Oaxacan migration to the U.S. is a small percentage of the overall flow of Mexican migrants. The state ranked 16th among Mexican sending states according to INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas Geografía e Informática) estimates for the 2000 census. INEGI also estimated that 96.8 percent of the state's population of just over three million individuals above the age of five were in their natal hometowns in 1995. For those Oaxacans who migrate, 91.2 percent remained within Mexico's national borders and 8.8 percent (7,439 individuals) crossed into another country.
Contemporary migration in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, is motivated by the real and perceived needs of migrants' sending households. These needs are often economic — the household head is searching for higher-paying work, the physical household needs repairs, or the goods and services desired are unaffordable on local wages (see map).
Most often, the decision to migrate follows one of two paths to an internal or international destination, with few households sending multiple members to both destinations. Destinations within Mexico include urban centers like Mexico City, where wage work is typically available, or to the northern border and the state of Baja California, where agricultural work can be found.
Migrants who move internationally and cross the border into the U.S. typically travel to destinations in southern California. According to a recent study of Oaxacan migrants, more than 96 percent chose destinations in and around southern California and Los Angeles although they may also travel to the Midwest (particularly Chicago) or the Northeast.
History of Oaxacan Migration
Contemporary Oaxacan migration is rooted in the mid-20th century patterns of movement that characterized Mexico in general. Migrants from the central valleys left for national destinations as well as the U.S. as early as the 1940s, and many found contract work through the Bracero Program.
The "Bracero" Program
After the program ended, in 1964, Oaxacans sought jobs in agricultural and service industries settling throughout California and beyond. Nevertheless, international migration from the region remained low and was of minor importance through the early 1980s. In fact, through the 1980s, internal destinations were somewhat more common among central valley movers.
International or transnational migration — circular, repeated movement between sending communities in Oaxaca and receiving communities in the U.S. — increased rapidly through the last two decades of the 20th century, partly in response to Mexico's continued economic crises. Although Oaxacans continued to travel to internal destinations, the nation's poor economic health and Oaxaca's position as one of Mexico's poorest states effectively pushed Oaxacans across the border.
By the year 2000, Oaxacans were well represented in the migrant stream heading for the U.S.. According to our data, on average, 46 percent of a central valley community's households included at least one migrant (see Table 1). However, Oaxacans remained a small part of the flow from Mexico, at approximately four percent of the total Mexican population living in the U.S..
Table 1: Communities Surveyed in Oaxaca's Central Valleys
Of the 309 migrant households surveyed, 199 of them — nearly two-thirds — have sent a family member to the U.S.. The majority of U.S. bound migrants from the central valleys were men (76 percent) who depend upon strong social networks, defined through kinship and friendship, to successfully negotiate their border crossings.
Oaxacan migrants settled with family or friends once in the U.S. (87 percent lived with a relative or friend), in southern California; the Los Angeles-Santa Monica area is home to 94 percent of the central valley's migrants. Sixty-two percent found work in the region's service sector, mainly in restaurants, small businesses, and homes.
Mexican sociologist Lozano Ascencio estimated in 1993 that Oaxacans working in the U.S. returned at least US$55 million to their home communities in 1990, and that total has only risen through the last decade.
U.S.-bound migrants remitted, on average, just over US$730 every two months for an average of 6.5 years. This amount is in line with remittance patterns for Mexicans in general.
Internal movers remitted much less money, an average of US$130 every two months over an average of eight years. U.S.-bound women returned only about half of the total remitted by men, while women who moved internally returned 80 percent of what men remitted.
To understand migration and remittance practices in Oaxaca's central valleys, a random sample of 15 percent of households in 11 communities was selected. In total, data for 590 households was collected, of which a little less than half had direct experience with migration.
Remittances typically went to daily and household-related expenses, with 60 percent covering immediate household expenses, construction and renovation). Other expenses include education, the purchase of appliances and domestic goods, ritual costs, and health care.
Daily costs of living ranged from the purchase of food to payments for utilities (electricity, gas, and firewood). Many interviewees suggested that using remittances to cover daily expenses was a waste of hard-earned cash, but given the lack of local jobs, most argued there were few alternatives (see Table 2).
Table 2: Remittance Use in Oaxaca's Central Valleys
Many first-time migrants supported home construction and/or renovation, which accounted for 17 percent of the remittances returned. They often made their sojourns with the goal of building a home. Typically, this meant building a home of cement and brick, with a concrete floor and finished roof to replace cane or adobe structures with dirt floors and palm roofs.
Migrants refurbished their homes by adding second floors and building "modern" kitchens and bathrooms that replaced open fire kitchens and latrines. Standing in the center of his patio during an interview in 2001, Mario Sánchez Martínez gestured to the freshly painted rooms around him, "Look at this kitchen. We finished it with the money we saved from my time in the U.S.. And now we have a nice bathroom with a shower too!"
Finally, a small percentage of remittances (eight percent) went to starting or expanding businesses, the purchasing of land, or the purchasing of equipment for commercial ventures. In each case, investments were made after some of the funds were put aside for immediate needs or other expenses, and in no case did a migrant's entire remittance go directly and exclusively to support business start-ups or commercial ventures.
Migrant households about to make these types of investments included 27 households from throughout the valleys, but 75 percent were concentrated in just four communities: San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, Villa Díaz Ordaz, San Juan Guelavia, and San Juan del Estado — communities with good access to Oaxaca City and links to area market systems.
Migrant households that were able to invest remittances fell into three categories. First, there were households that invested in commercial activities focused on local business opportunities (opening small markets, beauty shops, and the like).
Second, there were households that invested in businesses tied to Oaxaca's tourism industry, mainly producing crafts. Third, there were households that invested in agriculture, animal husbandry, or dairy production.
How remittance patterns will play out in the future is keyed not to migration outcomes, but to the continued involvement of migrants in their sending households and communities, the location of a community vis-à-vis an urban center and the local resources that village households can access.
Currently, migrants share a level of social commitment to their households and communities that is nearly identical to non-migrants. If households and local communities are to keep benefiting from their migrants, that social involvement and engagement cannot decline.
Because the majority of migrants have families (and often children) in sending communities, that social commitment should persist.
While strong ties will continue to pull Oaxacans home to rural sending villages in the central valleys, the prospects for development that would allow Oaxacans to live their lives locally and out of poverty, and most importantly without the pressure to migrate, will be in the distant future.
Cohen, Jeffrey H (2004). The Culture of Migration in Southern Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.
INEGI (2002). XII Censo General De Polbacion Y Vivienda 2000. Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes, Mexico: INEGI.
INEGI (2001). Población Residente Según Condición Migratoria, 2000. Available online.