Title Page
 Where Columbian women come...
 The vicious circle of inequali...
 The undocumented: What this means...
 Final comments

Title: Women in migration
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00087436/00001
 Material Information
Title: Women in migration Colombian voices in the Big Apple
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Castro, Mary Garcia
Affiliation: University of Florida -- Gainesville, Fla. -- Center for Latin American Studies
Subject: Caribbean   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: South America -- Colombia -- Caribbean
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00087436
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Table of Contents
    Title Page
        Title Page
    Where Columbian women come from
        Page 1
        Page 2
    The vicious circle of inequalities
        Page 3
    The undocumented: What this means for women
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
    Final comments
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
Full Text



MARY: Is this how you wish your

Mary Garcfa Castro
Center for Latin American Studies,
University of Florida, Gainesville
Fellow, Conselho Nacional de
Desenvolvimento Cientffico e Tecnologico
Ministerio de Planejamento, Brazil

NOTE: We should very much appreciate it if the article could be return
in final form, ready to send to the publisher. If you do not make many more
changes, my retyping can serve.

The migration of women currently is increasing at both the internal and

international levels (Chaney 1980; Garcia Castro 1979). Yet there are few

studies on this topic, and those few are concerned principally with the class

status of specific Latin American migrant groups to the U.S. As Chaney has

noted, "In spite of the special needs of migrant women, most development

agencies have not confronted migration, either as a problem requiring careful

study, or as a programmatic concern" (Chaney 1980: 28).

Where Colombian Women Come From

According to a study by Cardona, et al. (1980), there is information on

women and men in the migrant stream to the U.S. only from 1960. Since then,

the sex ratio has been skewed toward women. In 1960, there were 1,286 Colom-

bian migrant men.in the U.S. legal/and 1,703 women; by 1976, the numbers had

increased to 2,514 and 3,228 respectively (U.S. Department of Justice 19 ).

The 1970 census presents a similar picture: for the total New York City

population, the ratio of women to men was 10:9, but for Colombians, it was

10:8. For 1980, Urrea (1982: ) estimates that the Colombian population in

Queens totalled between 32,000 and 43,000; in New York City, 50,000-60,000, and

in the U.S. as a whole, 125,000-160,000. No data disaggregated by sex are

available for that year.

Survey data suggest that migrants do not necessarily come from the poorest

areas of the country, i.e., the rural zones or smaller cities. On the contrary,

Cali and Bogota are principal areas of last residence for migrants in the

Cardona, et al. survey.

In considering the occupations in which Colombian migrants worked longest

before leaving Colombia, more similarities than differences were noted between

Garcia-Castro Page 2

women and men. How ever, according to the survey carried out by Fordham Uni-

versity (19 the following dissimilarities were recorded:

a higher concentration of secretaries among women (9.7 percent of total

women in the paid labor force), balanced out by a similar concentration

(10 percent) in the category "other clerical workers";

a greater proportion of white-collar and skilled blue-collar workers

among men;

a predomina-ien of women in the "non-economically active" population,

(20.4 percent were housewives before coming, and housewives and students

totalled 63 percent of all migrants in the survey);

a large number of women (44.2 percent) in-commercial activities.

Male Colombian migrants in Queens are basically from white collar and

skilled worker backgrounds, while women tend to have engaged in white collar

or non-paid household activities. Both women and men come from what would be

; considered the Colombian low rmddle class, according to the Fordham survey.

In Table I, we see that the proportion of women is greater in the lowest-

paid, less-protected jobs governed by patriarchal relations _,- jobs in

domestic service, as well as other traditional female occupations, including

secretaries, typists, clerks, etc.; sales personnel in stores .and home workers,

that is, persons classified as "artisans," of which the greatest proportion of

women are seamstresses. It should be noted that women are crowded in just

those types of work that can be performed at or near the home. Colombian

migrant women generally have had their work experience in those occupations

in which women predominate in Colombia; before coming, most were in sex-

segregated jobs and earned lower salaries than men (Garcia Castro 1979; 1981;


My own case studies reveal that Colombian migrant women stress a range

Garcia Castrp Page 3

of factors influencing their decision to come to and/or remain in the U.S.

Their motivations vary according to their age, conjugal status and other

family-cycle characteristics. Younger single women are more critical of

their family's internal relationships, and the repression of their "worldli-

ness," such as parental restrictions on going out with either male or female

friends; difficulties related to the Colombian educational system -- getting

into universities, political or military repression of students, and the

quality of education or its lack of relevance for the labor market; as well

as problems of being hired in a society where there is strong need to know

influential people in order to get jobs.

