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 inthe river that separates the state of Tamaulipas from Texas, but theMexican immigration authorities caught him there and sent him home.Gustavo’s goal seems vague, and he speaks of his plans in secondperson, as if his journey is unremarkable. He doesn’t name adestination, beyond crossing the border to the United States. “Onegoes where one can earn well,” he says. “You’re not going to have anoffice job because you don’t read and write English, but you’ll work asa landscaper or something like that.” The tone of Gustavo’s voice isplain and completely devoid of self pity, but his reserve betrays aweight on his soul. Sue Perry Cole, an African- American lawyer fromRocky Mount, NC who heads the NC Association of Community DevelopmentCorporations, composes a message for the translator. “Tell himthat he is a very brave person, that if he was my son I would be veryproud to have a son that pursued his dreams the way he is doing,” shesays. The Guatemalan teenager steps forward and the 60-yearold blackwoman from North Carolina enfolds him in her arms. Tears are streamingdown Gustavo’s cheeks now. “Don’t give up,” Perry says. Tomorrow, he’llresume the journey.
Inaddition to their poorer neighbors to the south, hundreds of thousandsof poor Mexicans making the dangerous journey to the United Statesevery year, driven by endemic poverty and income inequality that hasdisadvantaged the indigenous for generations, and also by theopportunities advertised through word of mouth in the two decades thatmigrants have been traveling to places like North Carolina. Migrationaccelerated after the passage of the North American Free TradeAgreement, which some argue has made life even more difficult for thepoor in Mexico. Since 2007, that dynamic has been complicated by theglobal economic downturn, which is simultaneously increasing pressureat home in Mexico and reducing opportunities in the United States. “Peopledon’t know what the medium and long-term effects of the economic crisiswill be,” says Nicholas Wright, hospitality program coordinator forCasa de los Amigos in Mexico City, a Quaker hostel that sheltersmigrants. “The common saying is, ‘When the US gets a cold, Mexico getsthe flu,’ so what happens when the US gets the flu?” The crackdown onundocumented workers in the United States with 287(g), a federalprogram that empowers local law enforcement to initiate deportations,and the increasing hostility towards them is another wildcard. Whilethe migrant stream may have ebbed slightly, even those who lament thenegative impacts of migration on Mexican society expect littlesignificant change in the trend. Along with being a transitpoint for migrants from Central America, the Mexican state of Oaxaca inthe indigenous south also holds the distinction of being a majorsender. Out of a population of about 3.5 million, Father Cruz from theCenter for the Orientation of Migrants estimates that 250,000 of thestate’s inhabitants are on the move to the northwestern part of thecountry. “For every 100 young people who enter the workforcein Oaxaca, sixty of these young people don’t find formal employment,”says Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, an activist with Services for anAlternative Education in Oaxaca City. “What do they do? They’ll migrateto the United States. They’ll enter some kind of sub-employment in theinformal sector. Or even worse, get into some kind of organized crimeor delinquency.” The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2008that 7 million Mexicans were residing illegally in the United States.With a total population estimated at 110 million, that means roughly 6percent of Mexico’s citizens are residing illegally in the UnitedStates. “In Mexico, everyone has at least one family memberliving in the United States,” says Patricia Juan Pineda, a labororganizer with Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico City who is fromOaxaca, adding, “Many of my cousins are in North Carolina — of course,undocumented.” Oaxaca might be compared to West Virginia: Bothare largely rural and poor states whose traditional export is people.“In the southern part of Baja California, especially in Cabo and otherparts that the Americans like very much, Oaxacans are doing most of theconstruction,” says Nacho Franco, a Catholic lay minister who teachesBible studies to indigenous communities. “There are so manyOaxacans there that they like to call it “Oaxa-California.” As part ofa delegation with the US advocacy group Witness For Peace, I traveledto Cieneguilla, a village in the Sierra Madre del Sur range of southernOaxaca that is seven hours distant from the state capital. The firstlanguage of the village’s thousandsome residents is Chatino, which alsodescribes their indigenous identity. Our primary contact inCieneguilla, Rogelio Cruz Salvador, spent seven years in Durham, wherehe worked in a literacy program at Immaculate Conception CatholicChurch. He tells us that most of the people who emigrate fromCieneguilla to the United States are also in Durham. Others work inCharlotte, Greensboro, Thomasville, Statesville and Gastonia. Most toilin the agriculture, construction and service sectors.
