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Hauke Dorsch (eds.)
Migration – Networks – Skills
Anthropological Perspectives on Mobility and Transformation
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From Ultimogeniture to Senior Club
Negotiating Certainties and Uncertainties of Growing Older
between Rural Mexico and Urban Chicago
JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
Although millions of elder Mexicans are not living close to most of their kin and
family, the ideal of spending the last part of one’s life surrounded by family and
kin strongly persists among transnational Mexican families. Ideally, grandmoth-
er and grandfather are living with and being cared for by numerous daughters,
sons, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and grandchildren. This normative sentiment
is well expressed in one of Chicano unionist and political rights activist César E.
Chavez’ famous speeches given in Texas in 1971. Chavez proclaims:
“Charity begins at home. For instance, who’d ever have dreamed that one would even
consider sending Mama or Papa to a nursing home because they’re old? Never! Shameful!
Because we have family unity and love as Mexicans.” (Jensen and Hammerback 2002: 62)
Similarly, Margarita Gangotena writes that “the vision of la familia continues to
be a form of discourse that provides Mexican Americans with identity, support,
and comfort in an often hostile environment.” (Gangotena 1994; cf. also
However, lived realities in transnational communities between rural Mexico
and the USA diverge from these idealized discourses. In March 2013, over a cup
1 Cf. also Del Castillo 1993; Gutmann 1996; LeVine and Sunderland Correa 1993;
Lewis 1960; Pauli 2004 for further discussions of this common Mexican discourse.
48 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
of coffee in her kitchen in the small village of Pueblo Nuevo in the Mexican
countryside, Regina2, a woman then in her 60s who had spent almost all of her
life in the village, told us that for her the family had to stay together, no matter
what. Only then one could be happy. When asked how she felt about the absence
of four of her six children due to labor migration in Mexico and to the USA she
said that this was exactly what brought pain into her life. Nevertheless, she was
prepared to cope with it. She knew how difficult it was to make a living in rural
Mexico. The children had to go. But it remained painful.
Similarly, in January 2011 on the other side of the border, in the Logan
Square neighborhood in Chicago, Susana and Luís were reminiscing about the
family life in their Mexican home town San Luis Potosí. The two of them, both
in their late 50s, had migrated to Chicago 40 years ago, but they were still yearn-
ing for the “unity with the family”3 in San Luis Potosí which they said was re-
vived whenever they went back for some weeks, spending “every day with the
family. We are so many, everybody brings food, we laugh, we talk.” In Chicago,
by contrast, the only family member left was their youngest son Alex. Their two
older sons and their families lived in California and North Carolina. While Su-
sana and Luís had accepted the fact that their children had moved away from
Chicago for the sake of their careers, they were nonetheless struggling with a
feeling of loneliness they associated with the absence of close relatives. This was
particularly true on holidays like Thanksgiving, when most people they knew,
Susana said, used to celebrate and gather for large family dinners. The two of
them usually went to a restaurant downtown, “and we invite a friend that’s lone-
In our paper we want to describe and analyze some of the ambivalences age-
ing in transnational families implies. By examining how old age is imagined and
lived in two contexts that, tightly interconnected by migration, in many ways
form a common space spanning Mexico and the U.S., we assume a transnational
perspective (Basch, Glick Schiller and Szanton-Blanc 1995, Smith 2006), which
was among others advanced by Waltraud Kokot (Kokot, et. al 2013, Kokot
2002). Kokot has significantly contributed to research on transnationalism, both
in theoretical and in methodological terms. Her critical discussion of the concept
and her analysis of the different dimensions it entails (Kokot 2002: 99, 100) have
sharpened our understanding of border spanning relationships in the migration
context. Regarding transnational methodology, Kokot’s call for comparative
2 All names have been changed.
3 Interview Luís Valdez, 24/01/2011.
4 Interview Susana Valdez, 24/01/2011.
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 49
fieldwork at various places connected by migration (Kokot 2002: 107) is reflect-
ed in our perspective guiding the design of this article, to think our fields trans-
nationally and compare ideals and realities of growing older on both sides of the
We argue that despite strong normative discourses idealizing old age in the
midst of family and kin, on both sides of the border the lives of most of our elder
informants are de facto characterized by the absence of close kin. We want to
then ask how, with what and with whom these absences are being filled by our
elder informants. Further, we want to scrutinize potential differences between
our two research fields, i.e. rural Mexico and urban Chicago. Thus, we will first
present our methodological approaches and the data we collected, followed by a
brief ethnographic description of migration patterns and the emergence of trans-
national families on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. After this back-
ground information we will focus on individual cases and families in rural Mexi-
co and urban Chicago. In a final section we will compare these ethnographic
findings to better understand patterns and differences of growing older in a
GROWING OLDER TOGETHER: LONG-TERM
ETHNOGRAPHIC FIELDWORK IN MEXICO AND THE USA
“Today you are learning about us, but to under-
stand us, you will have to grow old with us.”
