Remittances sent by working migrants back to Mexico provide essential support for community development projects, especially in the traditional Zapotec villages in the State of Oaxaca. Scholars who have investigated remittances to Mexican communities have differed about the effect they have. Some sociologists and economists have argued that young adults migrate to support themselves and their own families, leaving primarily the elderly and the youth in the home communities to get by without them. Other scholars take a more positive view, arguing that while a majority of funds are sent back for the use of individual families, a sizeable minority of remitted funds also support investments in businesses, agricultural machinery, and human capital. Remittances, they maintain, play an important, positive role in community development.

Leah K. VanWey, whose journal article on gender differences among Thai migrants was reviewed here on April 7, addresses with two co-authors the issue of remittances to Mexican Zapotec communities in a recent journal article. Their hypothesis is that communities that are effectively organized can pressure migrants to help with community projects better than communities that are not as well organized. They decided to pursue their research in four different Zapotec communities in Oaxaca State.

They conducted open-ended interviews with a wide range of people in each community—leaders, returned migrants, and the families of people who were still away—to gain an understanding of how they dealt with absent migrants and the effects of their absence on the community. These migrants work in the state capital, Oaxaca City, in the national capital, Mexico City, and in the United States. The four communities range from 1,300 to 3,500 people, and they vary from 15 minutes to 100 minutes away from Oaxaca City. Perhaps not surprisingly, the four communities vary from one another in many other ways.

Before getting into the substance of their investigation, the authors explain the basic customary practices that organize and govern most of the traditional Zapotec communities, called usos y costumbres. The usos y costumbres system provides the opportunity for members of the community to participate in a variety of assemblies and committees that elect leaders, manage natural resources, organize festivals, maintain facilities, and the like. Most communities have two different complementary assemblies under the usos y costumbres system, an Assembly of Citizens and an Assembly of Communeros. In addition to serving on committees, citizens and communeros have the right/obligation to perform unpaid work, known as the cargo, for the community.

The committee service aspect of the cargo provides the opportunity to rise in rank and prestige over time, while the required physical labor supports the community development and infrastructure work. “Voluntary” labor projects, known as tequio, might include rebuilding a road through a community forest, or maintaining a municipal government building.

The Zapotec communities studied by the authors all participate in the usos y costumbres system, to a greater or lesser degree, with many variations in the patterns of their handling absent community members. Some accept payments from the migrants, while others accept substitute workers who fulfill the responsibilities of the people who are away. Some require migrants to make large payments upon returning to cover the obligations they have missed. Others ignore the obligations that people have missed while they were away, but quickly get them involved in the cargo when they come back.

The two more distant communities studied, 60 minutes and 100 minutes travel time away from Oaxaca City, are much more organized with their traditional usos y costumbres system than the two that are just 15 minutes and 30 minutes away. The more distant communities have frequent tequios—10 to 48 times per year in the most distant one—and they strictly enforce participation by adult community members who live there. The work projects, nearly weekly in that most distant community, result in a lot of important projects being accomplished, though they cost the residents the time they could use doing other things. While people will privately complain (when the interviewer’s tape recorder is turned off) about the amount of work they have to do without pay, they all recognize that worthwhile local projects are accomplished through their tequios.

Those two communities also make sure that their absent members stay involved in the community projects. The one that is farthest away from Oaxaca City expects people who are away to send payments to the community in lieu of required work, though that is not required. As one man explained, “We aren’t obligated, but the majority of the migrants would feel bad to come back and not give something … So it’s really a moral issue.”

The other distant community, 60 minutes away from the city, pressures migrants to return periodically so they can contribute their time to the cargo system. Apparently they do so for fear of losing their membership rights in the community. That community has suffered a high rate of migration, so having their citizens return periodically to help out is essential.

In sum, the two communities that are farther from the city are the ones that are more closely tied to the traditional usos y costumbres system, and they are the ones that are relatively successful in gaining support from their migrants. These communities also run income-generating, community-controlled, business enterprises that return funds to the communities. These enterprises help the citizens to attain their goals—development projects and local employment—and the remittances from the migrants provide additional support for these business projects. Retaining the effective, local, traditional organizational system appears to be a key to maintaining support from their migrants, which helps foster development.

However, the traditional usos y costumbres system appears to be much weaker and less organized in the two communities that are closer to Oaxaca City. While citizens in these communities may not be pressured very much to participate in the tequios, the organizing committees still have ways of gaining some support. One approach used in the closer communities is to demand high payments in lieu of tequios when municipal services are requested. For instance, someone who had shirked the requested tequios might be faced with very high payments to gain a connection to the municipal water line. These two communities that make less use of the usos y costumbres system also place less pressure on their migrants to participate in the cargo, and they get less from them in the way of remittances.

The authors conclude that there seems to be no correlation between the effectiveness of the traditional usos y costumbres system and the out-migration patterns—out migration varies widely in the four communities, both in relative numbers and in the places where people go to find work. However, there is a clear correlation between the effectiveness of the traditional organization patterns and the levels of remittances and labor support that migrants give back to their home communities. In the less organized communities, remittances primarily support families and religious festivals, while in the more organized communities, remittances provide, in addition, a lot of support for community projects.

VanWey, Leah K., Catherine M. Tucker, and Eileen Diaz McConnell. 2005. “Community Organization, Migration, and Remittances in Oaxaca.” Latin American Research Review 40(1): 83-107.