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How Mexican Brain Drain Saved Mexico

Successful international migration depends on weak ties.
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For most places, the journey of rapid economic development starts with an exodus. For decades, an insular Mexico floundered. This parochialism pushed talent to El Norte in droves. Mexico did the fail, pulling a Pittsburgh. Migration isn't a zero-sum game. Villages on both sides of the border were connected, the infrastructure for rapid globalization:

For most the 20th century, Mexico kept the world at arm’s length. The 1917 Constitution guaranteed Mexicans would be given priority over foreigners for various jobs, and until the 1980s the country favored policies that protected domestic industry from imports.

Mexico was never totally closed — midcentury wars in Europe and the Middle East sent ripples of immigrants to Mexico, while Americans and Central Americans have always maintained a presence. But it was not a country that welcomed outsiders; the Constitution even prohibited non-Mexicans from directly owning land within 31 miles of the coast and 62 miles of the nation’s borders.

Attitudes began to soften, however, as Mexico’s relationship with the United States began to change. Many economists and social scientists say that closer ties with Mexico’s beloved and hated neighbor to the north, through immigration and trade, have made many Mexicans feel less insular. Millions of emigrants send money earned abroad to relatives in Mexico, who then rush out to Costco for more affordable food and electronics. Even the national soccer team, after decades of resistance, now includes two Argentine-born midfielders.

“It’s a new era in terms of our perspective,” said Francisco Alba Hernández, a scholar at the Colegio de México’s Center for the Study of Urban and Environmental Demographics. “We are now more certain about the value of sharing certain things.”

Like immigrants the world over, many of Mexico’s newcomers are landing where earlier arrivals can be found. Some of the growth is appearing in border towns where foreign companies and binational families are common. American retirees are showing up in new developments from San Miguel de Allende to other sunny spots around Cancún and Puerto Vallarta. Government figures show that more Canadians are also joining their ranks.

Closer ties with the United States doesn't explain why Mexicans would feel less insular. As more people emigrated, Mexicans seemed less insular. The correlation doesn't establish cause and effect. We need a working theory. From Clive Thompson at Wired:

Surely your close friends are the ones looking out for you, eager to help you find a good job? Sure, but as Granovetter pointed out, your friends have an informational deficit. They’re too similar.

This is the principle of homophily: Socially, we tend to be close friends with people who mirror us demographically, culturally, intellectually, politically, and professionally. This makes it easy to bond — but it also means that we drink from the same informational pool. Any jobs my close friends have heard about, I’ve heard about, too.

Weak ties are different. These people are, as Granovetter pointed out, further afield, so they’re soaking in information we don’t have and moving among people we don’t know at all. That’s why they’re the people most likely to broker juicy job offers. “Acquaintances, as compared to close friends, are more prone to move in different circles than one’s self,” Granovetter argued. The ties are weak, but they are rich conduits for information.

Mexicans tended to be close friends with people who mirrored themselves demographically. Thus, there was a poverty of weak ties. As posted at this blog before, successful international migration depends on weak ties. Those who leave, the brain drain, get introduced to the value of this kind of networking. These prodigal daughters and sons are still linked to home. Some return. Some pull more friends and family to El Norte. Others do business that straddle two places. All help to open up an isolated Mexican village or urban neighborhood to weak ties.

The process that fueled Mexico's recent boom now grips Youngstown, Ohio. Edward McClelland probing the roots of Rust Belt Chic:

I first heard the term “Rust Belt Chic” in Youngstown, Ohio, from a young software developer named John Slanina. Slanina was driving me around the Yo, as he called it, in a Ford Taurus with a bacon-scented air freshener twirling from the rearview mirror.

“My name,” he explained. “Slanina means ‘bacon’ in Slovakian.” ...

... At 34, Slanina was a repatriated member of the Youngstown Diaspora. He had taken his Youngstown State degree to the Netherlands, then to Atlanta, but he’d brought it back, along with an urban aesthetic evident in his chunky glasses, goatee and red sneakers. While working at the University of Delft, Slanina had started a blog called I Will Shout Youngstown! to tell the people back home: “Hey, there are all these neat things in the Netherlands that you can emulate.” Then, he decided to try and emulate them himself. He got a job at Turning Technologies, a software firm that opened in Youngstown because office space is so cheap. (The average age of their 150 employees is 28. The average salary is $52,000.)

The insularity of mob-run Youngstown drove the city into the ground. It did the fail. The young and educated left in droves. They learned the value of weak ties. Some of them returned to redevelop the parochial ethnic urban enclaves. That's how brain drain saved Youngstown.