(STOLLER 1989: 6)
In 1995, one of the authors, Julia Pauli, started her long-term fieldwork in the
village of Pueblo Nuevo, Estado de México, in Central Mexico. Over the course
of almost twenty years she continuously returned to “the” field.5 These returns
lead to a specific form of entanglement between her life and that of (some of) her
informants. Births of children, marriages, migrations, accidents, and deaths were
not only being narrated during the course of one field visit but were being lived
5 Michael Schnegg and since 2010 also Liliana Schnegg accompanied Julia Pauli on
most of her field stays. In various ways both were essential for shaping the develop-
ment of the field works and the various projects.
50 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
through at least partially together.6 As Kirin Narayan has pointed out, this time
depth may also lead to new questions and topics:
“Returns to the field allow a better understanding of how individuals creatively shape
themselves and their societies through time. Finally, repeated returns to the field force an
anthropologist to reconsider herself and her work not just from the perspective of the
academy but also from that of the people she purports to represent.” (Narayan 1993:677)
Thus, while the topic of Julia Pauli’s first fieldwork for her dissertation thesis
(1995 to 1997) was child bearing, in the 2000s she focused more on middle
phases in life and on migration to the USA. This refocus was also a consequence
of an immense increase in the number of villagers between the ages of twenty to
fifty who during the 2000s started migrating undocumented to various U.S. des-
tinations (cf. the next paragraph and Pauli 2000, 2007, 2008, 2013). In 2010,
Julia Pauli returned to the village together with her doctoral student Franziska
Bedorf. During previous visits and interactions it had become more and more ev-
ident that migration fundamentally altered kin and family relations not only in
Pueblo Nuevo but also in the transnational family extensions in the USA. How
and where one should take care of ageing parents had turned into one of the most
central questions in the village. Many migrants, returning very infrequently to
Pueblo Nuevo, were unsure how to manage their own and their parents’ old age.
Further, some migrants started to ponder the option of not returning to Mexico at
all and spending their old age on the other side of the border.
When Franziska Bedorf, funded by a DFG (German Research Foundation)
research grant, began conducting her doctoral fieldwork in Pueblo Nuevo and
the wider valley of Solís (particularly the village of San Antonio) in 2010, it was
this topic – the rationales for returning or not returning to Mexico upon retire-
ment – she sought to explore. After a couple of months in Central Mexico, using
the contacts acquired in the valley of Solís, Franziska Bedorf continued her mul-
ti-sited ethnographic research in Chicago. Chicago has been one of the main mi-
gratory destinations for Mexicans in general since the beginning of the 20th cen-
6 This is especially true for the family of Angela Martínez. From May 1996 until July
1997 Angela worked as Julia Pauli’s field assistant. As godparents of their daughter,
Julia and Michael Schnegg became compadres of Angela and her husband Lupe in
1997. Since then they always stay in Angela’s house when in Pueblo Nuevo. In 2010,
Angela and Lupe also welcomed their doctoral student Franziska Bedorf and in 2013
their master student Susanne Lea Radt into their home.
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 51
tury (Arredondo 2008: 16) and for the people of San Antonio since the 1970s.7
However, when Franziska got acquainted with the San Antonio community in
Chicago, she realized that despite this fairly long migration history, very few of
the migrants were approaching retirement, because the first cohort migrating in
the 1970s had been surprisingly young when they headed north. Accordingly
these people were in their 40s and early 50s at the time of the research and did
not consider retirement yet. Hence the original idea of linking the two field sites,
i.e. the valley of Solís in Central Mexico and Chicago in the U.S., was only par-
tially successful and we decided to include people from other parts of Mexico
living in two Chicago community areas – (1) Pilsen and Little Village and (2)
Logan Square – into the Chicago ethnographic sample.
