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maria jimenez
Gift Giving Across Borders

I am challenged by the many issues and ideas and conceptions of the gift economy and its concrete expression throughout history and society. For someone like me, whose time is spent in the practical realm of forming social movements (aimed at establishing institutions that support the development of the human potential by protecting, promoting, defending and practicing the principle that all human beings are equal in rights and dignity), reflecting on the different theoretical constructs of how we interpret the practice of a gift economy is an important part of what long-term activists have known as the relationship between theory and practice.

The relationship between theory and practice guides my political work and the work that we do in the formation of these social movements. Theory gives us direction and practice gives us the movement, and it is the learning from theory that enables us to actually move these movements forward in their development in a way that will benefit people, but it is also the practice that retroalimenta (in Spanish)—provides feedback—and enhances theoretical development.

In this article, I look at the immigrant rights movement, the human rights move- ment, and the communities where I do my political work, to try to understand what this theory of a gift economy is in its practical expression. And certainly one of the most important aspects of gift restructuring and integration into the global economy is the human right to mobility. The right to mobility is important because it affects how gift giving is being integrated at the global economic level. Human mobility is about the interdependence of social, economic, and political relation- ships in the human family. Thus, in its current phase, which is being restructured by economic and political elites worldwide, human mobility conditions the way people live within countries, as well as those that cross borders.

The wealth created millions of people worldwide has enabled, more than ever before in human history, the technology, the communications and the ability to move easily across borders, a historical experience recreated within the configu- ration of civilizations and countries throughout the globe. But that increased capacity, given the current strategy of economic global development, has made mobility safely and legally across borders a right for only a very few—the global economic and political elite.

This mobility is easily seen when we observe the movement of CEOs (chief executive officers) of corporations all over the world; the meeting of political elites without any problem, safely and legally, across borders, to also discuss issues of global dominance and exploitation and control; and also the movement of so- called “refugees” such as, for example, the Marcos (Ferdinand and Imelda) of the Philippines, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (ex-President of Mexico), and all others who are considered the “wealthy refugees.” All of these elitist groups move legally and safely across the world without any problems, so that their role is sustained and maintained in the re-creation and construction of this globalization from above.

When we look at the development of immigration policy in nation states throughout the world, and how these define who is allowed to enter, who is al- lowed to stay, who is allowed to become a member of the nation state, it becomes very clear that immigration policy and border enforcement policy is about the restriction of mobility of the international working poor and the internationally displaced, who are also poor.

Borders, barriers, border agents, and militarized institutional violence to restrict mobility are some of the mechanisms used to reinforce on a global scale the social, political, gender inequalities of the very few against the very many. Institutional violence is necessary to sustain these inequities. Therefore, those that must sustain these inequities, like any other type of human activity, will define the movement across borders without government inspection as a crime. A crime that has no violence and has no victim, but that permits the construction of institutions both internally and externally, which ensure that the strategy of economic development of these elites persist, and that this strategy will continue to produce high profits by maintaining low wages.

It is a mechanism that also assists in the implementation of the structural ad- justment policies of a scorched earth policy that results in the creation of havens for speculative capital investment circles, while curtailing investments in social infrastructure and in human development. It is a policy that then forces millions to opt for incorporation into a global labour market, their only option for survival. Thus, the movement of people becomes an important aspect of challenging the very policies that want to restrict its conditions according to plans for increasing profits.

So when communities and families, faced with structural adjustment policies of scarcity, opt to move to another country, the decisions to do so are made by families in consultations to determine who must emigrate and who must stay. These family decisions are made in communities that have a tradition of moving across international borders, and that have established networks to receive the migrants in the destination countries. These networks also help the migrants move across the borders, and the migrants, in turn, help to sustain the families and communities in their countries of origin.

The decision, in that sense, is a decision made by families to regenerate their survival, forming strong emotional bonds that will respond to the needs, funda- mental basic needs, to sustain their development as families and as humans. And yet it is this very act, the act of migrating across international borders, this timeless transnational network that operates in the context of exploitation and policies of plundering countries of origin that actually form the networks of resistance and rebellions to those maintained by the powerful economic elites.

These family networks facilitate migration; the family networks ensure rein- statement of community needs, and family networks allow the instant conveying of resources, information, and even affection. It is interesting to note the growth and the use of, for instance, cell phones in communities of origin and reception. There are even communities that install computers in the community so that families can then see each other from places, for instance, as far as New York, to places in tiny villages in Mexico or in Ecuador.

