Friday, July 15, 2011

Those Left Behind: Supporting Migrant Families in Acayucan, Veracruz

By Carlin J. Christy
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

Friday nights are always busy at the bus stations in Mexico. Overnight travel is often preferred to day travel, as passengers can save on lodging expenses and arrive bright and early in their next destination. It was with this plan in mind that fellow International Team member Tony Macias, photographer Kate Fenner and I boarded a packed bus leaving Oaxaca at 10:00pm. Our goal was to arrive in Acayucan, Veracruz at 7:00 am the next day.

Getting a good night’s rest on the bus wasn’t easy, as we were unprepared for the cool AC blasts that the driver kept running during the nine hour journey. Nevertheless, arriving into Acayucan’s strong tropical heat and humidity gave us a warm welcome to this state that none of us had ever visited before.

Veracruz, like Oaxaca, is not only a migrant-sending state, but also part of the migrant trail for Central Americans making the journey northwards to the U.S. While Veracruz has a network of migrant shelters and comedores (eateries) to support these migrants, during our trip we first sought to find out how the families left behind by are being supported by civil society organizations.

We connected with Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes-Mexico (Jesuit Service for Migrants- Mexico) to see how their five member Acayucan-based team works with migrant-sending communities across this southern part of Veracruz.

Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, or SJM, describes the vision of their work as generating self-managed, self-sustaining, and networked projects in communities of origin, transit and destination. They also strive to protect the human rights of migrants and their families through the creation of networks and services.

Perhaps some of their most innovative work is supporting the women and families left behind in migrant-sending communities of Veracruz. Through their Migrant Women and Family Project, SJM accompanies eight different communities in the Acayucan region. The goal of this project is to address the social, emotional, and economic impacts created by out-migration. Jacqui Garcia Salamanca, Coordinator of the SJM Acayucan office, explained to us that oftentimes, women are unprepared for the new burden of responsibilities they receive once a loved one, such as a husband, migrates. The difficulty of not knowing when, or if, these loved ones will return home takes an emotional toll on the entire family.

During a workshop lead by SJM, I spoke with a young woman, Edith. Many of her family members have migrated to the U.S. When I asked if they ever come back to Veracruz she stated, “dicen que van a regresar en un año, pero pasa otro año y otro año y no regresan.” - “They say they are going to return in one year, but another year goes by and another year and they don’t come back.”

To strengthen individuals and communities affected by migration, SJM helps initiate Grupos de Auto-Apoyo or self-support groups in each of the eight towns where they work. Every week, a group of ten to twenty women, and sometimes a few men, gather to discuss important themes that relate to their well-being. With the guidance of SJM staff, the women and men address issues of interpersonal violence, self-esteem, and communication, all with the goal of creating stronger individuals and communities. As group members listen to each other, offer support, and rebuild trust, community ties damaged by high rates of out-migration are slowly rebuilt.

On Sunday July 10th, Tony, Kate and I were able to see one of these groups in action in the town of Minzapan, Veracruz, which is home to approximately 1,700 residents. SJM volunteer Maribel, along with Jacqui, lead a group discussion on various forms of violence—emotional, physical, familial, economic, among others. Initially, participants shifted uncomfortably in their seats and glanced downwards- clearly the theme of the day was all too relevant for the women and men present. After receiving information about the various types of violence, and learning how to distinguish between violence and conflict, a sense of
empowerment and knowledge could be felt amongst the group.

Further demonstration of this community empowerment could be observed by seeing another project of SJM in action. Bancos comunitarios, or community banks, are started in each community as a way to promote savings, offer low interest loans amongst savings contributors, develop small-scale investment, and provide an economic safety net. The staff of SJM provides community members with the initial training for setting up and running the community bank. As deposits are made and loans are given out, community members become completely autonomous in the running of the banks, no longer relying on assistance from SJM staff. In several places where SJM has initiated community bank projects, the communities have started new banks with other residents, all while operating independently of SJM.

The success of this project is evident in Minzapan, where residents saved over $100,000 pesos (about $8500 USD) over the course of one year.

In addition to starting community banks, SJM supports the creation of self-sustaining projects that provide for greater economic independence. By creating productive projects, such as making and selling specialty tortillas, women and men in the communities are able to generate an additional source of income. While each project is different, the end goal is always preventing further out-migration.

Observing the work of SJM, with its emphasis on developing individual and community leadership, showed a unique model being carried out in southern Veracruz to support and sustain migrant families and communities. It seems these types of programs are essential in places like Acayucan, where casual conversations with neighbors, taxi drivers and residents revealed how much migration has become a part of life in this area. Many people we spoke with had been to the U.S. or had family members in the U.S. Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, North and South Carolina are frequent destinations for people from this region.

With the state of Veracruz now considered 6th in the country in terms of out-migration, the work of civil society organizations like SJM is a small-scale but effective way not only to rebuild individuals and communities suffering the negative impacts of migration, but also to create economic alternatives that allow Mexicans to not just stay, but thrive in their homeland.

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