Ethnographic data about Pueblo Nuevo stems from participant observation,
life and migration histories, network data, and several ethnographic census sur-
veys and questionnaires (cf. Pauli 2000, 2013). Ethnographic data about Pilsen/
Little Village and Logan Square in Chicago is based on twelve months of partic-
ipant observation, semi-structured and structured interviews on migration histo-
ries, dimensions of life and belonging in Mexico and Chicago as well as network
A MEXICAN VILLAGE AND A U.S.-AMERICAN CITY
After the Mexican revolution, in the 1930s, a group of landless peasants from the
nearby small town of Contepec migrated to the valley of Solís and claimed
communal land that had become available after the fall of the former hacienda of
the valley of Solís. All of them called themselves mestizos or mexicanos, high-
lighting their mixed descent of Spanish and indigenous ancestry. None of them
spoke an indigenous language but only Spanish. They named their village Pueb-
lo Nuevo, the new village. Population grew rapidly and within only a few dec-
ades there was not enough land left for subsistence cultivation, mainly corn and
beans (for further information cf. Pauli 2000). From the 1960s onwards villagers
migrated to Mexico-City (approximately three hours by bus) and other urban
Mexican destinations and worked as unskilled laborers in the expanding urban
industries and in the service sector. In the 1980s Mexico experienced a substan-
7 The data on San Antonio’s migration history is based on informal interviews with
people from several villages in the valley of Solís (San Antonio, Pueblo Nuevo, Solís
and San Miguel), which Franziska Bedorf conducted during her stay.
52 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
tial economic crisis and a devaluation of the Mexico Peso. Thus, from the 1990s
onwards more and more people in the valley of Solís and other parts of Mexico
decided to try their luck and migrated to the USA. Most of these migrations were
done without legal documents. Despite 9/11, illegal migration from Mexico to
the U.S. continued throughout the 2000s on high levels. Only with the global
economic crisis in 2008 did the situation change. During our last visit to Pueblo
Nuevo in March 2013, many migrants had returned to the valley of Solís and had
little intentions to migrate again soon. They were frustrated by the increasing
costs of the illegal border crossing, the difficulties in finding employment in the
U.S. and the new racisms they were facing in the USA.
As census figures from 1997 to 2013 show, there are hardly any families in
Pueblo Nuevo that have not been affected by transnational migration: sons,
daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers leave the val-
ley or are being left.
Table 1: Absolute numbers and percentages of men with migration experiences
to U.S. destinations, census data Pueblo Nuevo (1997, 2000, 2013)
Time N Men
15 years and
N Men migrating to
U.S. destinations Percentage
Until June 1997
290 128 44%
Until May 2013
As table 1 demonstrates, almost half of all adult men (15 years and older) have
migrated to U.S. destinations.8 Until today, much more men than women from
Pueblo Nuevo migrate to the U.S., especially to California, the Carolinas and
Chicago. These absences are also visible in the village’s landscape. While most
houses of the 1990s were still made out of local materials, house construction
has become one of the central arenas for spending ones’ migradólares, migration
money (cf. Pauli in print; 2008). This building of belonging has also been ob-
served for other parts of the world with very high levels of transnational migra-
8 The ethnographic census conducted in June 1997 is the baseline for this data. The re-
studies asked about all men (and women) considered in the first census und then sup-
plemented the data with men (and women) who had reached age fifteen in 2000 and
2013 respectively. Thus it is a type of de jure census (and not a de facto census).
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 53
tion, e.g. the Philippines (Aguilar 2009), Ghana (Nieswand 2011), Madagascar
(Thomas 1998), Albania (Dalakoglou 2010), Turkey (Bendix and Löfgren 2007,
Çağlar 2002), and Peru (Leinaweaver 2009). The colorful and creative houses
that today dot the village are often empty. Parents, taking care of the property of
their migrating children, often prefer to stay in their own local style houses.
These living arrangements are already indicating some of the changes elder vil-
lagers have to face due to the migration of their children. These will be elaborat-
ed in the following paragraph.
Chicago is the city with the second largest Mexican population in the United
States after Los Angeles (De Genova 2005: 117, Lowell et al. 2008: 16). Ac-
cording to the most recent census in 2010, half a million Mexicans (578,000)
live in the city.9 Mexicans account for almost 20 percent of the city’s population
of 2.7 million, and 10 percent of the population is Mexican-born.10 These num-
bers which, considering Chicago’s distance to the Mexican border, seem surpris-
ingly high stem from Chicago’s industrial history (Arredondo 2008: 16, De
Genova 2005: 113, Padilla 1985: 22). At the turn of the 19th century Chicago
constituted one of the country’s main manufacturing centers. Its railroads, steel
mills and meatpacking industries required workers who were either hired by la-
bor recruiters in Mexico (a process called “el enganche” – the hook), or heard of
the work available in Chicago and migrated to the city on their own. Once Chi-
cago had been established as a migration destination and a considerable number
of Mexicans lived in the city, “network mediated migration” (Wilson 2009)
started, and social ties of kinship and friendship contributed further to a growing
