The Changing Face of Philanthropy: Cross Border Volunteering in Mexican Hometown Associations

by Pascale Belizaire,
reprinted with permission.


The face of international, cross-border philanthropy and volunteering is changing. The rich and famous volunteers who give their money by attending $2,000 plate fundraising charitable events to adopt children in Latin America may want to read on. A new type of philanthropy in Latin America is entering public conversation; rather than elites, ordinary service and manufacturing industry immigrants are making contributions made from their low wages to the local development of the communities they came from.

Volunteering in America is a historical notion that has existed for hundreds of years. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher in the 19th century, was struck by the American spirit of service, noting that our regard for others “prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property for the welfare of others.”1 Just as most trends and issues change in the course of time, so too has the concept of who and what we consider to be volunteers and volunteer work. We have seen volunteer work evolve from the old conventional concept of older middle-class White women helping the needy in distressed neighborhoods to more recent volunteer trends such as virtual volunteering. One trend in the world of philanthropy that I hope will soon join our contemporary notion of volunteer activities is the concept of Mexican Hometown Associations (MHTA) which is culturally and socially specific to the Mexican people.

MHTAs are essentially grass-roots communities that exist in the U.S. who band together to send monies to their foreign hometowns for community and economic development. De Tocqueville was also convinced that the success of democracy hinges on the ability of people to associate.2 Recent developments in MHTAs suggest that he was correct. MHTAs have been successful in their capacity to act together which has been very important to the economic advancement of some regions of Mexico. MHTAs are involved in development based on their capacity to act together. This capacity was not simply built, but rather has grown from their desire to tackle problems that have long been ignored and improve their quality of life.

We as a society too often quickly point out the “bad” issues that we perceive immigrants to have on our economy; we talk about illegal cross border migration and the drain on our social services, but we have overlooked the billions of dollars that immigrants send each year (as volunteers) in the form of remittances for the greater good. This paper seeks to describe this volunteer activity among the Mexican population group and make connections to contemporary notions of volunteering and describe the future outlook of incorporating cross-border philanthropy in our everyday volunteerism dictionary.

Who are members of Mexican Hometown Associations?

As members of the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans represent 2/3 of the Latino population.3 This group also sends one of the larger amounts of remittances (flows of money or gifts in kind) back to Mexico each year. Mexicans living in the U.S. send more than $9.3 billion a year to Mexico—almost half of the $23 billion total in migrant remittances sent to all of Latin America and the Caribbean.4 This now constitutes the fourth single source of dollar revenues, after foreign investment, oil exports and tourism. These monies reach 18% of all adults in Mexico.5 For many Mexicans in the U.S., the money that they remit represents the savings of each paycheck which could amount from a range of 15 – 50%.6

Researchers have found that MHTAs are established, for the most part, by people from rural, rather than urban areas. HTAs are normally founded on the basis of a shared neighborhood or colonias (residential suburb) which creates a certain level of cohesiveness among émigrés. Urban areas are not organized similarly. In addition, urban areas do not experience the same level of underdevelopment as rural areas. Members of MHTAs are largely an adult population; however parents encourage their children’s participation in social activities to raise funds. Mexican immigrants who remit money back to their country may do so in two ways: collectively or individually. This paper focuses on collective remittances sent by MHTAs as a volunteer activity.

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What Work is done by Mexican Hometown Associations?

MHTAs essentially have a dual role: obtaining funds for civic works back home and providing a sense of community for immigrants in the U.S. MHTAs in the U.S. are composed of migrants who are earning wages in the U.S. and organize themselves in order to pull their resources together for the development of their hometowns in Mexico. These resources are community remittances in the form of voluntary donations that are collected among members to finance social investment projects abroad.

MHTAs are part of a growing trend in transnational social movements and grew out of the practice of family remittance flows. MHTAs fulfill several functions, from social exchange and political influence to the pursuit of small-scale development projects in their home country. Their first purpose is social; soccer clubs or community organizations, for example, host dinners, dances and other events where people can mingle. They are known to form around and to contribute to the local church and community. More recently, however, MHTAs have formed and exist in order to improve economic conditions of their countries of origin.

During the late 1990s, some observers argue that the role and function of MHTAs evolved into one in which they can be categorized as transnational migrant organizations (TMOs); work consisting of retaining cultural ties and improving home country communities.7 The organizational structure of MHTAs varies, but the most common and simplest is the informal migrant village network.

