El Sueño Mexicano: Returning Migrant Youth’s Adaptation Experience in Mexico

By Adriana Ramirez

Downtown Oaxaca, Mexico by night. (Photo by Eduardo Robles Pacheco).

Mexican migration in the U.S. is typically perceived to come from the South, as migrants pursue the “American Dream” in the North. My research focuses on the children of migrants who have no agency in their own migration to the U.S. Even at a young age, some of these children form an understanding of their undocumented status because of small signifiers; their parents always get their social security card from a local store, or a coyote coaches them what to say when crossing the border.  I study how the designation or lack of legal citizenship and cultural citizenship influence the identity and belonging of Mexican returning migrant youth through a comparison case study of U.S.-born and Mexican-born youth that “returned” to Oaxaca, Mexico.

The question for migrant youth becomes, “What will my future be in the U.S.?”  Some of the youth I met in Oaxaca this summer, supported by a Tinker Foundation and CLAS-funded research grant, did not dare to “dream” of any future in the U.S. They accepted that their future would be very similar to that of their parents; their employment options limited to the informal sector, like babysitting or domestic work. Yarely[1] stated,“La verdad no pensaba en mi futuro allí, yo pensaba en que trabajo iba yo hacer. Luego más cuando decían que era más difícil para un migrante.” (“Honestly, I did not think of my future there, I thought about what job I was going to do.  Even more so when they said that it was more difficult for a migrant.”)

On the other hand, some took AP or honors courses, climbed to the top of their classes, and received offers from top universities in the hope that they would join their classmates in college. However, they soon realized the “American Dream” was not created for them. This became clear to Julian when he was stopped by immigration officers at the airport and deported to Mexico the following day without any of his belongings. He was getting ready to begin college on a full scholarship, and had received many national awards for his art throughout high school. Like Julian, Manuel described the moment he realized this shift, “I was right on the border and I’m like, ‘Well, this is, this is it for me.’ And looking back I had a dream that hadn’t even started, I’m leaving back a life that I didn’t begin…I took my last breath, and crossed the border [to the Mexico side]. Sad, but knowing that [pauses] that something is going to be waiting for me in the other side [Mexico].” The physical U.S.-Mexico border reflects Manuel’s identity being caught between both cultures and countries, and his “crossing” into a new reality and alternative dreams.

A market in Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Eddy Milfort).

Many students in the U.S. come from mixed status families. Parents’ immigration status has an impact on these youth’s lives and futures in the U.S. Laura, U.S.-born, said her father’s deportation affected her mother’s financial situation, so the only way for Laura to attend college would be to return to Mexico so her father could help with finances. All U.S.-born migrants that I interviewed except for Laura “returned” to Oaxaca when they were less than ten years old. Unlike most of the Mexican-born migrants I interviewed, they did not speak much English nor remember much about life in the U.S. Thus, they were better able to integrate into their new communities in Mexico, but avoided telling people of their U.S. citizenship for fear of being seen as “other.”

Many U.S.-born middle school students in Oaxaca continued to pursue the “American Dream” by planning to return to the U.S. for their high school and college education. They preferred to wait until after middle school to return because English language classes, the only English preparation they would have before migrating back to the US, begins in middle school. Among the older U.S. citizens in Oaxaca there was a strong Mexican identity, and the “American Dream” had little appeal to them. However, both U.S.- and Mexican-born respondents experienced different degrees of double consciousness. [2]

A gathering place outside of a Oaxacan high school. (Photo by Adriana Ramirez).

Both Mexican-born and U.S.-born migrant youth arrive in a country that is supposed to feel like home. For some, this is the country where they were born, for others it is where they have spent most of their lives, or where their family lives. After arrival, the challenge becomes how to incorporate and transform their identity to make sense of themselves in a new context. In Oaxaca, migrant youth dealt with two layers of belonging: feeling and being perceived as Mexican as well as Oaxacan. For many this meant learning or greatly improving their Spanish and/or Zapotec, knowledge and mastery of colloquial terms and albur (double meaning), history, music, and food, among other things. For those who spoke English at home while living in the U.S., incorporation and reconstructing their identity was a greater hurtle because their lack of Mexican or Oaxacan cultural citizenship classified them as gringos. Especially for these returning migrants, forming friendships and high school clubs with other returnees became a crucial part of their adaptation and incorporation process in Oaxaca. Some stated celebrating U.S. holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving in Oaxaca and continued to speak English with their families and friends.

The majority of these students continue to be caught between both worlds, and to develop a double consciousness similar to what they experienced in the U.S. Even so, these students and returnees are taking an active part in shaping their new environments by becoming English teachers, opening art galleries that welcome global artists, developing progressive ideas about gender roles, and highlighting the complex racial relations not only between the U.S. and Mexico, but within Mexico as well.

[1] Names have been changed to protect the respondent’s identity.
[2] W.E.B. Du Bois. 1903. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Soul of Black Folks. New York: Modern Library, pp. 7–15.


ADRIANA RAMIREZ is a second year doctoral student and instructor in the Department of Sociology at UC Berkeley.  She studies migration with an emphasis on Mexico; return migration, youth migration, citizenship, and belonging. 





This entry was posted in Berkeley Student, Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s