WOMEN IN MIGRATION:
COLOMBIAN VOICES IN THE BIG APPLE
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
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
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
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  )
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
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
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.