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A gendered economic history of rural households: Calvillo, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1982-1991

Frontiers; Boulder; 2001; Maria de los Angeles Crummett;

Volume: 22
Issue: 1
Start Page: 105-125
ISSN: 01609009
Subject Terms: History
Economic conditions
Economic depression
Rural areas
Geographic Names: Aguascalientes Mexico
The ways in which one rural community in Mexico responded to drastically altered economic circumstances in the period of 1982-1991 is
analyzed. The gendered nature of the strategies they adopted altered the social and economic fabric of the community.
Full Text:
Copyright University of Nebraska Press
During the past twenty years, the Mexican economy has been radically transformed. Economic liberalization and structural adjustment
programs (SAP), designed to overcome the country's debt crisis and move Mexico into a more competitive position in the world economy,
have had enormous implications for rural society. The crisis of the 1980s accelerated trends present in Mexico's agricultural sector since the
mid-1960s, including growing poverty and landlessness, food dependency, and migration to urban centers and to the United States.
Agricultural reforms implemented throughout the late 1980s and 1990s led to further economic deterioration as the Mexican government
abandoned its longstanding support of agrarian programs providing subsidized resources to farmers.
Research on the changes taking place in Mexico show that a gendered perspective is critical to our understanding of this dynamic, ongoing
process of economic transformation. The policies and programs associated with structural reforms have had a disproportionately negative
effect on women.1 In the rural sector, for example, as households attempt to defend their economic livelihoods under increasingly difficult
conditions, women implement survival strategies for their families, intensifying their unpaid work in the household and in subsistence
activities.2 While the literature on the economic crisis in Mexico shows that macro-policies are not gender-neutral, few studies have
examined how economic change in the countryside has altered gender roles across different socioeconomic classes. What has been the
effect of Mexico's modernization strategy on diverse classes in the rural sector? To what extent did the market-oriented reforms of the
1980s transform gender roles within the household?
This study, based on fieldwork carried out in Mexico in 1982 and 1991, provides a unique opportunity to examine how different social
classes and different household members responded to a period of intense economic crisis and change. It covers a critical period in Mexico's
economic history-the period of the "lost decade"-marked by the 1982 financial crisis and subsequent structural reforms based on the
deregulation of markets, privatization of state enterprises, and trade liberalization. In rural Mexico these macroeconomic policies were fully
implemented under the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and signaled an end to state support for agriculture. The
Salinas reforms eliminated subsidies for most food and agricultural inputs, eliminated price supports for basic grain producers, eliminated
credit and technical assistance, and eliminated land reform.3
This study is set in Calvillo, a rural municipio, or county, located in the north central state of Aguascalientes. The findings show that the
deregulation of guava production, the main commercial crop in Calvillo, altered the agrarian class structure. It marginalized commercial
producers and thereby reduced income opportunities for two other socioeconomic classes in the region, subsistence farmers and landless
laborers. The restructuring of the guava market increased unemployment, which in turn affected the income attainment strategies of
households such that women increased their participation in a variety of income-earning activities, and male migration to the United States
jumped dramatically. The transformation of the region's economy has implied an unequal distribution of the burden of survival among
household members. Women's greater responsibility for the welfare of their households, particularly among women of the subsistence and
landless classes, led to major changes in the economic and social stability of the household unit.
In 1982, I carried out a survey of 211 rural households covering three distinct agricultural and geographical regions in Aguascalientes.
Fifty-six households, or 26 percent of the sample survey, pertain to Calvillo. In this initial study, I examined the relationship between class
stratification, household structure, and patterns of migration both within Mexico and to the United States.4 The results of the 1982 study
showed a strong and consistent pattern of class stratification across the region: a small sector of landholding households highly integrated
into commercial agriculture, a large group of households confined in varying degrees to subsistence cultivation of staple crops of corn and
beans, and the landless.5 The study also demonstrated that migration is class and gender specific. Using the three major classes identified in
the study-commercial, subsistence, and landless households-I found that household structure and organization in conjunction with class
status is associated with differing migration rates and patterns. "Commercial" units, for example, had the lowest propensity to migrate, but
when migration occurred, it was pursued as a means to enhance the household's productive base. In contrast, "subsistence" and "landless"
households exhibited high rates of male out-migration. Among these households, migration represented a vital means to secure consumption
requirements that ensure household viability.
Although women did not constitute a substantial portion of the migrant pool in 1982, the data indicated that the rate and intensity of female
migration also relate to class structure. Female migration was concentrated among the lower two strata of the rural sector. At the same time,
the dominance of men in the migrant pool highlighted the nature and consequences of migration for household structure and organization.
Among subsistence households, for example, the greater tendency for men to migrate increased women's involvement in agricultural work
on the family holding. In both subsistence and landless households women's participation in wagework increased in response to high rates
of male out-migration.
In the fall of 1991, 1 returned to Aguascalientes to examine the changes perceived in the region since 1982. At this time, I focused my
fieldwork in Calvillo, interviewing household members from the original fifty-six households sampled in the 1982 survey. The 1982-1991
period in Calvillo was one of dramatic transformation. Indeed, nearly all facets of rural life, from agricultural production, wagework, and
migration to unpaid domestic labor and family life, underwent profound change. With a specific focus on the class and gender dimensions
that have accompanied the transformation of the regional economy, the following sections look at the changes occurring in Calvillo.