Itturns out that the migrants from Cieneguilla have tapped into the vastnetwork of Chinese restaurants in the United States. The newly trainedcooks refer to their employers as “los Chinos.” Typically, themigrants work long hours — as much as 66 hours per week — for lowwages, and save money by availing themselves of free food, housing andtransportation provided by the restaurant owners. Our vandeposits us on the central plaza, whose centerpiece is a basketballcourt, in Cieneguilla late on a Saturday afternoon. The low concretewalls surrounding the plaza bear painted words and emblems mimickingdisplay advertising placed in major US professional basketball arenasfor maximum television exposure. The brands display an incongruous mixof items, including “Chatino,” “Modelo Especial,” “Ford,” “NBA” and“Corona.” Nearby, a vendor from a larger town is attracting a sizeablecrowd with a table displaying counterfeit CDs. Inside the municipal building at the end ofthe plaza, a banner hangs from the wall entitled “Associacion deChatinos in El Exterior” listing the names of 136 people who have leftto work in the United States and have sent back money to fund a villagetree-planting project. After being treated to a savory redsoup with generous portions of lean beef, those of us in the Americandelegation are asked by the village leaders to sit in chairs on thefront porch of the municipal building facing the plaza. The childrensquat 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 USdelegation to visit Cieneguilla. We arrange a three-way systemof translation for the town meeting. About half of us from the USdelegation introduce ourselves and make greetings in Spanish, and onedelegate makes a valiant effort to say a few phrases in Chatino. Afterthe round of introductions from the 20 US delegates is completed, someof the elected leaders and elders make ceremonial pronouncements, andthen one by one, the villagers, again mostly women, speak candidlyabout their concerns about sustaining the local economy and protectingthe rights of migrants abroad. “Thanks to the money familymembers are sending back we have a better life,” one woman says.“Before, we slept on the ground, and there were heavy rains andhurricanes.” A common sight across rural Oaxaca is irregularlengths of rebar poking up from concrete platforms, where a family hasbuilt the first story of a brick house but is waiting to accruesufficient funds and materials to complete the second story. Anothersign of building activity are house sites cut into hillsides. Anotherwoman says, “Before, people didn’t have a house to live in. It’s thanksto all the people who have lost their lives, who have gone far awaythat we’re able to live in houses, that we’re able to plant these treesthat you may have seen. She adds, “Personally, I am very happy aboutthe new president, Barack Obama. I believe that he comes from peoplewho have suffered. The previous president did many bad things,including building this wall that has caused many of my people tosuffer and die.” Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of our delegation who is alongtime labor activist currently employed as an outreach coordinatorwith the NC Justice Center in Raleigh, says, “We want to do as much aswe possibly can to make our government treat immigrants with morefairness, and we particularly want our government to create documentsfor immigrants so they can do their jobs. But we also understand howdifficult 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 aliving in your own home. We know that our government has made it harderfor you with our free-trade agreements.” The householdinfrastructure in Cieneguilla is unevenly developed. Along with twowomen from the delegation, I stayed with Margarita Baltazar Garcia, a60-year-old woman whose son is working in the United States. To get toher house, we walked down a rutted footpath, ducked through a barbedwire fence, stepped across a brook and ascended another hill onswitchback paths. Baltazar lives in a new brick house builtwith remittances from her son. She cooks on a gas range at her son’shouse 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 thebare ground serves as a bathroom. Various strategies for coping withthe challenges related to timing and privacy in the act of defecation,including holding it for the duration of the visit, would become thesource of shared amusement for our delegation. The lots ofmost families in Cieneguilla are cramped, with clear sightlines fromone 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 chickensclucking, dogs barking, children playing, the groan of an odd pickuptruck and the oompah sound of an occasional brass band processing to afiesta. The two wings of Baltazar’s house contain concretefloors, but the middle corridor of the house is only packed dirt. Thechickens and dogs come and go freely, and Baltazar does her embroiderythere during the day. The embroidery is Baltazar’s sole source ofpersonal income. She told us that one shirt takes a month to embroider,and fetches 1,000 pesos. She sells her goods to fellowtownspeople, and trades