7). And one might add “resistance” to the list of ways they respond to the threat of oppressive conditions. Remittances (both monetary and social such as values and new behaviors) brought back to Villachuato by their migrated family members do improve the social capital of the families in Villachuato, positioning “community members at home to function rhetorically, rather than reactively, to sources of social oppression” (39). In other words, there is a change, a sort of heightened awareness of the benefits and consequences of the literacy contract that the citizens of Villachuato can size up and then resist or buy into on their own terms.
In chapter two, “‘Aren’t You Scared?’: The Changing Face of Oppression in Rural, Migrant-Sending Mexico,” Meyers places herself in this community in a...