“There was very little work before. Now there is none.”
Omar Cosme tilts his head and smiles in that ingenuous self-deprecating way that many Oaxacans have of expressing their feelings. Stocky and muscular, with a face that seems to be all ovals, he pushes a Cubs-logo baseball cap off his forehead and sighs as he explains his decision to join his brother and nephews in Chicago. Yes, he admits in rapid bursts of Spanish, it will be a long and dangerous journey but his brother and the community of immigrants in which he lives have good coyotes, they know how to get past the migra and seldom are apprehended. And, yes, it will be costly but his brother and nephews will pay the coyotes and he will repay them from his earnings.
“It is how we jodidos have learned to survive,” he smiles again. “We do what we have to do to get by.”
Although he speaks no English and has only a fifth-grade education, Omar knows what life in the United States is like. He has worked citrus harvests in Florida, in packing plants in South Carolina and installing dry wall in Chicago. He returned to Oaxaca four years ago because his fifty-nine-year old mother’s diabetes had worsened. After years of neglect she’d had to be hospitalized.
“I tried to make enough in Mexico but it is impossible.” Again he flashes that ingenuous smile and explains that in the Mixteca area of western Oaxaca where he was born it still is possible to survive on what a small plot of land will produce “but there is no money and one has to buy things.”
An estimated 90 percent of Mexican federal government support for agriculture goes to large agri-business and investor landowners. The federal subsidies that provided seed and fertilizer to small landowners have been eliminated. Besides, Omar admits, while in the United States he developed a liking for modern conveniences: refrigerator, car, video player, McDonalds.
Like many Oaxacans Omar doesn’t distinguish among political parties or political programs. He speaks in terms of what “the government” or “the politicians” do or don’t do as though they are an abstraction, something one has to deal with but can’t change anymore than one can change a mountain or the ocean.
He and many others in the Mixteca know that Mexico’s tourist industry has bottomed out as drug violence, crime and swine flu scares have drastically dimmed the country’s popularity as a vacation destination. They shrug and curse and spit and laugh about the “war on drugs” that has heightened violence and sponged up monies that could be devoted to agriculture and education and they reminiscence about the United States and its pizza and Budweiser and major league baseball.
Omar knows that life “on the Other Side” will not be easy. U.S. Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on workshops, farms and factories have resulted in thousands of arrests and deportations. To be an indocumentado in the United States is to live in constant fear of deportation. Omar and his friends describe families going without electricity for months because they thought the man who came to read the meter was a law enforcement officer, children hiding under a bed and refusing to answer a mail deliver’s knock, a pregnant woman with two children walking for miles through rain because she was afraid to ask a bus driver how much a ticket cost.
Throughout the United States Mexican immigrants, many of them indocumentados, have created “little Oaxacas,” “little Durangos,” “little Michoacans” to duplicate the communal life in their places of origin. They establish bakeries, eateries, beauty parlors and secondhand stores; those who learn English become “coyotes” for those who don’t, helping to set them up with jobs, get drivers’ licenses, pay bills and enroll children in school. Children often serve as guide dogs for their parents and become their principal contact with the dominate culture.
Even before the passage of the Simpson-Rodino immigration act in 1985 that enabled some three million indocumentados to legalize their status, immigrants who’d established homes in the United States arranged and paid for emigration for members of the community in which they had lived, lined up work for them and became their eyes and ears for their first months or years in the United States. The newcomers brought Mexican customs, culinary habits and ideology with them, “Mexicanizing” their U.S. neighborhoods. In their efforts to achieve greater material and social equality they adapted north-of-the-border lifestyles and took what they acquired (sometimes AIDS, evangelical Christianity and credit cards) back to Mexico with them.
Adhering to dictates of international lenders Mexico’s pro-globalization presidents in the late twentieth century determined to reduce the rural campesino population from thirty million (nearly one-third of the nation’s inhabitants) to a mere five million. Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) pushed a constitutional change through the federal legislature removing the restriction on selling ejido (communal farming) land before Mexico and the United States confirmed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. (The ejidos, created during the administration of President Lázaro Cardenas in the 1930s, were properties deeded “in perpetuity” to landless rural residents.)
When reporters asked one of Salinas’ secretaries of agriculture, Carlos Hank, what was going to happen to the millions of self-sufficient farmers he was removing from little plots of land Hank replied amiably, “That’s not my department.” (How much Hank actually knew about rural agriculture is questionable. Mexican cabinet posts traditionally are awarded to party faithful whether or not the persons appointed have any knowledge about or expertise in the fields they’ve been named to direct.)
The vast majority of the former ejidarios migrated to urban centers where they scrambled for whatever work they could find to support themselves and their families. Separated from communal roots where roles were clearly defined and family and communal life was centered around Catholic church practices and traditions, men and women who commute for hours every day, hold more than one job or simultaneously work and go to school replace “tortillas, hand-made, filled with beans and chilis eaten with others amid laughter and songs” with “white bread and telenovelas taken on the run” a Mexico City schoolteacher who moonlights as a parts inspector for an electronics manufacturer told me.
