- Words of Passage: National Longing and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants by Hilary Parsons Dick
Words of passage is not just another ethnography of Mexico-US migration. Combining first-person narrative and line-by-line discourse analysis, this distinctive book explores how migration impacts a transnational migrant network linking Pennsylvania mushroom farms to the small, industrial town of Uriangato in Guanajuato, Mexico. Several characteristics make this book stand apart from other migration literature. First, though the book is based on multi-sited research, the author's focus is the migrant-sending community, specifically those who stay in Mexico. Second, storytelling is used to reveal the perspectives of non-migrating community members and the effect migration has on the extended community. The author demonstrates how key themes–such as moral mobility and nation-state building–are invoked in everyday speech. She accomplishes this via narration of working-class Mexicans' life events, along with detailed linguistic analyses of conversations with community members. [End Page 237]
While volunteering in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Dick became acquainted with members of the Mexican migrant mushroom farm worker community. This group, most of whom hailed from Uriangato, became the focus of her field research as a doctoral student in cultural and linguistic anthropology. Dick forged close relationships within the Pennsylvania migrant community, which led to an entire year living within the home of a family in Uriangato. During this time, the author employed classical ethnographic research methods such as participant interviews and observation, which she characterizes as similar to the "deep hanging out" of Clifford Geertz (p. xxii). The key methodology of this ethnography, however, is Dick's contextual analysis of interactions she observed or in which she was a participant. Though the research took place between 2000 and 2001 at multiple sites in Chester County, the lessons extracted are still relevant today.
The main theme that underpins the entire book is the way working-class Mexicans must balance social morality and economic mobility to adhere to "imaginaries of moral mobility." Dick defines these imaginaries as a community of belonging created by Mexican nation builders and intellectuals in which the pure, rural, Catholic mestizo was exalted as ideal. This archetype was seen as moral though not yet sufficiently socio-economically developed to merit full access to the privileges of citizenship. According to Dick, state institutions reinforce these categories via resource allocation, equating rural life with poverty deserving of government assistance. The urban is equated with progress, not poverty, as seen in a vignette of the urban single mother who is ineligible for toy drive goods. As an urban dweller she should be able to progress on her own; poverty must be due to some failing on her part, such as her status as a single mother.
The book makes the interesting claim that Mexico-US migration is an outgrowth of the moral mobility framework, an essential means of producing and replicating a sense of national belonging. One observation I found particularly astute is that even as Mexico has historically admired the innovation of its northern neighbor, it has always perceived the US as morally inferior. It is this key tension that guides the reader as the book explores how migrant communities negotiate conflicting moral and economic imperatives. Cognizant of this tension between the perceived moral differences between her native country and Mexico, the author provides the reader an engaging narrative of her navigation of social situations during her first days in Uriangato. Her positionality as a white, US woman complicates relationship building in the community, and Dick notes the specific ways she must behave to identify as a "good girl", not to be confused with the "gringas gone wild" (p. 78) that routinely appear in Mexican media during spring break season. Gradually, the author successfully establishes herself as a respectable student by adopting certain practices, such as dressing modestly and interviewing women, or...