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Published September 17, 2018
Lilia Soto can remember her childhood experience of migrating to the United States in the 1980s and the anxiety associated with having to live and learn a new culture and being separated from family.
Soto, a University of Wyoming associate professor of American studies and Latina/o studies, was born in Napa, Calif., but raised in Zinapécuaro, Michoacán, Mexico, until the fourth grade. Her father, Matias Soto, had made repeated trips back and forth between Zinapécuaro and Napa before he settled in the United States permanently to work. Soto, along with her five sisters and their mother, Maria Elena Soto, remained in Mexico, where they anticipated moving north someday.
After living in a transnational family for 10 years, Soto, her mother and her sisters were reunited with Matias Soto. Soto has lived in the U.S. since 1986. She used those childhood experiences of migrating to the United States as the starting point of her book, titled “Girlhood in the Borderlands: Mexican Teens Caught in the Crossroads of Migration.” New York University Press published her 272-page book.
The book examines the experiences of Mexican teenage girls raised in transnational families and the ways they make meaning of their lives. Soto conducted a multisite research project in the United States and Mexico, focusing on young immigrant/migrant women to see if contemporary migrant families had the same aspirations, anxieties, expectations and experiences that she had.
“Fragmentation and transnationalism defined our family life,” she says. “It was fragmented by moves to the U.S. and back to Mexico, and then to the U.S. once again, and by visits, phone calls, letters and other efforts to share affection and intimacy with family members living in two different countries.”
The family did not simply move from its country of origin to a country of arrival, but “lived physically and psychically inside and across national borders, simultaneously and sequentially,” Soto says.
“I know Zinapécuaro and Napa very well, and I have witnessed how migration, globalization and the flow of transnational products have altered both locations,” she says.
In her study, she brings an insider’s perspective that allows her to have an intimate and personal understanding of girls’ lives and places where they live.
Under the Bracero Program of 1942 and similar recruitment programs, Mexican males have, for decades, been recruited for temporary work in the U.S., leaving their families for long periods to provide much-needed labor in the fields, factories and service industries before returning home again.
While the conditions for the breadwinners of the family who cross the border for work have been extensively researched, very little has been documented about the lives of family members left behind. Over a six-year period, Soto interviewed more than 60 teenage girls in Napa and Zinapécuaro to document the movement of their families, while also delving into their ideas and social practices across borders.
As they develop their subjective selves, these Mexican teens find commonality in their fathers’ absences and the historical, structural and economic conditions that led to their movement, according to an abstract of Soto’s book. Tied to the ways U.S. immigration policies dictate the migrant experiences of fathers and the traditional structure of their families, many girls develop a sense of time-lag, where they struggle to plan for a present or a future, according to Soto’s research.
In “Girlhood in the Borderlands,” Soto highlights the “structure of feeling” that girls from Zinapécuaro and Napa share.
“My training as a researcher enables an analytic and impersonal understanding of social structures and social forces,” she adds. “I can view my objects of research both from close up and from far away.”
Soto began her research by interviewing 19 Mexican immigrant girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who had arrived in Napa between 1998-2006.
“Their testimonies made me wonder what their lives would have been like if they had never migrated,” she says. “I then returned to Zinapécuaro to conduct interviews with girls who had not migrated.”
Her purpose was to explore how migration and transnational family life can shape a young girl’s sense of time and place. Before migration, girls inhabit a time of waiting, of preparation for a departure on an unknown date. Those who do not migrate must anticipate departures of many of their acquaintances, Soto says.
“After immigration and arrival in a new country, girls experience a sense of fragmented and disrupted temporality shaped by lost years of schooling in Mexico and a feeling of being behind other students in the United States,” she says.
Her book focuses on collecting testimony about migration from teenage girls raised in transnational families. The majority of Soto’s interviews came from households where the father was the initial migrant, followed by the rest of the family.
Having been born in the U.S. and living here the majority of her life, Soto says the teenage girls she interviewed were interested in her story and her relationship to migration.
“During these moments, I usually revealed my story and shared why this project matters, and why their stories need to be heard,” she says.