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Labor & Legality: Family and Kinship

Anna Shamory

Pennsylvania State University

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Families and kinship ties are complex and intricately bound into human life. The

web of family connections often proves to be multifaceted enough, without the added

complications of transnational relationships as seen in Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz’s Labor

and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. The ethnography

follows the “Lions,” a connected group of immigrants from the town of Léon, Mexico.

The Mexican immigrants’ family and kinship networks in this ethnography can be

examined through three main scopes: the use of kinship ties in relation to the migration

process, familial relationships internationally between the USA and Mexico, and

intranational relationships.

First of all, migration of the “Lions” is based around familial connections

of their kin in Mexico and in the USA. In the ethnography, Gomberg-Muñoz emphasizes

the bounds of kin that create the pathway to migration. The price of a risky passage

over the US-Mexico border is high, so all of the Lions were monetarily sponsored by a

brother, another male kin, or a close friend (Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 53). Sponsorship

allows the Lions to make that initial trip across the border that they would not be able

to afford on their own. Without the ties of kin already in the United States, their

migration network would be a slower process.

Additionally, many of the sponsors take it under their obligation to find the new

immigrant a job and place to live, so that he can pay off his debt owed to the sponsor.

His new housing is often with family members, other close relatives, or friends. For

example, Chuy lives with his brother Rene and family, and Alberto lives with his brother
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Alejandro (Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 12). Sponsors and family connections are vital to the


With that in mind, their relationship ties are not solely economic; the social

relationships of the Lions are also reflected as vital in a new migrant’s transition. The

transition from their comfortable home in Mexico to a new, culturally shocking

environment is lessened by the social and familial group the Lions find in each other.

The Lions form kinship ties with each other that are not necessarily bound by blood,

though most have a blood relative in the city. They spend their few days off together,

and come together during holidays when they cannot return home to celebrate with the

families they left behind. The Lions’ social network in the USA “helps supply crucial

material and emotional resources” (Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 58) to each other. Family

oriented holidays could be a depressing time for new migrants who are likely to be even

more home-sick, but through their kin relationships they prosper.

The article “Kinship Networks Among Immigrants: Lessons from a Qualitative

Comparative Approach” examines the idea of kinship networks among immigrants.

Salvadorian, Vietnamese, and Mexican immigrants to the USA have similar connections

to those of the Lions. All three groups have kinship networks that allow them to make

the journey to the USA, but after arrival this changes. The Vietnamese have state

assistance from the USA which solidifies community ties and helps them economically.

Mexicans have a long history of migration with the US, so there are more labor

opportunities and more stable communities for migrants to come to. Interviews of
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multiple Mexican migrants describe similar instances to the Lions of how family

relationships are the most important support after arrival (Menjivar 1995).

The Lions are a strong example of these social and economic family ties which

benefit them after arrival. But the family ties of Salvadorian networks do not have the

economic benefits or long history ties that the previous two groups have, so family ties

wear down quickly. The differing levels of family support among immigrants of

different ethnic backgrounds really showcase how the Lions are lucky that they can

continue to have successful familial relationships to lean on during and after their


Second of all, Gomberg-Muñoz also examines the transnational relationship that

is created by the separation of family households through personal recollections of the

Lions. Making better money in the USA is the fundamental key to why the Lions and

other immigrants are willing to physically leave their families. Luis stated in an interview

that “for me, the most important thing in life is my family,” a sentiment echoed by all

the Lions ( Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 6). Most of the Lions send back a fair amount of their

paycheck as remittance money to their families in Mexico, in order to help them gain a

better life. For example, Maria, the mother of Rene and Chuy, explains how the money

her sons sent back home helped pay for home needs, as well as education money so her

daughters could get advanced education after public school (Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011:

47). Coming to the USA is about helping their families, which is the most important thing

to the Lions. On the other hand, the Lions who have wives and children back in Mexico

send money to them, and less to their parents and siblings. Either way, however much
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the money helps their nuclear and/or parental families, it does not come without

problems. The strain between spouses who rarely get to see each other is especially

hard, and is another facet to the complex family relationships.

The ethnography displays both ends of that conflict. Luis neglected his wife and

children, slept with other women, and got into drugs while in America. Due to that, his

wife divorced him and he became estranged from that household tie. On the other

hand, Lalo kept a good relationship with his wife and children, despite the long absences

when he worked in the USA (Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 49). The contrasting personal

stories reflect that even though family is highly important to Mexican immigrants, the

strains of international separation can come at high costs for some.

On the other hand, the interrelationships of Lions who have girlfriends or wives

and children in the USA differs from those who have significant others in Mexico. Six of

the Lions are in relations with American citizens, all who are involved in higher

education which will bring in the higher income and financial security the Lions crave for

(Gomberg-Muñoz, 2011: 119). The relationship dynamic is different than that of the

Lions who send money to their families in Mexico, who are reliant on their work in the

USA. The Lions who are with American women do not need to fill the stereotypical role

of male head of the household found in traditional Mexican households. They can

inversely rely on their girlfriends or wives to support them.

All in all, family and kinship ties in the lives of the Lions is in every aspect of their

lives. Family is the entire reason the Lions go to work in the USA, and how they are able
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to be successful in their time there through kinship ties. The kinship networks of the

undocumented Mexican immigrants to those with them in the United States, and family

members back home in Mexico are complex and substantial, both economically and

socially. Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican, by Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz,

examines in depth the role of kinship and family in the lives of the Lions.
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Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. (2011). Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican

Immigrant Network. New York: Oxford University Press.

Menjivar, C. (1995). Kinship networks among immigrants: Lessons from a qualitative

comparative approach. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 36(3),

219. Retrieved from