Guest post by Vanessa Elisa Grotti, Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford. Among other things, Vanessa works on minorities, migration, and reproductive healthcare in borderlands, in particular on Europe’s remote peripheries.
Review of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality Among Transnational Mexicans by Deborah A. Boehm (New York University Press, 2012).
Intimate Migrations is an anthropological study of the making and unmaking of daily family life and personal identity among Mexican transnationals living on either side of the US-Mexico border. Addressing a gap in the literature on migration, border, and gender studies, this short monograph is based on extensive ethnographic material, collected over a period of 15 years in which the author accompanied migrants on the move or indeed immobilised on either side of the international border.
Mexican migration to the US has been marked by a long history of contractual schemes based on the economic necessity of an immigrant workforce and the gradual hardening of US border enforcement laws, resulting in a surge of Mexican migrants trapped on either side of the border for long periods of time. Indeed, Mexican nationals represent the largest community of authorised and unauthorised migrants in the US (p. 14). By focusing on the lived experience of family life as it stretches its intricate networks across time and space, and engulfs those who are on the move and those who stay, Boehm addresses fundamental questions on place-making, identity, and belonging. She does so while paying due attention to the powerful hold that (US) state agency has on the most intimate spheres of sociality, from kinship and family life, to gender and personhood.
Family migration is an emerging field within migration studies, and Boehm’s timely monograph details the importance of kinship networks in shaping individual transnational journeys. It succeeds in mapping a Mexican transnational existence which is literally rooted and nurtured in separate localities at the same time. As the author powerfully illustrates through rich ethnography, individual migrants are not only intimately connected to family, but family is often at the heart of the migration project, such as in the case of family reunification, or the pressing need to care for one’s children. Relatives living across the border provide strategic advantages (such as valuable contacts which facilitate the crossing), but also obligations (like moral duties of care and behaviour which can restrict individual choices and aspirations). In this context, state laws shape patterns of migrations and reconfigure daily kinship practices.
Intimate Migrations’ three main sections address interrelated themes: family (kinship and space within transborder families); gender (the making and unmaking of gender categories and roles through migration); and children (generations and the (re)production of identity within dispersed family networks). As Boehm acknowledges in her introduction, the overarching subject that intersects which these themes is state power and its increasingly restrictive requirements for residency that shape migration routes and fluxes. Boehm’s talent resides in re-constructing a form of sociality which is both attached and detached from place because of illegality and border restrictions. Agricultural cycles, political decision-making processes at community level, education, and economic strategies are all devised to respond to the considerable weight of transnationality―a transnationality of migrant workers who live often precarious lives in the US but who remain rooted in their community in Mexico through ownership and management of land and houses. Belonging is thus not defined by one geographical place, but transcends localities in perpetual flux. Whilst this is indeed a very interesting contribution to migration and border studies, it could have been enhanced through reference to existing anthropological studies of kinship networks, space, and place-making in regions such as Melanesia or Amazonia which have in recent decades produced theoretically relevant monographs exploring space and belonging, ‘kinship paths,’ and ‘kinship [as] geography.’
Boehm’s monograph is a poignant ethnographic account of displacement and resilience among Mexican transnationals who feel that they are ‘neither from here nor from there’ (p. 143). It’s also a critical review of current US border enforcement policies which exacerbate illegality and precariousness among migrants. The long-term qualitative methodology proposed by the author, combined with her historical study of US migration policy and law enforcement, offers great potential for a broader analytical comparison with other densely crossed borderlands and invites future in-depth critical analysis of family migration policies at the international level.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Grotti, V.E. (2015) Book Review: Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality Among Transnational Mexicans. Available at:/ (Accessed [date]).