Thus, in the current global configuration, the movement of people is a strategy of survival, and actually a strategy of “thrival.” And this strategy of thrival is based on an economy of “giving” that sustains economic prosperity and interconnections between people moving North and resources coming from the South in the midst of unbridled free trade policies that threaten the sustainability of communities and economies, and particularly the development of human beings.

Understanding that international migrants invest in their families and com- munity so generously, it became clear that there is a gift economy in this project of transnationalization, of movement of communities. And what is this gift? People who live outside their countries of origin are responsible for moving a hundred billion dollars globally every year between the so-called “developed countries” and the developing countries. This is the money sent back home by millions of immigrants worldwide; 30 billion of those dollars go to Latin America, 15 billion, half of that, to Mexico. And then there are also many unrecorded gifts in resources to communities. It is estimated that half of the unreported and the free labour given to development in communities has actually out-edged net, direct foreign investments in countries of origin (“All in the Family” 2004; Orzoco 2003; Suro 2003; AlarcŪn 2000).

As often proposed to Mexican immigrants, we might as well form a co-op and buy Mexico. So what is the gift? The gift is the at least $190 sent back to families seven times per year. In some cases it is $100, and in some cases it is $300. In some cases immigrants will send back 15 percent of each paycheque, and others will send 50 percent of each paycheque, so the range is 15 to 50 percent of salaries in labour markets of exploitation that go back to sustain the families (“All in the Family” 2004; Suro 2003; “Importance of Remittances to Household Incomes” 1998).

Who are the senders? They tend to be migrants (emigrants), selected and agreed to by the consensus of families, to move out of the country to seek economic op- portunity. They are the socially excluded who transform the experience of migra- tion as an experience of liberation for themselves and for their communities. If we look at Latin America, some six million immigrants send money back home on a regular basis. Six million sent 30 billion dollars. Of these, one-half have been in the U.S. for less than ten years. Who are the senders? In a national employment survey conducted in Mexico, it was discovered that out of 5,896 individuals who migrated to the United States between 1997 and 2002, 70 percent had sent money back home, 89 percent were married, 60 percent were less than 30 year old, 48 percent were of homes that also have other senders of money, and 79 percent of these are people who entered the United States without documents ( “All in the Family” 2004; Suro 2003).

Two-thirds of these senders have been in the United States less than ten years, and they send money once a month. When you look at migrants that have been in the United States less than five years, three-fourths send once per month. And when we look at the income range of the senders in the United States, we find that of the people who earn $50,000 or more a year, nine percent (this is talk- ing about Mexico) send money back home. Of the people who earn $30,000 to $50,000 a year, 32 percent send money back home. And of people who earn less than $30,000, 46 percent send money back home (“All in the Family” 2004; Suro 2003).

So, in effect, 78 percent of the 15 billion dollars sent back to Mexico is sent back by people who earn less than $50,000 a year, and who send 15 to 50 percent of their paycheque back to relatives in Mexico.

Who receives? In Mexico, it is 18 percent of the adult population. Of those who receive, the majority are women. What impact? How many households? In Mexico, 4.4 percent of the households, or 4.3 million people receive these gifts. Forty percent of those receiving the gifts depend on them to sustain themselves and to not slip into dire poverty. Three to four people per household benefit from receiving and spending. And 73.6 percent of the recipients are under the age of 15 and over the age of 65 (“All in the Family” 2004; Suro 2003; “Importance of Remittances to Household Incomes” 1998).

As a community/family consultation strategy and method of survival, people decide which family, and which family member, migrates, and while the majority are men, 40 percent of those who migrate (emigrate) are women, and they sup- port brothers and sisters, not necessarily just parents. Yet, when we look at who receive, we see that recepients are primarily family households of women, children, and the elderly. In the case of Mexico, these senders probably constitute those who send remittances that, according to many sources, are not really not taken into account by any financial institution, because these gifts are not transferred through banks, but are taken to the communities directly through clubs and their representatives (Orzoco 2003; AlarcŪn 2000). These tend to be immigrants who have settled longer within the United States, but who sustain a large number of new immigrants every year. The clubs, or hometown associations, are volunteer, structurally organized, collective entities that consult with the community they are from to decide on how to develop projects and mutual obligations for the well-being of the town. Some of these projects are in response to crises, such as a natural disaster, but others are a continual and developed interchange between the hometown and the hometown association, or clubs, in the United States.