among craftswomen from three neighboringvillages. The North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994 withthe promise of advancing Mexico to first-world status by creating asingle trade bloc with the United States and Canada, appears to havehardly touched Oaxaca. Some residents of Cieneguilla report that coffeewas once grown as a cash crop, but farmers have not been able to get anadequate price to recoup the cost of production for a long time. Whileglobal trade hasn’t made much of an impression on Cieneguilla in thepast 15 years, migration has. “Before 1995, most of the houses werebuilt with adobe and thatch; now they’re built with brick and tin,” acarpenter named Jacquelino Salvador Vasquez tells me. “People used towork on the farms, and that was the only thing they did.” The benefitsof migration are readily apparent in his business: Remittances haveallowed people to build new homes and spend money in the village.Salvador has taken advantage of the new demand for building byinstalling cabinetry and doors in the new houses built with money sentback by the migrants. With the downturn in the US economy, remittanceshave declined and Salvador’s business has slowed down. He’s consideringa career change. Despite the economic benefit of migration,the United States holds no appeal for Salvador. “I don’t plan onleaving,” he says. “I want to stay in my village. God willing, we’lltake another step forward with this new kind of work.” One of his sonsis currently working as a mechanic in the United States. When the sonreturns, Salvador plans to take advantage of his newfound expertise,and open a shop to repair trucks and replace broken windshields.
Theirs would be thefirst mechanic shop in Cieneguilla, he says. The downside of migrationis also apparent in stories of marital infidelity, children growing upwith surrogate parents, and strained relationships between reunitedspouses when wives resist surrendering the independence won with theirhusbands abroad. “People are abandoning their children andpeople are leaving their children with grandparents,” Salvador says.“There isn’t that person who can establish rules. The children’sbehavior is more rebellious. What I’m noticing is that that when peopleleave, they’ll leave for three, four, five and six years. They returnand expect their children to behave, and they don’t. Even thoughthey’re over there struggling and trying to provide, they’re losingcontrol.” Father Cruz in Oaxaca City fears that the familystructure in rural Oaxaca is breaking down. “It’s great that peoplehave earned a little bit of money,” he says. “And maybe people canimprove 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.”
Thethousands of miles between here — a footpath from a house in anindigenous village beset by unemployment — to there — a restaurant,field or construction job in the United States — are mined with periland treachery. Migrants in Mexico typically travel bysecondclass bus or by hopping the train — derisively nicknamed “laBestia.” Gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha “gravitate towards the tracksbecause it’s un-patrolled, because there’s money there and becausepeople don’t report the human rights abuses much less get a detectiveto investigate,” Wright of Casa de los Amigos says. “They specialize inkidnapping migrants on the migrant trail, getting a phone number anddemanding ransom.” Many of the migrants switch trains atLecheria, a suburb of Mexico City. Wright says that because of thepresence of criminal predators and corrupt law enforcement officers,migrant advocates have been unable to establish a safe house there. “Thereare religious people who hand out food from vans,” Wright says. “Lastweek, two Honduran guys came here. They showed up, wanting anything wecould give them. A priest at the Lecheria train tracks told them theonly safe place he knew about was Casa de los Amigos. There are priestsin El Salvador that send people here. “At Casa de la Caridad in SanLuis de Potosi, they’ll say things like, ‘Every single woman has beenraped,’” Wright adds. “There’s an element of sexual violence along themigrant trail in the extreme, including by some other migrants.” Asevidence of both the multinational scope of migration and the brutalityof Mexican law enforcement, Wright mentions a recent incident widelycovered by Mexican newspapers in which police in the state of Veracruzallegedly shot allegedly into a van full of migrants, including somemen from China. “The authority figures that are supposed to beprotecting 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 luckbringing its bad guys to justice.” So acute is the problemthat a whole day was dedicated to strategies of combating officialimpunity at a migrant rights conference hosted by Casa de los Amigoslast October. Not every migrant is illegal, of course, but theweb of criminal exploitation and official complicity that preys ontheir vulnerability features similar elements. The 2007 murder ofSantiago Rafael Cruz — an organizer with the Farm Labor OrganizingCommittee, which holds a collective bargaining agreement with