Women’s Migration through the Lens of Food Insecurity

by Megan A. Carney

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme “Producing Anthropology.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and December 5th.

“There is never enough money to buy food…I’m constantly stressed. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another.” As the mother of three children who struggled to find even part-time employment, Linda experienced the daily struggle (la lucha diaria) of getting enough food to feed her household. This daily struggle was all too familiar to the one she had been accustomed to in rural Mexico: “Our parents could barely afford our diet of rice and beans, much less other items like meat and cheese.” Her undocumented status in the United States only complicated matters further by placing constraints on where she could go to ask for help in times of need.

The structural causes of poverty and food insecurity do not begin and end at geopolitical borders. As I describe in The Unending Hunger, women’s hopes for a better life in migrating from Mexico and Central America to the United States quickly dissipate in the context of resettlement for the reason that they find no escape from the hardships that had impelled them to migrate in the first place.

Neoliberal economic policies—piggybacking on a history of structural adjustment programs—have displaced millions of people from rural livelihoods throughout Latin America. Processes mandated by these policies—trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatization—have rendered an uneven distribution of life chances as national governments increasingly defund welfare programs and surrender entire populations to the violence of abject poverty and hunger. Women account for more than half of those fleeing to the United States in search of better opportunities, but there is a neoliberal logic that awaits them here as well: food insecurity and hunger are conceptualized as individual failures rather than as collective or social problems.

With the simultaneous militarization of borders, and of the immigrant experience more generally through practices of detention, deportation, and heightened surveillance, there are multiple, layered forms of scrutiny and social exclusion shaping the lived experiences of women who migrate from impoverished settings in Latin America to the United States. While conducting fieldwork on food insecurity with Mexican and Central American women in the United States, I have witnessed countless occasions in which they allude to such oppressive social forces, and often when conversing in community circles with other women who face similar circumstances. They make statements such as “I’m interested in the rights of women. I know many women who are marginalized, who do not have a voice or a vote,” “One does not speak because it gives one shame. One has to be brave enough to say something, but for shame she does not,” “We Mexican women, or Latinas, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to express ourselves. Many people do not give us the opportunity to explain ourselves because they are lecturing us.”

The everyday struggle for food is thus not only about food: it provides a lens for interrogating violations of human rights on a global scale and serves as a platform for mobilizing goals of social inclusion and justice. The implications of this struggle hold obvious importance beyond the field of anthropology. Engaged anthropologists and social scientists probe into the underlying forces of people’s suffering not simply for the sake of producing knowledge, but for connecting with broader publics. In producing anthropological knowledge, we are motivated by the question of who or what should be held accountable in a world of profound and expansive inequalities. Moving forward, we cannot forget that our work is primarily in service to others; the future of our discipline depends on our willingness and capacity to conceptualize research projects that will disrupt the status quo and yield to social change.


Megan A. Carney
is a lecturer at the University of Washington in the Department of Anthropology and in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. Her recent article “Border Meals: Detention Center Feeding Practices, Migrant Subjectivity, and Questions on Trauma” appeared in Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. She is also the author of the forthcoming book The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders.

 

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