And what do they do? They collect money through simple activities, such as dances and bake sales, very grassroot types of activities, and they invest in the community, but they also send goods. There are certain goods that they will buy in the United States and then transfer to the community. For example, ambulances, medical equipment, school buses and supplies, machinery for the development of the town well, equipment that may lead to the construction of a particular hospital. They invest in social projects, scholarships for students in the town, health clinics, childcare facilities, homes for the elderly. And they even invest in job creation such as supporting vocational schools that permit the youth to acquire skills necessary to operate in the economy.

How many of these are there? We really do not know. It has been estimated that there are approximately 600 associations in 30 U.S. cities; 218 in Los Ange- les alone (AlarcŪn 2000). Many groups also form state federations. Some of the strongest in different states are La FederaciŪn de Clubes del Sur de California (the Federation of Clubs of Southern California), the Federation of Clubs of the State of Michoacan, and the Federation of Clubs of Jalisco.

And how do they collect the resources and the monies to be able to invest in the town? This is done through membership dues, through quotas, through fundraising activities, donations, and sometimes, in the case of the oldest and strongest, like the FederaciŪn de Clubes del Sur de California, they even enter into arrangements with local and state governments. Some of the federations have even entered into arrangements with the North American Development (NAD) Bank in order to create pools of resources to increase support for their communities (Orzoco 2003).

For instance, the Federation of Clubes of Zacatecas, in 1995, convinced the governor of the state that if they invested one dollar, the municipal government should invest one dollar and the state government should invest in another dol- lar. And thus was created the program known as “Dos por Uno” (Two for One). Among the Federation clubs they gathered $600,000, which they took to Za- catecas, and with the investment of municipal and state governments, were able to fund 56 projects in 34 towns. Four hometown associations of the Mexican state of Michoacan, based in Illinois, also raised $650,000 for projects in their localities around the same time.

There are concrete examples of this kind of support also being provided by individual clubs. There are 100 families in Anaheim, California that formed a club called El Club Tom·s Titi·n that has organized various health projects in Tom·s Titi·n because there is a sanctuary in the town, El SeŅor de los Reyes, which many people throughout Mexico visit in the hopes of being healed. The townspeople observed that visitors seeking the spiritual healing of El SeŅor de los Reyes would often experience a health crisis, and there was no infrastructure in the town to care for the sick. The club, therefore, invested in building a house to serve as a heath center that medical schools around Mexico could send student doctors to who could then practice and train in the town. The club bought surgical equipment, and even installed a water pump to assist the clinics of the area.

Another example is Club Pesqueros. One of the inhabitants of Pesqueros died because there was no ambulance, so the families of Pesqueros, Jalisco in the U.S. joined together and bought the ambulance. Now the club has a fund that provides scholarships for middle and high school students, a strategy they imple- mented to prevent drop-outs, and to support 57 children with developmental problems. Every year one of their fundraising activities in the United States is to hold a banquet, a baile (dance), and a rodeo, where they crown a Reina of the Club Pesqueros (Queen of the Club Pesqueros). This young woman, however, is not the most beautiful young woman, but the one that can raise the most funds for the collective fund that pays for work in the town. I have been thinking of suggesting to the Club Pesqueros that instead of “Queen” they call that young woman “The Goddess of Gift Giving.”

These are examples, then, of community; the poorest of the poor on the inter- national global scales, the most exploited, the women you see cleaning our rooms, the people cutting our lawns, the people working in the restaurants, these are the ones who are gift giving, despite the conditions of exploitation.

What are the impacts? There are impacts within many spheres. First, these remit- tances are not actually considered to be “good” investments. While remittances might bring 15 billion dollars into the country, it is money that is not invested in productive projects, or capital-generating projects. The money simply supports families. And this goes to the heart of some of the theories put forth in the gift economy of how the sustaining of families and the sustaining of communities, like the infrastructure projects that many of these clubs have undertaken, are not considered valuable from the capitalist point of view, although they are a valuable form of gift giving to the community.

I came across a paper presented by John B. Taylor, the Under Secretary of Trea- sury for International Affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, in which he states: “In my remarks I would like to discuss, number one, why the Bush admin- istration cares so much about remittances.” Why does the Bush administration care so much about remittances? That is, as the capitalist financial establishment and corporations begin to understand the volume of gift giving that is being sent back by individuals and communities, the question becomes, “How do we take advantage of it? How does this gift giving contribute to our own interests and developments?” The Federal Reserve Bank now needs to find ways to facilitate easy wire transfers between immigrant communities and countries of origin, and a way to profit from this.

