Barry's Case Study

Migration  & Culture SBS 450, Case Study by Barry Linder, May 13, 2003


           Car Wash

   Coming to Phoenix, future unknown                                 Hard at work,  future still unknown

She Broke My Dream:  A Migrant’s Search for a Better Life

In this essay, I shall portray an episode in the life of a migrant who came to a land, much different from his own, in search of a better life.  Parallels will be drawn between this man’s experience and those of several migrant figures within the texts and readings assigned throughout this course.  The reader will “meet” the subject of my study and find that the search for attaining a better life does not always require following the expected or typical path.  Dreams for a future may revolve around one goal at the outset yet focus on a different issue in the final outcome.  In addition, the underlying global nature of the impetus for uprooting oneself from homeland and family and migrating to a foreign land thousands of miles away or just across the border is seen to be universally similar.    

Morelos was somewhat shy when first meeting me but quickly loosened up when he found that his interviewer was not intimidating.  He is quite intelligent and when having trouble pronouncing certain words in English, he often spelled them out accurately enough for anyone to grasp the word or idea he was trying to convey.  He has a surprising grasp of the geopolitical forces at work in the international economy.  We were the only patrons at a restaurant late one evening and he spoke freely over some pie and coffee.

Morelos arrived in Arizona four years ago from an agricultural region in southern Mexico.  Guided by a “Coyote”, he crossed the border one September night with his aunt and her two adult sons.  He says he had long imagined, and finally came, seeking, “the American dream”.  However, he intended to stay only two or three years before returning permanently to start a small business in his hometown in Mexico.  When he left, his mom cried and said, “I hope that I see you again.  Don’t worry about me.  Come back, please don’t stay in America for a long time.”  The look in his eyes briefly softened as he described that parting scene then quickly hardened as if he had engaged another less melancholy thought.

He was fearful at first, walking across the desert in the dark for an hour with the Coyote who had taken over from the first one.  “Later I relaxed and I felt that I won.  When I crossed the border, walked for an hour and got to the place, I won.  Then, when I got in the car with my friends at an abandoned farmhouse and some people did not get a car, I won.”  He smiled broadly as he explained that there was room for only three per car in addition to the driver.  The rear seat had been removed and all migrants had to lie flat across the width.  His making it that far felt like a series of small victories and filled him with excitement and anticipation.   

In Phoenix, he stayed with his cousin who is married to an American citizen.  Within a day, he was driven to a car washing facility and was hired on the spot.  He quickly adjusted to the new surroundings and other migrants showed him various procedures and techniques on how to survive as an undocumented immigrant. 

Morelos’ first step towards achieving the “American Dream” entailed working diligently and saving as much money as possible.  Initially, he sent remittances home to his mother who was to bank it there for him after she subtracted small amounts to be used to make her life easier while he was in America.  Her husband had abandoned her when Morelos was four.  After two and a half years, Morelos discovered that his mom had succumbed to pleas and requests from her nieces and other family members to “share” her funds and there was very little left.  Morelos shook his head as he looked sadly at me and made gestures of stooping, followed by outstretching his arms above his head. “They think in America I walk on the street and pick money from the ground and reach to the trees for more.  She broke my dream.”  He put down his coffee and his eyes once more took on that cold look seen earlier but quickly changed to a look of pain.

            I asked him why he had not been keeping track of the status of his funds back home.  “It’s my mom, how could I ask her as if I don’t trust her?” he replied.  In our second interview, however, he told me, “I want to go see her and ask why did you lose all my money?  Tell me why?”  His original intent had been to return home to rent a small space in a building and start a cheese and yogurt business.  His stepfather had taught him how to perform all of the required operations when Morelos worked part time for him.  Now that his savings were gone, this was not an option.

Morelos worked hard in Arizona and spent very little of his earnings, sending almost all of it home to mom.  He managed to minimize his board and room costs by regularly performing tasks around the property for the owner.  In addition, relatives in Phoenix assisted with other needs.  When he found that his savings had been squandered, he greatly reduced his subsequent remittances to his mother. 

Now he says that he has no future to look forward to.  In four years of working for the same company, his wage has only been increased from $5.75 to $6.25 per hour.  When he started, he was a washer. Now he performs a variety of operations.  Even with the multiple duties and skills, there is no pay scale adjustment.  There are no company benefits.  The manager is aware of Morelos’ (and most of the other workers’) immigrant status. Sometimes a customer complains that his car was damaged on the premises and the worker is certain that the car was damaged before coming in.  The manager always blames the worker and tries to deduct pay.  Naturally, the employee fears reprisal if he objects too strongly.  Morelos’ experience with intimidation at the car wash is a milder form of what M. Cooper’s article “The Heartland’s Raw Deal” in The Nation (Feb. 3, 1997) described as typical management practices of threats, withholding of wages, and of blocking recourse for injustices against Latino workers.

