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El Norte or Bust!: How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-1442220683
ISBN-10: 1442220686
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Editorial Reviews


Anthropologist Stoll (Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire?) examines the factors underlying a growing migration-based debt crisis in Latin America. He argues that a desire for American-style consumption drives immigrants into a pyramid scheme in which high-interest loans for travel to the U.S. can only be paid for by U.S. jobs (even at less than minimum wage), encouraging more people to travel to the U.S., compounding local debt. Focusing on the Guatemalan town of Nebaj, where he has done field work since the 1980s, Stoll explodes myths about the local Maya, revealing how their social structures, obsession with public works projects and modern conveniences, and deep ties to a home with too little arable land to sustain population growth contribute to destructive “chains of debt”. Drawing from fieldwork of his own and by others, Stoll illustrates the range of Nebajense experience at home and in El Norte, demonstrating how the cycle of “debt peonage” in Central American migration affects and mirrors similar patterns in the U.S. This disheartening story will feel all too familiar for those troubled by the U.S. mortgage crisis and bank bailouts of recent years. (Publishers Weekly)

From the first page, Stoll skillfully captures the reader with a story of the small Latin American town of Nebaj that is immeasurably more linked to us today than it was in the early 1980s....In El Norte or Bust! there’s much to inform us – not only about the Ixil people have fared since the war but also about the continuing links between America and the highlands of Guatemala. But Stoll’s contributions do more than inform. Like his earlier books, Stoll’s El Norte or Bust! shatters assumptions, destroys myths, and ushers in new frameworks of analysis and understanding about such issues as immigration, globalization, and communitarian indigenous society. Stoll, a respected cultural anthropologist, brings together the best of the techniques of scholarly research, investigative reporting, and feature journalism to this important book....El Norte or Bust! is an eye-opening book – a must-read for all sympathetic observers of immigrants and their options, and for all of those who left Central America behind. (Border Lines Blog)

In 2006, global praise and validation of institutionalized microcredit lending for the poor came in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize. And almost immediately thereafter, newspapers teemed with stories of Bangladeshi women who acquired small loans and thus changed their lives forever. David Stoll’s revealing El Norte or Bust!, sheds new light on the concept in a thorough and potent manner, revealing microcredit’s destructive capacities in the context of the modern transnational world. An anthropologist and author of two previous books, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala and Is Latin America Turning Protestant?: The Politics of Evangelical Growth, Stoll returns to Guatemala for his latest story. Focusing on the Ixil Mayas of Nejab, he merges interviews and his extensive knowledge of the history, struggles, and culture of the town with vital background information on the country’s recent bloody civil war and the lack of land for a growing population. Careful not to objectify or romanticize his subjects in his research, he imparts multidimensional stories in which humans act as humans do, with a full range of complex emotions, motives, and desires. Amidst these accounts, Stoll unravels the manner in which microcredit has been used— both the formal (institutional) and informal (via neighbors or community groups) kinds. Included are details about the exorbitant interest rates (sometimes 10 percent or more a month), multiple borrowings (usually for treks to the United States in search of work), and the lack of any real opportunities to profit from or repay what was loaned. Thus, readers are confronted with notso- happy endings: failed “trips” to the US costing upwards of $5,000, the lack of employment and increasing hostility toward immigrants here, and the possibility of losing even what little one had to begin with. All the while, the loan(s) continue to mount, and the palpable desperation of already squeezed people reveals the counterintuitive yet understandable mentalities of “doubling down” and (literally) “betting the house.” Although a very serious and meticulous book, El Norte or Bust! isn’t the sort of research book that many of us drowsily struggle to comprehend. Stoll has produced an important work on a timely issue that flows as easily as an intriguing novel. Full of fascinating accounts and intricate details, it is certainly a book to be used in anthropology classrooms and for those concerned about immigration, poverty, indigenous communities, and real life stories from the other side of the fence. (Foreword Reviews)

El Norte or Bust! is an eye-opening–even astonishing–account of how indigenous Guatemalans live, why they come north, and what happens when they do. . . .Prof. Stoll has written a very useful and illuminating book. (American Renaissance)

The stories, which appear throughout the book, make for both an entertaining and informative read. . . .The book does an excellent job of communicating the real costs of an enormously complex informal financial system that is rarely discussed, and chronicles some of the damage that results in the march towards a flatter world. Stoll manages to discuss a complicated set of asynchronous events in a way that is manageable and interesting to a wide audience of readers. El Norte or Bust! details both the financial and human costs of a world with an extreme wealth gap and ever less significant geographic differences. This story has relevance across many areas of the social sciences, and is a wonderful example of the benefits of longitudinal and cross cultural research. (Society)

