Emory Professor's New Book Compares The Intimate Lives of Mexican
Women To Those of their Sisters Across the Border
ATLANTA -- For eight months Jennifer Hirsch, PhD, an international health
professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, sat
in the knitting shops with the women in two small Mexican towns. She
immersed herself into their culture, learning about their views on marriage,
sexuality and reproductive health practices. Then she did the same with
their sisters on Buford Highway in Atlanta’s immigrant corridor, driving
them to doctor’s appointments and church services as she explored how
their lives differed from their sister’s experiences across the border.
Their life history interviews are outlined in Dr. Hirsch’s first book,
A Courtship After Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational
Families, published by the University of California Press in August
With the help of Hispanic churches and health and human service providers
to find suitable Mexican families, Dr. Hirsch’s comparative study began
with thirteen female Mexican immigrants in the Atlanta suburban areas
of Chamblee and Conyers, all of whom had sisters or sisters-in-law in
Mexico who would also be interviewed about their views and private lives.
During her field work, Dr. Hirsch studied how social and economic context
may affect communities of people who are culturally similar, but live
in different geographical locations. The social construction of gender
changes with migration, Dr. Hirsch found, but the biggest differences
are between the older and younger generations.
A Courtship After Marriage compares the views of Mexican women in Atlanta
to those who have remained in (or returned to) Mexico, while simultaneously
exploring generational differences in sexuality, love, marriage and
"There has been a transformation of love and marriage over time and
across space," Hirsch says.
In the younger generation of Mexican women, Hirsch noticed a trend toward
more companionate marriage. The younger Mexican women saw satisfying
sex and sexuality as a way to strengthen the bonds of marriage. The
older generation, however, considered sex as an obligation that had
to be fulfilled.
"Within these transnational families, younger Mexican men and women
are building relationships around a goal of intimacy and trust. The
marriages tend to be somewhat less hierarchical than among the older
couples, and the younger couples talk much more explicitly about the
shared goal of mutually satisfying sexual intimacy as a key building
block of an enduring relationship," Dr. Hirsch says.
Dr. Hirsch also writes: "Older women in Degollado, Jalisco, frequently
complained to me about girls these days: ‘No tienen vergüenza,’ they
would tell me. ‘They don’t have any shame.’"
The women still living in Mexico also believe that women immigrants
in the United States have a power of sorts. According to their peers,
migrant women seem to have gained more independence because of the economic
opportunities, and other advantages open to them in the United States.
"Migration has shifted the scale and women immigrants have gained the
reputation of being more assertive," Dr. Hirsch says. "Both the women
and men living in Mexico would often say that en el norte la mujer manda
(in the United States, women give the orders)."
Dr. Hirsch also discusses how cultural and social changes in migrant
community have influenced contraceptive use and fertility. In the small
towns in Western Mexico where she conducted the research, the local
Catholic church does not permit couples to take communion if they are
using a modern method of birth control. Yet the older generation confessed
to having managed their fertility through a combination of prolonged
breastfeeding and medically indicated surgical sterilization, and saw
nothing wrong with it. Within these modern marriages organized around
ideals of trust and intimacy, however, couples are likely to have much
lower fertility, and to rely on modern methods of birth control more
than their parents did.
This generational difference, though, is also shaped by whether women
live in Mexico or the U.S. women in Mexico feel more social pressure
to produce a first child than do their sisters in Atlanta, and this
social pressure, combined with the religious barriers to contraceptive
methods and the greater ease of combining income-generating activities
with motherhood, contributes to differences in contraceptive use, sexuality,
and fertility between the women interviewed in Mexico and those living
"There’s a certain kind of anonymity that comes along with urban life,
so in spite of the barriers they face in getting any kind of reproductive
health care, immigrant Mexican women do seem more likely to use modern
methods than their sisters in rural Mexico," Dr. Hirsch says. But, Dr.
Hirsch writes, "though the thought of having time to enjoy being together
before becoming parents maybe evocative for younger women, it is not
something that the all or even most of them are actually doing…In looking
at those who delayed, the strongest patterns seem to be the combined
effects of generation and migration."
Although it is a scholarly work, A Courtship After Marriage has
been described as "beautifully written…and almost novelistic in its
nuance and detail." As another reviewer describes, Dr. Hirsch explores
the combining of "traditional respect-based bonds with the advantages
of new relationships built on trust."
A Courtship After Marriage is crafted to speak to scholars, students,
anthropologists, migrant researchers, and readers who aren’t professional
scholars. For the lay audience, Dr. Hirsch says that she hopes to give
readers a window into the hearts and minds of the Mexican population,
America’s fastest growing minority. "We see the labor of their hands,
but we know so little about their hearts and their heads."