After the American Dream: Immigrants finding New Opportunities in Mexico

By Mónica Jacobo Suárez and Colette Despagne

“Migrants have much more to offer a country than they take away from it, right?” exclaimed Leny Álvarez, a young returnee migrant born in Mexico and raised in Florida.  This phrase reflects one of the pillars of the Hola Code (HC), a software engineering bootcamp in Mexico City in which Alvarez works as a recruiter.  HC, created by two Mexican entrepreneurs a couple of years ago, aims to promote the reintegration and social mobility of young migrants who return, many of them forcefully, to Mexico from the United States (see https://holacode.com/about-1). HC offers an intensive bootcamp—12 hours daily, six days a week for five months—in which the students learn to program and receive psychological support to make their reintegration into Mexico easier. They also receive coaching in leadership, advice on obtaining work and becoming part of transnational technology companies. All of these Mexican-born students grew up and were educated for most of their lives in the United States. With their HC training, they aim to find a high rate of job placement and obtain competitive salaries for the Mexican market. At this time, HC is the only enterprise that offers this kind of training to returnees since other efforts to integrate young returnees prioritize training them as English teachers, a job that provides considerably lower wages than becoming a software engineer.

HC’s success in getting jobs for these returnees is due in large part to the profile of the youth attending the bootcamp. Recruitment does not focus on the “miracle migrant” on the verge of getting into Harvard with straight A grades.  In contrast, HC looks for budding potential in young people between 18 and 37, those who grew up “in the streets” in the United States and in many cases were deported back to Mexico. The company puts training before a title or diploma, and students appreciate that.

“I think that HC provides all the tools to really get social mobility. You’re talking about a skill, for which you really don’t need a degree. You know how to program code and everyone needs a coder and you don’t have to say I graduated from the Ibero [university]… And it’s also a field that pays very well, so after I finish my training, I can make 30,000 pesos monthly, double what I would in a call center or many other jobs. And that’s only the beginning...” (Gerardo (not his real name), who lived 13 years in California).

Unlike the efforts of the Mexican government and some civil society organizations that provide support to returnees, HC values much more than the bilingualism that returnees have.  “We have a lot more to offer, besides being bilingual,”comments Leny, who now works with HC. From 2009-2016, 1.4 million migrants returned voluntarily to Mexico from the United States and another 2.2 million were deported, according to Homeland Security Figures, 2009-2016. Among the deported Mexicans, 62% were aged 15 to 35, according to a Foundation BBVA Bancomer study, Yearbook of Migration and Mexican Remittances, and the insertion of these youth into the Mexican job market is paramount. In this context, the Mexican government has created programs that emphasize the youths’ command of English as their only work skill. They have promoted the certification of these young people as English teachers, which offers a good job opportunity, but excludes other interests and abilities these youth may have

“We come back from there, from the United States, speaking English, but not just that. We also come back with the culture we learned in the United States. We’re taking advantage of this program [HC] because we are coming with another language and another culture… we write code in English […] this is a radical change because the call centers want you because you speak English, but this is just in addition to your professional career track, It’s not that they are taking advantage at the call center because I speak English. Here it’s because of my abilities.” (Fernando [not his real name], who lived 20 years in Chicago and Wisconsin)

HC also provides spaces for the development of a sense of belonging to Mexico through a plurilinguistic and pluricultural vision, which contrasts with the monolithic vision of the Mexican state. Traditionally, the nation-states have developed a monolithic vision—monolinguistic and monocultural—to create nations in a uniform way with just one identity and one language. Any type of difference was perceived as a national threat. Historically, Mexico has sought to homogenize national diversity through a process of forced assimilation based on only one identity that of being mestizo, and one language, Spanish. While Mexico does recognize 68 separate indigenous languages, standard Spanish is the de facto official language used in almost all government settings and most public schools.  Through these linguistic practices, both the indigenous community and, more recently, the returnees from the United States have been excluded. Leny commented, for example, that to be Mexican, one couldn’t be bilingual:

“They’ve said to me that (…) to be sufficiently Mexican, to be accepted in this society, they believe I have to give them my English or my knowledge of English.”