The Region
Calvillo, located in the southwest corner of the state of Aguascalientes, is perhaps best known in Mexico for the production of two very
different goods: guava and embroidered handicrafts.
Calvillo's agrarian development differed fundamentally from development in the rest of the state of Aguascalientes. The hacienda an
integral part of the state's prerevolutionary history, did not play a major role in Calvillo. Rather the pequena propiedad, or "small" private
property, dominated the rural sector since the community's origins in the early 1700s. In the 1950s and 1960s a group of farmers in Calvillo
consolidated their landholdings in order to undertake the commercial exploitation of guava. Private and public bank credit financed the
construction of dams and other irrigation systems. Improved strains of guava, insecticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and other agro-
inputs, most subsidized by the state, became essential ingredients in the production process.
Calvillo's entrepreneurs came mainly from pequenos propietarios, the small proprietor class. By the early 1970s they had brought guava
production into full swing, and Calvillo became the most important producer of guava in Mexico, accounting for two-thirds of national
output and 30 percent of the state's agricultural income.6 In contrast, basic crop cultivation of corn and beans dropped sharply because of
two major trends. First, government-regulated corn prices eroded producer incentives to the point where land was sold, leased, or
abandoned altogether. Second, many producers, attracted by the lucrative nature of guava, began planting guava trees in place of food crops.
As the number of guava-planted hectares increased throughout the 1970s, strategic portions of the production process became concentrated
in the hands of a few producers. Packing and storage, processing, distribution to national and international markets, and sales were
controlled by a minority of growers who had access to financing and commercial networks. Increasingly, capital accumulation in guava
controlled the productive activities of the majority of producers. It also fostered the development of a marginalized group of subsistence
producers and a growing landless sector. For many of these households, work in the guava fields and temporary cyclical migration to the
United States became the primary sources of wage employment.
Guava production is a major source of seasonal wage employment in the region. During the harvest period that extends from late September
through early February, laborers from the region's landless and subsistence households (comprised of ejidatario7 and sharecroppers) pick,
sort, and pack the fruit. During the off-season, workers head north across the United States-Mexican border in search of agricultural or
service-sector work.
In addition to guava farming, the production of embroidery also provides employment for women in Calvillo. The industry gained national
recognition for its bordados and deshilados, intricate hand- and machine-embroidered clothing, tablecloths, napkins, and other household
articles, that originated in the rural communities of Calvillo. For generations, women have embroidered goods for personal consumption and
to meet demand from other rural and urban households in the region. For some time, however, embroidery production has been organized as
a national industry. In contrast to guava production, the maquila embroidery industry has no local base. Intermediaries and subcontractors
from the state capital, Aguascalientes City, distribute materials among rural households in Calvillo. Large national firms from Mexico City
and Guadalajara have also set up elaborate networks of intermediaries in charge of distribution, pick up of the finished product, and
payment.8 Women working in maquila domistica9 (domestic piecework), in Calvillo are subject to extreme exploitation. They work for
piece rates far below the legal minimum, and work is irregular, piece rates unpredictable, and social benefits nonexistent.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, guava production, migration, and maquila typified the work patterns of Calvillo's subsistence and
landless households. A traditional division of labor by gender circumscribed the employment opportunities available to women and men.
Men and older male children worked in the guava fields, and temporary cyclical migration to the United States increasingly drew sons and
male heads of households. Maquila employed women, and almost all female children from the age of seven or eight were involved. Overall,
more than 75 percent of subsistence and landless households in the 1982 agrarian survey of Calvillo depended on either guava or maquila
for employment, and half of these households sent migrants to the United States on a regular basis.
A combination of these household strategies was critical to maintaining the economic and social viability of the household. During extended
periods of temporary male migration to the United States, maquila piecework became the primary source of household income. Although
maquila earnings constituted approximately one-third of total income among landless households, the availability of year-round, albeit
poorly remunerated, work in maquila meant that basic needs were being met while the household waited for money to arrive from migrants.
Moreover, the nature of maquila-paid work in the home-enabled child care and other household tasks to be performed alongside wagework.
Economic Transformation: The Intersection of Class and Gender
By the early 1990s, all economic activities supporting households had undergone major transformations with important implications for
Calvillo's rural class structure as well as household production, income, and most notably, women's roles in the gender division of labor.
First, the attempt to implement marketoriented policies in agriculture led the government to reduce price supports on key agricultural
expenses as well as abandon its longstanding support of agrarian programs providing capital, credit, and other resources to small farmers.11
In Calvillo, these deregulatory measures had the effect of squeezing the productive capacity of small- and medium-sized guava growers. For
example, electricity for irrigation, a major cost of production for farmers (guava trees require weekly irrigation nine months out of the year),
increased in price 142 times since 1983.12 In 1991 alone, electricity for irrigation rose more than 400 percent.
