Gender, Sex and Family among Mexican Immigrants in New York City


A review of Intimate Negotiations: The Political Economy of Gender, Sex and Family among Mexican Immigrants in New York City, by Debra J. Pelto.

Debra Pelto’s dissertation adds to existing research on the sexual health of Latino immigrants in the U.S. Going beyond the rhetoric of risk and the focus on disease status, Pelto proposes a view of intimate spaces of connection, where gender, family, personal history, and the immigration journey intersect. At these intersections, the negotiations of daily life occur, and the author provides a critical description of how such negotiations impact both male and female immigrants. In doing so, the author conveys the complexities of renegotiating gender, sex and family in a new migratory space.

In Chapter 1, the author outlines the aim, problem and methods of the dissertation. Situating her research at the intersections of globalization, migration, sexuality and demography, she seeks to map sexual communication and negotiation among heterosexual immigrant couples. She is particularly interested in how discussions of family planning, sex, child rearing, and jobs outside the home occur in the midst of resettlement. The author here introduces the notion that both personal history and cultural socialization affect the way in which Mexicans resettling in New York City engage in such negotiations.

Pelto describes in Chapter 2 patterns of sexual and gender socialization among the men and women in her study population. The author begins by making historical and symbolic connections between her participants and pre-colonial experience.  After tracing the pre-Hispanic cosmological beliefs of native Mexicans, in which the gendered and complementary hierarchy of the supernatural world shapes the acceptable and expected behaviors of males and females in the human world, Pelto turns to the changes effected by the advent of the Catholic Church’s teachings in post-colonial Mexico and more recent tensions around sex education. Against this backdrop, she presents specific case histories of gendered socialization from her interviewees. A salient finding in this chapter is the persistence of silence about sex and sexuality, which have especially limited women’s access to information and their ability to fully exercise their rights to health and well-being. Such silence “may be an indirect method of communication, or may indicate that it is not permitted to speak about a sexual matter, that a discourse about a particular topic such as desire is being silenced, or that it is a particularly frightening or repressed topic (such as abuse).” One of Pelto’s informants describes how she had “neither [been] told about sex, nor permitted to ask about it, and she was spoken with harshly if she asked about it. Her sister, who became pregnant as a young adolescent, was beaten in her parents’ efforts to find a male whom they could make responsible for the expected baby” (p. 54).

In Chapter 3, Pelto presents the ways in which migratory resettlement provides opportunities to question, but also in some cases reinforce, existing norms of gender and sexuality. The author finds that, among her interviewees in New York City, there remains a strong need to reinforce the gender roles established in the place of origin. Especially in rural Southern Puebla, the home region of most of the participants, education, dress, greeting styles and workplaces all clearly establish the differences between men and women; the author finds that some of these remain firm markers of femininity and masculinity in the space of resettlement. Even so, the author argues that in some cases these markers are becoming more fluid for migrants in urban spaces, who, “through their agency, strategize and attempt to find new combinations, new ways to organize their intimate and family lives and seek fulfillment.” As one example, Pelto describes in detail how some mothers of young children “who might like but are prevented from taking full-time jobs, take part-time classes to begin to build their English and other skills so that, once they are able to seek paid work, they will be more employable.” Other women creatively drew on networks of friendship and compadrazgo: “one woman who does not have a full-time job picks up the children of two other women as well as her own when school lets out for the day, caring for them for the next three hours until their mothers arrives.” Moreover, potentially different opportunities await men who are “open to adjust[ing] some patterns in their own families;” they “can have a different type of relationship with their wives and with their children” (p.138). Pelto also describes how the practical realities of a transnational life place sexual relationships in a liminal state, presenting both potentialities for the radical renegotiation of the terms of the relationship as well as of the staunch entrenchment of existing boundaries. Issues of fear and jealousy sometimes result in increased restrictions on the development of women’s lives outside of the domestic sphere and limit their interactions with unfamiliar urban spaces to those directly related to their children.

Chapter 4 analyzes the perceptions of family size that influence family planning ideologies, and also negotiations between intimate partners about contraception and conception. Pelto contends that, in New York City migrant communities, there is a continuation of ideas about the reduction of family size that were already increasingly present in Mexico. She proposes four trends that motivate and sustain desires for a smaller family: after experiencing or witnessing severe poverty among large families, her participants perceive a need to be able to give each child more in the way of material resources; the challenges of living in small urban spaces, where this population is usually forced to share a bedroom between children and parents, and apartments are usually shared with other families; the importance of preparing children for the future by providing education and avenues to do better than their parents; and what Pelto calls recuperative parenting, increased parental investment in each child, including the commitment to provide an emotionally richer, more attentive childhood experience than that experienced by the parents. Pelto views the practice of recuperative parenting as deliberate, “…as not only an individual response to a certain cluster of childhood traumas, and an exercise of personal agency in the context of patriarchal (operating on both macroeconomic and local familial levels) structures that as children they often experienced as brutal, but also as a response on what may be a widespread level to suffering that seems to have been experienced, to varying degrees among many of the families of origin, throughout much of the south of Puebla” (p. 159).

Pelto turns to detailed histories and scripts of negotiations surrounding family planning decisions in Chapter 5. Some couples in her sample expressly decide to delay childbearing immediately after marriage, in contrast to the expected course of the relationship in their country of origin. Furthermore, family planning is achieved through the knowledge and use of “modern” contraceptive technologies which may not be as prevalent in Mexico. This delay in having children is also tied to the migrant experience. Because the move from Mexico to the US is a financially strategic decision for women and their families, women’s work outside the home in New York City becomes more acceptable, even desirable for both the family of origin, who may benefit from remittances, and for migrant husbands. Interestingly, the use of medical methods to modify fertility, including abortion, are not perceived to be counter to expressing an active Catholic faith.

Pelto’s final chapter analyzes the context in which migrants’ intimate negotiations take place–the fraught policy landscape surrounding their sexualities and reproduction, and the structural violence that together form the backdrop of these couples’ lives. Low wages, lack of access to health care, discrimination, and fear of deportation are also powerful drivers for changing perceptions and social mores in the process of migration resettlement. The author notes that, at the beginning of the migration process, her interviewees view New York City as a place of temporary relocation. The emotional and social transition to longer-term resettlement weighs differently on the interviewees’ negotiations.

In this thorough ethnography, Pelto makes connections between personal history, globalization, social and cultural history, and gender roles. She places newly resettled Mexican immigrants in New York City as both a physical and a symbolic space, an arena where many embrace changes in their intimate relationships to achieve their migration goals. In the process of their movement from Mexico to New York, migrants contour their lives to adapt to the new environment, as well as  actively reshaping the spaces around them.

Lucia Guerra-Reyes
Assistant Professor
Department of Applied Health Science
School of Public Health
Indiana University- Bloomington

Primary Sources
21 Life Story Interviews
Participant Observation
Multiple key informant interviews during 7 years of data collection

Dissertation Information
Columbia University 2012. 326 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Parker.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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