Mexican Migrant Elite Empresarios: Transnational Entrepreneurship and Elite Formation


  • Yesenia Ruiz



This essay analyzes an emerging transnational Mexican migrant elite – a new social and economic group that has emerged not from established elites or privileged backgrounds, but from poor campesino families. Most of these (male) entrepreneur migrants entered the United States without documents and worked in unskilled jobs for extended periods. Eventually, they began to establish their businesses in New York and New Jersey and, within 20 years, accumulated unprecedented wealth. The entrepreneurs are successful in the US and Mexico, distinct from other transnational migrant groups. They have constructed transnational forms of class mobility and citizenship and innovative socio-economic, political, and solidarity networks shaped by neoliberalism. The essay examines how these transnational entrepreneurs became part of such a recent emerging elite in the US and Mexico. Furthermore, these entrepreneur migrants have established political relations with local politicians on both sides of the border. They have gone from being undocumented workers to becoming “Tortilla Kings” or millionaire importers of Mexican goods. 

Author Biography

Yesenia Ruiz

received her PhD in Anthropology from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She works for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). She teaches college in prison and is the program director of the Bard Baccalaureate at Bard College. Her teaching and scholarship focus on immigration, Latinos in the US, and gender in Latin America.

Yesenia Ruiz can be reached at


Alarcón, R. (2000). “Skilled Immigrants and Cerebreros: Foreign-Born Engineers and Scientists in High Technology Industry in Silicon Valley.” In N. Foner, R. Rumbaut, and S. Gold (eds.), Immigration Research for a New Century: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 301-321). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Barkin, D., Ortíz, I., and Rosen, F. (1997). “Globalization and Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico.” NACLA 30(4): 14-27.

Bates, T. (1997). Race, Self-employment, and Upward Mobility: An Illusive American Dream. Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

Binford, L. (2013). Tomorrow We’re All Going to the Harvest: Temporary Foreign Worker Programs and Neoliberal Political Economy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Borras, S. M. Jr., Edelman, M., and Kay, C. (eds.) (2008). Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalization. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Butler, J. S., Morales, A., and Torres, D. L. (2009). “The Mexican American Self-Employed Population in Context.” In J. S. Butler, A. Morales, and D. L. Torres (eds.), An American Story: Mexican American Entrepreneurship and Wealth Creation (pp. 1-8). Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Camp, R. A. (2006). Las élites del poder en México. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Cornelius, W. (1998). “The Structural Embeddedness of Demand for Mexican Immigrant Labor: New Evidence from California.” In M. Suarez-Orozco (ed.), Crossing: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 113-144). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

De Genova, N. (2005). Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. Durham: Duke University Press.

De Janvry, A., Gordillo, G., and Saudoulet, E. (1997). Mexico’s Second Agrarian Reform: Household and Community Responses, 1990-1994. San Diego: University of California Press.

De Leon, J. (2015). The Land of the Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.

Dussel, E. (1998). “Recent Structural Changes in Mexico’s Economy: A Preliminary Analysis of Some Sources of Mexican Migration to the United States.” In M. Suarez-Orozco (ed.), Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 55-74). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Edelman, M. (2008). “Transnational Organizing in Agrarian Central America: Histories, Challenges, and Prospects.” Journal of Agrarian Change 8(2/3): 229-257.

Esteva, G. and Barkin, D. (1980). The Struggle of Rural Mexico. University of Texas.

Fox, J. and Rivera-Salgado, G. (2004). “Building Civil Society among Indigenous Migrants.” In J. Fox and G. Rivera-Salgado (eds.), Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States (pp. 1-68). La Jolla: University of California, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies/Center for US-Mexican Studies.

Gerstle, G. and Mollenkopf, J. (2001). “Introduction: The Political Incorporation of Immigrants, Then and Now.” In G. Gerstle and J. Mollenkopf (eds.), E. Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation (pp. 1-30). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gledhill, J. (1995). Neoliberalism, Transnationalization and Rural Poverty: A Case Study of Michoacán, Mexico. Boulder: Westview Press.

Goldring, L. (2002). “The Mexican State and Transmigrant Organizations: Negotiating the Boundaries of Membership and Participation.” Latin American Research Review 37(3): 55-99.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hellman, J. A. (1994). Mexican Lives. New York: The New Press.

Hewitt de Alcantara, C. (1994). Structural Adjustments in a Changing World. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (2000). 1998 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Kearney, M. (1995). “The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Trasnationalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 547-565.

Kingfisher, C. and Maskovsky, J. (2008). “Introduction: The Limits of Neoliberalism.” Critique of Anthropology 28(2): 115-126.

Kwong, P. (1998). Forbidden Workers. New York: The Free Press.

Ley, D. (2010). Millionaire Migrants Trans-Pacific Lifelines. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Light, I. and Bonacich, E. (1988). Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Koreans in Los Angeles, 1965-1982. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lomnitz, L. and Lizaur, M. P. (1987). Una familia de la élite mexicana: Parentesco, clase y cultura, 1820-1980. México: Miguel Angel Porrúa.

Lopez, M. and Trevizo. D. (2009). “Mexican Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Los Angeles: An Analysis of Entrepreneurial Outcomes.” In J. S. Butler, A. Morales, and D. Torres (eds.), An American Story: Mexican American Entrepreneurship and Wealth Creation (pp. 1-8). Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Mahler, S. (1995). American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McLaughlin, M. (2015). “Donald Trump Goes After Immigrants Again, Claiming to Have Facts.” HuffPost (July 1).

Millman, J. (1992). “The Streets were Paved with Tortillas.” Forbes (May 25).

Mills, C. W. (2000[1956]). The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Muñoz, C. B. (2008). Transnational Tortillas: Race, Gender and Shop-Floor Politics in Mexico and the United States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ngai, M. (2004). Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ortiz, V. (1996). “The Mexican-Origin Population: Permanent Working Class or Emerging Middle Class?” In R. Waldinger and M. Bozorgmehr (eds.), Ethnic Los Angeles (pp. 247-277). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Otero, G. (1996). Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future. Boulder: Westview Press.

Peck, J. and Tickell, A. (2002). “Neoliberalizing Space.” Antipode 34(3): 388-404.

Pedersen, D. (2013). American Value: Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Pew Research Center (2015). “Immigrants’ Contributions to Jobs Creations.” Report (October 22).

Pew Research Center (2018). “For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged in Decades.” By D. Desilver (August 7).

Portes, A. and Bach, R. L. (1985). Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Raijman, R. and Tienda, M. (2003). “Ethnic Foundations of Economic Transactions: Mexican and Korean Immigrant Entrepreneurs in Chicago.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 26(5): 783-801.

Roberts, B., Frank, R., and Lozano-Ascencio, F. (1999). “Transnational Migrant Communities and Mexican Migration to the US.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22(2): 238-266.

Scott, J. (2008). “Modes of Power and the Re-Conceptualization of Elites.” In M. Savage and K. Williams (eds.), Remembering Elites (pp. 27-43). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith, M. P. and Bakker, M. (2008). Citizenship Across Borders: The Political Transnationalism of El Migrante. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

Smith, R. C. (2006). Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Univision (2016). Interview with Pedro Zamora.

Valdez, Z. (2011). The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class, and Gender Shape American Enterprise. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Vallejo, J. A. (2012). Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican Middle Class. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Warman, A. (2001). El campo mexicano en el siglo XX. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.






Themed Essays