In the highlands of Oaxaca, a town struggles to survive
The Arizona Republic
May. 15, 2005

Chris Hawley | Republic Mexico City Bureau

SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, Mexico - When the American visitor came to Santa Ana del Valle some 40 years ago, he surely had no idea of the forces he was about to unleash. ¶ The closely knit community was about to become Mexico's most active exporter of people. Families would be torn apart, and the town literally would have to force people to come home from the United States in order to survive. ¶ It all began quietly one winter, when the American, a representative sent by U.S. farmers, arrived accompanied by Mexican government officials.

They put up posters in all the towns around this part of Oaxaca state, high in the mountains of southwestern Mexico.

"It said, 'If you need work, there's a labor recruiter coming,' " resident Reinaldo Bautista Morales said.

It was 1964, and the area was dirt poor. Like much of Mexico, Oaxaca was beginning to succumb to desertification, yielding fewer and fewer crops. Farmers had turned to weaving rugs to make extra money, but factories in Mexico City were cutting into that business.

As Zapotec Indians who were discriminated against by other Mexicans, the people of Santa Ana had little hope of ever going to college or getting a decent job.

The American was full of promises: good money, adventure, an opportunity to see the United States.

He called a meeting in Tlacolula, just down the road from Santa Ana. He set up a chalkboard in the plaza. He passed out contracts. About 20 men from Santa Ana signed up to work in the fields of Ohio, Michigan and New York.

Other Americans came after that, looking for more of these workers. The town was conveniently located one mile from the Pan-American Highway. The United
States was just a bus ride away.

"And that's how it started," Bautista said. "Some of the men who came back went back to the United States with their sons. And they took their sons. And it became a tradition."

But some traditions consume others. And in this town, once known for its handmade rugs, the weave was beginning to fray.

Slipping away

People in Santa Ana go to the United States for three reasons, say residents in this town of 2,100.

First, there are no industrial jobs here. The nearest metropolis is Oaxaca City, about 20 miles away, which has a lively arts scene but none of the maquiladora assembly plants that employ people in other states.

Second, the land is drying up. Decades of overfarming, poor land management and plots that are too small to compete with bigger producers have made farming a losing proposition.

And third, the migrant culture has become so ingrained that going to the United States is practically a rite of passage.

"We are losing people," Mayor Hilario Martínez Cruz said recently. "Approximately half the town is up there now. We're left with empty houses."

He looked around the Town Council chambers at the town's eight councilmen, who nodded dourly. They should know. Half of them live in the United States, were elected against their will and forced to return to Santa Ana del Valle to serve a three-year term.

With people coming and going to the United States constantly, the Mexican government says Santa Ana has the highest "migration index" of any town in Mexico.

In 2000, the year of the last census, 47 percent of the town's 495 households had at least one family member in the United States during the previous five years. Fourteen percent had had relatives return during that time, and 9 percent had "circular migrants" - people who had come and gone at least once.

But townspeople say those migration estimates are too low, because the census-takers never asked how many relatives each household had in the United States. Most people interviewed by The Arizona Republic listed at least three.

About 80 percent of townspeople receive money from relatives who have migrated to the United States, said Rosie Isabel Gutiérrez, a clerk at the Gabi General Store, which dispenses the money orders.

But numbers can't begin to describe what four decades of intense migration has done to Santa Ana.

For one thing, every man in town seems to speak English. Some speak it even better than Spanish, their second language after Zapotec.

Further, most of the men are in their 50s or older. You see plenty of women on the street, most of them wearing dark-colored aprons over their colorful Zapotec dresses. And there are children. But the young men of the town are absent, as if a UFO came and plucked them away.

The houses, tucked away behind high walls, seem sealed up. Some of the locks are rusted over.

"You used to see a lot of guys on the streets, but now some days the streets are completely empty," said Leandro Gutiérrez Garcia, 25. Of seven brothers and sisters, he's the only one still in Mexico.

