August 25, 2003

Hirsch crosses borders with Mexican women

By Tia Webster

For eight months Jennifer Hirsch sat in knitting shops with women in two small Mexican towns. She immersed herself into their culture, learning about their views on marriage, sexuality and reproductive health practices.

Then she did the same with their sisters on Buford Highway in Atlanta’s international corridor, driving them to doctor’s appointments and church services as she explored how their lives differ from those of women across the border.

Hirsch, assistant professor of international health in the Rollins School of Public Health, has outlined these life history interviews in her first book, A Courtship After Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families (University of California Press, August 2003).

With the help of Hispanic churches and health and human service providers to locate suitable Mexican families, Hirsch’s comparative study began with 13 female immigrants in the Atlanta suburbs of Chamblee and Conyers; all of the women had sisters or sisters-in-law in Mexico who agreed to be interviewed about their views and private lives.

During her field work, Hirsch studied how social and economic context may affect communities of people who are culturally similar, but live in different geographical locations. The social construction of gender changes with migration, Hirsch found, but the biggest differences are between the older and younger generations.

A Courtship After Marriage compares the views of Mexican women in Atlanta to those who have remained in (or returned to) Mexico, while simultaneously exploring generational differences in sexuality, love, marriage and reproduction.

“There has been a transformation of love and marriage over time and across space,” Hirsch said.

In the younger generation of Mexican women, Hirsch noticed a trend toward more companionate marriage; the younger women viewed sexuality as a way to strengthen the bonds of marriage. The older generation, however, considered sex as an obligation that had to be fulfilled.

“Within these transnational families, younger Mexican men and women are building relationships around a goal of intimacy and trust,” Hirsch said. “The marriages tend to be somewhat less hierarchical than among the older couples, and the younger couples talk much more explicitly about the shared goal of mutually satisfying sexual intimacy as a key building block of an enduring relationship.”

“Older women in Degollado, Jalisco, frequently complained to me about girls these days,” Hirsch wrote. “‘No tienen verguenza,’ they would tell me: ‘They don’t have any shame.’”

The women still living in Mexico believe immigrant women in the United States acquire a power of sorts, Hirsch said. According to their peers, migrant women seem to have gained more independence because of economic opportunities and other advantages open to them in the United States.

“Migration has shifted the scale, and women immigrants have gained the reputation of being more assertive,” she said. “Both the women and men living in Mexico would often say that en el norte la mujer manda [in the United States, women give the orders].”

Cultural and social changes in the migrant community also have influenced contraceptive use and fertility, according to Hirsch. In the small towns in Western Mexico where she conducted her research, the local Catholic churches do not permit couples to take communion if they are using a modern method of birth control.

Yet the older generation confessed to having managed their fertility through a combination of prolonged breastfeeding and surgical sterilization, and saw nothing wrong with it. Within these modern marriages organized around ideals of trust and intimacy, however, couples are likely to have much lower fertility and rely on modern methods of birth control more than their parents did.

This generational difference, though, also is shaped by whether the women live north or south of the border. Women in Mexico feel more social pressure to produce a first child than do their sisters in Atlanta, and this social pressure—combined with the religious barriers to contraceptive methods and the greater ease of combining income-generating activities with motherhood—contributes to differences in contraceptive use, sexuality and fertility.

“There’s a certain kind of anonymity that comes along with urban life, so in spite of the barriers they face in getting any kind of reproductive health care, immigrant Mexican women do seem more likely to use modern methods than their sisters in rural Mexico,” Hirsch said.

Although it is a scholarly work, A Courtship After Marriage has been described as “beautifully written … and almost novelistic in its nuance and detail.” It is crafted to speak both to scholars, students, anthropologists, migrant researchers and to lay readers. Hirsch said she hopes to give readers a window into the hearts and minds of the Mexican population, America’s fastest growing minority.

“We see the labor of their hands,” she said, “but we know so little about their hearts and their heads.”