Real research: Cydni Gordon studies the effects of migration on the people left behind in an indigenous Zapotec village in Oaxaca, Mexico

Cydni Gordon. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Cydni Gordon. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Mexican emigration to the U.S. is a hot topic these days. While the available research literature on the subject is often focused on remittances and how that money is used, Cydni Gordon, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, is more interested in the impact on the people, particularly those left behind.

It started on her first trip to Oaxaca for a service-learning program through VCU Globe in 2014. “I became fascinated with the culture and people there,” said Gordon, who is a triple major in psychology, broadcast journalism and African American studies as well as an Honors College student. “I heard stories about people traveling to the U.S. — the stories were always really intense and very emotional, and I just wanted to know more.”

Cydni Gordon and other VCU Globe students pose with local children on the steps of the village municipal building in Teotitlán del Valle during a service-learning trip in 2014.
Cydni Gordon and other VCU Globe students pose with local children on the steps of the village municipal building in Teotitlán del Valle during a service-learning trip in 2014.

 

Research Weeks

 

Each spring, VCU shines a spotlight on student research during Research Weeks, a series of events that takes place on both campuses and covers a wide range of disciplines. In honor of Research Weeks, we’re sharing the stories of six undergraduates who’ve had the chance to do meaningful and creative projects thanks to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

 

Gordon returned to Oaxaca last May as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship to conduct her study, “Left Behind: Exploring the Impact of Migration on Individuals, Families and the Village Community of Teotitlán del Valle.”

With the help of her mentor Rosalie Corona, Ph.D., associate professor in VCU’s Department of Psychology within the College of Humanities and Sciences, she put together a set of qualitative interview questions to understand how village life and family roles are shifting due to migration and also to get a clear picture of the culture and way of life there.

Gordon conducted the interviews in Spanish, which sometimes proved tricky. She is an intermediate speaker, and Spanish was not always the first language for her indigenous subjects.

“At first, I was really nervous and stuck to the prepared questions,” she said. “It was a fast learning curve and I got really comfortable talking to people and they were comfortable telling me their stories. As an interviewer, for people to trust you, that’s exciting.”

Corona notes Gordon’s development as a researcher: “Cydni has demonstrated an ability to design a study and to implement the study protocol with fidelity,” she said. “She also brings a wonderful personal style, which is especially important in our Latino-focused lab and projects.”

Most of the people Gordon sought out were women, who end up taking on both mother and father roles on top of running the house and finances when their husbands leave. It creates a significant shift in family dynamics and gender roles; sometimes, the family is completely broken apart.

“A lot of the men [who migrate north] find new families to be with, and the wife has no way of knowing if the husband is coming back,” Gordon said.

What struck her, too, was that the villagers aren’t leaving on a whim. It’s a matter of survival. They live in relative poverty and rely on tourism dollars by selling handmade crafts, including time-intensive hand-dyed rugs. When a family member risks crossing the border, it’s to find work so they can send money home to their families.

A Teotitlán del Valle craftswoman holds up the handwoven rug Cydni Gordon purchased from her as a gift to take back to her grandmother.
A Teotitlán del Valle craftswoman holds up the handwoven rug Cydni Gordon purchased from her as a gift to take back to her grandmother.

With the perspectives she gathered, Gordon is hoping to cultivate a more empathetic dialogue around emigration to the U.S. “We have people here who want to build walls,” she said. “They simplify it far too much. It’s not an easy thing to make that decision to literally cross a mountain by foot and pay coyotes [smugglers] and you don’t know if you’re going to make it. You don’t know if you’re going to see your kids again.”

Due to a heavy work and school schedule, and also the challenges of coordinating interviews with people in rural villages, Gordon’s sample size shrank from 30 to nine — currently too small for publishing results in a journal or to influence policy. It was a learning experience. “When I realized that getting 30 people was not going to work out, it was about being flexible, coming up with a plan and goal, accepting that and getting as much out of it as I could,” she said.

Corona was impressed with Gordon’s commitment to the project. “I have no idea when she finds time to rest because she is always finding more projects to work on,” she said. “She is a wonderful student researcher and this project will help Cydni demonstrate that she is ready to work more independently as a researcher.”

Gordon hopes to return to Teotitlán del Valle to conduct more interviews. She believes her findings could feed into other work on the topic. “Maybe this is the kind of research that could help them because, obviously, we haven’t figured out [how to solve the problem] and it’s just been going on so long,” she said. “Mexican migration is not going to stop.”