Married women who came with their husbands stress educational opportuni-

ties for their children in the U.S. These women also appear to be influenced

by opportunity to adopt consumption patterns not available to their social

group in Colombia. Single older women are more apt to combine economic moti-

vations, such as increased earnings, with a search for sexual and affective

realization. Female heads of household frequently refer to economic consi-

derations and to the desire for a better education for their children.

The Vicious Circle of Inequalities

In the Fordham survey, the majority of the respondents arrived in New

York between 1970 and 1973 (27.4 percent of the men and 33.3 percent of the

women), and 1974 and 1979 (46.2 percent of the men, and 34.6 percent of the

women). In terms of age at arrival and length of residence, men and women

are similar. On the average, men arrived when they were 23 years of age,

and women, 25 years.

Differences in age and civil status between Colombian men and women migrants,

particularly a larger number of single people among men than among women,

probably influence the way both compete in the labor market. But as we observe

Garcia Castro Page /"

from survey data ( ee Ta ), women with different characteristics in terms

of age, civil status, and /scho arship occupy similar positions in the labor

market. Hence, we cannot attribut their position in he work force solely to

these factors. Women are less favored comparison to men their employment

situation because of:

lower levels of formal education; r ,

less schooling in the U.S.; ;/ .

little knowledge of English; P

more likelihood of working near or in the home, and

more likelihood of working in small firms (see Table 2 for more


Women also are more restricted to certain jobs because of they way they

were first recruited. It is probable that Colombian women will stay longer

in their first jobs than men, and will experience less job turnover.

When information on occupational distribution is further disaggregated,

more men than women in New York City are 4 i a in the following jobs:

liberal professions, technicians, administrators, white collar occupations;

construction workers, mechanics, jewelers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers,

janitors and doormen. Colombian women migrants are more represented than men
and as ,
in sales (shops,7/cashiers, clerks (lower level), home workers such as seam-

stresses, garment industry (chiefly sewing; men predominate as cutters), packers,

hotel cleaning women, and obviewuy as domestic servants and housewives.

The majority of Colombian men and women circulates in the so-called

Secondary labor market, but it is clear that this sector also involves a second

level of segmentation, by sex.

The Undocumented: What This Means for Women
I -migrants.
There is no way to estimate the sex ratio among undocumented Colombian /

Gacria Castro Page 5

In my case studies, I did-no look specifically for undocumented-mirants t
in ervie but ly treewerlegalreidents. At a ior period, howev,

the too, had been illegals.

-_ <-- ) There are several ways to enter the United States -- with a tourist or

U \ student visa, or through clandestine means. Some women's stories about their

trips, made in small, unsafe airplanes from Medellin or some other point to

the Bahamas, and then by boat to Miami, show their determination to escape from

a combination of economic and cultural constraints and to find new opportunities.

In general, they do not feel that they have been treated differently from men

in their attempts to achieve clandestine entry, but some women tell stories about

sexual harassment during the trip.

The trip here through the Bahamas two years ago cost me 85,000 pesos
[about U.S.$1,700], but they took me only to the island of Tripoli.
When we got there, they asked for more money. I think that I paid
about 200,000 pesos [.about $4,000] to get to Miama. (Eve)

I came through the Bahamas. That was a nightmare. I was the only
woman among 14 men. Some of them were drug smugglers. They were
very tough with me. They made sexual advances. In the Bahamas
in the hotel, I couldn't sleep. I was lucky that an American drug
smuggler protected me. The trip by plane took more than ten hours.
In Panama, we took a second airplane to the Bahamas. That cost me
about 54,000 pesos [about $1,080J. In the Bahamas, there were some
problems. I don't know what they were, but we had to stay hidden.
The entire trip took 15 days. A friend told me that his girl friend
was raped on one of these trips. My mother is going back to Colombia
by this same route. We're very worried. (Lina)

There are some controversies about differences in life conditions be-

tween legal and illegal migrants. However, according to the NACLA' study (1979)

"nothing in the-ir social and economic backgrounds differented these [illegal]

workers)jfrom6ther Latin Americans who now live here legally ibidd., p. 12).

