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
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
“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
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.”