Mexican population. By and large Mexican migration to Chicago mirrored the
course of Mexican migration to the United States in general, the numbers of mi-
grants decreasing after the Great Depression in 1929 as many Mexicans were
deported and “repatriated”, and again increasing significantly during the bra-
cero11 years (1942-1965). The most rapid growth occurred in the late 1960s and
9 This number, as well as the following ones, is based on the 2010 U.S. census.
10 In this study, following the terminology applied by the Pew Hispanic Research Cen-
ter, we use “Mexican” when referring to individuals living in the United States and
identifying as Mexican (that includes all individuals of Mexican origin, irrespective of
their place of birth, that is both individuals born in Mexico and individuals who trace
their ancestry to Mexico) and “Mexican-born” when referring to Mexicans who were
born in Mexico and live in the U.S. We use the term “Mexican migrant” synonymous-
ly with Mexican-born.
11 The bracero program was a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States
introduced in 1942 to counteract the agricultural labor shortage in the U.S. created
54 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
early 1970s when the Mexican population within the city limits grew more than
six-fold, to 352,560 (De Genova 2005: 116). Influenced by altered legal provi-
sions12 and changing economic conditions in Mexico and the U.S., in the 1970s
and 1980s the character of migration patterns shifted from migration being a
mainly seasonal phenomenon, where workers went contratados (with docu-
ments), to a permanent, undocumented movement (Gomberg-Munoz 2011: 33,
Passel et al. 2012: 20). Today, Chicago is visibly shaped by its Mexican popula-
tion, with stores selling Mexican products, churches offering services in Spanish
and street vendors pushing carts with nieve (a Mexican water-based ice cream)
and elotes (corn on the cob) through the streets. This is particularly true for those
areas in Chicago where Mexicans account for the majority of the population,
such as Pilsen and Little Village (also known as “La Villita”), which are located
south of the city center. But also in ethnically more mixed neighborhoods like
Logan Square, a neighborhood in the West of the city, Mexican traces are appar-
Most of the correspondents included in this research lived in one of these two
areas. They were first generation migrants and had come to Chicago between the
1960s and the 1980s (see table 2). Usually they had migrated alone or with their
spouse, largely leaving most of their immediate family like parents and siblings
behind, and established themselves in Chicago with the goal of returning to
Mexico after a few years. However, most of the migrants never realized this idea
of going back, the intention of return turning into a “myth” (Anwar 1979), not
least because of children (and later grandchildren) who were born in Chicago
and were supposed to get a good education and “progress” in the U.S.
mainly by WWII (García y Griego 1996, Massey et al. 2002: 34-41). The agreement
allowed U.S. agricultural employers to hire workers from Mexico on annual contracts
and was extended after its first year to include other industries. When the bracero
program ended in 1964 a total of almost five million bracero workers had come to the
United States (Calavita 1995: 60, Gomberg-Munoz 2011: 31).
12 In 1965 both the end of the bracero program and the amendments to the Immigration
and Nationality Act caused a change in migration patterns since the legal provisions
curbed legal migration and more and more migrants started to enter the country un-
documented (Calavita 1995: 62, Gomberg-Munoz 2011: 31, Martin 2008: 138). Many
migrants nevertheless continued to move seasonally back and forth between Mexico
and the U.S. without documents, until the Immigration Reform and Control Act
(IRCA) of 1986 implemented repressive border controls and tightened immigration
policies further, favoring permanent migration (Calavita 1995: 65, Lowell et al. 2008:
13, Martin 2008).
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 55
Table 2: Time of arrival in Chicago, n = 66
Time of arrival in Chicago
Number of people
1954 - 1965
1965 - 1986
At the time of the research many of the correspondents still maintained some
kind of attachment (in the form of sending remittances, travelling there or talking
on the phone) to Mexico, but most of them intended to stay in Chicago after re-
tiring or to engage in a back and forth movement, spending parts of the year in
Chicago and parts of it in Mexico. Overwhelmingly their decision was based on
sentiments of belonging socially, culturally and spatially, while more pragmatic
considerations such as economic or health aspects played a minor role. Regard-
ing the social belonging children living in Chicago and other parts in the U.S.
