Strains of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” spill from a bar on Oaxaca City’s Calle Trujano as the classic rock song’s light-jazz apocalyptic rumble mixes with mid-afternoon conversation and the clank of glasses, as pedestrians jostle each other and dodge school buses, motorcycles and Nissan taxicabs in a city perfumed with diesel and the faint smell of raw sewage.
Into this world we’re thrown Like a dog without a bone An actor out on loan Riders on the storm
There’s a killer on the road His brain is squirmin’ like a toad….
Gustavo, a 17-year-old boy from a small town in Guatemala who declines to give his last name, arranges his bed in a small room in a migrant hospitality house in Oaxaca City run by Father Fernando Cruz Montes and by Susan and Randy Hinthorn, two Catholic Maryknoll lay ministers from Seattle who moved to Oaxaca City in 2002 after Randy Hinthorn retired from a career in the insurance industry.
Gustavo is dressed in a black Puma hat, a blue T-shirt, white capri pants and flip-flops. But for the white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck, he looks like any teenager in the world.
He’s making his third attempt to reach the United States. The first time he was kidnapped and held for ransom by bandits; the second time he was detained by Mexican immigration agents after trying to cross the river into Texas, thrown in jail and deported back to Guatemala.
“My town isn’t dead, but there isn’t really much you can do there,” he says through an interpreter, explaining his decision to leave. “You can buy a pair of blue jeans, but after that there isn’t much left over.” Gustavo says when he was 3 years old his father left the family and went to go to work in the United States. His mother disappeared sometime later, perhaps also as part of the northward migration. A step-sister ending up raising Gustavo.
He says he kept in touch with his father in the United States, who promised to help with money, but later the father turned his back. For Mexicans, mainly from the indigenous south, traveling to the United States to work without authorization means one illegal border crossing. For Central Americans, it means at least two. And it means crossing hundreds of miles of Mexico, mainly by rail, imperiled by the possibility of dismemberment under the wheels of the cars; robbery, rape and violent assault by bandits; and extortion and violence by police and railroad employees.
And that’s before paying at least $2,000 to a coyote for the service of guiding one across the border into the United States, a procedure that risks dehydration, abandonment and death in the desert.
“One of the ironies that I’m not too fond of talking about — the idea that Mexicans go to the United States and get mistreated, it’s a foundation of the Mexican personality and culture — the truth is that ’tis better to be a Mexican in the US than a Salvadoran in Mexico,” says Nicholas Wright, a native of Palo Alto, Calif. who runs Casa de los Amigos, an “aboveground” station in Mexico City that is part of the migrant hospitality network that runs from Central America to the US Southwest. “In the United States, there are human rights abuses; here, it’s open season.”
Gustavo huddles with a group of delegates for the US advocacy group Witness For Peace in the dusty yard behind the building donated to the Center for the Orientation of Migrants by former Oaxaca Gov. Jose Murat Casab.
“I was kidnapped on the train here,” Gustavo says. “The first thing they do is take away the phone numbers. They called my family and said if they didn’t send three thousand dollars they would take out my kidneys. They couldn’t send all that money; they could only send five hundred dollars. They let me go, but some other migrants said, ‘Go the other way. If they see you, they will kill you.’ “I was kidnapped with five people,” he adds later. “The place where they were holding us was a place with a big patio. There were 31 people, including three women. They did whatever they wanted with the women. We could hear them in the other room.” After his release, Gustavo backtracked to Chiapas, a Mexican state that borders Guatemala, and found a priest willing to help him. Later, he says he met two other Guatemalans and they made the journey together to Nuevo Laredo. Gustavo worked there with a friend who was a welder, biding his time while trying to raise funds to pay the coyote to cross the border. His family couldn’t help him with the fee, and he became frustrated with
the wait. He jumped in
the river that separates the state of Tamaulipas from Texas, but the
Mexican immigration authorities caught him there and sent him home.
Gustavo’s goal seems vague, and he speaks of his plans in second
person, as if his journey is unremarkable. He doesn’t name a
destination, beyond crossing the border to the United States.