 

Antonio’s testimony also exemplifies what the returnees can experience if they don’t speak standard Mexican Spanish:

“When Mexicans, those who has been here all their life, when they learn you speak English, it’s almost as if they were racists. They don’t like it; it rubs them the wrong way, they don’t give you a job. And when you don’t speak Spanish that well […]your Spanish has to be very good to handle these people. Many of them listen to how you speak and later they say “Nah, I don’t want you.” They don’t give you a chance; they don’t want to get to know you or what your experience is.” (Antonio, lived in California and came back at age 22 to Mexico)

In opposition to this monolithic vision with which the returnees are received in Mexico, a plurilinguistic and intercultural vision has emerged. Such a vision recognizes and celebrates multiple abilities and heterogenous experiences of different individuals. HC endorses this plurilinguistic perspectives by seeing immigrants as agents who can influence their social environment and possibly change it.  It’s common to hear its bilingual participants go back and forth between English and Spanish, translanguaging –and in this way become agents of their own way of expressing their Mexican-ness. Leny expressed this idea, beginning her explanation in Spanish and ending up in English:

 

“here many times you have to face the fact you are considered a second-class citizen (…) because of my language, because they don’t think you’re Mexican enough, or they don’t understand what the definition of being Mexican is. So, you have to redefine it.”

By creating spaces for these bicultural and binational youth and accepting their differences as abilities to be mobile and reintegrate in Mexico, HC contributes to break with the notion that “there is only one type of Mexican.”

Plurilingualism becomes revolutionary when one associates it with the concept of citizenship. Traditionally, citizenship has only been defined from the perspective of nation-states. From this perspective, citizenship is understood only as a legal status of belonging that grants individuals rights and obligations. Also, citizenship implies certain attitudes (linguistic and cultural) and practices in which the individuals are socialized. Thus, from this point of view, a Mexican citizen is one who was born in Mexico and has been socialized with a “standard” Mexican Spanish and Mexican values. However, this image of citizenship becomes more complicated with the development of globalization and the subsequent increase in human mobility.

What happens with citizens who were born in Mexico such as Leny, Antonio, Fernando and Gerardo, who migrated at an early age and have been socialized in English in the United States and now return to Mexico? They learned English and adopted American values. They, or their parents, fulfilled their obligations of paying taxes there, but never received the legal rights given to full U.S. citizens. When she returned to Mexico, Leny commented, “Finally I learned what it means to be a citizen, that I have rights and that I can demand them.”  In Mexico, Leny has the obligation and rights given to Mexican citizens, a legal status, even though her language is not “standard” Spanish and her values are not the traditionally Mexican. Today, it is necessary to redefine citizenship accepting the diverse attitudes and practices of individuals, about which little is known. Thus, returnees can (re)construct citizenship in Mexico by reinvindicating their own biculturality and bilingualism, these two are their own ways of being Mexican citizens.

The claims that the returnees make in their struggle for citizenship is what Engin F. Isin calls “acts of citizenship.” These are acts of courage, bravery, indignation and justice that contest traditional notions of citizenship. These acts validate the rights that returnees have to be recognized as bilingual and bicultural Mexican citizens with full rights. Leny’s acts of citizenship seek to redefine what it means to be a Mexican in Mexico. They also call into question the ideology of glorifying the mestizo that celebrates a form of second-class citizenship. Leny does not want to be a second-class citizen; she knows that she has rights in Mexico and among them is the right to be recognized.

In this sense, HC foments the redefinition of citizenship within its classrooms by adopting practices that embrace different languages and cultural values, and moves among them (the acceptance of Spanglish, for instance,) which gives the returnees the possibility of (re)defining their sense of belonging to Mexico. This belonging is based on the creation of a community of bicultural and bilingual citizens with binational experience. As Gerardo observes:

“How many of us here were not deported? We know English, we wanted to do things right over there and it didn’t work out. So here we come into a group of people and you feel once more as if you are once again a family.  [HC] is a new family…and I think this is very valuable.”

Finally, the migrants who enter the HC program aspire to a social mobility, one that was denied to their parents and themselves in the United States. As Leny says:

“Because even if your parents went to the United States with a dream, they ended up in a social class where one is almost always a second-class citizen, a minority. And, well, here in Mexico, it is your country, and you can take all the advantage of it you want. And you can aspire what you want, that the lack of a nine-digit number [a social security card] doesn’t let you do in the United States (…). And this is the message of Holacode, that dreams for you and your family.”

 

Mónica Jacobo-Suárez is a Conacyt-Research Fellow and full-time professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. She studies Mexican return migration combining the fields of public policy, political science, linguistics and education. Contact: monica.jacobo@cide.edu

 

Colette Despagne is a plurilingual and pluricultural scholar working at the Research Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP), Mexico. Her main research focus is on bi- and plurilingualism in Mexico with a special focus on language, power and identity in relation with migration and Indigenous studies.

 

 

This article was made possible through financing by SEDESOL-CONACYT 292078: “Young migrant returnees: A Diagnostic of Educational and Labor Trajectories.”

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Members of the third cohort of Hola Code and Mónica Jacobo at headquarters,  Mexico City, 2019.