figured prominently while ties to kin and friends in Mexico had dwindled over
the years, confirming the assumption of sociologist Rogers Waldinger who, ex-
amining migration from Central American countries to the U.S., observed that
“ties to the home environment wither: the locus of significant social relationships
shifts to the host environment as settlement occurs” (Waldinger 2008: 9). How-
ever, even if people’s immediate families constituted one central factor tying
them to Chicago, most of the migrants did not experience the kind of family cen-
tered old age they envisioned as ideal. They tended to live alone or with their
partner and only rarely shared the household with their children and grandchil-
dren who had “adapted” to the American style of family arrangements and work-
ing life. Instead of caring for their kin and being cared for, many elderly Mexi-
cans in Chicago turned to other institutions and activities. Senior clubs for ex-
ample provided an important space of interaction and social belonging, as did the
FROM POWER TO PITY:
THE ELDERLY IN PUEBLO NUEVO, CENTRAL MEXICO
After her marriage in the 1950s Doña Chula, born in 1940 in a village near Pueb-
lo Nuevo, moved into her husband’s parents’ house in Pueblo Nuevo. They re-
ceived a tiny room. Vividly she recalls the many conflicts she had with her
56 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
mother-in-law.13 She describes her as very dominant and commanding. All day
long Chula had to work for her, cooking, cleaning, grinding corn and making
tortillas. Several of her 14 children were born during this time. Of her 14 births
only six children survived into adulthood. Chula describes her father-in-law as
not as violent as her mother-in-law but nevertheless as rather distant and un-
friendly. He was the one with the final say regarding economic matters. Chula’s
husband was working under the command of his father. After several years of
feeling like a prisoner in her mother-in-law’s house, her husband’s father finally
gave them a small plot of land to build their own house.14 After moving out Chu-
la nevertheless continued to visit her parents-in-law daily. When her parents-in-
law needed old age care, Chula and the other daughters-in-law supported the
youngest daughter-in-law who had moved into the household after Chula had
left. The youngest son and daughter-in-law remained in the house and inherited
it after the parents died. Although Chula can describe in detail many fights and
conflicts between various family members, the description of the old age of Chu-
la’s parents-in-law nevertheless matches the ideal of a fulfilled ageing expressed
by Mexicans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Chula’s parents-in-law
spent their last years surrounded by a large extended family.
Chula’s daughters went through similar cycles of social becoming as Chula.
However, because they received a plot to build on from their father (and not the
husband’s father), they built their houses close to their parents’ and not the hus-
band’s parents’ houses. When Chula’s only son Ronaldo decided to get married,
things were also different. Although Chula pressured him to bring his fiancée
and move with her into a small room in Chula’s local style house the son resist-
ed. He migrated to the U.S., while his fiancée remained in her parents’ house.
Over the course of a couple of years, the son had made enough money to enlarge
the house of his sister María. Ronaldo and his fiancée then moved into their part
of the house. They never lived as a couple in Ronaldo’s parents’ house. Together
with his sister’s husband Ronaldo continued to work in the U.S. When María’s
husband died due to unknown circumstances, María, too, was forced to migrate.
María’s only son then moved into his grandmother Chula’s house. Until our last
visit in 2013 Chula’s grandson was living with her. From her daughter María
13 Most of the information presented here stems from an interview with Chula in March
2013. However, because of the long-term interaction (since 1996) some information
comes from early interviews (especially a detailed life history and a network ques-
tionnaire in 1997).
14 For more ethnographic information and further examples of similar experiences cf.
Pauli 2007, 2008.
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 57
Chula received monthly remittances. With this money Chula paid the living
costs for herself, her husband and the grandson. Chula was worried how she
would manage if María should one day decide to stop sending money. Occasion-
ally María had mentioned to take her son with her. Chula very much worked
against such plans, clearly knowing that her care for her grandson was also se-
curing her and her husband’s own, precarious living situation. Contrary to the
powers her parents-in-law still had in their old age, Chula felt that she had no
power but depended very much on the pity of her children.
People in Pueblo Nuevo know very well that their survival in old age crucial-
ly depends on the care of their family and kin. This also helps to explain the per-
sistence and centrality of an ideology of family care in old age in the now trans-
national village. Hardly any villager receives substantial old age support (state or
non-state funded).15 To secure their old age, until recently elder people have de-
pended on a specific household system very common in Mexico (Pauli 2000,
2007, 2008, Robichaux 1997). Chula’s time in her mother-in-law’s house is an
example of this kind of household system. In his comparative analysis of house-
hold and inheritance patterns throughout Mesoamerica, David Robichaux has
described this “Mesoamerican household formation system” in detail:
“[…] it is characterized by virilocal residence rules and runs its course as older sons mar-
ry, reside virilocally, and then set up separate households near the parental home. The cy-
cle culminates in male ultimogeniture in the inheritance of the house in the replacement
phase.” (Robichaux 1997:150)
One result of such a system is a specific power, exchange and generational struc-
ture. However, variations of this system are becoming more numerous, especial-
ly a shorter duration of time at the husband’s parents’ house and a strong in-
crease in neolocal residence (Pauli 2007, 2008, 2013). Like Ronaldo and his fi-
ancée, the younger generation often opts for not staying with the parents at all.