“One goes where one can earn well,” he says. “You’re not going to have an office job because you don’t read and write English, but you’ll work as a landscaper or something like that.” The tone of Gustavo’s voice is plain and completely devoid of self pity, but his reserve betrays a weight on his soul. Sue Perry Cole, an African- American lawyer from Rocky Mount, NC who heads the NC Association of Community Development Corporations, composes a message for the translator.
“Tell him that he is a very brave person, that if he was my son I would be very proud to have a son that pursued his dreams the way he is doing,” she says. The Guatemalan teenager steps forward and the 60-yearold black woman from North Carolina enfolds him in her arms. Tears are streaming down Gustavo’s cheeks now. “Don’t give up,” Perry says. Tomorrow, he’ll resume the journey.
addition to their poorer neighbors to the south, hundreds of thousands
of poor Mexicans making the dangerous journey to the United States
every year, driven by endemic poverty and income inequality that has
disadvantaged the indigenous for generations, and also by the
opportunities advertised through word of mouth in the two decades that
migrants have been traveling to places like North Carolina.
Migration accelerated after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which some argue has made life even more difficult for the poor in Mexico. Since 2007, that dynamic has been complicated by the global economic downturn, which is simultaneously increasing pressure at home in Mexico and reducing opportunities in the United States.
“People don’t know what the medium and long-term effects of the economic crisis will be,” says Nicholas Wright, hospitality program coordinator for Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City, a Quaker hostel that shelters migrants. “The common saying is, ‘When the US gets a cold, Mexico gets the flu,’ so what happens when the US gets the flu?” The crackdown on undocumented workers in the United States with 287(g), a federal program that empowers local law enforcement to initiate deportations, and the increasing hostility towards them is another wildcard.
While the migrant stream may have ebbed slightly, even those who lament the negative impacts of migration on Mexican society expect little significant change in the trend.
Along with being a transit point for migrants from Central America, the Mexican state of Oaxaca in the indigenous south also holds the distinction of being a major sender. Out of a population of about 3.5 million, Father Cruz from the Center for the Orientation of Migrants estimates that 250,000 of the state’s inhabitants are on the move to the northwestern part of the country.
“For every 100 young people who enter the workforce in Oaxaca, sixty of these young people don’t find formal employment,” says Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, an activist with Services for an Alternative Education in Oaxaca City. “What do they do? They’ll migrate to the United States. They’ll enter some kind of sub-employment in the informal sector. Or even worse, get into some kind of organized crime or delinquency.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2008 that 7 million Mexicans were residing illegally in the United States. With a total population estimated at 110 million, that means roughly 6 percent of Mexico’s citizens are residing illegally in the United States.
“In Mexico, everyone has at least one family member living in the United States,” says Patricia Juan Pineda, a labor organizer with Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico City who is from Oaxaca, adding, “Many of my cousins are in North Carolina — of course, undocumented.”
Oaxaca might be compared to West Virginia: Both are largely rural and poor states whose traditional export is people. “In the southern part of Baja California, especially in Cabo and other parts that the Americans like very much, Oaxacans are doing most of the construction,” says Nacho Franco, a Catholic lay minister who teaches Bible studies to indigenous communities.
“There are so many Oaxacans there that they like to call it “Oaxa-California.” As part of a delegation with the US advocacy group Witness For Peace, I traveled to Cieneguilla, a village in the Sierra Madre del Sur range of southern Oaxaca that is seven hours distant from the state capital. The first language of the village’s thousandsome residents is Chatino, which also describes their indigenous identity.
Our primary contact in Cieneguilla, Rogelio Cruz Salvador, spent seven years in Durham, where he worked in a literacy program at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. He tells us that most of the people who emigrate from Cieneguilla to the United States are also in Durham. Others work in Charlotte, Greensboro, Thomasville, Statesville and Gastonia. Most toil in the agriculture, construction and service sectors.
turns out that the migrants from Cieneguilla have tapped into the vast
network of Chinese restaurants in the United States. The newly trained
cooks refer to their employers as “los Chinos.”
Typically, the migrants work long hours — as much as 66 hours per week — for low wages, and save money by availing themselves of free food, housing and transportation provided by the restaurant owners.