Indeed, there is no great difference in terms of occupation and income between

legal and undocumented women workers. The differences we found are related

more to length of residence, size of firm in which the women are employed and,

of course, the type of occupation. In the garment industry, no large differences

Garcia Castro Page 6

were found.

y irms uaL -d.-ploye.1ehac--iiauuufac ure garmiee, .where surv val is to

a great extent based on cheap labor id 'et-ne ri-e1y+sak-fo-r, undocumented
I'm V /A Lk rI
migrants ad9--fo-r-women. S egrgation on Legxuaal-runds-i-s-more-a
i / ions
struot-al -cuLsttLu-ent--o-f-market-dynami-cs!. /In the percept', of the women migrants,

hewowen the residence visa or green card is considered basic to getting a

better job. These women point out that being illegal does not allow them to

bargain for a better salary. Although structural factors in the secondary

labor market contribute to a general exploitation of all workers, being undocu-

mented contributes to the degree of such exploitation.

The bosses take a lot of things out of my paycheck. I'm sure
they don't pay them to the government. (Maria Fernandez)

The legal situation has been very confused. Now I understand what's
been happening to me, and I don't feel like an "undocumented" person.
I feel like I'm a person who has had to deny her own identity. I would
say for survival. This hurts me very much. I can't be very sincere
with people with whom I become friends. Some do not want to say they
don't have documents; others do not want to say they work in restau-
rants because they were professionals in their own countries.(Colombian
woman interviewed for NACLA study [1979] )

My sister came nine years ago. She got married in order to get her
visa. She had to pay a lot of money. I know some women who have
problems with this. A friend of mine got married [to get a visa], and
then the man wanted to have sex with her. Another woman had to leave
-\ a job because the foreman-used to force himself on her, and then told
S A her he would call the "migra"' I also know of a woman who married an
, .1 American, and she is living with him without any love. This is a
business, but what can a woman do? Well, they use their bodies, but
we can't blame them, can we? I'm really depressed about this situation.
S" I have to go to Colombia, my grandmother's dying there. I have a Puerto
Rican friend who says he will help me, but I'm afraid.. He likes me,
and I'm sure he'll insist that I live with him. (Eve)

At an analytical level, I agree with the NACLA study that illegal status

is a secondary aspect of the migrants' participation in the New York City

economy (NACLA 1979: 27). But when the analysis is extended to a discussion

of levels of consciousness, another aspect becomes clear. Undocumented migrants

believe they are competing under unequal conditions, and this results in a

Garcia Castro Page 7

? perception of their own situation. Problems that they

attribute to lack of papers .- restricted access to education, lack of freedom

to go where they wish, obstacles to occupational mobility -- are common to

documented and undocumented migrants alike. But the latter relate, these

constraints to their legal status.

Several issues that bhe women emphasize appear to be more pronounced

in the case of undocumented migrant women:

Insecurity: Eve says, "You're here and you can be deported tomorrow.

You don't feel you're entirely here."

The possibility that illegal status will lead to sexual harassment.

Restriction of mobility: difficulties in leaving the country, visiting
family, bringing family members to the U.S. to live.

The necessity to make what they consider to be private decisions --

to get married, to have a baby -- in the light of their public need to

legalize their status.

A All this leads to a growing instrumentaliaten ee relationships.

Marriage of convenience clashes with the cultural values of many women. Estelh's

description of the strip search she underwent in the immigration office, after

she was arrested in the garment factory where she worked,-is typical of the

political mechanisms used to shame women, or to take advantage of their sexual
condition. These women do not really understand how to function outside the

.,.'.- domestic sphere, because of their social and cultural upbringing. >They are

more easily exploited also by lawyers who prey on undocumented migrants.

Even if, at the macro structural level, being undocumented does not dis-

criminate in terms of labor force participation, nevertheless the lack of

papers does contribute to the migrants' perceptions of themselves in the Big

Apple affect' .all aspects of their lives.

Garcia Castro Page 8

Final Comments

In discussing women's special position in the migratory process,
particular attention should be given to:

The importance of differentiating women from men, and paying attention

to their position in the family structure. Here I have been concerned

with some types of women in the migrant stream that come from a

o <" specific class background.

How the perception of the present situation is related to a combina-

tion of prior and present experiences. In the case of women, beyond

analyzing their class position, attention should be given to charac-

teristics of the sex-gendered societies in which they have been


The special situation of married women and mothers. The common

supposition that migrant women gain self-esteem with migration(because

it brings autonomy in relation to their spouses since they begin

to earn more money) is not completely supported among the Colombian

women interviewed. It is possible that our findings result from

factors unique to this group of women; most of the wives worked in

Colombia prior to their migration. Of course, they do earn more

money in the U.S., and they know this.

