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August 11, 2003


Emory Professor's New Book Compares The Intimate Lives of Mexican Immigrant
Women To Those of their Sisters Across the Border

ATLANTA -- For eight months Jennifer Hirsch, PhD, an international health professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, sat in the knitting shops with the women in two small Mexican towns. She immersed herself into their culture, learning about their views on marriage, sexuality and reproductive health practices. Then she did the same with their sisters on Buford Highway in Atlanta’s immigrant corridor, driving them to doctor’s appointments and church services as she explored how their lives differed from their sister’s experiences across the border.

Their life history interviews are outlined in Dr. Hirsch’s first book, A Courtship After Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families, published by the University of California Press in August 2003.

With the help of Hispanic churches and health and human service providers to find suitable Mexican families, Dr. Hirsch’s comparative study began with thirteen female Mexican immigrants in the Atlanta suburban areas of Chamblee and Conyers, all of whom had sisters or sisters-in-law in Mexico who would also be interviewed about their views and private lives.

During her field work, Dr. Hirsch studied how social and economic context may affect communities of people who are culturally similar, but live in different geographical locations. The social construction of gender changes with migration, Dr. Hirsch found, but the biggest differences are between the older and younger generations.

A Courtship After Marriage compares the views of Mexican women in Atlanta to those who have remained in (or returned to) Mexico, while simultaneously exploring generational differences in sexuality, love, marriage and reproduction.

"There has been a transformation of love and marriage over time and across space," Hirsch says.

In the younger generation of Mexican women, Hirsch noticed a trend toward more companionate marriage. The younger Mexican women saw satisfying sex and sexuality as a way to strengthen the bonds of marriage. The older generation, however, considered sex as an obligation that had to be fulfilled.

"Within these transnational families, younger Mexican men and women are building relationships around a goal of intimacy and trust. The marriages tend to be somewhat less hierarchical than among the older couples, and the younger couples talk much more explicitly about the shared goal of mutually satisfying sexual intimacy as a key building block of an enduring relationship," Dr. Hirsch says.

Dr. Hirsch also writes: "Older women in Degollado, Jalisco, frequently complained to me about girls these days: ‘No tienen vergüenza,’ they would tell me. ‘They don’t have any shame.’"

The women still living in Mexico also believe that women immigrants in the United States have a power of sorts. According to their peers, migrant women seem to have gained more independence because of the economic opportunities, and other advantages open to them in the United States.

"Migration has shifted the scale and women immigrants have gained the reputation of being more assertive," Dr. Hirsch says. "Both the women and men living in Mexico would often say that en el norte la mujer manda (in the United States, women give the orders)."

Dr. Hirsch also discusses how cultural and social changes in migrant community have influenced contraceptive use and fertility. In the small towns in Western Mexico where she conducted the research, the local Catholic church does not permit couples to take communion if they are using a modern method of birth control. Yet the older generation confessed to having managed their fertility through a combination of prolonged breastfeeding and medically indicated surgical sterilization, and saw nothing wrong with it. Within these modern marriages organized around ideals of trust and intimacy, however, couples are likely to have much lower fertility, and to rely on modern methods of birth control more than their parents did.

This generational difference, though, is also shaped by whether women live in Mexico or the U.S. women in Mexico feel more social pressure to produce a first child than do their sisters in Atlanta, and this social pressure, combined with the religious barriers to contraceptive methods and the greater ease of combining income-generating activities with motherhood, contributes to differences in contraceptive use, sexuality, and fertility between the women interviewed in Mexico and those living in Atlanta.

"There’s a certain kind of anonymity that comes along with urban life, so in spite of the barriers they face in getting any kind of reproductive health care, immigrant Mexican women do seem more likely to use modern methods than their sisters in rural Mexico," Dr. Hirsch says. But, Dr. Hirsch writes, "though the thought of having time to enjoy being together before becoming parents maybe evocative for younger women, it is not something that the all or even most of them are actually doing…In looking at those who delayed, the strongest patterns seem to be the combined effects of generation and migration."

Although it is a scholarly work, A Courtship After Marriage has been described as "beautifully written…and almost novelistic in its nuance and detail." As another reviewer describes, Dr. Hirsch explores the combining of "traditional respect-based bonds with the advantages of new relationships built on trust."

A Courtship After Marriage is crafted to speak to scholars, students, anthropologists, migrant researchers, and readers who aren’t professional scholars. For the lay audience, Dr. Hirsch says that she hopes to give readers a window into the hearts and minds of the Mexican population, America’s fastest growing minority. "We see the labor of their hands, but we know so little about their hearts and their heads."

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