Our van deposits us on the central plaza, whose centerpiece is a basketball court, in Cieneguilla late on a Saturday afternoon. The low concrete walls surrounding the plaza bear painted words and emblems mimicking display advertising placed in major US professional basketball arenas for maximum television exposure. The brands display an incongruous mix of items, including “Chatino,” “Modelo Especial,” “Ford,” “NBA” and “Corona.” Nearby, a vendor from a larger town is attracting a sizeable crowd with a table displaying counterfeit CDs. Inside the municipal building at the end of the plaza, a banner hangs from the wall entitled “Associacion de Chatinos in El Exterior” listing the names of 136 people who have left to work in the United States and have sent back money to fund a village tree-planting project.
After being treated to a savory red soup with generous portions of lean beef, those of us in the American delegation are asked by the village leaders to sit in chairs on the front porch of the municipal building facing the plaza. The children squat on the steps in front of us and the adults, most of them women, stand behind them. We have been told that we are the first US delegation to visit Cieneguilla.
We arrange a three-way system of translation for the town meeting. About half of us from the US delegation introduce ourselves and make greetings in Spanish, and one delegate makes a valiant effort to say a few phrases in Chatino. After the round of introductions from the 20 US delegates is completed, some of the elected leaders and elders make ceremonial pronouncements, and then one by one, the villagers, again mostly women, speak candidly about their concerns about sustaining the local economy and protecting the rights of migrants abroad.
“Thanks to the money family members are sending back we have a better life,” one woman says. “Before, we slept on the ground, and there were heavy rains and hurricanes.”
A common sight across rural Oaxaca is irregular lengths of rebar poking up from concrete platforms, where a family has built the first story of a brick house but is waiting to accrue sufficient funds and materials to complete the second story. Another sign of building activity are house sites cut into hillsides.
Another woman says, “Before, people didn’t have a house to live in. It’s thanks to all the people who have lost their lives, who have gone far away that we’re able to live in houses, that we’re able to plant these trees that you may have seen. She adds, “Personally, I am very happy about the new president, Barack Obama. I believe that he comes from people who have suffered.
The previous president did many bad things, including building this wall that has caused many of my people to suffer and die.” Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of our delegation who is a longtime labor activist currently employed as an outreach coordinator with the NC Justice Center in Raleigh, says, “We want to do as much as we possibly can to make our government treat immigrants with more fairness, and we particularly want our government to create documents for immigrants so they can do their jobs. But we also understand how difficult it is for people who have to travel so far to earn a living. And in the best of all worlds you would be able to stay here and earn a living in your own home. We know that our government has made it harder for you with our free-trade agreements.”
The household infrastructure in Cieneguilla is unevenly developed. Along with two women from the delegation, I stayed with Margarita Baltazar Garcia, a 60-year-old woman whose son is working in the United States. To get to her house, we walked down a rutted footpath, ducked through a barbed wire fence, stepped across a brook and ascended another hill on switchback paths.
Baltazar lives in a new brick house built with remittances from her son. She cooks on a gas range at her son’s house nearby, which is also built of brick. Her house is electrified, and she owns a boom box. A hose outside functions as a shower, and the bare ground serves as a bathroom. Various strategies for coping with the challenges related to timing and privacy in the act of defecation, including holding it for the duration of the visit, would become the source of shared amusement for our delegation.
The lots of most families in Cieneguilla are cramped, with clear sightlines from one to the other. The barren earth supports corn, sugar cane, chilacayote, beans and chayote; chickens and turkeys roam the grounds. On a Sunday morning, the village hums with a symphony of chickens clucking, dogs barking, children playing, the groan of an odd pickup truck and the oompah sound of an occasional brass band processing to a fiesta.
The two wings of Baltazar’s house contain concrete floors, but the middle corridor of the house is only packed dirt. The chickens and dogs come and go freely, and Baltazar does her embroidery there during the day. The embroidery is Baltazar’s sole source of personal income. She told us that one shirt takes a month to embroider, and fetches 1,000 pesos.