Nevertheless, they look down on their social position as workers, r jV

and because in relation to their husbands, they earn less money

and are in less-prestigious positions, the sexual division of power is

reenforced. Nor are married women who came with their husbands and

children necessarily unwilling, participants. In many cases, they

were the ones who insisted that the family migrate, and they commonly

are the ones most eager to stay (Chaney 1980: ).

Mothers and wives' migratory plans generally are not made with


Garcia Castro Page 9

their own priorities in mind. It is common to hear them say, "I

came [or I stay] for better educational opportunities for my

children" or "to improve my family's level of living."

Indications of change in the relations between husband and wife,

pointed out by the Colombian women in my case studies, usually

focus on changes in the husbands' behavior. Often these changes

are the result of factors outside the home, such as exhaustion

because of work schedules, cold weather (it is said that in winter,

people do not go out even on weekends), and social isolation.

"He helps me here," says one interviewee, "because his friends can't

see him."

The isolation of women migrants. Women in the case studies often

mention isolation in their present situation. This isolation leads

to the conclusion that, although the Big Apple was their goal,

Colombian women migrants live in only a very restricted part of it.

The particular position of women who migrate alone. For these women,

migration is part of the process of reacting against what they

viewed as repression. As Lina, Maria Fernandez and Eve, among others,

comment, they came because of economic pressures. But they also

felt it was important for them to get away from direct family repres-

sion and community censure. These women are often more concerned

with their own lives when they discuss the meaning of migration. They

talk about their plans to study and to travel, and in spite of clear

differences in their individual situations, they are all more

critical of working conditions in the garment industry, in domestic

service, etc., than married women. They agree that they need money

to maintain their autonomy and life style, but they question the price

Garcia Castro Page 10

they must pay for independence, particularly the exhausting and

draining conditions of the workplace.

According to each women's perspective, gains in autonomy can be measured

as clear benefits or with reservations. Lina, for example, is in domestic

service. She is finishing her high school equivalency studies, and has made

a lot of friends among Hispanics. She has many plans, and intends to study

interior decoration. According to Lina, this will be easy (she has not yet

looked into admissions requirements or tuition costs) if she can get permanent

residence status -- since she still is undocumented.

Eve works in a jewelry factory, learning to be a diamond cutter. She

receives less than the minimum wage. While she would like to resume her

university studies, interrupted before she..came:to the.U.S., she is not


Perhaps in Colombia things would be better now. But many changes
would have to occur. And how? My family is ppor. The schools there
are not any good. I want to study, but I don't know how to manage
it. Education is a myth in the U.S. Tuition is very high. How can a
person who works in a factory afford schooling? I need a scholarship,
<-- but to get one, I have to be legal. Here I am freer. There,
everyone in my family used to pressure me: "Where are you going? "
"Why are you coming back so late?" And so on. But what:can I do with
this freedom, with all the other limitations? When you leave Colombia,
you have to be responsible for everything. This is good, but life
here is very hard. (Eve)

Migration itself has contributed to changes in the women's ways of

living. But-there-ae-.many--ore-questions--than-answer-s-in-the--process -oL

women's _liberation;.no'r-is.it only in Latin America-that-..class-exploitation,
5. 1 5
and-sexual-oppression-are-connected. Possible consciousness" for women
members of the
migrants is made more complex by the heritage of their experiences as/lower

middle-class in Colombia. Possible consciousness also is limited by the

solitude and isolation in which these women find themselves, irrespective of

their marital status.

Garcia Castro Page 11


1. This article ie-baed on a broader study published by the Center for

Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University: 'Mary' and 'Eve's'

Social Reproduction in the 'Big Apple': Colombian Voices (1982). The original

Study was based on data from a survey conducted by Douglas T. Gurak at the

Hispanic Research Center, Fordham University (19 ), and on my own in-depth

case studies of Colombian migrant women in New York City. The CLACS study

was carried out in collaboration with a research project conducted by Fernando

Urrea Giraldo, Life Strategies and the Labor Market: Colombians in New York

City in the 1970s (1982). Deborah Truhan, Assistant to the Director of CLACS,

helped edit the study.

2. Four months after this interview, Eve married her Puerto Rican Friend.

She still.'had to pay $600 to a lawyer for her visa.

3. See Estela's interview in the original study, Garcla Castro 1982.

4. As Rubin (1979: 157) notes, "Every society has some form of organized

activity. Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined

and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system -- a set of arrange-

ments by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is

shaped by human social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner."

5. This concept is related to the question of when people in actual conditions

change their way of thinking, and how these changes stimulate their participation

in social transformations. (See Goldman 1978.)

6. The women I interviewed did not belong to, or know of, any women's

associations in New York City.

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