‘Quoras’, pesos and dollars” juggling currencies in trans-border contexts

[Magdalena Villarreal (CIESAS) and Lya Niño (University of Baja California, México) cuentan de su investigación “‘Quoras’, [1] pesos and dollars. Juggling currencies in trans-border contexts”. La nota es en inglés pero, como siempre, comentarios en español y portugués son muy bienvenidos]

The borderline that separates the Mexican city of Mexicali from its twin in the north —Calexico, in the United States— is a scene of intense activity. A significant amount of people –the great majority of whom are Mexican— cross it systematically to get to their workplaces, for business, socialization or to reach their sleeping quarters. In this process, commuters must juggle with different currencies, wherein economies, cultures, normative and diverse practices, often conceived as different and disintegrated, intertwine. The border tends to be analytically dealt with as a dividing line. This is not surprising, considering that it separates two nations with their different economies, languages and legislations.

But our focus is different. We perceive the border as the fertile axis of transit for those who cross it every day in managing their economic and financial lives. We thus pay particular attention to the financial operations that take place in the homes of trans-border women, that is, women who commute regularly between the twin cities of Mexicali and Calexico. Some of them live in Mexico and work in the United States, others live on the American side of the border but their families are in Mexico and their economy is framed in Mexican social and cultural contexts. Some work within circuits (corridas) that operate between the two countries following a particular crop.

The efforts of these women generally involve important contributions to the diverse household economies. In previous studies (Villarreal, 2010, 2008, 2007, 2004), we have been able to observe the differences in the frameworks of calculation commonly used on both sides of the border. Here we base our analysis on a new study [2], wherein we focus on the flows and transactions, trying to reach a better understanding of the interplay between various rationalities and frameworks of calculation with the aim of exploring their social implications. The obstacles they face and the ways in which they manage to cope, particularly in a context of economic crisis, are subject to inquiry.

We direct our attention to the financial practices of these women, the economic, social and cultural mechanisms to which they resort in order to make do in supporting their families. These include the use of monetary and non-monetary resources, different types of indebtedness and forms of reciprocity in addition to the capitalization (or not) of governmental support. We are interested in reaching an understanding of the frames within which certain information processing schemes are enabled or disabled, the margins people have in formulating interpretations and attributing meanings and tools they can resort to in this process. Such frames are generated and reproduced within social relations.

It is important to mention that already in 1990, 95.3% of Calexico’s population was of Mexican origin. Today most of the agricultural employment in the Imperial Valley is carried out by immigrants of Mexican descent: 44% of the population that lives in Mexicali and works in the United States are hired in this sector, and 32% are reported to labor in the services sector. The management of their finances generally combines hard work in the rural areas, as well as domestic help in private houses, employees in stores, and peddling cosmetics, clothes and other retail sales to friends or house to house. Some of them organize garage sales in the Unites States, others sell their wares on improvised tents set up on the streets of Mexicali. More than a few have had to pawn gold and silver jewelry that had been treasured for years and whose value exceeded monetary criteria.

The analysis of financial practices acquires particular relevance in this time of economic crisis, a crisis that has struck hard on these border peoples, among which a significant percentage save their money in American banks and a lot more are indebted either to credit cards or in the acquisition of real estate and/or automobiles. Here the measurement of risks as well as the use of social categories (particularly gender, class, ethnic, generation and nationality) comes into play. People turn to calculations or “estimates” based on attainable information, in which value considerations and conjectures about possible costs are involved —social as well as monetary—. It is not that women are in the possibility of freely deciding between a range of options, as seems to be proposed from a rational choice perspective. Their decisions are subject to the influence of social, cultural and emotional relations in which they interact, wherein there is a certain degree of space for manoeuver.  And, like most of the “economic actors” worldwide, these women don`t necessarily calculate in terms of monetary profit or loss. Understanding how these calculations are made is part of the necessary comprehension of the financial practices in which women carry out an essential role.

Moreover, the notion of ‘juggling currencies’places the lens on the agency of these people in translating meanings, moving from one regime of value to the other, grabbing to a new set of equivalences while holding on to traditional ones, and repositioning between frames of calculation.

Magdalena Villarreal (CIESAS); Lya Niño (University of Baja California, México)

[1] Localism used in the border to talk about quarters, 25 cents U.S. coins

[2] The study, under the auspices of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) University of California Irvine, involves ethnographic methods, formal and informal interviews to transmigrant women, life histories, and labor trajectories.

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