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Crisis-management: Tzeltal-Maya transnational migration and the Foucauldian apparatus


This paper offers a Foucauldian analysis of Tzeltal-Maya transnational migration from Cañada Estrella, Ocosingo, Chiapas, to San Francisco, California, placing it within the context of North American neoliberalism. It asserts that Tzeltal-Maya migrants, through their creation of new transnational social relations, bring into articulation an informal neoliberal migration apparatus (a Foucauldian dispositif). This apparatus assembles and coordinates a variety of indigenous, ladino, and gringo strategies, techniques, tactics, and technologies for dealing with and harnessing the crises and opportunities presented by international capitalism. Such an apparatus functions in tandem and tension with neoliberal state apparatuses and produces a transnational neoliberal order in indigenous ejidos. Further, this paper demonstrates that this apparatus has allowed Tzeltal-Maya ejidos in the Lacandon Jungle greater degrees of autonomy from the Mexican municipal, state, and federal governments and the local rancher elite, while also making them increasingly interdependent with small businesses in the United States.

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  1. 1.

    The Tzeltal-Maya compose one of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Chiapas, Mexico, and live primarily in Chiapas’ central highlands and the eastern lowland Lacandón Jungle.

  2. 2.

    The term ladino in Chiapas, Mexico was first used in the 16th century to indicate an individual whose mixed ethnicity would not allow for his categorization as a ‘Spaniard,’ a ‘black slave,’ or an ‘Indian.’ Now it is used to refer to those that acknowledge some Spanish descent and denotes racial and social superiority.

  3. 3.

    The term hacendado refers to the owner and authoritarian manager of a hacienda.

  4. 4.

    Young Tzotzil Chamulas who had worked as seasonal migrants in the coffee plantations of Chiapas’ Soconusco region were replaced by “modern” chemical fertilizers and herbicides in the mid-70s but did not have the option to colonize or purchase new lands in the highlands to become independent farmers because land was so scarce. Some moved down into the Lacandon Jungle to colonize vacant lands along with the Tzeltals of Estrella, but most people moved to shanty-towns on the outskirts of the nearby cities like San Cristóbal de las Casas where they could earn a meager income as construction workers, flower vendors, and artisans. See Rus (1995).

  5. 5.

    By “informal” I mean to say that such systems are not located in state or corporate institutions, nor do they have explicitly codified procedures for member conduct or a degree of accountability to the public (however, informal systems could transform into such formal systems). Nonetheless, informal systems function in a relatively coordinated fashion and develop de facto forms of regimentation, which govern the lives of their subjects.

  6. 6.

    pp. 194–196.

  7. 7.

    This place name and the names of all informants used in this article are pseudonyms.

  8. 8.

    An ejidatario is a member of an ejido.

  9. 9.

    Due to hacendado efforts to block agrarian reform at the local level, it took some ejidos in Estrella over 40 years to finally receive a visit from a government land engineer to legally delimit their land as an ejido and to obtain legal title. This stands in stark contrast to the national average in the post-revolutionary era of less than 5 years to obtain legal title to ejido lands. For more explanation of the perils of ejido titling in Estrella, see Legoretta Díaz (2008).

  10. 10.

    Tzotzil Chamulas started migrating to the US as early as 1990 after meeting Guatemalan coffee plantation workers in the Soconusco region who had returned from stints in the US. These Guatemalans would help Chamulas cross the border and meet Guatemalan relatives who could help them find housing and work in the US. Others learned about migration to the US from gringos whom they met in the late 80s while working in tourist locations in the Yucatan Peninsula such as Cancun (Rus and López 1996). Some returned Chamulas would become loan sharks who financed migratory trips; others became human smugglers and landlords to their impoverished neighbors to whom they rented land. New lines of transnational communication were opened up through the use of cell phones; new capital flows entered via money wiring services; and new long-distance familial relations upset power dynamics between parents and children and husbands and wives (Rus and Rus 2008).

  11. 11.

    Pollero, literally “chicken-handler,” refers to the paid guide that brings migrants across the Mexico-US border. Migrants are referred to as “pollos” or chickens.

  12. 12.

    Though Arturo articulates his family’s desires for a better life as“sacar adelante” (to get ahead) and “para avanzar” (to advance) a comparison can be made with Fischer and Benson’s (2006) study of the search for “algo más” (something more) in Tecpan, Guatemala.

  13. 13.

    These were the Confederación Nacional Campesina (CNC) which grouped together peasants, the Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Populares (CNOP) which grouped together popular urban groups, and the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM) which grouped together labor unions.

  14. 14.

    Papelería refers to a paper supply store that often doubles as a print shop and office or school supplies store.


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Many thanks are due to Jan and Diane Rus for calling my attention to transnational migration as an emergent phenomenon that is rapidly transforming power relations throughout Chiapas. Thank you to the Programa de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias Sobre Mesoamérica y el Sureste—Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (PROIMMSE-UNAM) who sponsored my research in Chiapas, to Educación Comunitaria Indígena para el Desarrollo Autónomo (ECIDEA), who introduced me to my initial sample population, and to the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Sciences for its funding support. Finally, thanks to Dr. Edward F. Fischer, Jan Rus, Zina von Bozzay, Rachel Riederer, and the anonymous reviewers for their reading of prior drafts indispensable to the development of this article.

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Correspondence to Peter Anthony Mancina.

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Mancina, P.A. Crisis-management: Tzeltal-Maya transnational migration and the Foucauldian apparatus. Dialect Anthropol 35, 205–225 (2011).

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  • Mexican immigration
  • Tzeltal-Maya
  • Dispositif
  • Apparatus
  • Chiapas
  • San Francisco