Shadowed Lives Undocumented Immigrants

Shadowed lives, by Chaves is a detailed social anthropologic ethnography of the hardships and struggles undocumented immigrants underwent in their pursuit for better lives. In a captivating creative craftsmanship, he passionately narrates the illegal immigration of the Mexicans and the Central Americans in the 1980s. It is an ethnographic account of migrations in the Northern San Diego County, California. The anecdote vividly reveals in details what immigrants seeking to make a decent living for themselves and there families had to go through. The situation was depressingly the same not only in their home countries but also in the countries they sought to work in especially the United States. The conditions they were exposed to were dismally inhumane, they had to, by all means avoid the authorities for fear of arrest and not only that, they also left the safe haven of their homes and the love of their families without the promise of ever coming back. There was the risk of death while on transit due to the many ailments and infections they were exposed to and from harassment by authorities if arrested. They endured such conditions in the hope that there were better lives ahead.

Chavez poses the questions of stereotypes and the incorporation of immigrants to the American society. These he does by contrasting immigration with rite of passage in three standard phases, that is
Separation which basically was the parting of the immigrants with their families and or society.
Transition which involved the switch and reception of the new culture they were barely familiar with.
Amalgamation this was the process of incorporation into the new society, culture, religion and way of life in California.

The root of these questions is the effects that came with restrictions. Chavez describes the effects of the enactment of the Immigration Reform and control Act (IRCA), which imposed new rules and regulations on the immigrants from 1986 onwards. Chavez also takes an in depth analysis of the possible causes of mass immigration even with the stringent rules that were imposed by the (IRCA). The act caused some employers to discriminate some of their workers and the overall overturn of alien employment went down. Foreign employees were remunerated at a lower rate to compensate their employees for the perceived risk of hiring foreigners. The first chapter explores the hardships the immigrants face when they get to America especially due to the differences in geographical disposition. They are deprived off all there basic needs which is contrary to their expectations. In retaliation to these, the Mexicans (immigrants) create their own society which is viewed as an enemy. The immigrants are depicted as willing law breakers and the only way of reforming them was through arrests, jails, deportations and penalties. The second chapter describes how the immigrants not only face rejection from the American society but also officials who were their hope. It is a detailed description of how undocumented immigrants managed to cross the borders. According to Chavez there survival inevitably lied in their ability to hide from the authorities and remain inconspicuous, especially during there shifts from the periphery to the major cities. The story also highlights the qualms and incidents of trying to survive as illegal aliens amidst the remnants of permanency. They were constantly apprehended and faced the constant threat of arrest and deportation. Some of those who were arrested at the boarders returned to their countries willingly only to try again and most a time they succeeded.

The story is based on real life stories told by the immigrants themselves. Chavez does not rely on secondary or reported information but instead conducts the interviews himself. Through these accounts he is able to paint a vivid picture of the immigrants social lives, search for work and their struggle for acceptance into the American society. He describes how they had limited support structures and lived isolated lives they lived in spider holes or cantons. In the undocumented lives, Chavez digs into the gender issues facing both men and women but pays more attention to challenges faced by women and children. In the beginning the society is predominately male but later there is evidence of co-existence with there female counter parts especially in the Green Valley. In several occasions the book illustrates women as not working but in other instances they acquired jobs. The gender roles are well depicted as the book illustrate how the Green valley residents worked raised there children together in the little time they could spare. Men on the other hand are illustrated as having spent most of their time either working or looking for jobs thus it was not easy to have concrete family structures.

Through assimilation into the American society there is a culture change among the immigrants. Most of the immigrants followed into their parents foot steps. Majority of the immigrants had to have friends or relatives in the United States to assist them with the process of immigration. It would have been a more difficult process adjusting to the American culture without people to look up to. A story is told of an immigrant father who left home every summer for America and the son observed the trend in such keenness. Later in life the boy requested assistance from his father to cross the borders so he can make a better living like him. A cultural evolution, as one may call it, is witnessed as the immigrants adapt to the American culture. They acquired the amenities that the Americans had, and examples given are, availability of running water in specific places and the construction of eateries. They also created there own new culture by cementing relations with some foreigners from different lands.

Acculturation is learned through the hard work these undocumented immigrants put towards their survival in the foreign land. Though they had limited experience and skills they worked odd jobs in the American farms, but they gave more value to there live. The Green valley represented a new culture with the high ratio of women and children to men, but with time it failed as they became more acculturated to the American social life. The workers (immigrants) eventually were able to hold more steady jobs, they settled and formed families and expanded there social networks as they got more and more acculturated into the American society. The immigrants become more assimilated, socially, economically, culturally and even personally.

This case study portrays the illegal immigrants not as enemies but social and humane creatures just like the rest of us. Their encounters had never been documented but with the help of Chavez, one can only appreciate the struggles that went into building the current American society, economy and personalities that we are so much proud of. At first I was a bit opinionated and thought that the aliens came to America to deprive the society off their rightful share of the countries heritage. On reading onwards I adopted an open mind and could not help but marvel at the lengths these people were willing to go if only to achieve their dreams of a new life. One can only sympathize and empathize with the immigrants. On a personal opinion it is a well written book that describes and brings out in details, culture, cultural changes, acculturation and gender roles played by the different people who went into building America.

Through the book, it is easy to appreciate the intricate inconsistencies that were involved in the migration and how the immigrants affected America both positively and or negatively. Generally inequality is naturalized into the minds of the residents and that of the immigrants themselves. Though set in the early 1980s, some specifics have changed but many generalities remain the same.


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