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El habitus de la migrancia en la migración mexicana

Renato Galhardi.jpeg

Migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, 15 September 2021. Photo by Renowave21 on Pixabay.

Migrancy is a ubiquitous concept in migration analysis. But what do scholars mean when they use migrancy? And, maybe more importantly, what is migrancy? By retracing the meanings embedded in the first usages of migrancy, it becomes clear that migrancy is something more than another expression for migration with important implications for migration analysis. Migrancy is something that the body feels and expresses, and a fundamental aspect of the experience of migration. To think of migrancy is to think of the habits and structures (habitus) of the embodied experience of migration. Thinking ‘through’ this narrative can increase our understanding, as well as our sensibilities, about the plight of migrants. 


We can find the first usages of migrancy in Phillip Mayer’s 1962 research article on South African Xhosa migration to East London during the first half of the twentieth century. Mayer frames migrancy through the embodied experience of the migration process as a characteristic and transformative aspect of moving – in the Xhosa migration context – from a tribal to urban setting. These transitions create structural changes in relationships with and in-between the migrants, as they readjust themselves to new settings and reconfigure their relationships among themselves. Migrancy, then, can be seen as part of the experience of migration and an indivisible aspect of the embodied experience of migration


What Mayer’s research is suggesting is that the experience of migration has something to do with the body, specifically with the social construction of the body. Some of its most visible expressions are the ways that we interpret and engage with notions of gender and ethnicity. For example, Mexican migration has historically been led by men, who have often migrated as part of their expected role as the primary economic provider of the family. Mexican women, on the other hand, have often stayed behind to take care of children as an expectation of the ‘social construction’ of their gender (although this tendency has now changed). Both these cases are illustrative of how the body acquires a social expectation based on gender. The body, then, can be conceived as an ‘engendered’ body. These expressions shape the experiences of migration and, consequently, of migrancy. For example, it is not uncommon to find that Mexican migrant men in the United States who have found work in the service sector – such as janitorial work – describe such activities as emasculating. In their absence, Mexican women who have stayed behind have often needed to assume the (social) roles once ascribed to men, with some expressing that such activities blur the lines between the social construction (and expectation) of gender roles and their social placement. We can find this essence of the social construction of the body in Johnny Cash’s rendition of poet Shel Silverstein’s song ‘A Boy named Sue’. Gender, then, is a social construction that configures the forms of experiencing migration, but there are many other factors that make up the social construction of the body – for example, ethnicity. 


One of the most visible presentations of the body is skin colour tonality. Skin colour tonality is the foremost characteristic for racial profiling and consequently influences the ways that migrants experience migration. For example, Haitian migrants seeking to find refuge in the United States have often faced discrimination based on their skin colour tonality, more than any other characteristic, obfuscating their plight as migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The social construction of the body implies a socially mediated notion of ethnicity that perpetuates racial stereotypes and profiling and ultimately shapes the forms of experiencing migrancy. As there are many other aspects that configure our ‘social body’ (e.g. religious belief, sexual orientation, tattoos and piercings, age, etc.), migrancy is best understood if conceived as a compound of diverse factors that intersect to form a unitary expression. This is the basis of intersectional analysis. Migrancy can be then described as an intersectional expression of the experience of migration


Reengaging with migrancy as a compounded process of social interaction and placement, migrancy can be conceived as a habitus, a term coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Habitus, argues Bourdieu, is the ‘structuring structures’ of ‘practising practices’ of social interaction in a social organisation. Habitus refers to the ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions’ that become embedded in non-reflexive practices. For example, the issues of personal space (such as hugging someone when greeting) or the ways to dress for a specific social exchange can be expressions of internalised practices associated with habitus. But habitus is more than etiquette; it is, fundamentally, a way of being. For example, one of the prevailing beliefs in Mexican culture is the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and, consequently, most religious temples and churches in Mexico will have a space dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. This totem of Mexican culture is often seen with relief by Mexican migrants when adjusting to new surroundings in foreign spaces. The presence of the Virgin of Guadalupe brings to mind a sense of ‘home-ness’, of familiarity. In a busy street, a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe might be missed by a busy pedestrian, but for a Mexican migrant it can denote a sense of belonging. This is often the case in the cityscape of ethnic neighbourhoods and one of the reasons for their presence and prevalence. It might not ‘make sense’ to an outsider, but to someone that recognises the ‘place’ of this representation in their life, it can reinforce a sense of identity that may have been tested and diffused as often occurs in the growing cosmopolitan setting of contemporary culture, exemplified in cities such as Paris and New York. Another way of understanding habitus is to think about the things we see that ‘invite’ us into a familiar way of being such as a family celebration.


Habitus then is a form of ‘occupying space’. My research on Mexican deported migrants in Tijuana demonstrates that migrants often frame the urban space of the city as a ‘battle’ where one has to ‘fight for survival’. This perspective structures how they engage with the city and its inhabitants. They may feel suspicious of some people and see others as potential allies, and the difference between one and the other is often rooted in habitus. They may find some public spaces hostile and may feel more comfortable in other spaces, all of which are embodied expressions of practices these migrants have internalised to manage their wellbeing and their ‘position’ in the world. Habitus, then, is an expression of the types of engagements we implement in different social settings. Ethnicity, social class, gender, education, religious belief, among others are some of the factors that shape this embodied practice of ‘being in the world’. 


But what does it mean to ‘be in the world’? Playing off the idea of ‘landscape’, Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues how we are ‘shaped’ by the different ‘scapes’ we engage with. Thinking through this idea, Appadurai suggests that, if ‘land’ can be a property of a scape to create the notion of ‘landscape’, it then seems possible to think about other ‘scapes’ that may better define other engagements with the world. We can think of scapes as the predominant narratives that we interact with that fundamentally shape our experience. For example, Mexican migrants in the United States have historically found themselves in an ethnic-scape, whereby much of their experiences are mediated through expressions of racial and ethnic articulations. In my current position as a researcher in Tijuana studying Mexican deported migrants, I find that the ‘condition of migration’ is one of the prevalent factors that structure my experiences. I see, feel, and hear ‘the experiences of migration’ everywhere I go here in Tijuana. The prevalence of this factor allows me to consider that I find myself in a migrancy-scape.


When we think of migrants, as in the case of Mexican migration to the United States, it becomes important to do so ‘through the migrancy-scape’, which implies structuring our thoughts through the lenses of how migrants see and experience the world, and how these perspectives shape the ways they engage with the world: the habitus of migrancy. To ‘think through the migrancy-scape’ is to recognise that being a migrant is a profoundly transformative condition that changes the ways of engaging and ‘being’ in the world. This is important, as it allows us to re-engage with greater sensibilities in understanding the plight of migrants


Further reading and resources:


Renato Galhardi.jpg

Renato Galhardi

Renato Galhardi is currently a Brazilian doctoral candidate in Social and Political Sciences in Mexico City. The questions surrounding migration stem from his personal journey as a life-long (im)migrant. A sociologist by training, he seeks to engage with the phenomenological experience of migration and is currently doing fieldwork with deported migrant men in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico. You can follow some of his fieldwork through fragments he publishes on his blog:, where you can also read more about him and his research. You can also find him on Twitter: @renato_galhardi

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