Never has the penetration of globalization to the periphery of the periphery been documented so vividly and poignantly as in David Stoll’s El Norte or Bust! He shows how the Ixil Mayas of Guatemala were caught in a catastrophic cycle of sub-subprime lending at astronomical interest rates to finance high-risk labor migration to the United States. Victimized by moneylenders, coyotes, police, and employers alike, many young men not only fail to realize their dreams of buying land, setting up a small business, or otherwise improving their lives in a land recently devastated by civil war, but end up more destitute than before. Ixil country became an imploding pyramid scheme. Stoll has produced a unique and masterly analysis of Fourth World devastation by globalization. (Pierre van den Berghe, University of Washington; coauthor of Ixil Country)

David Stoll has written a fascinating, provocative book. His narrative is rich in ethnographic detail about a particular place, Nebaj, and its many sharply depicted personalities who suffered during the civil war and now suffer the consequences of a dream of ‘el Norte’ gone sour. Particular though the story is, the implications are universal, as Stoll’s narrative is guided by a large moral vision of the failings of modern capitalism. His clear, straightforward exposition makes the book accessible to all of us—general readers, students, scholars, and, one hopes, policymakers. (Norman B. Schwartz, University of Delaware; author of Forest Society)

David Stoll gives us a superb glimpse of the underside of the global financial crisis. He provides a perspective on the failure of neoliberal free trade that—while enabling goods, services, and capital to flow freely across borders—traps in place the laborers that free trade makes redundant, and he describes the sometimes ingenious and sometimes tragic means they employ to escape their entrapment. A must-read for anyone involved in debates over immigration.

(Richard H. Robbins, SUNY at Plattsburgh; author of A Debtor’s Bill of Rights)

About the Author

David Stoll, who has been visiting Guatemala since the 1970s, is professor of anthropology at Middlebury College. His books include Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire?, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, and Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 1 edition (December 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1442220686
  • ISBN-13: 978-1442220683
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #872,010 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Theodore Ning on December 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been working in Guatemala in community development for 15 years. During that time, we have had experiences in Nebaj with microcredit and education projects. David Stoll explains why our program failed during this financial bubble. The history of the region, the isolation, yet the beauty of the people draw many NGOs to this location. Unless they understand the financial history of outside funding and migration, the area will continue to be underdeveloped.
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Format: Hardcover
David Stoll's careful study of the Guatemalan highland town of Nebaj and the effects of a cycle of population growth, limited land, the introduction of microfinance as a development tool, and migration to the US to escape debts and seek higher wages, is one of the best works of its kind I've seen in years. I've spent a lot of time in Guatemala, dating back to human rights work in the 1980s civil war and on up to today, including stints in Nebaj. I've also got a long history working in development finance and micro finance NGOs, and as a law professor teach finance and law and economics. Microfinance can do, and has done, marvelous things, but like all development tools, it can create many unintended consequences, economic and social. This book explores what happens when outside capital is introduced to a place with limited land. The extension of credit to an economy whose principal activity is limited by the availability of land does exactly what one would expect - drives up the price of land and creates a bubble, leading to a crash. This is a closely observed work of both social study and the microeconomics of debt and credit. It deserves wide reading among those who are dealing with Guatemala as it exists today - not just the past, the civil war years of thirty years ago, but Guatemala today - as an economy and society. It also deserves wide reading by policy types, think tankers, World Bankers and IMFers, development types, and scholars of microfinance, debt and credit, and development, to understand how complex and unforeseen the effects of microcredit can be, and not always in good ways.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Frank Graziano on January 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This book stands out for the uniqueness and treatment of its primary focus: how undocumented Guatemalans from Nebaj have used formal and informal credit to finance migration to the United States; how failed efforts result in debt; how new migration is motivated by the need to repay that debt; and how this new migration itself often fails, thereby compounding the problem. This principal theme—the relation of microfinance to migration—is supported by others that are equally interesting: the mixed motives of foreign aid, migrant illusion where it confronts reality, smugglers and scams, the roles of religion, families divided by migration, and the right not to migrate. The analysis is insightful, rich in ethnographic detail, and accessible to a wide range of readers.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By caseysc on March 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
From the economy of Guatemala's western highlands, Stoll teases out the threads of land value, migration (especially undocumented migration to the United States), the Ixil social economy, and microfinance. He offers an illuminating understanding of loan pressures in the Ixil region, with individual stories to bring out telling details. I found this a highly readable and important investigation into the unintended impacts of microfinance. Indeed, having visited the Ixil triangle myself, the book became a page turner for me.
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