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Words of Passage

Words of Passage
National Longing and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants

This innovative ethnography analyzes the discourse about Mexican-US migration in both a sending and a receiving community and shows how this discourse affects the lives and sense of national belonging of nonmigrants.

May 2018
Active (available)
312 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 b&w chart/graph |

Migration fundamentally shapes the processes of national belonging and socioeconomic mobility in Mexico—even for people who never migrate or who return home permanently. Discourse about migrants, both at the governmental level and among ordinary Mexicans as they envision their own or others’ lives in “El Norte,” generates generic images of migrants that range from hardworking family people to dangerous lawbreakers. These imagined lives have real consequences, however, because they help to determine who can claim the resources that facilitate economic mobility, which range from state-sponsored development programs to income earned in the North.

Words of Passage is the first full-length ethnography that examines the impact of migration from the perspective of people whose lives are affected by migration, but who do not themselves migrate. Hilary Parsons Dick situates her study in the small industrial city of Uriangato, in the state of Guanajuato. She analyzes the discourse that circulates in the community, from state-level pronouncements about what makes a “proper” Mexican to working-class people’s talk about migration. Dick shows how this migration discourse reflects upon and orders social worlds long before—and even without—actual movements beyond Mexico. As she listens to men and women trying to position themselves within the migration discourse and claim their rights as “proper” Mexicans, she demonstrates that migration is not the result of the failure of the Mexican state but rather an essential part of nation-state building.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Technical Note: Methodology and Methods
  • Introduction. Words of Passage: Imagined Lives, Migration Discourse, and National Belonging
  • 1. So Far from God: State-Endorsed Imaginaries of Moral Mobility in Mexico
  • 2. Private Eyes, Good Girls: Authoritative Accounts and the Social Life of Interviewing
  • 3. Diaspora at Home: Homebuilding and the Failures of Mexican Progress
  • 4. Possibility and Perdition: Discursive Interaction and Ethico-Moral Practice in Traditionalist Talk of Migration
  • 5. Saints and Suffering: Critical Appeal in Relationships with the Divine Beyond
  • Conclusion. Worlds of Passage: Moral Mobility in Global Context
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Glenside, Pennsylvania

Dick is an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University. She investigates Mexico-US migration from the perspectives of discourse analysis; the political economies of language; and gender, class, and ethno-racial relations.


“While some of the discourses the book unpacks do seem to be words of passage, the power of Dick's work lies in having captured them in their historical and social context, creating a roadmap for contemporary researchers to examine new discourses that circulate now.”
American Anthropologist

“I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in migration issues because it does an excellent job of focusing on the actual experience of peoples affected by migration.”

“An excellent book that links the micro-level discourse of ordinary Mexicans with ideals of mexicanidad (Mexican-ness) promoted by the nation state (and taken up variously by different people). This linkage is crucial for understanding struggles over identities among Mexican-origin people, whether they reside in Mexico or outside of it. The author’s use of ‘imaginaries’ thoughtfully connects both national and local discourse to national belonging.”
Marcia Farr, Ohio State University, author of Rancheros in Chicagoacán: Language and Identity in a Transnational Community

“A very important and innovative work and a compelling read. Dick argues that Mexican migration to the USA is at the core of Mexican nation-state formation, not a response to its failing.”
Valentina Napolitano, University of Toronto, author of Migrant Hearts and the Atlantic Return: Transnationalism and the Roman Catholic Church