In this dissertation I explore consumption in San Salvador, El Salvador in the context of ongoing high rates of transnational migration and neoliberalizing economies. Through documentation of characteristics of the consumption system, I identify critical parallels between San Salvador and the U.S. As part of my effort to deconstruct patterns in both contexts, I consider the hegemonic processes that undergird consumption beliefs and behaviors. This approach provides a unique lens for considering the position of transnational migrants and their family members who remain in San Salvador. These Salvadorans bear and negotiate a series of contradictions and tensions that arise from complex interrelationships between consumption, migration, and neoliberal economies.
High numbers of Salvadorans have migrated to the U.S.; perhaps as much as one fifth of the population has left the country. Economics play a fundamental role in these patterns of transnational migration. A key component of the economic explanation is consumption. In this dissertation, I deconstruct this explanation by considering relevant mechanisms of social reproduction, the circulation of complex and powerful symbols, and the benefits promised by the consumption system.
Consumption-related patterns and processes play out in specific ways for migrants and their families. First, this group is one of many caught between the power and promises of the consumption system and the numerous obstacles that hamper engagement. Low wages, underemployment, a high cost of living, and other factors all limit participation in the system. Yet messages about the benefits of inclusion are rampant and convincing. Transnational migration, in particular to the U.S., has become a popular means of accessing the consumption system.
Second, Salvadoran families carry the burden of choosing between maintaining the unification of their family and meeting their economic needs and wants. While migrating improves household finances, most Salvadorans argue that the principle repercussion is familial disintegration. This discrepancy is complicated by the symbolic functions of consumables. The ability to engage in the consumption system is also the capacity to meet emotional needs. Economic and emotional needs intersect in complex, dynamic, and seemingly contradictory ways. Migrants and non-migrants alike are left to negotiate the resulting tensions.
Third, migrants and their families are criticized and made into scapegoats in both their home communities and destination countries. The values and behaviors of migrants and their families are criticized by numerous groups in both societies. Analysis of negative discourses regarding labor mobility and remittances reveals problematic contradictions and the diversion of attention away from fundamental overarching issues. In particular, these discourses distract from the failures of the neoliberal model and the accompanying consumption system.