Gender affects immigrants' lives

by Miho Wako | 11/12/01 6:00am

In a speech on Friday, Cecilia Menjivar of Arizona State University's School of Justice Studies discussed how social preconceptions and gender roles can make assimilation difficult for Central American and Cuban immigrants to the United States.

Migration to the United States has increased in the 1990s because of the dire economic and political situations in Central American and Cuba, Menjivar pointed out. Only a small percentage of the immigrations have legal documentation and so the majority, that do have citizenship, struggle to survive in a new community.It is hard to find jobs, housing and daily necessities because U.S. policy is hostile to the immigrant community, Menjivar said.

The resulting reality is harsh. "People rely on elder relatives ... and close friends for help," but those already in the country have the same expectations, Menjivar said. After arriving in the United States, they find that they don't have enough resources even for themselves, much less to share.

Since men and women enjoy more equality in the United States than in Central America, Menjivar expected that America's gender relations would have an influence on immigrants. Instead, she found that gender roles from immigrants' native countries came along to their new homes in the United States. She interviewed groups of female immigrants from different towns in Guatemala, El Salvador and Cuba, finding that gender is directly related to one's access to resources from the community.

For example, she pointed out that most of the female interviewees are more burdened in the United States with household tasks than they were in their home country. Although they did chores in their native countries, almost all of the interviewees also worked outside of the home in the United States.

According to the U.S. census in 1990, 90 percent of Hispanics in Phoenix, Ariz., came from Mexico. In the census 2000 census, however, the percentage fell to 75 percent. Menjivar claimed that this shows the increased diversity of immigrants in that area as more Cubans and Central Americans come to the United States.

This diversity reveals interesting differences in social standards. Menjivar said that perception of crime and police authority is different between Cubans and Central Americans in Phoenix. According to her, Cubans are much more concerned about crime and dangers on the streets -- even though they generally live in nicer neighborhoods -- because they grew up in post-revolutionary conditions that were perceived as safer than those in Phoenix. Salvadorans and Guatemalans, conversely, think that Phoenix is safer than their home countries, although they are in worse neighborhoods that have more crime than the Cubans,' she said.

According to Menjivar, the split in perceptions comes from different situations in their home countries -- war and conflict are prevalent in El Salvador and Guatemala, while Cuba is comparatively peaceful. One woman in her interview with Menjivar, said that although her son's car was stolen and she hears gun shots weekly, she still feels safer in Phoenix than in Central America.

Menjivar said immigrants from Cuba and Central America differ in religious attitudes as well. Most Cubans did not regularly go to church until they immigrated to America, so they only expect emotional and spiritual help from churches. But for Central Americans, the church is expected to provide support beyond Sunday services by participating in parishioners' daily lives.

According to Menjivar, in the '80s and '90s, experts focused on only the positive side of immigrants' networks -- literature about immigration was too romanticized and overlooked the networks' weaknesses. By examining the loose networks more closely, Menjivar hopes that she can expose the difficulties of immigrant life in the United States.

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