ASU anthropologist examines immigration through the eyes of children

Personal experience in Mexico and U.S. shaped assistant professor's research into family street-vending businesses

photo of author observing vendors

Emir Estrada understands the hardships that come with immigration from personal experience. 

A sociocultural anthropologist in Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Estrada came to the U.S. from Mexico shortly after finishing high school. Young Estrada would have been surprised to learn that this experience, as well as her time working in her family’s shop in Mexico, would shape the course of her professional research in the years ahead. The assistant professor studies the role that children play in the immigration processes of their families.

A formative youth

During her childhood, Estrada’s father worked in California and sent money home to her family in Zacatecas, Mexico. The money was not enough to meet their needs, however, so her mother saved up to open a small grocery store known as a tienda de abarrotes, where she and her brothers were expected to help out.

“Early on, I learned that all family members had to work in the family business in order to contribute to the family economy,” Estrada said.

A few months before she was to graduate high school, her father decided to return to Mexico and stay there for good. Unfortunately, the family’s joy was cut short when he died unexpectedly just 11 days after he arrived home. With their savings account used up by medical bills and limited opportunities in their town, Estrada and her remaining family chose to move to California after her graduation.

“Once in the U.S, it was difficult to adjust to the culture, the language and the community,” she said.

When an employer ridiculed Estrada in front of customers for not knowing English, she quit her job and enrolled herself in English for Speakers of Other Languages courses at Long Beach City College. After taking many ESOL classes, she gained the confidence to take other college courses, including a sociology class where she wrote a paper on children and work.

In 2002, Estrada transferred to UCLA and majored in sociology with a minor in Chicana/o studies. It was during this time that she read "Domestica" by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, which resonated with her because it reflected her mother’s experience as a domestic worker and her own immigration experience. When she had the chance to meet the author a few years later, she was inspired to enroll as a graduate student at the University of Southern California and became Hondagneu-Sotelo’s mentee.

Food-stand epiphanies

Oddly, Estrada discovered her area of field research because she had to sell her car to afford graduate school. She was forced to use the bus and metro during her first year, which brought her to new areas of Los Angeles. Near the stops, she found street vendors selling such cultural food as tamales and raspados (similar to snow cones, with fruit and sweet condensed milk) and became a regular customer.

“I began to notice that the children of these vendors were intricately involved in the family street-vending business. They helped with cash transactions, prepared food and ran errands for their parents. I had discovered my research site!” Estrada said.

A 13-year-old orange juice vendor is cited by an LA policewoman for having her vending cart on the street. Photo by Emir Estrada

“Street-vending families and street-vending sites gave me the opportunity to explore Latino family and work relations with a specific focus on the labor contribution of children,” she said. 

By taking a child-centered approach, she had the opportunity to fill an important gap in street-vending literature. Street vending is an informal and, in Los Angeles, illegal occupation that is often racialized as an immigrant occupation. Yet, the majority of the children whom Estrada studied were U.S.-born, educated English speakers; they didn’t fit the characteristics of the typical street vendor.

The paradigm shift

Today, Estrada continues to research Latino children’s experiences working alongside their street-vending parents in Los Angeles. She has published several articles based on this work, including one this year in Ethnic and Racial Studies titled “Economic Empathy in Family Entrepreneurship: Mexican-Origin Street Vendor Children and Their Parents,” which discusses her concept of “economic empathy.” She found that street-vending children develop an early maturity because they help the family economy while also witnessing their parents’ position of oppression.

She is working on another article about street vending and gendered expectations.

“The work that girls and boys do as street vendors both perpetuates and challenges gendered expectations among Latino families,” Estrada said. “On the one hand, girls are preparing food, a type of work that has been gendered as feminine; on the other, they are doing this work on the street, a space that has been gendered as masculine and inappropriate for señoritas.”

ASU assistant professor Emir Estrada helps one of her respondents make freshly squeezed orange juice on the side of the street.

Because street-vending boys often experience more violence from gang members and their peers, she has found that women of all ages have gained the ability to exercise social power in the street, what Estrada terms capital socio-femenino.

“The social, political, economic and cultural context in which street vending takes place creates a paradigm shift where the presence of women in the street-vending markets of LA serves as a protective mechanism for male street vendors of all ages,” she explained.

Recently, Estrada began a new collaboration research project with fellow School of Human Evolution and Social Change professor Alissa Ruth on DREAMers who gained temporary rights under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Last summer, they interviewed DACA recipients who traveled to Mexico for the first time after their childhood arrival in the U.S.

“This is an intimidating process for DREAMers and for their families because there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to re-enter the U.S. by Customs and Immigration,” Estrada said. “Moreover, there is much uncertainty about the future of DACA. Thus, while these DREAMers have more rights than ever before, they are still living in a state of limbo.”

The study aims to understand the family decision-making process leading up to a DACA DREAMer’s visit to Mexico and how that decision impacts the whole family unit.

More than baggage

Estrada’s future plans reflect the ambition demonstrated in her past.

“My next goal is to publish my book manuscript. My dream is to see the stories of the young street vendors and the families I interviewed published as a book,” she said.

She is also planning another project focusing on return migration. She wants to study senior Mexicans who, on retiring from their work in the U.S., are deciding to move back to Mexico. Part of this study will also involve interviewing the children and grandchildren of those returning.

“I am interested in seeing how the family and social attachments, as well as the economic resources post-retirement, have an impact on their return migration destination and plans,” she said.

Ultimately, Estrada’s research not only expands our knowledge of how immigrant family units negotiate economic incorporation in the United States, it also validates the immigration experiences of children.

“We can learn a lot about the immigration process through the eyes and experiences of children. As my work shows, children are not merely ‘baggage’ that adult immigrants simply bring along. Children are active contributors to family processes and household resources.”

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