When asked how Anglo and Latino citizens or legal residents treat him, Morelos said it was generally acceptable.  However, the manager offends him and other Latino workers.  “He says, hey you, why are you standing around?  Look at my face, I’m not like you.  You are just a Mexicano, you gotta work, you Beaner, f-ckin’ wetback.  Then he laughs.”  When I asked Morelos if he thought the manager was just trying to be funny, he said yes.  I then asked if Morelos felt that it was indeed funny.  “No, I don’t like it.  The other guys at work don’t like it either.  It feels bad.” 

He related incidents of biting insults from strangers where he quietly accepted the treatment like a scolded pet.             Also, he has a white neighbor who rarely works but complains resentfully about Morelos’ relatives who have three cars and keep their property in fine condition.  “How come you Mexicans got so much and I got so little?”   Morelos’ aunt reminds the neighbor that all of her family members work.  She studied hard, has a university diploma and is a full time teacher.  “She says to that guy, you are a lazy and useless Anglo.”

Morelos finished high school then graduated from a three-year, computer-programming course at a college near his home.  After graduation, his grandmother died and he had to work for his grandfather in the sugar cane fields.  His grandfather always held back most of Morelos’ pay and complained of expenses.  An efficiently run small farm could provide a good living for a small family.  But, the old man was spending much on women and extravagant gifts.  Finally, after a couple of years, Morelos left the farm but found that computer technology had changed substantially and his training at college was no longer sufficient to meet market demands.  He was 23 and decided to seek a better life by temporarily working in America.  “My grandpa is the main reason that I am here.”

At our second meeting, Morelos was very relaxed and I joined him in having some beers with nachos and guacamole.  He recalled his early life in a region increasingly dominated by large landowners, some of them government officials.  Tales by his parents and grandparents of earlier times filled him with a sense of history of a culture that took pride in existing off the land on their own small farms.  During his youth, his region implemented good farming practices where they rotated crops every six or seven years to protect the land.  Over 50% of the people in the town were employed in the cane industry.  Morelos loved his community and appreciated his Aztec history but, now, overuse of the land by modern factory farms has destroyed the fertility of many regions and bodes poorly for the future of the workers and that community.

            Morelos began to talk of what former Mexican President Salinas did in the early nineties that radically affected the overall economic balance and traditions of the country.  At first I could not understand the word he repeatedly referred to.  Suddenly, I realized that he was trying to say privatization.  He went on to speak of PepsiCo, Telmex and Kimberly Clark having developed a large presence in his town.  I became excited since this was opening up a direct personal account of the effect on a native agrarian community caused by gigantic global multinational enterprises.  Two of those companies were American and one was the government telephone system.  Government control of all was relinquished and their prices rose sharply.  He told of a large Mexican government-owned supermarket chain called Conasupo that maintained low prices, so everyone shopped there.  After Salinas sold it to private industry, prices rose rapidly and, now, few can afford them.  For many citizens and for the country migrant remittances are now crucial.  

  All in all, he summed up the situation by saying that devaluation of the peso, growth of the power of large land holders and the privatization of industry all occurring about the same time as NAFTA resulted in overwhelming pressures on citizens to emigrate in order to survive. 

            I asked Morelos if he thought he would want to go back some day if he saved enough money to start a business.  “Why should I ever go back?  It’s too hard there to make any living.  Many people are dying when they cross the border and I am here already.  I want to stay in the USA, but I miss my family”.  His sister, her husband and two kids may be coming across soon.  Looking very sad he said, “My mom is getting older, who knows when …?”  His voice quavered and the sentence was never finished.      

At the end of the interview, I asked him what his plans were to fulfill the attainment of the better life he had originally come seeking.  “What are you skilled at?  What do you think you could do in the future as far as starting your own small business?”  He stated that he could not think of that yet.  He wanted to continue at the car wash for now since he knew how to survive there.  His present plan is to study English at a night school and eventually get permanent residency followed by citizenship. 

