A review from Geographical Review, Volume 87.3 (July 1997)

Deciding To Be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston
By Jacqueline Maria Hagan. xx and 200 pp.; ills., notes, bibliog., index. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-56639-256-x; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 1-56639-257-8.

Reviewed by Catherine L. Nolin Hanlon, Queen's University

Maya are on the move. Economic circumstances in Guatemala have led to movement from the ancestral land, which is creating new realities and challenges for the Maya. Rural Guatemala is no longer a single, homogeneous domain of Maya culture, if indeed it ever was. Due to the historical circumstances of conquest, state terror, and economic marginalization, individuals and communities sustaining a "Maya identity" can be found in the United States and Canada as well as in Central America and Mexico. Exile or migration is now generating external forces that will not only influence cultural change but also reinforce certain cultural essentials. In Deciding to Be Legal, Jacqueline Maria Hagan offers a fascinating exploration of Maya transnational identity, both individual and community, in Houston, Texas, which is influenced by the complex web of settlement and legalization processes.

Hagan, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston, reveals the cultural continuities and changes in the Maya community from the late 1970s to 1990, as migrants adapt to an urban lifestyle far different from that of their highland roots. Although the community in question is composed of economic migrants rather than individuals seeking political asylum, we may say that they have fled a type of violence—one that results in impoverishment, malnutrition, and lack of opportunity—that is perpetrated by the low-intensity conflict in highland Guatemala. The result for the Maya of the northwestern department of Totonicapán has been the development of the community in Houston—a collective of migrants who seek employment in Houston specifically to improve the lot of their home municipal of San Pedro. But Deciding to Be Legal illuminates more than simply the economic dimension of Guatemalan migration to the United States. As Hagan explains, "it tells the story of Maya migration from rural Guatemala to urban North America. It tells the story of Maya settlement and community development in Houston, Texas. And it tells the story of how one undocumented Maya community interpreted and acted on major immigration policy reform" (p. 7).

Part 1 of the book introduces the reader to the first Totonicapán Maya to travel to Houston, examining his role in establishing the social network that continues to drive migration. The author subsequently examines the migrants' community of origin in Guatemala and the local social and economic impacts of family members who are working in the United States. Part 1 then concludes with a discussion of the differing experiences of the settlement process in Houston. Gendered patterns emerge from the employment migrants' opportunities: Employment networks in the community direct men to the maintenance department of a large retail chain and women to the homes of wealthy families to work as domestic servants. These gendered employment paths influence far more than job descriptions, for they also determine residential location and levels of participation in community organizations.

The second half of the book deals specifically with the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) program of legalization in which many of the Maya in Houston have participated. Hagan maintains her focus on the Maya community while exploring the social dimensions of the legalization process. The complex avenues of decision making are mapped out to reveal the implications of participation or nonparticipation, which often vary along gender lines as well, from the perspective of the Maya community. The implementation of the INS initiative led to many changes in the community, including the development of relationships with other migrant groups, residential movement away from the cohesive Totonicapán Maya neighborhood, shifting gender relations, and renewed connections with their community of origin in Guatemala.

The main goal of the INS's program of legalization for undocumented migrants, outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was to halt the flow of undocumented migrants to the United States. In her concluding chapter, Hagan reveals that the exact opposite has happened. Given the stability and security offered by legal status in the United States, many Guatemalans were able to visit their communities of origin for the first time since migrating north. This mobility reinforced ties between the place of origin and the place of migration and led to further migration.

Hagan's commitment to the Maya community in Houston is evidenced by the fact that she lived and worked with the migrants for a number of years while doing her research. Her socially engaged participant observation, coupled with the trust she built up with members of the community, allows the intricate, fluid, ever-changing realities of undocumented existence to be articulated in the Mayas' own words. Particularly intriguing are the individual accounts of changes to and continuities with Maya identity that have marked life in the United States. The inevitability of identity transformation, when faced with new realities in Houston, is revealed, yet the author also shows the depth of the Mayas' indigenous identity, which has not faded with the transmigrant experience. For many Maya who have been in the United States for an extended time, identity becomes not so much a question of outward expression as one of inward expression.

Hagan's study is a welcome addition to the small but growing literature on the contemporary Maya diaspora. Her work illustrates the lives of those Guatemalans who have made their way to the United States for myriad reasons. Each migrant encounters and reacts to varying legal, social, economic, and physical landscapes—from Indiantown, Florida, to San Francisco, California, to Houston, Texas—all the while maintaining key aspects of Maya identity.

Deciding to Be Legal explores both the complexities of the transnational migrant experience for the Maya community in Houston and the often overlooked implications for the home community in Guatemala. It also poses a challenge to U.S. immigration policymakers to rethink the current approach to regulating immigration. Hagan presents a stimulating research question for the future: Will the potential opportunities offered to the Totonicapán Maya by legalization translate into social mobility and stratification within the community? As the issue of immigration simmers in the United States, let us hope that the author retains her association with the Maya community in Houston and further documents their settlement experiences. This book will serve as a vital source for specialists and students of immigration, settlement, and transnational labor migration, researchers on Central American issues, and those who are interested in the re-creation of identities across borders and time.