Subsidies have also been lifted on other agricultural expenses and equipment. Consequently, there has been a steady increase in the cost of
tractors, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and other expenses needed for production.13 Although the price per kilo of guava fluctuated widely
over the decade of the 1980s, it did not keep pace with price increases in production expenses. To be sure, over production in Calvillo and
increasing competition from producers elsewhere in Mexico largely account for depressed prices for the fruit crop. Nonetheless, in 1991,
growers in Calvillo argued that the government's abrupt removal of price supports for key agricultural expenses, especially for electricity for
irrigation, was the main culprit behind the crisis in guava production.
Although no macro-level data are available from which to discern the impact of market deregulation on guava in the early 1990s, my own
data suggest that these measures have concentrated production in the hands of a few large agro-capitalists that account for the greater share
of commercial production. Small private farmers, traditionally the backbone of guava cultivation, have sustained significant, if not
permanent, losses with the removal of state subsidies. For example, all six households identified as "commercial" in the 1982 survey (or
11.3 percent of the total number of households) were on the verge of bankruptcy in 1991.14 Initially, these households attempted to remain
competitive by taking entire groves out of production (the closing of one irrigation well-shared by many growers-eliminates the jobs of
approximately five hundred workers) and by introducing laborsaving equipment into the production process (one mechanical weeder, for
example, replaces five laborers). During the harvest period, these producers reported further reduction in labor costs by employing young
women from Calvillo and large numbers of Huicholes (an impoverished indigenous people from the state of Nayarit) at subminimum wage
rates. By the end of the 1980s nearly half of all jobs in guava production had been eliminated.15
In 1982, these small-scale commercial producers clearly belonged in the upper stratum of rural households in terms of access to the means
of production, the extensive use of wage labor, the value of agricultural output, and the level of household income. In terms of monetary
income alone, Table 1 shows that in 1982 commercial units on average earned nearly ten times more than subsistence households and
almost seven times more than the landless sector. Between 1982 and 1991 the commercial households attempted to maintain their economic
status in the community by employing reproduction strategies more typical of their less well-off neighbors: They diversified income sources
and increased the number of family members in the labor market. Significantly, in 1982 this stratum did not hire out labor, rather, total
monetary income was derived from production on the land. In 1991, however, wage labor, both local and migratory, was prevalent
throughout this class while income from guava was virtually nonexistent for at least the last two production cycles.
In 1991 two other features characterized the commercial households-indebtedness and decapitalization. On the one hand, the lack of public-
sector credit put small commercial producers at the mercy of moneylenders charging exorbitant rates of interest. In order to repay debts,
farmers had to deplete their capital stocks by selling trucks, tractors, and other farm equipment. The lack of productive resources, in turn,
further restricted employment of hired labor. On the other hand, half of the commercial units in the survey reported the need to sell
household assets, including livestock, furniture, and major appliances, in order to meet living expenses. Farmers turned to family labor to
support their livelihoods in guava. Maria de Jesus, a forty-four-year-old woman with six children, whose family cultivates two hectares of
guava (approximately 200 trees) and owns a guava nursery, reported that she and her children began helping out in the mid1980s. "Putting
food on the table is not a problem," she explained. "But we can no longer afford to hire peons, and all of us, including my youngest [boy,
age 13], work in guava [family parcel]. It doesn't get us much-the boxes to package the fruit in are more expensive than the price we get for
a box of guava. Mostly we get by on what we earn from selling the guava trees in the nursery. When my two older sons are in the United
States, they send us shoes and clothing and sometimes money."
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For subsistence households (37.7 percent of sampled households), the other landed class identified in the 1982 agrarian survey of Calvillo,
the decade of the eighties heralded critical changes in almost every aspect of work and family life. Not only did household members from
this social sector increase their participation in income-earning activities, but they also altered their consumption patterns, significantly
reducing the purchase of food, clothing, medicine, and other basic necessities. For example, in the majority of subsistence households meals
consisted of beans and tortillas (in a few cases beans and hot peppers) and little else. Although these food items constitute the traditional
diet of Mexico's rural population, households stated that they were consuming less of these foods than in previous years and eliminating
even the occasional intake of meat and other animal protein. Juana A., a fifty-six-year-old mother of seven children, put it this way: "A kilo
of meat costs $16,000 pesos and for that amount the whole family can eat beans for a week.""6 Her situation is near desperate: "There's
much less work than in years past, and everything is so expensive. We will go hungry if things continue like this."
Like commercial producers, the subsistence sector attempted to forestall their economic decline by taking on high levels of debt. Sixty-two
percent of households reported to be heavily in debt to either relatives or local moneylenders. Debt was taken on in order to finance an
international migrant, to purchase or lease an industrial sewing machine (for maquila embroidery), or to pay for major medical expenses.
For a significant number of rural households, however, acquiring credit was a means to pay for immediate consumption items: 24.6 percent
of households stated that they requested credit from the neighborhood grocery store on a weekly basis just in order to eat.
For subsistence producers, the brunt of adjustment policies has largely been felt through the labor market rather than the product market.
Among these households, plots are small (on average 2.9 hectares) and of such poor quality that they cannot absorb the family labor force
or produce a surplus for sale on the market. Consequently, higher prices for basic foods, maize and beans, have been of little economic
assistance to Calvillo's small-holder households. In fact, Calvillo's subsistence producers are net buyers of food crops, so much so that price
increases for agricultural goods have diminished household income and consumption levels.
