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American Value

Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States

American Value

Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States

Over the past half-century, El Salvador has transformed dramatically. Historically reliant on primary exports like coffee and cotton, the country emerged from a brutal civil war in 1992 to find much of its national income now coming from a massive emigrant workforce—over a quarter of its population—that earns money in the United States and sends it home. In American Value, David Pedersen examines this new way of life as it extends across two places: Intipucá, a Salvadoran town infamous for its remittance wealth, and the Washington, DC, metro area, home to the second largest population of Salvadorans in the United States.
Pedersen charts El Salvador’s change alongside American deindustrialization, viewing the Salvadoran migrant work abilities used in new lowwage American service jobs as a kind of primary export, and shows how the latest social conditions linking both countries are part of a longer history of disparity across the Americas. Drawing on the work of Charles S. Peirce, he demonstrates how the defining value forms—migrant work capacity, services, and remittances—act as signs, building a moral world by communicating their exchangeability while hiding the violence and exploitation on which this story rests. Theoretically sophisticated, ethnographically rich, and compellingly written, American Value offers critical insights into practices that are increasingly common throughout the world.

304 pages | 10 halftones, 1 map, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Latin American Studies


American Values is an excellent account of the history of US–El Salvador relations and at the same time yields first-rate insights into popular issues in the political and social discourse of US and Latin American relations. A must read.”

Alexei Anisin | LSE Review of Books

“This approach is useful to students and scholars of mobility because it helps to analyze money, commodities, and economic forces—among the main factors linking the globe today—and because it finds connections among apparently unrelated spaces and events. The book moves seamlessly and skillfully between the lives of Salvadoran migrants and those employed by them back home, class and ethnic tensions in 1980’s Washington, DC, and the US defense industry’s role in reshaping both Central American warfare and suburban real estate in Northern Virginia. . . . American Value provides an important model of how to combine careful ethnography with an awareness of that which is not immediately present or visible under dominant modes of representation.”

Federico Helfgott | Transfers

“The result of this scale-changing narrative is hemispheric history on a grand scale: elegant and erudite in its critique of dominant narratives.”

Cambridge Anthropology

“In crafting this fuller story, Pedersen makes important theoretical insights about storytelling itself. . . . Pedersen’s prose stays closer to the ground, truer to how stories are invented and told than in the linear rendering we get after someone has analyzed the data, made the connections, and put everything in order. By the end of the book, the bigger picture does come into focus—at least it did for me—but it does so after an intellectual journey across different analytical scales, time periods, geographies, and so forth.”

Sarah Mahler | Social Analysis

American Value contains an absorbing transnational ethnography and a penetrating analysis of the relationship between structures of power and storytelling, or, better put, the making of history. . . . The book is learned, but also good to read. The writing style is clear and captivating. American Value is a thought-provoking and unusual contribution to the scholarly literature on anthropology and history, contemporary capitalism, migration, and the connections between Latin America and the United States.”

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

American Value traces the political and economic preconditions of contemporary migration from Intipucá, and Pedersen deepens our historical understanding of hemispheric economic and political ties between Intipucá and Washington, DC, reminding us that US interests have long influenced El Salvador. From proxy Cold War interventions in Central America, the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank, and the influence of the ‘Washington Consensus,’ which authorized neoliberal policies in the region, Pedersen explains how being from Intipucá can be understood from the vantage point of the impact of US imperialism and global neoliberalism. This is the complex broader view that challenges dominant circulating ideas about Intipucá and the partiality of the Intipucá success story. The multiple sites, registers, and temporal frameworks of American Value are kaleidoscopic and at times a bit dizzying. Still, its valuable theoretical reach redefines anthropology’s holism and challenges narrow approaches to the transnational by showing how the local is tied to national, regional, hemispheric, and global processes.”

American Anthropologist

American Value is an extraordinary tracking of histories and geographies that makes visible the complexities of what we see as elementary or self-evident. Beyond research, it takes talent and imagination to detect the larger web of meanings at work in what is usually flattened into one persuasive description. David Pedersen has written a great book.”

Saskia Sassen, author of Territory, Authority, Rights

“There are many things about American Value that are truly impressive. David Pedersen’s Peirceian interpretation of Marx’s notion of value is a thought-provoking proposal, and he succeeds at laying bare the mechanisms of storytelling itself through a deconstruction of the hierarchies that determine which stories will be dominant and which will be marginal or buried. However, the highest achievement is Pedersen’s writing style, which develops an elegant, brilliant, and eloquent narrative to contradict and complicate the dominant one.”

Gustavo Verdesio, author of Forgotten Conquests

American Value is an original and ambitious book. Apart from his transnational subject—relations between El Salvador and the United States—David Pedersen seeks to throw light on how dominant interpretations of that history are generated and then overturned by the kind of in-depth analysis his research makes possible. The scope of his ambition is revealed by his insistence in grounding the account in individual lives while seeking to explore how public ideas are formed through literature, journalism, social science, military and police reports, speeches, letters, and oral testimony. If this were not enough, he aspires to throw light on the co-evolution of the US and Central America, including wars linking the two; and he has some theoretical axes to grind, as well.” 

Keith Hart, University of Pretoria

“David Pedersen’s remarkable book chronicles the shift in El Salvador from coffee to cotton to migration and remittances as the primary source of value and power, each wave leaving behind a sedimented history and concretized relations that give form to the next wave. Pedersen tells a nuanced story of how everyday people, caught up in situations of both mundane and geopolitical significance, translate value into unique expressions that then circulate as transnational signs and ciphers. A compelling narrative of transnational remittances and the origins and enduring legacies of El Salvador’s civil war, this is also a profound contribution to the semiotics of value.”

Bill Maurer, author of Accelerating Possession

“a creative interpretation of the history of migration and transnational flows. . . . Recommended.”

C. J. MacKenzie | Choice

Table of Contents

List of Characters



ONE A Roadmap for Remittances


TWO Brushing against the Golden Grain
THREE Melting Fields of Snow
FOUR The Intrusion of Uncomfortable Wars, Illegals, and Remittances


FIVE The Wealth of Pueblos
SIX Immigrant Entrepreneurship


SEVEN Welcome to Intipucá City
EIGHT The World in a Park

NINE Options and Models for the Future


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