By Arnie Alpert
Don Gregorio was one of the first people our Witness for Peace group met in San Juan Sosola, a small village in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. One of the first things he told us was a story about a young woman from the village who had died in Los Angeles without her family being able to contact her.
You don’t even have to scratch the surface in Oaxaca to learn something about Mexico-U.S. migration. Talk to just about anyone and they’ll ask, “where are you from?” Once you say, “the USA,” you’ll hear stories about brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins living north of the border. The challenges facing separated families are painful, even without workplace raids, desert border crossings, and deportations.
If you do scratch the surface, you can learn why beautiful, peaceful villages like San Juan Sosola are pretty much empty of young adults, most of whom leave as soon as they are old enough to travel on their own. Some reasons, like soil erosion caused by excessive logging, go back centuries to the time of Spanish colonialism. Others are more recent, like the pressures put on Mexico in the 1980s to reduce price supports for tortillas, and the flood of subsidized corn from the USA which entered Mexican markets after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.
According to Jesus Leon Santos, of CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Small Farmers of the High Mixteca, the region has experienced longer periods of drought and periods of intense rain brought on by global climatic change. Moreover, he says, chemical inputs of the “green revolution” made the land less productive.
Miguel Angel Vásquez, of EDUCA, Services for an Alternative Education, says 60% of the Mexican youth who enter the labor market every year are unable to find work. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and according to some figures, a third of its people are now living in the USA.
And it’s not just Mexico. In a religiously affiliated shelter in the city of Oaxaca we met 3 young men from El Salvador and Guatemala, trying to make their way through Mexico past migration police and criminal gangs. A Salvadoran man says, “If I could stay in my country and make money I’d never leave.” But he’s making his second attempt to reach the USA – the first ended with arrest in northern Mexico – despite his knowledge of the perils of the road. It’s not like he expects money to fall from the sky, he says. He expects to work hard so he can send money home to his mom.
When the farm economy is failing, rural people migrate. That’s the story of US history in the 19th century, of modern China, of modern Mexico and Central America. But unlike the “mill girls” who left my state’s small towns in the 1830s and 1840s for the bustling new cities of New England, and unlike the workers in Chinese sweatshops now, Mexicans and Central Americans have to cross a highly militarized border and face a climate of racism and persecution if they reach the other side.
Our ten days with Witness for Peace deepened my understanding that “immigration reform” requires addressing the reasons why so many people are forced to migrate in the first place. My passport will enable me to return across the border to my own community with new insights, and with my heart enriched by the people I’ve met.
Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.