            I likely will never know how Morelos’ story unfolds but, if he is able to avoid deportation, I expect that he will accomplish something of value to himself.  Earlier in this essay, I stated that he displayed ample intelligence and now I can add that he appears quite competent.  He said he enjoyed our meetings and wanted to see me again for a few beers sometime and find out how my research project turned out.  He also asked for a copy of the final report.           

Analysis of the Data

Throughout the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, typical newcomers to America were emigrants leaving their native lands to escape economic and/or political suffering with the intention of making a new life permanently in their chosen land.  Others fled violence, hatred and murder, seeking refuge in the New World with no expectation of ever returning home.       

In contrast, C. A. Small’s Voyages (1997) recounted how, for typical Tongans in the latter part of the twentieth century, the original goals in migrating to the US were to stay for a limited time.  They intended to send financial remittances to their family left behind plus save diligently in order to accumulate a nest egg for a better life in their homeland.  Those at home came to depend on the relatively large amounts of money and gifts for enhanced status and comfort.  Money from abroad became a new symbol worthy of esteem, replacing some historically traditional values.  Unexpectedly, the typical story ended with the Tongan migrant staying many years, or even permanently in the USA, several thousand miles from home.  They would eventually bring in their closest relatives to this new richer land with opportunities for material well-being far in excess of one’s home country.  Likewise, P. Levitt’s Transnational Villagers (2001) states that almost all Dominicans initially intend to return but most never do except for visits.

Similarly, D.A. McMurray’s In & Out of Morocco (2001) described the requirement for a typical northern Moroccan Rifi to migrate to, and diligently work in, northern Europe or Spain in order to survive without becoming serfs to the (effectively) colonialist foreign powers that have, in a sense, taken over control of their homeland.  Remittances home became the norm and expected by the recipients.

Like the Tongans, Dominicans and Moroccans, Morelos was determined to return to his home country within a few years, after building up seed money for a small entrepreneurship.  He had followed the migrant’s dream and went in search of a better life, which entailed only a temporary stay in a Western First-World nation.  Like the figures in those books, Morelos was disappointed in the initial outcome and realized that he must stay much longer than originally intended.  He also must totally revise his journey in search of a better life.

Morelos provided a personally experienced example of the influence of foreign owned but locally situated urban industries draining the rural labor forces at the same time that mega-agricultural companies grab land and displace those same workers.  Hence in the early NAFTA era, we have the recent decade of phenomenal growth in migration northward from all over Central America. 

Space limited me from giving a more complete picture of Morelos’ experience with prejudice and financial abuse in America.  However, the situations described in G. Chang’s Disposable Domestics (2000), where Phillipino and Latino migrants were financially and emotionally abused as well as treated as non-people, do apply to Morelos and other Latinos.             

Chang’s work also addresses Third World suffering from First World monetary and industrial/agricultural manipulations.  She calls this “global exchange”.  It and her introduction’s “push-pull” affect mirror some of Mexico’s recent history as described in my study above.   

Through Morelos’ tale, we can see that Mexico, like those countries described in McMurray and Chang, has been overwhelmed by (what I call) a “global-agricultural-industrial complex” of such magnitude that the local and federal governments are almost powerless to resist and must oblige in order to survive.  The effect is that of a quasi-colonial occupation, only more subtle.  Let us not overlook the often eagerly complicit governmental and business power figures in the home country that are delighted to line their pockets with rewards from the “occupying” forces.  

Morelos saw his hard-earned savings disappear due to a misconception, by the non- migrants at home, that America was overflowing in an abundance that was fully available with very little effort to all who come here.  Similarly, P. Levitt (2001) described a frustrated migrant lamenting that the family had become indolent, expecting to live off his remittances.

In all cases studied in the course textbooks referred to above (also see References on the next page), the migrants were willing to work at very low paying jobs rejected by the established citizens of the First World countries they migrated to.  Such work was the only option for survival of families and whole ethnic groups.  Likewise, the textbooks point out that remittances of cash and/or gifts to the homeland became a family obligation upon the migrants as well as an important source of income to the economy of the receiving country.  Earlier, in this current report, Morelos reaffirmed these facts in the case of Mexico.

Drawing on global anthropologic migrant research described in the course readings, I hope that, at the very least, I have illustrated the similarities between issues in those works and the goals and patterns of the migrant in my current study.  



Chang, G. (2000).   Disposable Domestics.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press.

Cooper, M.  The Heartland’s Raw Deal.  The Nation, (Feb. 3, 1997).

Levitt, P. (2001).  Transnational Villagers.  Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

McMurray, D.A. (2001). In & Out of Morocco. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Small, C.A. (1997).  Voyages.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.




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