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Bringing a transnational approach to the study of Mexico

The new director of the Center for Mexican Studies, Gaspar Rivera-Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center, seeks to create an intellectual space to engage the complex global trends shaping Mexico today.

Bringing a transnational approach to the study of Mexico

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado. (Photo: Ricardo Palavecino.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

"My approach is to understand and look at Mexico from a binational, transnational perspective because more and more, we need to explain Mexico to a U.S. audience and to explain the Mexican-based community in the U.S. to Mexico."

UCLA International Institute, December 10, 2021 — When Gaspar Rivera-Salgado joined the UCLA Labor Center in 2006, the specialist on Mexico-U.S. labor migration had been immersed in applied research since the 1990s — from the beginning of his Ph.D. in sociology at UC Santa Cruz. It was a natural fit.

“When the opportunity opened up, I didn’t hesitate because I knew the center’s track record. The Labor Center has been at UCLA since 1965 and is part of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE), which was founded after World War II. These are already historical institutions with a very proud history,” says the Labor Center project director.

“The Labor Center is like an applied research think tank within UCLA,” he explains. “We mostly do labor-related research that looks at the impact of changes in the economy on different industries.

“We focus a lot on immigrant workers and on organized labor; we also look at public policy, such as the recent debate on increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. And we document the labor history of Los Angeles — particularly the history of organizing immigrants.”

Hired to build a labor studies program and oversee major projects, Rivera-Salgado started by creating an IRLE interdisciplinary minor in labor and workplace studies. Some 14 years later, the program, for which he continues to teach, graduated its first class of undergraduate majors in 2020.

For three decades, the scholar has tracked the impact of migration on indigenous communities in Mexico and the lives of indigenous Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. These communities have made up the majority of Mexican labor migrants to the U.S. since the 1990s. He has also long been engaged in transnational labor organizing and collaborative learning among workers in the U.S., Mexico and countries around the world.

The author of numerous articles, book chapters and reports, Rivera-Salgado has published two books: “Just Neighbors? Research on African American and Latino Relations in the United States” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011; co-edited with Edward Telles and Mark Sawyer) and “Indigenous Mexican Migration in the United States” (Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD, 2005; co-edited with J. Fox).

Lifelong engagement with practitioners

“In graduate school, I was very fortunate to work academics who used their expertise to guide, evaluate and communicate with practitioners. I thought it was very inspiring: you step out of your academic comfort zone and encounter different questions that teachers, policymakers and advocates face in the real world,” says Rivera-Salgado.

“For me, that was the beginning of a career where I always look for opportunities where I can engage with practitioners in the field.”

In fact, in his first year of graduate study, Professor Jonathan Fox of UC Santa Cruz pulled him into a project with Oxfam America. Rivera-Salgado was subsequently hired as a consultant to evaluate economic development projects in three migrant-sending communities in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, which had a long tradition of U.S.-bound migration. The young Ph.D. student conducted field evaluations, interviewed inhabitants and worked to analyze the long-term impact of migration on these communities’ economic development.

“I also had the opportunity to work with several local NGOs in the state of Oaxaca, where I grew up, that were looking for alternatives to migration. I was able to consult with them and develop what we called ‘The Right to Stay Home’ program, helping them develop proposals and programs,” he adds.

After completing his Ph.D. and teaching for four years at the University of Southern California, Rivera-Salgado did major consultancies at the LA Immigrant Funders’ Collaborative of the Tides Foundation (an immigrant remittances project) and the Rockefeller Foundation (projects on sustainable livelihoods and binational research on the impact of migration on different regions of Mexico).

By the time he arrived at UCLA, he had forged a broad network of colleagues in academia, foundations, labor organizations and nonprofit organization on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. And he had acquired deep experience working with binational teams of scholars and practitioners. That network continued to grow and become more transnational at UCLA.

Rivera-Salgado worked to expand the Global Solidarity Project at the UCLA Labor Center, which brings together labor leaders, scholars and activists in the U.S., Mexico and the Pacific Rim to collaboratively engage labor issues and facilitates transnational partnerships and research among labor unions and workers. He also founded the Cross-Border Solidarity Program and the Institute for Transnational Social Change at the center. Both focus on U.S.-Mexico cross-border collaboration among academics and worker-led organizations, such as independent unions, worker centers and NGOs.

At present, he is working with three public universities of Mexico to build their own labor centers: the University of Querétaro in Mexico (Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, in Querétaro), the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, in Mexico City) and the Metropolitan University (UAM, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City).

“We launched that initiative within the context of deeper economic integration between Canada, U.S. and Mexico after the signing of the U.S.-Mexico Canada Trade Agreement [which replaced the NAFTA treaty in 2020],” explains the UCLA professor.

“The labor centers will engage scholars, workers, industries and government officials, functioning as spaces where all these sectors come together to work out the details of how the new legal framework will operate.”

In addition to building peer-to-peer institutional relationships with Querétaro, UNAM and UAM, the Labor Center is working on a separate project with the College of the Northern Frontier (COLEF, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana). Together, they are analyzing the economic and labor integration of migrant caravans that have been forced to settle in Mexico.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department, the project has completed an analysis of migrant economic integration in Tijuana and is now turning to three other cities along the border: Juárez, Piedras Negras and Matamoros.

Using a transnational perspective to understand contemporary Mexico

At a moment when most migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are no longer Mexican, Mexico has become an integral player in U.S. border and migrant control operations and the country is transforming its labor laws, Rivera-Salgado’s appointment as director of the Center for Mexican Studies (CMS) in summer 2021 was another fortuitous pairing of expertise and subject matter.

The migrant labor expert is now drawing on his extensive personal and institutional contacts in the U.S. and Mexico to create public programming at CMS.

“My approach is to understand and look at Mexico from a binational, transnational perspective because more and more, we need to explain Mexico to a U.S. audience and to explain the Mexican-based community in the U.S. to Mexico.

“We specialists who study Mexico know that it does not stop at the U.S.-Mexico border. Because of the large Mexican community here — Los Angeles is the third largest Mexican city in the world — one really has to use a transnational lens,” he relates.

“I've been emphasizing in my research that Mexico is very diverse, ethnically and linguistically — one of the most diverse countries in the Americas. There are 68 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. In the state of Oaxaca, there are 16 indigenous languages spoken. Close to one-third of California’s agricultural labor force now comes from the state of Oaxaca — most of these are Mixtec-, Triqui- and Zapotec-speaking workers.

Migrant workers harvesting tulips in Skagit Valley, Washington. (Photo: Brad Smith/ Flickr, 2007; cropped. CC BY-NC 2.0.)

“UCLA is well-positioned to be at the forefront of understanding the present moment because we have access to many people who are part of these larger diasporas. Not only at the International Institute, but at CMS itself. The center has a very large and expansive list of Mexicanistas — people who study Mexico — throughout campus.

“If our students at UCLA are eventually able to go back and forth between the two countries and be effective players and actors on both sides of the border, I think that we’re doing our job,” reflects the professor.

“There’s no easy solution to migration and the issues of national identity it raises, but I want to inspire our students through our programming at the Center for Mexican Studies. I want to encourage them: ‘Open your eyes and see the global connections and follow that thread and be curious about it.’

“If we increase the level of curiosity of our students so that they engage in this global city, we will have succeeded. And I think that’s the promise of the center and the International Institute — to make those kinds of discussions part of students’ undergraduate and graduate educations.”