Immigrant communities, faced with increasing problems around the ability to move across borders because of tougher enforcement measures and the lack of programs to legalize their status in recipient countries, find it much more difficult to transfer money now because it was once done by family members and persons going back to the community. The financial institutions are currently position- ing themselves to see which can offer the better program, and at the same time, charge for the transfer of these funds. Even a fee of one percent for the transfer, or a lowering of the cost of transfers that is now in many cases done through Western Union or Moneygram, could actually contribute one more billion dollars to sustain families in the countries of origin.

The governments have other interests, the Fox administration particularly. It is interesting how the current President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, has begun con- gratulating the people in the United States for what now has become the largest source of foreign exchange to Mexico, beyond petroleum, beyond tourism, and again, like in other countries, has edged the net direct capitalist contribution and foreign investment in Mexico. The Fox administration has developed several government programs so that these funds are invested in productive projects, which again mean capital-making projects. One of people in Fox’s administra- tion recently stated in a public speech, “Our economy is doing great. We have had so much success in oil, in trade, and by the way, in remittances sent by the paisanos (countrymen),” as if they had anything to do with earning these funds and/or sending them back.

But certainly the phenomena of remittances is being seen by the capitalist establishment as having become a gold mine, formerly invisible—as is most gift giving—and only recognized by those that receive these remittances and the com- munities that have had the experience of the projects paid for by the many clubs that exist in the United States. This is the impact of the movement of people, and the sending back home of money, on the global economy. The very small ant-like savings of migrant people have a tremendous aggregate effect upon the economies that are being fed.

It is interesting to note that studies with the sophisticated analysis that econo- mists can now do, have shown that even those micro-gifts that become aggregate sums have a tremendous impact on the well-being of the economies, such as the Mexican economy. For instance, in one study it was shown that the injection of two billion dollars, as a result of remittances, increased the output of production in Mexico by four billion dollars and increased income in Mexico to approximately 2.2 percent of total income, and resulted in the creation of 325,225 potential jobs (“All in the Family” 2004). In other words, there can be one job created for every $4,400 of the money sent back home by immigrants.

Remittances have a definite impact on economies and well-being, and the capitalists are ready now to capitalize on this. When I look at the issue of gift giv- ing and where progressive movements are in the theoretical development of such experiences, what we see is that the experience of gift giving comes from homes that send, comes from decisions of consensus, comes from decisions in which men and women decide who emigrates and who makes the decisions as how to invest when that money is received. These good people who give have the values associated with a gift economy, which are the values of mothering, nurturing and giving, but their actions are meaningless unless they are infused with the experience of those who are exploited and oppressed, because that is what gives us direction. It is the difference between the mothering and the nurturing described by the Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome (see Paola Melchiori’s article in this volume), that character- izes women, and the nurturing and caring that is being done by immigrants all over the world of their families and which is a direct result of the experience of exploitation and oppression, and how to resist, how to construct communities, how to really live in the practical terms of globalization from below.

Maria Jimenez lives in Houston, Texas and has worked with the Latino community in the non-profit sector over the past 20 years. She has developed human rights moni- toring and documentation methodology and trained community groups in human rights monitoring and documentation. She has also written numerous articles on international migration issues. She has received many awards for her work including the Humanitarian Award from the Mickey Leland Centre, Texas Southern University in 2004, and the Community Leadership Award from the Houston Peace and Justice Centre in 2005.


AlarcŪn, Rafael. 2000, September. “The Development of Hometown Associations in the United States and the Use of Social Remittances in Mexico.” Departamento de Estudios Sociales, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Online: http://www.thedialogue. org/publications/alarcon.pdf.

“All in the Family: Latin America’s Most Important Financial Flow.” 2004, January. Re- port of the Inter-American Dialogue Task Force on Remittances. Online: http://www. thedialogue.org/publications/country_studies/remittances/all_family.pdf.

“Importance of Remittances in Houshold Income.” 1998. Newsletter of the National Board on Population of Mexico.

Orozco, Manuel. 2003, September. “Hometown Associations and Their Present and Future Partnerships: New Development Opportunities(?)” A Report Commissioned by the U.S. International Development Bank. Online: http://www.thedialogue.org/publica- tions/country_studies/remittances/HTA_final.pdf.

Suro, Roberto. “Remittance Senders and Receivers: Tracking the Transnational Channels.” 2003, November 24. Pew Hispanic Center Reports and Factsheets. Online: http://pe- whispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=23.

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