She sells her goods to fellow townspeople, and trades among craftswomen from three neighboring villages. The North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994 with the promise of advancing Mexico to first-world status by creating a single trade bloc with the United States and Canada, appears to have hardly touched Oaxaca. Some residents of Cieneguilla report that coffee was once grown as a cash crop, but farmers have not been able to get an adequate price to recoup the cost of production for a long time. While global trade hasn’t made much of an impression on Cieneguilla in the past 15 years, migration has. “Before 1995, most of the houses were built with adobe and thatch; now they’re built with brick and tin,” a carpenter named Jacquelino Salvador Vasquez tells me. “People used to work on the farms, and that was the only thing they did.” The benefits of migration are readily apparent in his business: Remittances have allowed people to build new homes and spend money in the village. Salvador has taken advantage of the new demand for building by installing cabinetry and doors in the new houses built with money sent back by the migrants. With the downturn in the US economy, remittances have declined and Salvador’s business has slowed down. He’s considering a career change.
Despite the economic benefit of migration, the United States holds no appeal for Salvador. “I don’t plan on leaving,” he says. “I want to stay in my village. God willing, we’ll take another step forward with this new kind of work.” One of his sons is currently working as a mechanic in the United States. When the son returns, Salvador plans to take advantage of his newfound expertise, and open a shop to repair trucks and replace broken windshields.
Theirs would be the
first mechanic shop in Cieneguilla, he says. The downside of migration
is also apparent in stories of marital infidelity, children growing up
with surrogate parents, and strained relationships between reunited
spouses when wives resist surrendering the independence won with their
“People are abandoning their children and people are leaving their children with grandparents,” Salvador says. “There isn’t that person who can establish rules. The children’s behavior is more rebellious. What I’m noticing is that that when people leave, they’ll leave for three, four, five and six years. They return and expect their children to behave, and they don’t. Even though they’re over there struggling and trying to provide, they’re losing control.”
Father Cruz in Oaxaca City fears that the family structure in rural Oaxaca is breaking down. “It’s great that people have earned a little bit of money,” he says. “And maybe people can improve their housing. But what is the point if their values are lost, the values of family? With the return of the migrants you see vices, and new diseases coming into the community.
“There is a schizophrenia between here and there,” he adds. “It creates a dynamic where they are not from here or there.”
thousands of miles between here — a footpath from a house in an
indigenous village beset by unemployment — to there — a restaurant,
field or construction job in the United States — are mined with peril
Migrants in Mexico typically travel by secondclass bus or by hopping the train — derisively nicknamed “la Bestia.” Gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha “gravitate towards the tracks because it’s un-patrolled, because there’s money there and because people don’t report the human rights abuses much less get a detective to investigate,” Wright of Casa de los Amigos says. “They specialize in kidnapping migrants on the migrant trail, getting a phone number and demanding ransom.”
Many of the migrants switch trains at Lecheria, a suburb of Mexico City. Wright says that because of the presence of criminal predators and corrupt law enforcement officers, migrant advocates have been unable to establish a safe house there.
“There are religious people who hand out food from vans,” Wright says. “Last week, two Honduran guys came here. They showed up, wanting anything we could give them. A priest at the Lecheria train tracks told them the only safe place he knew about was Casa de los Amigos. There are priests in El Salvador that send people here. “At Casa de la Caridad in San Luis de Potosi, they’ll say things like, ‘Every single woman has been raped,’” Wright adds. “There’s an element of sexual violence along the migrant trail in the extreme, including by some other migrants.”
As evidence of both the multinational scope of migration and the brutality of Mexican law enforcement, Wright mentions a recent incident widely covered by Mexican newspapers in which police in the state of Veracruz allegedly shot allegedly into a van full of migrants, including some men from China.
“The authority figures that are supposed to be protecting the migrants are complicit” in such abuses as kidnapping, robbery and assault, says Father Cruz, the priest in Oaxaca City. “Impunity is the word,” Wright adds. “Mexico has not had good luck bringing its bad guys to justice.”
So acute is the problem that a whole day was dedicated to strategies of combating official impunity at a migrant rights conference hosted by Casa de los Amigos last October.
Not every migrant is illegal, of course, but the web of criminal exploitation and official complicity that preys on their vulnerability features similar elements. The 2007 murder of Santiago Rafael Cruz — an organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which holds a collective bargaining agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association — in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon exposed the Mexican government’s unwillingness or inability to prosecute those who exploit migrants.
