Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Mexican Immigrants Redefine Citizenship, Healthcare

March 13, 2010

In New York City, Mexican immigrants’ articulations of rights are neither uniform nor straightforward, suggested Alyshia Gálvez at a recent talk co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Working Group on Anthropology and Population. Assistant Professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies at Lehman College, Gálvez described two projects of ethnographic research that testify to the diverse ways in which Mexican immigrants navigate, and in some cases look beyond, American political and economic structures.
Gálvez first explored how members of religious organizations dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, called “comités guadalupanos,” look beyond the national legal apparatus in their claims for citizenship rights. Inspired by the ideals of Christian humanism, these undocumented immigrants base their definition of citizenship on an assertion of universal personhood. Since all people are equal in the eyes of the Virgin, they argue, official immigration law cannot determine who is a citizen and who is not.
The articulation of rights through the idiom of devotional belief “refe[rs] to a higher authority than the nation-state and thus allows for the possibility that the laws controlling immigration are trivial, vindictive, and superseded by a higher moral law,” Gálvez said.
For these immigrants, legalization is not the measure of victory. The immigrants contend that by exercising the right to peacefully assemble or voice their grievances, they perform the acts of citizens. They achieve a more empowered position simply by expressing claims to equal rights, regardless of whether these claims actually change state policy. In this sense, a citizen is as a citizen does, said Gálvez.
Acts as mundane as pinning a poster of the Virgin of Guadalupe to an apartment door thus forge a “cycle of empowerment”; once they believe that they have and deserve rights, undocumented immigrants will stage ever larger assertions of equality and social justice, Gálvez argued.
The second section of Gálvez’ presentation revealed a less hopeful dimension of immigrants’ experiences at the margins. The so-called “birthweight paradox” – whereby Mexican immigrant women have healthier-than-average babies despite their marginalized economic status – may no longer hold true for women who enter the American medical establishment, said Gálvez.
As Mexican immigrant women seek the best care for their babies, the advice of doctors and the advice of their friends and family from home communities necessarily come into conflict. Importantly, the women often see the American healthcare system as technologically superior to their system back home, said Gálvez. The opportunity to receive this “superior” healthcare figures strongly in their hopes and aspirations for a better life in the United States. As a result, many women privilege their American doctors’ advice, giving up the practices that may have given their babies an advantage.
Gálvez’ findings suggest opportunities for improvement in public health practices. If doctors took the time to ask women about prenatal practices in their home communities, they might ameliorate the phenomenon whereby “‘Health care’ can lead to ill health, and healthful practices are willfully, even happily, left behind,” Gálvez said.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11