Instead, they use their migration money to become economically and socially in-
dependent at an early age. Almost all new and fancy houses that have been built
in the course of the last twenty years are owned by younger migrants, often not
living in the village permanently. Many of these houses are being taken care of
15 Since the mid-2000s the Mexican state has started the national program Oportuni-
dades. Oportunidades includes old age support and is also available in Pueblo Nuevo.
However, financial support is very small (in general only a monthly food basket). El-
der people are not at all able to live from this. A handful of villagers receive state
funded pensions because they used to work in government institution like the military.
58 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
by the elder parents of the migrants. While until the 1990s the younger genera-
tion served and supported the elder generation, now the younger generation, of-
ten full of pity for their left behind parents, supports the parents. Inheritance, es-
pecially ultimogeniture of the parents’ house, used to grant security to many el-
der people. Today’s younger sons and daughters often do not care if they inherit
their parents’ house or not. The children prefer their own, “modern” houses built
with their migration money. Caring for left behind grandchildren is one of the
few tokens the elder generation still has at its disposal. Thus, power structures
have become reversed, leaving a lot of elder people in a state of uncertainty and
FROM FAMILY TO LOTERÍA AT THE SENIOR CLUB:
THE ELDERLY IN “MEXICAN” CHICAGO, USA
To get an impression of the ideals and realities of Mexican migrants growing old
in Chicago today and how these resemble the Pueblo Nuevo case or differ from
it is illuminating to introduce one example and examine the situation of Eva Ro-
driguez. Eva was born in Mexico City in 1936. Growing up in an affluent upper
middleclass household she enjoyed higher education and became an executive
secretary until she followed her husband to Chicago at the age of 32. Leaving
Mexico was painful for Eva, particularly because her family stayed behind and
she was not able to return until she had acquired permanent residence. “I lost a
lot of things, a lot of family events,”16 she recalls. Since her husband’s death
some years ago Eva has been living alone, even though her three children and
two grandchildren all reside in the Chicago region as well. For almost her entire
Chicago life Eva lived and worked in the Pilsen neighborhood where she still has
her primary social ties. After her retirement in 2005, however, her children con-
vinced her to move to Crest Hill, a gated community an hour from Chicago,
where they bought her a bungalow. In spite of the distance Eva still drives to Pil-
sen several times a week to gather with friends and play lotería (the Mexican
version of bingo) in one of the senior clubs. This helps to combat the loneliness
that sometimes overwhelms her, but nevertheless she misses family life, which
she strongly associates with Mexico: “In Mexico we love being with the family,
always, united“, Eva told me. She was tempted to return to Mexico in order to
spend more time with her remaining siblings there, but decided to stay in the
16 Interview Eva Rodriguez, 02/05/2011, translation from Spanish to English by Fran-
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 59
Midwest due to the security situation in Mexico and her children in Chicago, al-
beit lamenting the absence of family life she had to cope with:
“Here I struggle a lot with loneliness, because I cannot oblige them [my children], they
have their duties, they have their professions. I have to resign myself to seeing them when
they have time.”
Like Eva, many of the Mexican elderly in Chicago are faced with family models
and living arrangements different from the ones they have known in Mexico pri-
or to migrating. Even if (some of the) children often live in or close to Chicago
as well (see table 3), they rarely share the same household with their parents (the
mean household size of the correspondents being 2.55), but have their own
place, often in a considerable distance from their parents’ home. The daily rou-
tines of many elderly therefore included less family time and family related tasks
and duties, such as caring for grandchildren or cooking for the entire family.
Table 3: Children’s place of residence, n = 66
Children in Chicago
Children in Mexico
Children at other place
Concurrently, families were not only more dispersed but also more economically
independent. All of the informants received or were going to receive Social Se-
curity after retirement and most had additional income sources (savings, em-
ployer pensions, property) at their disposal, which made them independent from
their children’s support. All in all this resulted in living arrangements where kin
relationships, above all the contact with children and grandchildren, were highly
cherished (social belonging representing one of the reasons tying the migrants to
Chicago) but rarely constituted a core of life in terms of time spent together and
mutual support and care. Spaces occupied by the family in Mexico had turned
into voids in Chicago, implying both positive and negative connotations.