“The farmers during the harvest time begin to ask for workers,” explains Leonel Rivero, a human rights lawyer working with FLOC. “Normally, this is through an outsourcing contracting agency. The agency hires an agency in Mexico that goes to remote communities in Oaxaca, Michoacan and Nayarit, and the people are invited to go work in the US. The farmers in the US will pay some kind of quota for this service. Nevertheless, when these recruiters arrive in these communities they ask for money from the migrants.”
In a legal brief, Rivero alleges that Mexican recruiting agencies had been charging workers $800 to $1,500 to complete permit applications for H2A guest worker visas, when the real cost was about $350. Minimum wage being 49 pesos per day in Nuevo Leon, that means applicants might have to work anywhere from five months to a year to earn the money needed to pay the illegal surcharge, not to mention the legitimate application fee. “The Mexican law obligates any employer outside of Mexico to pay all recruitment costs, including travel to the US and repatriation to Mexico,” Rivero continues. “This implies that there’s an office that oversees this process, and that is part of the Department of Labor. This office either doesn’t exist or does absolutely nothing to oversee the process. This process has been in place for two decades. What came to break this process was the contract that FLOC signed with the growers.”
According to the theory pursued by Rivero, FLOC’s decision to open a support office in Monterrey to monitor hiring in Mexico cut into the profits of the unscrupulous recruiting agencies, and they fought back. Rafael was murdered in the FLOC office within two months of the office’s opening. Rivero and the union believe that at least four people participated in the crime.
About six weeks after the murder, the Monterrey police detained a man named Jaime Martinez Amador, who allegedly acknowledged his role in the crime. Rivero alleges that Martinez stated to a district attorney that a total of four people participated in the crime, provided the DA with a list of names of the conspirators, along with addresses where they could be located and physical descriptions.
Yet, according to Rivero’s account, instead of further investigating the crime, the authorities held a press conference announcing that the crime had been resolved, and the motive established that Rafael received 4,500 pesos as payment for arranging the documents of some migrant workers and had not completed the task. In view of the police’s lack of interest in the case, FLOC and Rivero have pursued their own investigation, and demanded that the Nuevo Leon authorities extradite suspected conspirators. In November 2007, the US border patrol turned one of the suspects over to authorities in the state of Sonora, but Rivero alleges that they ignored a request by their counterparts in Nuevo Leon to transfer the suspect into their custody and instead released him. “In Mexico, there currently exist few police with the technical and scientific knowledge and experience sufficient to obtain criminal evidence and make an effective investigation,”
brief reads. “This lack of preparation is compensated for by an
excessive use of force and torture as a form of investigation to
resolve criminal cases. The experience shows that too many cases are
‘resolved’ by false accusations of responsibility or inventing
non-existent motives. Since the assassination, more than 200 police
officers of various ranks in the Nuevo Leon police have been arrested
for corruption and drug trafficking.”
For those who cross the US-Mexico border, the journey remains fraught with peril. “Another one of the raw realities is that many go with a dream, but many die in the desert, or crossing the river,” says Father Cruz in Oaxaca City. “Many die because of the exploitation of the coyotes who charge large quantities of money and they abandon them and some of them die there.”
In the United States, there is opportunity and loneliness, perhaps adventure, and often disappointment. “They arrive in the United States with the dream that they are going to make money,” Cruz says. “The reality is sad. They are exploited and marginalized. They don’t know the laws and culture.”
Virtually everyone with whom we spoke in Oaxaca said migrants who go to the United States intend to return to their hometowns.
“People have a real connection because of the land,” says Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa of Services for an Alternative Education in Oaxaca City. “Communities are not just fifty years old, but hundreds of years old. Leaving is like being ripped off the land to find an alternative to survive. A lot of times people return as old people, so they can die on the land.”
Witness For Peace delegate Tony Macias examines counterfeit DVDs on display in a bustling marketplace at the zocolo in Oaxaca City.
Father Fernando Cruz Montes runs a migrant hospitality house in Oaxaca
City. He says migration has created a sense of schizophrenia among
migrants who come to feel they don’t belong to either world.
RIGHT: A brass band leads the way to a fiesta in Cieneguilla past partially constructed houses built with money from remittances.