A film titled The 6th Section documents a hometown association, Grupo Union, in New-burgh, NY whose members have turned disparity and proximity to their advantage by forming a union to aid their impoverished hometown. The workers, all men, in this particular association all live in upstate NY, are all from Boqueron in the Mexican state of Puebla and that is the destination of their resources. Although members of this association are extremely busy, most of them juggling many menial and low-wage jobs still make a point to meet each week in order to pool their hard-earned money together. Members give out what they can which usually amounts to $10, $20 or $30 each and hand it over to the association treasurer. The money is then placed in a local bank to fund projects for Boqueron. The association supplements the money by holding fundraising activities such as selling sodas in the park or holding raffles.8

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When were Mexican Hometown Associations formed?

The issue of hometown associations is not a new idea; rather it is a continuing phenomena or notion that has been given more academic recognition today. It is a phenomenon that has had a long history among U.S. immigrant groups and in particular, the Latino community.

MHTAs have the longest history, but there is an increasing number of other Latin American HTAs forming in the U.S., such as Dominican and Salvadoran. The most prominent MHTAs were established in the 1950s. The oldest MHTA in operation today dates back to 1965 when a wave of Mexican immigrants set down permanent roots in the U.S. at the end of the bracero program.9 In the 1970s, the Arizona Farm Workers Union pushed for the establishment of a system whereby growers would deduct a portion of farm workers’ salaries to invest in agricultural improvements in the migrants’ communities of origin to prevent further undocumented migration.10

In more recent years, many small HTAs have emerged under the leadership of immigrant leaders. As such members they began to develop relationships with their communities in Mexico through promotion of collective remittances, specifically designed to support civic works, such as construction of health clinics, facilities, improvements in urban services, etc. Unlike remittances in general, collective remittances sent by HTAs are sent for specific civic and social projects.11

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Where have Mexican Hometown Associations formed?

MHTAs have formed in many parts of the U.S. Many of these HTAs are located in Illinois, California, New York, Texas and Nevada. There are more than 600 MHTAs registered in 30 cities in the U.S., 218 of which are in Los Angeles.12 Most have permanent headquarters in cities where there is a large number of Mexicans or people with Mexican ancestry.

Los Angeles has the largest Mexican immigrant community followed by Chicago. The number of Chicago-based HTAs for five Mexican states (which are composed of almost 80% of all Mexican migrants in the Chicago area) has quintupled from 20 to over 100 during the 1994 to 2002 period.13 Rural areas in Mexico depend heavily on the remittances that MHTAs send.

Although it is difficult to estimate remittance flow at a municipal level, some data suggest that at present, 46% of the total inflows of remittances to the country are concentrated in 463 rural municipalities, which represent only 16% of the total country population.14

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Why have Mexican Hometown Associations formed?

These hometown associations sprung up in the U.S. in response to a social cause. They had a remarkable development period in the ‘90s due to three main factors according to a publication written by the World Bank in 2003:

  1. The strong increase of migratory flows caused by economic bonanza;
  2. The hardening of U.S. migratory laws, which encouraged migrants to organize in defense of their civil and labor rights; and
  3. The effort of several Latin American governments to initiate a constructive dialogue with their emigrants offering them better support through their respective consulates.


Of course, MHTAs have not been the first to organize in such organizations, the idea of hometown associations at least goes back to Jewish associations who during WWI gathered in order to facilitate assimilation for other Jews arriving in the U.S.

MHTAs have sprung up in the U.S. for the same reasons but to also facilitate development of their hometowns; very similar mission to that of established and formally organized international nonprofit humanitarian relief organizations like Oxfam. Some could argue that these associations have accomplished more for their hometowns and that the resources they send can be considered to be permanent foreign aid.

Much like the volunteers of founding nonprofits, these associations have formed in order to respond to a need that has failed to be met by or is not effectively met by the government. For example the MHTA that serves Boqueron has created a cafeteria for the kindergarten, bought an ambulance in NY and drove it (3,000-4,000 miles) to Boqueron, and in a move that uplifted the town’s morale, the men built a 2,000-seat baseball stadium to house the town’s most revered recreational activity. Partly because of the lack of a great number of civil society organizations in Mexico, HTAs rely upon family members or friends as their counterpart in the hometown abroad so that they may jointly choose the civic work on which remittances will be spent and to monitor the undertakings.