Calvillo's subsistence households have persisted over time by their extensive involvement in wage labor. In 1982, the subsistence sector
derived over threequarters of its total income from wagework (primarily in agriculture and maquila). Although the proportion of wage
income to total income did not change significandy between 1982 and 1991, real wages for agricultural work decreased by almost 50
percent between 1981 and 1988. The combination of inadequate land resources, declining wages, and more restricted opportunities in
agricultural wagework, especially for men, has had two important consequences for subsistence producers. First, households have expanded
the types and number of income-generating activities in which they engage; second, given the nature of employment opportunities,
particularly in the United States, and the gender division of labor within the household, men from this class are migrating in evergreater
numbers as women remain behind to maintain land rights. Accordingly, women are increasingly responsible for the economic welfare of
their families. From taking in more piecework to selling animal stock, marketing small agricultural surpluses, making and selling tortillas,
taking in laundry, and working in domestic service, women of the subsistence class have sought out myriad ways in which to meet their
households' most basic needs.
Children from the subsistence class, particularly older daughters, have also played a critical role in household survival strategies. Daughters
comprised the majority of home workers in both the 1982 and 1991 surveys, and, in the late 1980s, they entered the traditionally male
occupation of wagework in the guava orchards.
Although lacking means of production, landless households, comprising the majority of households in the survey (51 percent), were
significantly better off in economic terms than were subsistence producers at the time of the first survey. In fact, in 1982 the landless had
fewer wage earners per household, yet their average net income was greater than that of subsistence households. (Table 1 provides a
breakdown of average gross weekly earnings by class.) However, by 1991, this social sector had undergone a process of differentiation
where at least two distinct groups emerged. The first group consists of households that have managed to maintain to a certain degree their
standards of living, largely because of income from international migrants. A second group of landless households, comprising about 36
percent of the landless, more closely resembles the subsistence sector in their tenuous ability to make ends meet. As Table 1 and Table 2
indicate, the income gap between the subsistence and landless sectors narrowed significantly in the period 1982-1991.
Particularly evident among landless households in 1991 was the impact of belt-tightening on children's schooling. Children frequently
missed school in order to help out in maquila or to seek wagework in guava. Secondary education has also been severely curtailed,
especially for daughters. Because daughters make a substantial contribution to household income through maquila and other income-earning
activities, many mothers felt they could not justify the extra expense, much less the loss of income, entailed in sending a daughter to
secondary school.
Consequently, the drive toward agricultural "modernization" in Calvillo has had far-reaching implications for every segment of rural
society. First, it marginalized guava farmers and in the process reduced important income opportunities for producers and laborers alike. At
the same time deteriorating market conditions fundamentally restructured the regional labor market by reducing total labor demand. Second,
deregulation in the form of reduced state subsidies for numerous agricultural inputs and the economic crisis in general placed the entire rural
class structure in a state of flux. In the early 1980s the breakdown of households into "commercial," "subsistence," and "landless" groups
provided a useful approximation to rural stratification in Calvillo. While the sample is too small to conclude that a major class
reconfiguration took place in the early 1990s, it is evident that these same class categories no longer adequately depict the profound
economic and social transformations taking place across, as well as within, major rural groups.
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This economic and social crisis also had a strong gender-differentiated impact. Among the subsistence households and in a significant
percentage of the landless households, declining employment opportunities for men in agriculture and increased male out-migration resulted
in a greater reliance of families on women's and daughters' earnings. Women's paid work largely consisted of activities seen as extensions
of their domestic role (for example, piecework, selling food, taking in laundry), although in many instances they entered "male" occupations
such as management of the landholding and agricultural wagework. On the other hand, as male incomes declined, men did not seek
employment outside of a fairly narrow range of activities (guava, agricultural wagework, migration) in which they had been engaged prior
to the crisis. Moreover, my study found no evidence of husbands or sons taking greater responsibility for the performance of unpaid
domestic chores. In spite of women's (and children's) increased contribution to household income, lower returns to female labor mean that
women were working in more kinds of activities than their male counterparts, and yet total household income fell over the decade of the
eighties. The result is that these households are among the most impoverished groups in rural Aquascalientes.
Migration and Maquila: Strategies for Survival?
In Calvillo, two very specific activities capture the tenacity with which households responded to the reforms of the 1980s: male migration to
the United States and female involvement in maquila piecework. Indeed, the vast majority of households, irrespective of class status,
increased their participation in migration and maquila in order to counteract deteriorating living standards.
With regard to migration, in 1982, 47.2 percent of households in the Calvillo survey included one or more migrants, and 75 percent of the
migrant population chose destinations in the United States. By 1991 over three-fourths of all households included migrants, and 97 percent
of these migrants headed toward the United States. Table 3 provides a breakdown of Calvillo's main class groups and their involvement in
migration in 1982 and 1991. Although the proportion of migrant households by class remained relatively constant between the two time
periods, the volume of migration within each class jumped significantly. In 1982 only one household within the commercial class was
involved in migration; in 1991, half of these households reported at least one family member engaged in migration over the preceding
twelve months. Among the subsistence and landless classes, roughly half of all households from each of these two social sectors had
migrants in 1982. Ten years later, 90 percent of subsistence households and 74 percent of landless households contained migrants. The data
show that 72.3 percent of all households regularly engaged in international migration in the five years preceding the 1991 survey.