On the one hand, people felt they had more personal freedom, with time for
leisure and social activities outside the family. Very popular in this respect were
so called senior clubs, which several public parks in Chicago had established.
The clubs usually met twice or more times a week, offering sports and other ac-
tivities such as arts and crafts or dancing as well as an affordable lunch for $1.
At times collective outings were organized. Most importantly, however, the sen-
ior clubs provided a social space for people to chat, play lotería, and just spend
60 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
time together and form friendships. As for Eva, who attended her lotería circle in
Pilsen at least once a week, the senior clubs constituted one, if not the most, im-
portant social activity filling to a certain extent the void of the absence of family
gatherings for many elderly Mexicans. One of the senior centers in Pilsen, Casa
Maravilla, did not only provide activities for seniors, but included adjacent hous-
ing for people aged 55 and above, thus covering another realm, which according
to the ideal in Mexico was the family’s responsibility. These activities, on the
other hand, often failed to completely fill the void the transformed living ar-
rangements had caused. Like in Eva’s case, sentiments of feeling lonely and
abandoned remained. While most elderly migrants said they felt proud and satis-
fied that their children were pursuing their careers, had established their own
families and adapted to the “American” lifestyle, they mourned at the same time
the intimacy and meaning of “la familia” that was lost. For several of the in-
formants this transformation contributed considerably to a romantic sense of
nostalgia they cherished for Mexico because there, as Leticia, one of the corre-
spondents, put it “we [the family] help each other.”17
COMPARING THE LIVED REALITIES OF AGEING IN MEXICO
Migration has considerably transformed the conditions people face when grow-
ing older in both rural Central Mexico and the urban U.S. Midwest. While these
changes are related to the absence of large parts of the younger generation who
decided to “go north” in Pueblo Nuevo, the elderly generation of Mexicans in
Chicago is confronted with a context diverging from the ideal of family centered
old age because they migrated themselves. Our examples have shown that the
transformations in the lived realities of ageing are of broadly similar character in
both settings – affecting household systems, the role of family life (including du-
ties and benefits) and the economic basis in old age –, albeit exhibiting differ-
ences when it comes to the details. In Pueblo Nuevo virilocal residence and ulti-
mogeniture are fading. The elderly live increasingly in a state of uncertainty and
even fear of not being able to secure their living. Household size has also be-
come smaller with some elders even living all by themselves. Households in
Mexican Chicago, too, tend to be relatively small because the migrants’ children
have often moved to their own places. Concomitantly, the family takes a minor
17 Interview Leticia Raymundo, 20/07/2011, translation from Spanish to English by
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 61
role in the elderly’s daily routines in both settings both concerning the tasks and
duties associated with family life (such as cooking and cleaning for the extended
family and caring for the grandchildren) and its social and emotional benefits.
While according to the ideal of “la familia” – reflected both in the nostalgia for
Mexico of the informants living in Chicago and the yearnings for a better past of
the elderly in rural Mexico – kin constituted the center of daily life, it de facto
occupied a significantly reduced space in both lived realities.18 This was not only
true regarding mutual social and emotional care and support, but in the case of
Mexican Chicago with respect to economic security as well. Whereas the elderly
in Pueblo Nuevo tended to depend on their children’s financial support in a new
way (before they had lived together in joined households, now they received re-
mittances from absent children), the informants in Chicago mostly lived off so-
cial security and additional pensions and assets and were largely independent
from their offspring. Nevertheless, the symbolic and emotional importance of
kin relations remained central.
All in all both realities of old age diverged from the ideal of ageing in “la
familia” in a similar way regarding the meaning of family for living arrange-
ments and daily routines. However, Pueblo Nuevo differed from Mexican Chi-
cago in terms of the strategies people resorted to in order to cope with the chang-
es and fill the emerging blanks as well as the effects these transformations exert-
ed on their status and role in society. In Mexican Chicago many of the corre-
spondents built their social life around senior clubs and got actively engaged
with parishes. In Pueblo Nuevo the elderly’s absent children were replaced by
both migrant houses and grandchildren remaining “home” in Mexico to be cared
for.19 Whereas the changes in Mexico appeared to be primarily painful for the
older generation whose position changed from power to pity, the elderly mi-
grants in Chicago had an ambiguous view on their conditions for ageing, enjoy-
ing their independence and leisure time on the one hand and craving for the in-
timacy of the extended family on the other.