Mexico in 1910 had a population of slightly over sixteen million people, the majority of whom lived on what could be produced locally. Travel was difficult; most people identified with their places of origin; they had neither radios nor TVs and very few newspapers reported what was happening in distant parts of the country, much less the world. An estimated 90 percent of the population was illiterate, the child mortality rate was over 50 percent in many areas. Wealthy hacenderos and caciques controlled the government.
Industrialization lured campesinos and laborers to migrate to manufacturing centers, particularly those in the Federal District and the surrounding Estado de Mexico. Shortages of both housing and building materials prompted many of them to construct temporary residences on hillsides and barren land and commute long distances to work. As the squatter communities grew and became more permanent (and as other squatters arrived to fill the barrancas and hilltops with more temporary dwellings) the neighborhood stores that provided most of the food, clothing and trinkets that the newcomers purchased gradually expanded, as did transportation to the barrios, drainage systems and access to potable water and electricity.
Long before the “invasion” of transnational firms like WalMart, McDonalds and Home Depot, supermarkets, department stores and shopping centers had become commonplace in most cities. But it wasn’t until the massive migration of workers to the United States that rural residents shook off traditional values and ways of doing things to consider electric mixers, women’s jeans, chainsaws and hamburgers as necessities for everyday life.
When a bus in which I was a passenger broke down on a pitted, rocky road in desolate western Oaxaca, I and five other passengers, men between the ages of twenty-five and forty, hitched a ride in the back of an old pickup. As we chatted I discovered that four of the five had been to New York, four of the five to Los Angeles, all of them to Phoenix and the majority to Las Vegas, Houston and San Francisco (in addition to MacFarlane, California, Rock Springs, Wyoming and Farmington, New Jersey).
One of them sang snatches of BeeGees songs in English, another remembered buying big buckets of delicious “Kentucky” (fried chicken) when his crew got off work. They countered remarks about the migra (Border Patrol) and their treatment of migrants with stories about Mexican police who took bribes and beat up innocent indigenas, saying that one was no worse than the other. One even laughed about having been abandoned with over twenty others on the Arizona desert by their coyote and finally being picked up and deported by the migra.
The vast majority of those who’ve worked in the United States and returned to Mexico no longer want to live in “Mexico Típico” weaving baskets, wearing serapes and riding mules no matter how touristically appealing such traditions might seem. They want a house, a job, a car, enough to eat and education for their kids. Although they share many communal values, they place their personal interests and those of their families ahead of community needs.
I’ve attended a number of homecomings of immigrants who achieved legal status in the United States. During one of them in a small town in Oaxaca the vacationing immigrant threw a community-wide party: The Pope couldn’t have been treated with more respect than he was. He later confided that he had a good job as a cook in a hotel restaurant in California. In quite passable English he asked, “You think I get treated this way in L.A.? Here they give me a parade, everybody wants to shake my hand, kiss me. Hell! They’re even going to name a park after me!”
He acknowledged that dozens of the town’s teenagers talked to him about emigrating “so they could have the things I have. So they can send lots of money to their mothers, sisters, novias.” He added that very few of them mentioned returning to the impoverished conditions they wanted to escape.
Although Omar Cosme’s brother has a legitimate green card which gives him residency rights and permission to work in the United States he no longer is employed in the construction industry and has taken a restaurant kitchen job. Like him thousands of immigrants, documented and unauthorized, find themselves with diminished moneymaking opportunities that not only affect their standard of living but also the Americanized standard of living of those they are supporting in Mexico.
Neither the government of the United States nor of Mexico seems to care what happens to them. Officials in both countries consider immigration as a phenomenon to be dealt with as governments deal with irrigation, airports and sausage making. In 2008 over 95 percent of indocumentados were employed—a clear indication that they are needed and contribute to the U.S. economy as well as bolster the economies of their places of origin. Political leaders acknowledge “an immigration problem” without investigating either its origin or its effects other than to legislate the construction of detention centers and worthless border walls and cant bromides about terrorism and the war on drugs.
According to residents in southern Mexico that I’ve interviewed, families need to have permanent U.S. residents remitting money in order to feed and cloth themselves and educate their children. Many asserted that the majority of emigrants feel they have nothing to come back to and intend to remain in the United States and that many who at first intended to return become permanent residents, some because family members remaining in Mexico need the remittances they send, others because they grow accustomed to their lives in the United States and year by year feel more alienated from their places of origin in Mexico.
Although many of them avidly assert adherence to traditional Mexican values, especially those that involve local customs and Church celebrations, they do so with a cell phone tucked against one ear, Calvin Kleins slung low over their hips and credit cards in the billfolds they’ve tucked into pockets or purses.
Robert Joe Stout has written about Mexico for a variety of publications, including America, The American Scholar and Notre Dame Magazine. He lives in Oaxaca, has served on human rights delegations there and traveled extensively throughout the country. His most recent book, Why Immigrants Come to America: Braceros, Indocumentados and the Migra, came out in 2008 from Praeger.
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