Like migration, the number of households involved in maquila increased significantly between the two time periods. As Table 4 indicates,
subsistence households continued to have the greatest participation in maquila, with nearly threequarters of all households taking in
piecework in 1991. The inclusion of one commercial unit among households with maquila provides additional evidence of the economic
decline of this sector.
Undoubtedly, migration and maquila activities, more than any other strategies, made the difference between economic survival and
economic disintegration during the years of the crisis. Households receiving income from migrant workers in the United States reported that
this contribution played a decisive role in cushioning the effects of losses in household income from other sources. In several households
from the commercial and landless classes, migrant income was significant enough to allow families to continue purchasing an array of
consumer durable products, including televisions, stereos, and pickup trucks, and to make investments in their material living conditions.
Many interviewees could also point to entire communities that had prospered because of migrant income. For the most part, the women I
interviewed did not consider their earnings from maquila to be as important in pay from migrants. Nonetheless, they were certain that
homework income provided at the very least for elgasto diario, or day-to-day expenses. Furthermore, unlike migration income, which was
only partially pooled, women directly controlled earnings from piecework that provided for children's food, clothing, and other necessities.
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By the end of the 1980s, however, the income-earning strategies that helped many rural households in Calvillo pull through one of most
difficult periods of their lives began to exhibit serious shortcomings. Changes in both the pattern of migration to the United States and the
overall importance of maquila to household income account for the contradictory effects on households' economic and social stability.
For example, in the years prior to the crisis, migration to the United States drew from male heads of households and older sons. In 1982
men heading households comprised 34.1 percent of the migrant pool and sons accounted for 47.7 percent of migrants; in 1991 sons
accounted for 73.5 percent of all migrants. The overwhelming presence of sons in the 1991 migrant pool had significant implications for
sending households. Family members reported that remittances from sons were more sporadic and less substantial than remittances from
male heads of households. Amparo, a woman with two sons in the United States, remarked: "The boys spend [their earnings] on whatever:
They don't help much with expenses here at home." In 1982, over 90 percent of households with migrants received money from migrants,
and these households on average received about $1,150 (U.S.). In 1991, the rate of migrant households receiving remittances fell to 75
percent, and the average yearly amount had dropped nearly 40 percent to $674 (U.S.). Moreover, sons remitting considerable sums of
money in 1991 often had their earnings earmarked for specific personal expenditures, such as a wedding or home construction. As Table 2
indicates, by 1991 migration remittances accounted for only 10 percent of total monetary income among landless households in the survey
as compared to 24 percent in 1982.
Families also maintained that because of weak employment and wage opportunities in Calvillo (and a booming market for immigrant labor
in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s), sons had little incentive to return home. As a consequence, ties to family and relatives in the
home community weakened over the years, and several interviewees reported that they had lost contact altogether with their children in the
United States. The survey data reveal that the 1991 migrants do indeed remain away for longer periods of time than their predecessors-5.2
years in 1991 compared with 3.1 years in 1982. Rafaela, a women with two brothers, ages twenty-two and nineteen, working in California,
described her family's situation as follows: "Juan [the older brother] left four years ago. He stayed three years [in California] before coming
home. He was home for about three months and then left again. He's been saving his money to build a house and to get married. Every once
in a while the two of them will send us $1,000 (U.S.)-to help out with school expenses or if there is an illness in the family-but it's not a sure
thing, it doesn't happen every month."
The changes in the intensity and composition of the migrant population in turn has altered the traditional role played by women's earnings in
maquila, to provide for their families while they waited from money to come from migrants. As remittances became a less reliable source of
household income, women attempted to maximize earnings by increasing the total number of hours family members devoted to homework
and, if economically feasible, to purchase or rent an industrial sewing machine and thereby increase productivity. Households with sewing
machines, or 29 percent of households with maquila work, were also able to take advantage of one of the better-paid jobs in maquila, the
embroidery of collars for women's dresses. Even so, by the beginning of the 1990s, women engaged in piecework complained that they
were barely able to make ends meet. Because of cyclical fluctuations in demand for collars and blouses they had received less piecework
than anticipated. Nearly all the home workers I interviewed calculated that once they deducted operating expenses, such as sewing machine
rental, electricity, thread, and needles, they were operating at a loss or only breaking even.
The data in Table 5 and Table 6 illustrate the changes affecting women's remunerated labor and income. The percentage of women
performing remunerated labor across all social classes rose significantly between 1982 and 1991. In 1982, women of the commercial sector
defined themselves as housewives and their roles within the household as "quehacer," that is, focused on the management of resources and
the care of children. In 1991, women comprised one-half of the household members performing remunerated work in the commercial class.
Women and their daughters reported participating in a variety of incomegenerating activities, including work on the family guava parcel,
wagework in guava (daughters), self-employment in small businesses, and maquila.
