“Los hijos ausentes” evoke fond memories in their communities of origin. Those who went away, who left for the Norte. As much as in the US we think of migration in general terms and broad sweeps of countries, on this side of the border migration matters in a very particular sense to a community whose fathers, brothers, sons, and even some mothers, sisters, and daughters have gone. I have been surprised at how strongly the hijos ausentes are connected to the community and idealized.
I spent Mexican Independence Day (September 16th) in El Arenal, a small town in the Tequila producing region of Jalisco, just half an hour outside of Guadalajara. That community has a particular tradition of tangaixtes, who
are members of the community who parade around the entire town dancing in masks and many of the men dress exaggeratedly as women. When they finish their path through the town, the community members vote on the reina de los tangaixtes (queen of the tangaixtes). To finish out the evening, the tangaixtes then attempt to climb a greased metal pole with prizes on top. Although parts of the celebration struck me as strange, to say the least it was quite distinctive.
Because of the very particular nature of the festivities, the hijos ausentes miss them just as I would miss the strange Christmas traditions of my family. To make their compatriots abroad feel like a part of the celebrations, the entire ceremony was videotaped and the MC would periodically ask us to wave at the video camera to show the hijos ausentes our love. One year, hijos ausentes who had been tangaixtes in El Arenal longed for their community’s traditions so much that they replicated the festivities in California.
Even beyond September 16th, the hijos ausentes are part of the fabric of community life. Like many communities, El Arenal in its week of fiestas patrias (town celebrations) has a day set aside for the hijos ausentes, because they too are part of the community.
This connection is beautiful and complex and I am intrigued by the research being done on hijos ausentes. But, as someone I work with pointed out, “¿Pero qué pasa con los hijos presentes?” (What about the children who are present?) When migrants leave for the US, they become a celebrated and idealized part of the town culture. In the US, people from the same town work together to support each other. But, from what research exists thus far, it seems that when they return, they are at best just ordinary people once again. From what I have heard so far (though much research lays ahead of me), at worst they are looked down upon for the failure of their migration journey or the way they have changed since they left. It is appealing to idealize and celebrate those who are gone – but the question for these towns and the country is: How do we address the realities of those who are back?