Giving back to communities through MHTAs provides Mexican immigrants a venue with which they are more comfortable with and it provides them with a direct sense of where their money and resources are going. They are typically wary of formal giving structures such as endowments, planned giving and foundations.15

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Connection between Volunteer Work and MHTAs

Rather than joining established organizations focused on raising funds for development or mission-based projects in Latin America, immigrants in the U.S. are organizing, fundraising and sending their own money and using their own labor for developments.

The activities of hometown associations have never really been associated to the field of volunteerism as an act of volunteering as we know it today. However, the mere mission that hometown associations were founded upon is very similar to common notions of volunteerism. In an article, Bell argues that the act of volunteering as it is practiced today comes from a pro-active model of behavior borne out of the experience of empowerment.16 HTAs essentially fall into this act that Bell speaks of; they are a community response to stresses faced by communities in Mexico undergoing rapid change in a globalizing society.

MHTAs are the basis of social action that spans across borders as they are tackling challenges in their hometowns that could not be improved by government or traditional foreign aid, alone. Margaret Bell succinctly describes the volunteer effort as a tool for change, which is what MHTAs represent. Volunteer work reinforces the realization that it is only through citizen participation that a better world can be built.

MHTAs, although not formally thought of as agencies in which volunteer work is done, are the new, current face of volunteering that spans across the borders. The foundation of these associations is directly related to many concepts that exist in the volunteer world. There are several features of MHTAs that are comparable to the volunteer work framework. The pro-active model of volunteerism is described as seeing a need for change and being sufficiently self-empowered as an individual to believe one can make a contribution and a difference.17 Bell describes this model as one that is most widely practiced today and is in itself a good reason to volunteer. I submit that this is the framework that is used by members of MHTAs; they see that they can make a difference in their hometowns abroad and are volunteering their time and efforts to do so.

Although a direct connection of the work and organizational development of MHTA members to the work and structure of the volunteer world have not been established in the academic world, I submit that there are several ways in which these connections currently exist:

  1. Members of MHTAs volunteer their time and resources to their hometowns in Mexico and very few members of MHTAs are getting financial remuneration (i.e., only leaders of the most prominent and established MHTAs are compensated).
    • Most members volunteer their time after their regular work and family obligations18, which can present a challenge to MHTAs in their decision-making process.
    • There is so much work to be done that agendas and resources have to be prioritized.
    • Manuel Orozco argues that their involvement in work depends on the time available for the members to invest in the activities.
  2. Volunteering in MHTAs could be considered a cross between notions of formal and informal volunteering.
    • Formal volunteering is typically carried out in the context of organizations contributing to a collective good; informal volunteering is more private and not organized (helping friends, neighbors, and kin living outside the household), and sometimes motivated by a sense of obligation.19
    • Volunteering in MHTAs is formal in the aspect that MHTAs are structurally organized as associations and therefore fall into the category of organizations and because they are contributing to the collective improvement of their hometown. Work done by MHTAs is a collective process on both the sending and receiving ends.
    • On the other hand, for the most part the work that volunteers of MHTAs perform caters to helping friends, family and neighbors in their hometowns abroad partly because they feel obligated, but mostly because they are responding to a need.
    • MHTAs are private.
    Because the work of MHTAs crosses the realm of these two notions of volunteering, perhaps a conclusion can be made that our categorization of volunteer work has grown obsolete or needs to change.
  3. The essence of volunteerism is the contribution of services, goods, or money to help accomplish some desired end, without substantial coercion or direct remuneration.20 Much like the work that is done by volunteers, the function of MHTAs in sending remittances is unrequited, unilateral donations, albeit carried out on a community basis with no expectation of a return gift.
    • The activities of MHTAs or work orientation ranges from charitable aid to investment.
    • The members of MHTAs pay particular attention to the needs of low-income persons.21
    • The work done by MHTAs can be seen as a form of reciprocity which Bell also argues is the trademark of the modern act of volunteering.
    • Charitable work is the basis of MHTAs, including the donation of clothes, construction material for the town church or small cash amounts to purchase goods.
    • Volunteers within MHTAs on the receiving end use remittances to pave streets, build parks, create sewage treatment plants, filter water, buy or maintain cemetery parks or build health care facilities.
    • Volunteers within MHTAs also give in order to create human capital by giving funds for scholarships, library books, health supplies and medicine, and sports utilities.
    • Volunteers on both the giving and receiving ends of MHTAs also manage and supervise capital investments for income-generating projects.22
  4. Many forms of volunteerism exist as joint-cooperation efforts. The organizational structure of MHTAs lends itself to a join-cooperation model because of the communication that occurs between the sending and receiving volunteers.