Among subsistence households, women constitute almost half (47 percent) of all household members performing remunerated labor in
1991; during this same time period landless women accounted for over 40 percent of household members engaged in money-making
activities. In both social classes, maquila continued to dominate women's income earning. Yet women's increased participation in paid labor
is matched by lower rather than higher rates of return. As Table 5 and Table 6 indicate, between 1982 and 1991 the average daily earnings
for women of the subsistence sector fell by more than half, from $2.36 (U.S.) per day in 1982 to $1.12 (U.S.) in 1991. Although less
dramatic, women from the landless sector also experienced a sharp 20 percent decline in piece wages between 1982 and 1991.
Most seriously, the slump in rural maquila in the early 1990s did not appear to be a short-term phenomenon. The economy-wide recession
of the 1980s signaled a fundamental restructuring of the state's textile and garment industries. By the end of the decade, over 40 percent of
the firms in these industries had foreclosed or merged with larger establishments.18 The concentration of production in the hands of larger,
more technologically efficient firms meant fewer workers both in and outside the factory. Not only did rural home workers receive far less
work than in previous years, but most of the available work consisted of deshilados, the handstitching of designs on women's and children's
blouses and the most labor-intensive and poorly paid task in the industry.19 In 1991 the majority (53.6 percent) of maquila households in
Calvillo engaged in the manufacture of deshilados. Juana B., whose husband is an ejidatario, remarks: "When there is work, I sew all day
long until sunset. I can earn between 5,000 to 10,000 pesos a week, but that doesn't even cover for what we pay daily for tortillas [2,500
pesos]. But there's not much work now. Weeks can go by without work."
Thus, in Calvillo, women are working more and earning less as a consequence of several interrelated trends: declining income opportunities
in maquila, a shift toward poorly paid assembly tasks, and depressed piece rates for homebased work as a whole. Faced with a long-term
slump in maquila, few alternative or viable off-farm jobs, and a sharp drop in migrant income, growing numbers of rural women from the
landless and subsistence sectors have opted to follow the well-established migration trajectory of their male kin. In a number of cases,
women moved with their families or joined migrant spouses in the United States. For example, of the forty-one households containing
migrants in 1991, six households-five from the landless sector alone-had migrated as complete family units, four of them to the United
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The largest contingent of female migrants, however, consists of daughters in their early to mid-twenties moving out of the subsistence
sector to urban areas. In 1982 women of all ages comprised under 10 percent of the migrant pool in Calvillo, who, without exception,
headed toward urban centers within Mexico. By 1992, however, daughters alone accounted for 10.3 percent of all migrants, of which female
heads of households comprised 4.4 percent, and the United States, not Mexican urban centers, was the preferred destination.20
This essay analyzes the ways in which one rural community in Mexico responded to drastically altered economic circumstances in the
period 1982-1991, and how the gendered nature of the strategies they adopted altered the social and economic fabric of the community. One
major finding is that all social sectors responded dynamically to ten years of economic decline and uncertainty. While these groups were not
passive victims of economic change, the quality of life throughout the community declined over the period of study. Moreover, the Calvillo
study confirms the findings of other research in Mexico contending that gender is an integral dimension of economic restructuring. Women
are largely responsible for devising survival strategies at the household level to cope with economic change. Indeed, in Calvillo women
worked in more kinds of income earning activities than their male counterparts, yet faced significant decreases in total household income.
This was especially true for the subsistence sector where women faced enormous obstacles in meeting everyday survival needs.
Without a doubt, women's increased participation in paid employment cushioned the fall in total household income over the decade of the
1980s. Nevertheless, decreasing income from migrants-the greatest portion of rural family budgets in the subsistence and landless classes-
were not recouped by female earnings. Certainly, women's increased burden for family well-being relates to the specific way in which the
crisis has affected the gender division of labor in Calvillo, but it also relates to gender ideologies that perceive the collection and distribution
of money and other resources to be "female activities."21
Another important finding is that the changes wrought by the transformations of the Mexican economy in the 1980s placed new burdens on
rural households and families. Most notably, the mass exodus of people from Calvillo, especially young people, has all but transformed
rural life. First, the sheer volume of migration has had a visible impact on Calvillo's demographic structure. "Hasta los perros quieren ir al
norte," or "Even the dogs want to go north," is how Marta, a woman from the landless class with two sons in the United States, described
the situation. A twenty-year-old woman, Patrica, added, "So many men have gone [to the United States], that only women are left. It's
impossible to find a boyfriend." The increased incidence of female migration in addition to already high rates of male migration has left
some communities with few working-age children.
Second, the shift from temporary, circular migration to permanent settlement in the United States has taken its toll on subsistence
agriculture. Although production on the land does not represent an important source of monetary income for subsistence households,
cultivation for household consumption continues to be a chief source of food for Calvillo's rural poor. Yet in those instances where women
are left behind because of the migration of husbands and older children, women experience great difficulty juggling domestic chores,
wagework, and the added agricultural tasks fomerly performed by migrated family members prior to their migration. Not only are women
disadvantaged by overwork, but the economic crisis has led to a drastic reduction in public and private credit, technical assistance, and other
agricultural services. In some cases, migrant income has enabled women to hire laborers to work the land. In most cases, however, women
have found it necessary to abandon agricultural production altogether.