Many people talk about the United States with familiarity, as if it's just over the next ridge. On one street there's a sign advertising a show by a band called La Migra, the slang word for U.S. immigration agents. "Live from Stockton, California!" the sign says.

It's not a ghost town . . . yet. It's more like a town perpetually on hold. Everyone is just back from the United States, preparing go to the United States, pining for someone in the United States, or collecting a check from someone in the United States.

Women and men

The phenomenon has drawn a distinct line between men and women.

Ask the men about migration, and they'll rattle off the states they've lived in, the jobs they've held. They'll show off their legal permanent residency visas, known as "green cards," if they have them.

Ask the women, and they'll tell you about teen marriages, neighbors who were abandoned by their husbands, children who grow up angry.

The conversations go like this:

"Yes, I have a husband in the United States. He's working in Kansas," said Irma García Rodríguez.

"What does he do up there?"

"Who knows?" she snorted.

"When was the last time you talked to him?"

García thought for a moment, then said, "1986."

"What? Twenty years?"

"He has another wife up there, somebody he met," García said. She shrugged. "Listen, that happens a lot here. The man goes up there, meets a woman and forgets his wife."

It's a story told over and over, with varying amounts of anger. As it becomes harder to enter the United States, and go back and forth, the men are staying away longer.

"My husband's going up again next month. Last time he was up there three years," said Constantina Morales Gutiérrez, 25. "I told him, if you're going to be up there that long again, I'm coming after you. I won't have you drinking and running around."

On a nearby park bench, a couple of old men snickered.

"He's going up to check out those gringas," teased one of them.

"Oh yeah? Bring some gringos down here and see what happens," Morales snapped.

Morales got married at 15, typical for women in Santa Ana. It's these younger wives, the ones with more modern ideas about equality, who have the most problem with migration, said Catalina García Ramírez. A 24-year-old medical intern from Oaxaca City, she runs the town's small clinic.

"A lot of times you have women coming in for a consultation when there's nothing physically wrong with them. They just need to talk," she said. "There's a lot of depression. The people 60 and older, they see this (migration) as something normal. But for the younger women, it's very painful."

Keeping the town alive

To keep the community alive, Town Council members now are forcing people to come back from the United States to perform a year or two of public service.

Like many small, indigenous towns in Mexico, Santa Ana is governed under a legal system called usos y costumbres, or uses and customs, which is based on ancient tribal traditions.

The system means the town has no government employees. Instead, residents choose their neighbors for terms of unpaid work.

These conscripts clean the streets, answer the phone at the health clinic, scrub toilets in public buildings and staff the town's rug store. Some serve on the "security committee" and enforce the law with homemade nightsticks.

Any citizen who refuses to do his or her service risks being fined, slapped in chains and put in a tiny cell overlooking the plaza, so everyone can see. So far, that has never happened, officials said. For some of the tasks, people are allowed to pay others to do the work, though that does not including serving on the Town Council.

"If it's your turn, no matter where you are, you have to report for duty," Bautista Morales said.

He said he had been in Los Angeles for 25 years when the call came, informing him that he had been chosen for a three-year term as transportation secretary. He quit his job at a pen factory and reluctantly came back, leaving his wife and four children behind.

'Broken structure
Some residents say the service system is driving people away. Many migrants are building their retirement houses in nearby Tlacolula, which doesn't require public service, to get out of the required work in Santa Ana.

And there are other forces eroding ties between the migrants and their hometown of Santa Ana. The United States has been fortifying its southern border, and the fees demanded by migrant smugglers have risen from $600 in 1999 to about $2,000 today.

As a result, Santa Ana's migrants now are staying in the United States for years instead of months, Town Council members said.

"We don't have enough people for the services that have to be done," said Vice Mayor Gelasio García Sánchez. "That's why we're in this situation, obligating people abroad to come home.

"The migration has broken the structure that we had before, where everyone lived together."

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