the NorthCarolina Growers Association — in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon exposed theMexican government’s unwillingness or inability to prosecute those whoexploit migrants. “The farmers during the harvest time beginto ask for workers,” explains Leonel Rivero, a human rights lawyerworking with FLOC. “Normally, this is through an outsourcingcontracting agency. The agency hires an agency in Mexico that goes toremote communities in Oaxaca, Michoacan and Nayarit, and the people areinvited to go work in the US. The farmers in the US will pay some kindof quota for this service. Nevertheless, when these recruiters arrivein these communities they ask for money from the migrants.” Ina legal brief, Rivero alleges that Mexican recruiting agencies had beencharging workers $800 to $1,500 to complete permit applications for H2Aguest worker visas, when the real cost was about $350. Minimum wagebeing 49 pesos per day in Nuevo Leon, that means applicants might haveto work anywhere from five months to a year to earn the money needed topay the illegal surcharge, not to mention the legitimate applicationfee. “The Mexican law obligates any employer outside of Mexico to payall recruitment costs, including travel to the US and repatriation toMexico,” Rivero continues. “This implies that there’s an office thatoversees this process, and that is part of the Department of Labor.This office either doesn’t exist or does absolutely nothing to overseethe process. This process has been in place for two decades. What cameto break this process was the contract that FLOC signed with thegrowers.” According to the theory pursued by Rivero, FLOC’sdecision to open a support office in Monterrey to monitor hiring inMexico cut into the profits of the unscrupulous recruiting agencies,and they fought back. Rafael was murdered in the FLOC office within twomonths of the office’s opening. Rivero and the union believe that atleast four people participated in the crime. About six weeksafter the murder, the Monterrey police detained a man named JaimeMartinez Amador, who allegedly acknowledged his role in the crime.Rivero alleges that Martinez stated to a district attorney that a totalof four people participated in the crime, provided the DA with a listof names of the conspirators, along with addresses where they could belocated and physical descriptions. Yet, according to Rivero’saccount, instead of further investigating the crime, the authoritiesheld a press conference announcing that the crime had been resolved,and the motive established that Rafael received 4,500 pesos as paymentfor arranging the documents of some migrant workers and had notcompleted the task. In view of the police’s lack of interest in thecase, FLOC and Rivero have pursued their own investigation, anddemanded that the Nuevo Leon authorities extradite suspectedconspirators. In November 2007, the US border patrol turned one of thesuspects over to authorities in the state of Sonora, but Rivero allegesthat they ignored a request by their counterparts in Nuevo Leon totransfer the suspect into their custody and instead released him. “InMexico, there currently exist few police with the technical andscientific knowledge and experience sufficient to obtain criminalevidence and make an effective investigation,”
Rivero’sbrief reads. “This lack of preparation is compensated for by anexcessive use of force and torture as a form of investigation toresolve criminal cases. The experience shows that too many cases are‘resolved’ by false accusations of responsibility or inventingnon-existent motives. Since the assassination, more than 200 policeofficers of various ranks in the Nuevo Leon police have been arrestedfor corruption and drug trafficking.” For those who cross theUS-Mexico border, the journey remains fraught with peril. “Another oneof the raw realities is that many go with a dream, but many die in thedesert, or crossing the river,” says Father Cruz in Oaxaca City. “Manydie because of the exploitation of the coyotes who charge large quantities of money and they abandon them and some of them die there.” Inthe United States, there is opportunity and loneliness, perhapsadventure, and often disappointment. “They arrive in the United Stateswith the dream that they are going to make money,” Cruz says. “Thereality is sad. They are exploited and marginalized. They don’t knowthe 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. “Peoplehave a real connection because of the land,” says Miguel Angel Vasquezde 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 tosurvive. A lot of times people return as old people, so they can die onthe land.”
WitnessFor Peace delegate Tony Macias examines counterfeit DVDs on display ina bustling marketplace at the zocolo in Oaxaca City.
ABOVE:Father Fernando Cruz Montes runs a migrant hospitality house in OaxacaCity. He says migration has created a sense of schizophrenia amongmigrants who come to feel they don’t belong to either world.
RIGHT:A brass band leads the way to a fiesta in Cieneguilla past partiallyconstructed houses built with money from remittances.