Love Across Borders

“Women today do not know how to suffer.”

This striking observation by Paulina, a Mexican woman who remained in an unhappy marriage for years while she raised her children and dutifully obeyed her husband, only hints at the generational differences in attitudes toward marriage, sex, and gender uncovered by Emory faculty member Jennifer Hirsch in her new book, A Courtship After Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families.

Hirsch, assistant professor of international health in the Rollins School of Public Health, talked with thirteen families in which one sister or sister-in-law had migrated to Atlanta while the other stayed behind in Mexico. For eight months, she sat in knitting shops and homes with women in two small Mexican towns, immersing herself in their culture to learn what they thought about marriage and sex. Then she spent similar time with their sisters in Atlanta’s burgeoning Latino community, driving them to church and doctor’s appointments as she explored how their lives compare to those of their relatives south of the border.

The differences, Hirsch found, are perhaps even more tied to time than place.

“This started out as a migration study, but then came this idea of incorporating the mothers, which was very much in response to what the women told me,” Hirsch says. “It became clear that there was a whole narrative of generational changes in love and marriage.”

For the younger generation of women, there is a shift toward an ideal of companionate marriage, in which both people have a voice in major decisions and sex is an intimate pleasure equally shared. Their mothers, by contrast, considered the man to “wear the pants” in the home and viewed sex as a wifely obligation. These older women, Hirsch writes, repeatedly said of their daughters’ generation, “No tienen verguenza,” or “they have no shame.”

Not surprisingly, women who have come to the U.S. are thought to have more power and independence than their sisters back home because of the economic opportunities available here. They also have better access to reproductive health care and birth control.

But Hirsch cautions against easy assumptions that U.S. migration and modernization are freeing Mexican women of machista oppression.

“This idea that marriage is about emotional satisfaction is the essence of companionate relationships, but the fact is, marriage is frequently unsatisfying,” Hirsch says. “There’s no ideal. This is not a story about women’s marriages being better or worse than their parents’, it’s about them being different.”

As she wrote the book, Hirsch says, her imagined reader was her own mother. She hopes readers will gain “some understanding of how our ideas of love and marriage are cultural constructions. Our relationships are such a central part of our lives, it seems kind of shocking that these intense emotions we have are not just the only way we could feel. But these relations are shaped by their political, historical, social, and cultural context.”–P.P.P.



© 2004 Emory University