“I remember a little girl that I would see some mornings peering through the schoolyard fence, half-hidden by the climbing vines that had grown up around it. She wasn’t filthy but she wasn’t clean either. I asked her where she lived and she shrugged. I asked where her parents were and she shrugged.
“‘You don’t know?’”
“She shook her head. I asked if she’d ever been to school and she shook her head. I asked her if she could read and she shook her head. I asked her if she was hungry and she shrugged. After that when I would see her I would give her fruit, tortillas, a toothbrush. Sometimes if the bigger boys noticed her they’d chase her away. Once when they threw rocks at her, she fell. I picked her up and asked if she was hurt and she shook her head, tears splattered all over her face.
“‘I just want to be like them¨, she said.
Jaime Dominguez teaches in a private elementary and secondary school in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, the capital of the country’s most poverty wracked state, a “land of widows, orphans and paramilitary police” according to neighbors who live near me in one of the city’s barrios. Like many Mexicans—probably most—Dominguez has a hard time making ends meet. And like most he feels frustrated—“impotent,” incapable of resolving problems that threaten the country’s economic and social life.
By 2010, hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans had lost their lands, their incomes and their ability to feed and clothe themselves and their families.
“There are children who don’t have houses in which to live,” public school teacher Pedro Rodríguez told me. “There are children who don’t have food to eat and children who don’t have educations.”
A woman who worked with the city of Oaxaca’s DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia—Mexico’s federal and state welfare system) told me about the incredible variety of patched-together family arrangements the agency encountered. They included a woman of twenty-three whose husband had left as an indocumentado to the United States, her two young children, her husband’s sister’s two children, a pregnant fifteen-year-old cousin, the cousin’s novio and the novio’s teenaged sister. Another of the departed husband’s sister’s children had been living with them but had run away.
They lived in “a conglomeration of shacks” pegged together with old electric cord, rope and clothes hangers and covered with plastic tarpaulin. Various of them worked when they could; for medical care they went to a crippled curandera who gave them poultices, herbs and mescal. Other “families” that DIF encountered included children who had no blood relations and households headed by teen-aged children. Other children lived on the streets, sleeping in doorways, wiping off car windshields with bits of rag, ferreting through garbage cans.
Educator Miguel Vázquez, co-founder of Oaxaca’s Alternative Education Services (EDUCA) cites a United Nations study that describes Oaxacan communities so poor they equal those in the most deprived areas of Africa. Nearly 75 percent of state’s 3,500,000 residents live in poverty and nearly a million of them live in the United States, many without legal documentation. Of the state’s three major sources of revenue, one—coffee production–virtually has disappeared and a second, “factories without chimneys” (tourism), plummeted after the 2006 conflicts associated with the People’s Popular Assembly led to extensive business closings, layoffs and foreclosures.
At the same time emigration increased. An estimated 150,000 left Oaxaca each year between 1995-2005. In 2006 an estimated 350,000 headed for agricultural, construction and service jobs in the United States and the agricultural regions of northern and northwest Mexico.
Every year more and more women join those leaving to seek employment. Communities throughout the state have become ghost towns. The few residents who remain depend upon the remittances they receive from fathers, husbands, sons and daughters working in the United States.
Very little of the money is invested or spent on anything but necessities—food, transportation, medicines, education. (Free education in Mexico is limited to primary school—first grade through sixth grade; after that parents must pay tuition, books, uniforms and enrolment.) Some migrant workers return with enough money to build additions to their houses, or construct new ones, or to buy a few head of cattle or set up a small business but many do not return, abandoning their families to survive as best they can.
Migration widows merge into the informal economy. They sell trinkets, candies, fruit, rebosos, fried grasshoppers, wooden cooking utensils. Others work under the table as maids and housekeepers, men as day laborers. Children as young as six and seven peddle Chiclets, shine shoes, play accordions at street intersections. Few earn more than enough to buy a few tortillas or Styrofoam cups of Maruchan noodles.
Perched on a handmade stool in a dusty Oaxaca colonia popular Martha Chavez told me:
“My son, Ernesto, he is the only man I have. His father has not been here for three years. He went north to find work. We do not know what happened to him. His brother also has been gone for three years. Twice my sister-in-law heard from him, one time when she received some money that he sent to her, but that was–I don’t remember–a long time ago.
“When we still lived in the Sierra, on the rancho, my husband would be gone for weeks cutting trees for the lumber trucks. We had melons and squash and beans and corn in our little ejido on the hillside. But the crops dried up and my husband came to the city. He built this house saying he would put windows in it and a floor that wasn’t just packed-down dirt. To make a little money I sold candies because when he wasn’t working we had no way to buy masa or a few beans. Then his brother came with his wife and they moved in with us since they had no place to go.
“My sister-in-law works too–she sells dulces but on Sundays she helps cook and wash dishes for unos ricos–and my son works every day and often at night in a big place where they hold dances. He parks the cars and scrubs the floors and cleans up everything afterwards.
“At times I think about the rancho. But, ni modo, it is gone. This is the life that we have now.”
It is not unusual in Oaxaca for nine-, ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-old children to be left in charge of younger siblings while the father is absent and the mother works. During a trip to the mountainous areas in western Oaxaca—“the Mixteca” as it is called—I encountered three children trudging along a rocky path. The oldest, perhaps eleven or twelve, carried a baby.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
“On ‘The Other Side.’”
“In the United States?”
“Who cares for the little ones?”
“You alone. No one else?”
“No one else. My grandmother is sick.”
“On ‘The Other Side.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the house of my cousins. To get tortillas.”
“Can’t you stay with your cousins?”
“No. If I did someone would take our house away. Then we would have no place to live.”
