Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rural Families and the Roots of Migration: on the Road in Veracruz

By Tony Macias
International Team - Mexico

I'm talking with men and women in Coyolito, Veracruz, and I don't think I should be here.

It's not the weather that's getting to me. Even with 90 degree heat and 100% humidity, my documentary partner Kate and I are still hanging in there.

It's not the distance we traveled, either, even if it took an overnight bus and a two-hour truck ride to get here. Tomorrow morning we'll have to hitchhike into town and find another bus to get back to the city. Hell, people here in Coyolito have to make the same bumpy trip down rutted and washed out dirt roads whenever they want to go to a local doctor, the market, or even to high school.

It's not the hospitality, either: Clemencia, Juana and at least two dozen others have made us feel completely welcome here today. We've witnessed a form of deep generosity that I've experienced again and again in rural Mexico - people always give what they have to out-of-towners who come in friendship.

I don't think I should be here because Clemencia hasn't seen three of her children in over 11 years. They're all living and working in North and South Carolina as undocumented workers and can't return because it's too dangerous and because, after a decade, there is still no honest source of decent wages in rural Veracruz. If anything, things have gotten worse here since they left. A new study by the Mexican government shows that between 2008 and 2010 poverty grew 7% in Veracruz, now encompassing nearly 60% of the population.

I'm in Clemencia's simple house, using her good chairs, and her children can't do the same. How could I complain about the heat, the long-ride, or the bugs, when they would certainly brave this and more to see their mother again?

Being here reminds me of Carla: Before I came to Mexico to work with Witness for Peace a
couple of years ago, I spoke with a Oaxacan woman working in a local diner in Durham named Carla (not her real name). She said she was happy for me that I could live in Oaxaca for a spell: she hadn't been back to her small town for 10 years, and hadn't seen her daughter who was barely a year old when she left. I returned to my table feeling frustrated and guilty: even if I knew the work I would do here in Mexico was justifiable, why must I live in a world where I can go and she can't? My friend Katie reminded me, “You're not taking anybody's seat by going down there, Tony.” I don't know - today in Coyolito I wonder if I am.

Juana hasn't set eyes on her husband for 10 years. Vicente sends money home from Alabama and calls each week to check in on his children, but that's all they get. Even so, all around me are the rewards that this sacrifice made possible: Now, they've got a nice house made of cement instead of the wooden poles that traditional homes in that area feature. Although Vicente originally left because they needed money for their daughter's chronic illness, Juana says this was another motive for leaving family behind:

“He who doesn't build a house isn't a good man or a good son.”

Vicente has been a good provider; the money he's sent home goes beyond building their home and buying their daughter's medicine. Juana's two oldest children have now made it through high school thanks to remittances, and her youngest has one more year to go. Vicente, the youngest, was too shy to say much about his father's absence (he was just seven when his father left), but when I asked him if he'd do the same, he said,

“I don't think I could take it for long- I'd miss my family too much. I'd come back.”

His older brother Luis Alberto wants to go to college and maybe study psychology one day. Eventually, he said, he'd like to do what our colleague Jacqueline Garcia does, strengthening economies and family life in migrant sending-communities. Meanwhile he's caring for the family cows and trying to decide how and where to start college- he will be his family's first to attend. When I asked about his father, he said:

“It's tough to not have your father around the house. You miss him raising you and having a father's love. It falls to the mother to raise all the kids.”

Before we turned in for the night, we talked to several more people with similar stories. There's Catarino and Humberta, whose son and daughter live in the Carolinas and haven't seen home in years. I spoke with their other two sons, Luis and Enrique, and they, like many others, said they wouldn't go north without humane migration reform - it's just not worth the danger and uncertainty right now. Instead, they're working with their father on a large pineapple plantation earning around $50 per week. It's not enough to live on, but it's their only option.

I also spoke with Isabel, who made her feelings clear about the risks of migration:

“I would NEVER let my children leave, and let them risk their lives in exchange for good money. And it's not true that everyone gets a good job once they're there.”

I wonder if she's seen how other families have won and lost through migration, opting for keeping her family together even if it means financial hardship. I think about Carla back in North Carolina, Vicente in Alabama, and the hundreds of others I've met that decided to leave home out of economic necessity. I don't know what I'd do if faced with the same decision.

We're leaving Coyolito tomorrow and will make our way back to Acayucan and later to Oaxaca. In the next few months, Kate and the Mexico Team will produce several new videos that go deeper into these and other migration stories. You'll be able to hear migrants, families, and advocates speak about the roots and realities of migration. You'll also be able to take action this coming October to reform the policies and practices that drive so many thousands northward. Stay tuned for more updates on our work in Mexico and on ways to take action in support of trade reform humane immigration policies!

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