    • The local hometown counterpart, together with the association in the U.S., helps define the agenda.
    • The community associations may sometimes meet to discuss projects or fund-raising activities, or deal with emergency situations, such as organized support to victims from Hurricane Mitch.23
    • It is commonly assumed that such work, involving international relief, is done by international philanthropic organizations such as the Red Cross. Although such organizations may also be involved in relief work, not many people know that informal volunteer organizations such as MHTAs also get involved.
  5. In many volunteer organizations, financial resources may sometimes be a challenge. Most MHTAs operate on a small economic resource base; most raise less than $10,000 on average each year; however, because of the composition of most MHTAs as volunteers, they do not incur administrative costs. Therefore, much of the money that is raised is sent to the towns in the form of cash or in kind donations. This challenge may just as well categorize MHTAs as fundraising organizations which involve volunteers in the process on the sending end. Much of the work that is carried out abroad is done by volunteers who oversee the funds and organize labor for construction projects such as the pavement of roads.
  6. Susan Ellis, an expert on volunteerism, describes a notion of the history of volunteer involvement in seven stages. The third stage is described as once critical mass has been realized, enough new supporters have joined the work and the organization is no longer ‘underground’ and is gaining popularity.
    • As the issue of U.S.-Mexico relations is still gaining ground in the U.S., the work being done by MHTAs will emerge into the limelight. This has already begun with the public documentary of The 6th Section that aired in September of 2003 on PBS.
    • Additionally, the experience of MHTAs has created links with other U.S. organizations and they have received concessions from political authorities, such as expressions of support by Mexican state governors and Mexican consulates.
    • Increasingly, national U.S. Latino organizations such as the National Council of La Raza are taking steps to forge closer ties and establish strategic partnerships with MHTAs. However, much more work still needs to occur to further cement outside relationships and to gain that critical mass that would allow MHTAs with a greater capacity to function.
    In general, U.S. Latino politicians and community leaders have not reached out to HTAs and as a result they remain isolated from mainstream nonprofit organizations.24
  7. Many volunteer organizations did not begin with the staff needed to help the overall organization fulfill its mission. Rather the addition of staff may have evolved as organizations developed--once they realized that their cause has reached critical mass. I submit that most MHTAs have not yet reached this realization.
    • Ellis describes the fourth stage of volunteer history as the stage when members realize that everyone involved in the organization already has a paid job and it would be beneficial for the organization to find money and hire staff to alleviate exhaustion. The majority of MHTAs have not yet reached this point. A great challenge still remains for them to be able to leverage resources to increase their capacity.
    • They could benefit from expertise having to do with coalition building, fundraising, technical support, financial management and leadership development.25
    To undertake more ambitious projects, MHTAs must increase their membership, improve their fund-raising practices and develop a basic capacity for project management and promotion. These measures would best be achieved by hiring staff who would allow volunteers to use their resources more efficiently. Accomplishing these measures would be very difficult if MHTAs do not receive the critical mass buy-in as described as stage three of volunteer involvement. Although this has not occurred yet, it is inevitable. Once MHTAs have received this critical mass there will be more room for innovation.
  8. Volunteers functioning in MHTAs are essential to responding to the needs of those who lack resources. Although, they do face challenges in their ability to leverage resources, they are necessary to challenge the status quo.
    • Society will always need volunteers, and volunteers within MHTAs are no different. They are needed to be on the cutting edge challenging the causes of a problem as well as providing services to those experiencing its symptoms.
    • In the process of development of a volunteer organization, Ellis argues that employees become necessary because the magnitude of the work grows beyond what part-time volunteers can handle. Eventually, volunteers directly or indirectly get pushed out of the organization.
    • Volunteers are necessary, however to be utilized as fund-raisers, especially in MHTAs, and as policy makers in support roles. This, after all, was the founding mission of MHTAs in the U.S.
    • If and when MHTAs develop into entities in which they hire some staff in order to function more effectively, it is important that they do not displace their volunteers in the process.