At the same time, the migration of children of both sexes has increased tensions within the family unit. For example, the prolonged absence
of male migrants in conjunction with irregular and insufficient remittance income has led to an increase in de facto and de jure female-
headed households. Although the percentage of women abandoned by their husbands is relatively small (under 5 percent of households in
the survey), women expressed considerable anxiety about their husbands leaving to the United States. Rumors circulated about men with
second wives and families in el norte, and women blame their husbands and sons' drinking and gambling habits on their trips across the
Women abandoned for long periods of time often take up residence with other women, particularly their mothers or married daughters. In
addition, women migrating to join spouses in the United States often leave their young children behind with grandparents. Both situations
have augmented women's domestic burden and severely strained already meager household budgets.
In Calvillo, then, structural changes, including the deregulation of guava production and the virtual collapse of maquila, greatly increased
rural out-migration to the United States. For individuals who leave, transnational migration often results in a number of positive changes.
For example, it offers the chance of an improved standard of living, and for women, the opportunity to break out of traditionally restrictive
roles in the countryside. From the standpoint of the rural family and the community, however, the migration wave of the 1980s and early
1990s is problematic. Most serious is the fact that international labor migration, once a primary means to ensure the long-term survivability
of the household 22 in Calvillo, no longer represents a family strategy for survival or upward mobility but rather represents an individual
response to households' downward economic spiral.
The impact of structural transformation in Calvillo between 1982 and 1991 has ultimately been striking, if uneven, across different social
sectors and different household members. The position of the household within the rural class structure plays a major role in shaping
strategies the household adopts under conditions of economic adversity. However, within the household itself, individual members are
affected differently: gender, age, education, and marital status all interrelate to structure unique responses for different household members.
In Calvillo, two groups have been most affected: daughters from the subsistence and landless classes who have interrupted their education
to enter the local labor market or migrate to the United States; and adult women, who, in addition to wagework and subsistence cultivation,
saw their unpaid work in the household increase. The results of this study underscores the fact that macroeconomic transformation affects
women at the household level and through the division of labor. Future studies on a larger sample of households would do well to explore
the linkages between macro-level trends and household dynamics, especially with regard to how unequal gender relations within the
household mediate rural households' responses to changes in the larger economy.

I wish to thank the people of Calvillo for their generous hospitality, Eva Tern Fuentes for her research assistance, and three anonymous
reviewers for their suggestions and criti

cism. Support for this research project was provided by the Institute for Latin American and Iberian Studies, Columbia University, and the
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

1. For studies of the gendered impact of the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies in Latin America, see Adriana Garcia and Edith
Gomariz, Mujeres centroamericanas: Ante la crisis, la guerra, y e1 proceso de paz (San Jose, Costa Rica: FLACSO/CSUCA/ Universidad
para la Paz, 1989); Maria L.Tarres, "Formas de organizacion popular urbana en la crisis econdmica de Mexico: Una mirada a partir de los
de abajo," (paper prepared for the Latin American Studies Association meeting, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1989); Irma Arriagada, "Unequal
Participation by Women in the Working World," Santiago: CEPAL Review 40 (1990): 83-98; Neuma Aguiar, "La mujer y la crisis
latinoamericana" in Mujer y crisis-respuestas ante la recesion, Neuma Aguiar, ed. (Caracas, Venezuela: Editorial Nueva Sociedad, 1990);
Lourdes Beneria, "The Mexican Debt Crisis: Restructuring the Economy and the Household" in Unequal Burden, Economic Crisis,
Persistent Poverty and Women's Work, Lourdes Beneria and Shelley Feldman, eds. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press., 1992); and Rita M.
Blumberg and Cathy Rakowski, eds., Engendering Wealth and Well-Being (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995). For specific case studies of
rural Mexico, see Florencia Pena Saint Martin, Estrategias femeninas ante la pobreza, el trabajo domiciliario en la elaboracidn de prendas de
vestir (Mexico City: Instituto National de Antropologia e Historia, 1998); and Kerry Preibisch and Sharon Proctor, "Economic Crisis and
Household Survival: The Crossroads of Class and Gender in Four Rural Mexican Communities" (paper prepared for the Latin American
Studies Association meeting, Miami, Fla., March 2000).

2. Diane Elson, Male Bias in the Development Process (New York: Manchester University Press, 1991); and Preibisch and Proctor,
"Economic Crisis and Household Survival," 1.
3. Pacific Council on International Policy, 2000, "Mexico Transforming," (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2000); and
Preibisch and Proctor, "Economic Crisis and Household Survival," 4.
4. See Maria Crummett, "Agrarian Class Structure and Migration: A Comparative Regional Analysis from Aguascalientes, Mexico," (Ph.D.
diss., New School for Social Research, 1984), 212-17, for a discussion of sampling procedures and an analysis of the three survey regions.
Both the 1982 and the 1991 surveys recorded information on the members of each household and their activities, including agricultural
work, paid work, unpaid domestic work, self-employment, and migration. In addition to the formal survey instrument, the research strategy
includes interviews with key informants in the region and the collection of secondary data.
