Thursday, October 21, 2010

Like Monarch Butterflies?

Like Monarch Butterflies?
The Poetic Politics of Pierson, Florida

Terms like “monarch butterflies” and “birds of passage” have been deployed historically to describe the political experience of Mexican migrants in the United States. Like “homing pigeons,” Mexican migrants in the US were believed to be constantly looking south, migrating seasonally to the US to work, with the intent of ultimately returning with their earnings to their communities of origin in México. Politically, this meant that Mexican migrants were not interested in engaging in US public affairs, thus fomenting the image of a legally vulnerable reserve of labor at the whim of US capital. In the words of one scholar, Mexican migrants were: “always the workers, never the citizens.”

At the turn of the 21st century, that image has been radically transformed. With tremendous purchasing power, it has become abundantly clear that migrants are an important economic and political force on both sides of the border. On the US side, recent mass demonstrations have made it clear that migrants are more than ready to mobilize for their civic and political rights therein. Far from being a zero-sum relationship, migrants are increasingly demonstrating an interest and capacity to democratically engage in the politics of their home and host countries.

At the community level, an example of Latino political mobilization is unfolding in tiny Pierson, Florida. Tony Ramos, son of migrant farm workers from México and lifelong Pierson resident, is the first Latino to vie for city office in Pierson history. On a recent visit, SDS volunteers for Ramos’ campaign painfully realized the barriers to Latino political incorporation firsthand. With infectious enthusiasm, the campaign volunteers split up into cadres and set out to register as many voters in Pierson streets, stores and residences as they possibly could. At a local store, the campaign volunteers were kicked-out by store management, unsympathetic to the idea of a Latino running for office in their town. On the Mexican side of town, volunteers encountered the barriers to incorporation within the Latino community itself. Some eligible Latinos were rightfully skeptical that the political process would benefit their interest. “Why vote,” questioned one man. “Politicians don’t do any thing for us. Look at Obama,” referring to the current administration’s failure to act on immigration reform. Others were interested but ineligible to vote. “I can’t vote. I am a convicted felon,” said a young Latino Pierson business owner, who nevertheless volunteered to spread the word about Ramos’ campaign, seeing the value of a co-ethnic running for political office. “That is what we need around here,” he concluded.

Demoralized, the first cadre of volunteers returned to the de facto headquarters of the Ramos campaign, with only one completed voter registration form to show for their efforts. There, Tony made conversation with a middle-aged Mexican migrant who offered words of encouragement to the group of visibly tired volunteers. “Don’t lose hope”, he said. “Little by little, people will spread the word about the work you are doing and become informed and interested in Tony’s campaign.” Indeed, this very well may turn out to be a gradual process of political (re)socialization for Latinos in Pierson. An earlier incident that day provides a telling lesson. During the mid-day lunch break, when enthusiasm was still running high among the volunteers, Beto—a veteran of SDS—joined the group, holding in his hands a butterfly he found lying outside, unable to fly. Beto took the butterfly and delicately trimmed around her wings with a pair of scissors, as the rest of us watched in awe. “She can’t fly because her wings are asymmetrical,” he explained. Holding the butterfly up with his index finger, she tentatively began to flap her wings. “She has to learn to fly with her new wings,” said Beto. The work of the campaign volunteers is similar to Beto’s attempt to aid the butterfly. By insisting to register and mobilize Latinos to vote, Ramos’ campaign volunteers are attempting to get them to fly with a new set of proverbial political wings, and thereby challenge the asymmetric power relations in Pierson and, by extension, in the US south. This effort at migrant political mobilization can have far-reaching implications. If Mexican migrants, in particular, continue to act like “monarch butterflies”, that traverse political space, then they will likely challenge asymmetric power relations on a transnational, cross-border scale.

-Compañero Adrian Felix

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