“Children without futures,” Mexico City business owner José Alberto Diego sighed. “There are millions of them in Mexico. Millions.”
That the future is a black hole—or at best a dismal gray fog—prompts thousands of youth to respond to drug organization recruitments. Having no future pressures one to do what one can in the present, to Hell with the consequences.
“‘So I’m going to die?’ they say to me,” a health clinic doctor described rural dropouts who’d joined or were joining one or another of the so-called cartels. “‘At least I’ll have something first. And it will be quick—not starving to death, eaten up inside by parasites.’”
He reported that first-year recruits employed as messengers, lookouts and infiltrators bring in $800 U.S. a month, cash, equal to what teachers in southern Mexico with ten years of longevity earn before taxes.
To a large extent, joining the Familia of Michoacán or the Cartel de Sinoloa has replaced migration as a means of acquiring money and status.
“Chinga, mano! What’s the difference? They’re both illegal!” exclaimed the brother of a Oaxaca seventeen-year-old who became a drug organization member. Journalist Ugo Codevilla told a Oaxaca audience that when citizens perceive that their government is corrupt they lose respect for the law and condone or propagate corruption of their own.
“Survival is more important than conformity,” an audience member agreed.
“The poor always are going to be poor and the rich always are going to be rich,” a state policeman told a nineteen-year-old after beating him and throwing him into a pickup to be hauled to prison during the November 25, 2006 intervention in the city of Oaxaca. That division between rich and poor has been the guiding principle of Mexico’s political system since Spanish conquistadores entered the country in the sixteenth century. They allowed the indigena communities to govern themselves according to traditional usos y costumbres, to weave blankets and grow corn and beans and to fight with their neighbors but not to share the state’s wealth or participate in its financial growth.
“Everyone works as campesinos and some days they eat and some days not,” state agricultural representative Basilio Martinez told Oaxaca journalist Pedro Matías. Throughout Oaxaca there are few roads and once self-sustaining milpas that turned to organic coffee production in the 1970s and 1980s have been abandoned. Over half of the communities lack electricity; an even higher percentage have no access to potable water. Priest Manuel Arias, the spokesman for Oaxaca’s Catholic presbytery, winced as he described indigena life in the rugged Sierras in northern Oaxaca.
“There are no hospitals. There is no potable water, no drainage. The roads are virtually impassable. Poverty and migration have disintegrated families. There are no father figures. The people constantly are victimized by caciques and the authorities—the police. Hundreds of indigenas have been jailed and their situation as prisoners is horrible. The police collect money from family members who come to visit. Many of the prisoners wouldn’t eat if their families didn’t bring them food.”
A Mexican government Human Development report verifies that over 90 percent of the deaths in rural areas are from curable diseases, primarily malnutrition related or aggravated, including pneumonia, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis. Most campesinos in rural areas are not eligible to use social security hospitals or emergency rooms, and rural clinics are often closed. Even those that were open lack even the most basic medicines and the doctors write prescriptions that their patients can’t afford to fill.
Federal government statistics indicate that the infant mortality rate in parts of rural Oaxaca had climbed to over 50 percent by 2007. The situation in the neighboring states of Guerrero, Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas is almost the same. While visiting pueblos in the lower Mixteca I ran into a young hitchhiker who at first glance seemed to be a high school student with a young innocent face but angry obsidian eyes.
“I am the only doctor they have,” he groaned, indicating the unpaved road he’d just traversed, “and I am only just out of medical school, doing my public service. I beg medicines, I invent cures, the only clinics anywhere in the region have no supplies. Polluted water, mold, rancid meat—there are thousands and I’m only one. I can do so little. And they need so much!”
The entrance of transnational corporations, after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, disrupted traditional farming, replacing food for sustenance crops with exportable agriculture—palms for palm oil, eucalyptus, soy, cattle grazing—causing hundreds of thousands of indigenas and campesinos to lose the ejidos—government-granted plots—that had sustained them. Forced to migrate to cities (or the United States) they also lost their ties with the land, with their relatives, with the traditions and customs that their ancestors had followed for centuries.
Many of the towns they once lived in have become phantasms without services, in debt. Stores have closed, businesses foundered. Rolando González, director of the human rights organization Ñu Xi Candi in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca wryly told me the only businesses in the Mixteca that were prospering were the casas de ahorros—the savings and loan institutions that converted dollars telegraphed from the United States into peso accounts that the workers’ relatives could draw on.
Many who don’t migrate “fall into perdition,” said Claudia, an activist who participated in Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly demonstrations and sit-ins. They become drug addicts, alcoholics; young women slide into prostitution; children refuse to attend school because they have no money, nothing to eat, and wear ragged clothes. They are Mexico’s future but for the country’s conservative ruling aristocracy petroleum exports, exclusive walled communities and the stock market are Mexico’s future. Paraphrasing Marie Antoniette’s “They have no tortillas? Why let them eat cake!” the federal government of President Felipe Calderón gives free reign to its military to commit abuses in the name of “preserving democracy” while crushing labor movements, restricting journalists and raising taxes.
Access to the wealth and status of the ruling aristocracy denied them and hoped for independence by finding work in the United States increasingly blockaded by border patrols, federal police roundups and xenophobic laws, hundreds of thousands of young Mexicans have turned their “I want to be like them!” admiration to drug capos like “El Chapo” Guzmán, who Forbes magazine lists as one of the richest men in the world.
Why not? With the drug organizations one has everything to gain—wealth, women, condominiums, luxury cars—and only a miserable life to lose.
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Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th
This was an enjoyable read. I could easily picture the venue and und
Thank you so much, Melanie. I appreciate your kind words about my stor
What a touching story! Being an English teacher as well as a music ent