5. Household class position was determined through an analysis of factors shaping both the external structure of rural households, such as
access to land and the buying and selling of labor power, and the internal structure, organization, and composition

of households. See Maria Crummett, "Class, Household Structure, and the Peasantry: An Empirical Approach," Journal of Peasant Studies,
14:3 (1987): 363-79, for methodology employed in determining the three major class categories (commercial, subsistence, and landless) in
the survey.
6. Secretaria de Agricultura y Recursos Hidraulicos, "Plan Regional de Investigaci6n AgricoLa, Aguascalientes" (Mexico: Instituto National
de Investigaciones Agrarias, 1980), 52.

7. The ejido formed the basic unit of agrarian reform policies following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Ownership and
administration of an ejido is legally vested in a community responsible for allocating cropland to individual ejido members, the ejidatarios.
Reforms implemented under the Salinas administration now allow ejido land to be sold, thus removing a restriction since the Revolution
that ejido land could not be sold (or leased) but had to be kept in the community. Sharecropping arrangements in Calvillo generally grant
the sharecropper use of land in return for which the landowner receives one-half of the harvest.
8. Marfa Crummett, "Rural Women and Industrial Homework in Latin America: Research Review and Agenda," Rural Employment Policy
Research Programme, International Labour Office Working Paper Series No. 46 (Geneva: ILO, 1988).
9. In Mexico, subcontracting is normally referred to as domestic maquila (maquila domestica) when piecework is carried out in the home. In
Calvillo, maquila consists of labor-intensive embroidery undertaken for a firm under specific contract arrangements, including exact
specifications regarding design. In most cases, raw materials such as cloth and thread are provided, and production is mainly oriented
toward the internal market.
10. Crummett, "Rural Women and Industrial Homework in Latin America," 20.

11. Kirsten Appendini, "Los campesinos maiceros frente a La politica de abasto: Una contradiccin permanente," (paper prepared for the
Latin American Studies Association Meeting, Washington, D.C., 1991); Patricia Arias and Jorge Durand, "Campesinos defines del siglo
XX," (Mexico: Revista del Centro de Investigaciones, 3, 1990): 41-49; and Lois Stanford, "Privatization of Mexican Agriculture: The
Impact on Peasant Organizations," (paper prepared for the Latin America Studies Association Meeting, Washington, D.C., 1991).
12. Jose Luis Calva, "La inversidn privada, social yptblica en e1 sector agropecuario," (Mexico City, unpublished manuscript, n.d.).
13. Calva, "La inversidn privada," 2.
14. Percentages are based on a total of fifty-three households rather than the original sample of fifty-six. One respondent declined to
reinterviewed in 1991, and two other households no longer existed because elderly members had died in the interim.
15. J. Rojas Nieto, "Las contradicciones de desarrollo industrial: notas sobre el desarrollo industrial de Aguascalientes," (paper prepared for
the Eleventh Colloquium on "Las Realidades Regionales de la Crisis National," Zamora, Mexico, 1989), 5-70.

16. In October 1991, one U. S. dollar equalled 3000 Mexican pesos. 17. Calva, "La inversidn privada," 11.
18. Rojas Nieto, "Las contradicciones de desarrollo industrial," 13.
19. Highly skilled women embroidering designs on collars (bordados) by machine can complete one collar in thirty to forty-five minutes.
On an average, women produce ten collars a day or fifty per week. Depending upon the degree of difficulty of the embroidered pattern and
the firm distributing the material, women receive between 4,000 and 7,000 pesos per collar. Elaborately hand-sewn blouses (deshilados), on
the other hand, take several hours to complete. A skilled laborer, working six to eight hours a day, can finish three to four blouses a day or
about fifteen to twenty per week. Women receive 500 pesos per blouse. By way of comparison, male agricultural workers in guava are paid
20,000 pesos per day.
20. The major migration trends documented in Calvillo in the 1980s-increased male migration, long-term residency in the United States,
and a higher incidence of female migration-have also been reported for other rural sending communities in Mexico. See Wayne Cornelius,
"Los Migrantes de la Crisis. The Changing Profile of Mexican Migration to the United States," in Social Responses to Mexico! Economic
Crisis of the 1980s, Mercedes Gonzalez de la Rocha and Augustin Escobar Latapi, eds. (San Diego: University of California Press, 1991);
and Pierette HondagneuSotelo, Gender Transitions: Mexican Experiences oflmmigration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
21. Joycelin Massiah, "Defining Women's Work in the Commonwealth Caribbean" in Persistent Inequalities. Women and World
Development, Irene Tinker, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Brfgida Garcia and Orlandina de Oliveira, "Gender
Relations in Urban Middle-Class and Working-Class Households in Mexico," in Blumberg and Raakowski, Engendering Wealth and Well-
Being, 237.
22. Merilee Grindle, "The Response to Austerity: Political and Economic Strategies of Mexico's Rural Poor," in Rocha and Latapi, Social
Responses to Mexico's Economic Crisis of the 1980s, 140.

[Author note]
MARIA DE LOS ANGELES CRUMMETT is an associate professor of economics and the coordinator of Latin American programs,
Institute for World Commerce Education, at the University of Tampa. She has published numerous articles on women and economic
development in Latin America and has worked as a consultant to international agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Labor
Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNIFEM. Crummet received her B.A. from Stanford University and her Ph.D. from
the Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, New York.