18 These dynamics are probably similar in urban Mexico.
19 For the sake of the argument we are focusing on kin relations between grandparents
and grandchildren. However, there is another shift in kin relations connected to the
transnationalization of the village. Today, matrilocal family structures have become
common in the village (Pauli in print, 2013). Thus, it is not only grandparents interact-
ing with grandchildren but also mothers (and parents) interacting with their daughters,
sisters and female cousins that constitute the everyday practice of kin relations in the
62 | JULIA PAULI AND FRANZISKA BEDORF
In this paper we set out to trace how migration has affected the conditions for
and experiences of ageing for migrants on both sides of the Mexico – U.S. bor-
der. Following the transnational perspective, we suppose that migration tends to
create fields that span national borders. The lived experiences of people staying
behind in their home country are as much impacted by migratory processes as
the lives of the migrants themselves. At the same time the people who migrated
continue to relate to “at home” in Mexico, be it ideologically or socially.
Drawing on fieldwork in Pueblo Nuevo, a village in central Mexico, on the
one hand and the city of Chicago in the U.S. on the other we started from the ob-
servation that a strong normative sentiment of family centered old age prevailed
among Mexicans in both Mexico and the United States. The normative dis-
course, our examples have shown, prescribes an old age in the midst of the ex-
tended family, focused on caring and being cared for. Presenting two individual
cases, one from Pueblo Nuevo and one from Chicago, we then explored in how
far people’s lived realities deviated from this ideal of a fulfilled later life as de-
pending on the presence of close kin. In both settings the elderly’s situations and
the conditions they encountered were considerably different from the ideal of “la
familia”. In Pueblo Nuevo, as a result of migration movements large parts of the
younger generation (children and grandchildren) were absent most of the time
and the elderly faced transformed residence and social security systems. Similar-
ly, the living arrangements and routines of retiring Mexicans in Chicago were
only to a very limited extent based and focused on kin relations as most children
lived independently with their own families, work taking much of their time. We
further found that people differed in their strategies of coping with those trans-
formations and emerging voids. While migrant houses and grandchildren turned
into the new objects of care for the elderly in Pueblo Nuevo, senior clubs and
church activities filled the social and emotional time spaces of ageing Mexicans
in Chicago. Besides altering people’s social embeddedness, migration also af-
fected old people’s economic security, shifting their resources to remittances in
Mexico and to government funded Social Security in the United States. For
Mexicans growing old in Pueblo Nuevo or Chicago the transnational migratory
experience they have been involved in has thus created a range of new uncertain-
ties. At the same time it has added possible new certainties, such as appreciated
leisure time and new social relations. The ideal of “la familia” meanwhile pre-
vails, but rather as a romantic image in a both spatial and temporal distance.
Our analysis has shown that it can be illuminating to take a transnational
methodological perspective and take both sides of the border into account when
FROM ULTIMOGENITURE TO SENIOR CLUB | 63
exploring phenomena like ideas and lived realities of old age. While our cases do
not constitute a transnational social field (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004) in the
narrow sense since our research settings did not form one single community
spanning borders, they nevertheless serve to show how Mexico and the U.S. are
tightly interlinked in terms of similar ideas prevailing (la familia) and social
structures being transformed by migration in both settings.
Parts of the research on which this paper is based were funded by the DFG
(German Research Foundation). We would also like to thank the Department of
Anthropology at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, North Carolina,
for sponsoring Franziska Bedorf’s visa and welcoming her as a visiting scholar
for the course of her research period in the United States. Special thanks to Pro-
fessor Christine Avenarius at ECU who offered tremendous support during the
visa application procedure as well as during Franziska Bedorf’s stays in Green-
ville. A draft of this article was presented at the 12th EASA Biennial Conference
“Uncertainty and Disquiet”, in Nanterre, France in July 2012. We are grateful to
the conveners of the workshop “Uncertain life courses. Growing older and
chronic disquiet”, Susan White, Liv Haram, and Bjarke Oxlund, as well as to the
workshop’s participants for valuable comments and suggestions. Waltraud Ko-
kot has been a source of inspiration in thinking our fields transnationally; her
perspectives on migration have significantly influenced our reflections. Last, and
most importantly, we are indebted to many individuals in Pueblo Nuevo and San
Antonio, Mexico, and Chicago, U.S., who agreed to be interviewed and shared
parts of their lives with us.
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