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The Future of MHTAs

The importance of volunteer work done by MHTAs does not lie in the monetary value that is remitted, but in the particular features on MHTAs as the potential to be considered contemporary volunteer associations in the sphere of volunteer work. They show a great flexibility for investment purposes and have an organized network of volunteers who engage in the work of decision-making of social projects and implementation of resources. In addition, they are often accompanied by personal skills and show a great potential for local development.

It is clear that although MHTAs have some challenges ahead in terms of organizational development and capacity building, their work encompasses many of the attributes of our notions of volunteer work. They operate and volunteer by remitting resources back to their hometowns abroad with passion and values. They are taking action and leaving a legacy that not only will improve the quality of life of their hometowns, but passing that legacy down to their children. They are not only leading by example but forging the path for a new notion of volunteer activity.

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  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: New American Library, 1956 edition).
  2. Journal of the Inter-American Foundation, Grassroots Development: A Grassroots View of Development Assistance, vol 23, no 1 (Arlington, VA, 2002), p. 1.
  3. U.S. Census Bureau.
  4. World Bank, Migrants' Capital for Small-Scale Infrastructure and Small Enterprise Development in Mexico, (Washington D.C.: October 2003), p. 3.
  5. "MIF & Pew Hispanic Center Release Report on Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean," Press Office, Inter-American Development Bank, November 24, 2003 (press release).
  6. Roberto Ramirez-Rojas, A Study of the Sources and Use of Remittances by Type of Community in Mexico (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Foundation, March 19, 2001), p.42.
  7. Manuel Orozco, Globalization and Migration: the Impact of Family Remittances in Latin America, (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Foundation, March 19, 2001), p. 24.
  8. La Prensa San Diego, P.O.V. Double Bill of 'Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam' and 'Sixth Section' Looks to Past and the Future, Revealing the Complexity of Shared Mexican-U.S. Experience. Online. Available: Accessed: October 25, 2003.
  9. Meg Sullivan, "Mexican Immigrants in U.S. Keep Close Ties with Their Hometowns," USC Chronicle, vol. 19, no. 28 (April 17, 2000).
  10. Rafael Alarcon, The Development of Hometown Associations in the United States and the Use of Social Remittances in Mexico (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Dialogue, June 2001), p. 2.
  11. Roberto Ramirez-Rojas, A Study of the Sources and Use of Remittances by Type of Community in Mexico (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Foundation, March 19, 2001), p.44.
  12. Xochitl Bada, Mexican Hometown Associations. Online. Available: Accessed: July 14, 2003.
  13. Ibid.
  14. World Bank, Migrants' Capital for Small-Scale Infrastructure and Small Enterprise Development in Mexico, (Washington D.C.: October 2003), p.4.
  15. Hispanic Federation, Inc, Strengthening Latino Communities Through Giving and Volunteering (New York, 2002), p. 6.
  16. Margaret Bell, "Volunteering: Underpinning Social Action in Civil Society for the New Millennium," in Civil Society at the Millenium, ed. E. Mbogori (West Hartford, CN: Kumarian Press, 1999), p.27.
  17. Ibid, p.28.
  18. Manuel Orozco Manuel Orozco, Globalization and Migration: the Impact of Family Remittances in Latin America, (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Foundation, March 19, 2001), p.27.
  19. John Wilson and Marc Musick, "Who Cares, Toward an Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work," American Sociological Review, vol. 62 (1997) p. 700.
  20. David Smith, "Altruism, Volunteers and Volunteering," Journal of Voluntary Action Research, vol. 10 (1981), p. 33.
  21. University of California, Los Angeles, Migrant Remittance Transfer Mechanisms Between Los Angeles and Jalisco, North American Integration and Development Center Research Report, no. 7 (Los Angeles, CA, 1998).
  22. Manuel Orozco Manuel Orozco, Globalization and Migration: the Impact of Family Remittances in Latin America, (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Foundation, March 19, 2001), p.27.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Xochitl Bada, Mexican Hometown Associations. Online. Available: Accessed: July 14, 2003.
  25. Ibid.

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