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12.10.08

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Phaedra

THE WAY TO SAN JOSE Columba Avarado Lossano loves the work at her food stall in Cuquio, but it doesn't pay the bills. She is eager to join her family on the East Side.

The Great Escape

To feed their families, the men of west central Mexico travel hundreds of miles to Silicon Valley

By Diane Solomon

Petite and pretty enough to star in a telenovela, Columba Alvarado Lossano says her husband, Justino, wants to join her sister's extended family up in San Jose, because he can't find stable work.

Lossano makes and serves breakfasts at her mother's food stall in the municipal market of Cuquio, a small town 45 miles north of Guadalajara and a mile high. The food stall's tiled counters, potted plants and shrine to the Virgin are utterly charming. But no matter how hard Lossano works, it isn't supporting her family.

Lossano says her sister married a man whose two brothers were established in San Jose. "They paid a coyote a lot of money to get them up there," she says. "One brother has to be legal because he got his parents papers and they can come and go as they please."

Even with two or three jobs, middle-class people can't make it in Cuquio, and everyone's in debt. They borrow from private lenders because banks won't lend without collateral. Lenders charge up to 10 percent, and if debtors can't pay, no one else will lend to them. This is a deterrent because borrowing, says Lossano, is a necessity.

"I have a friend who's so far in debt he left to go work up north so he could go pay them off," she says. "My husband is thinking of doing the same. Everything is so expensive here, all we can do is buy food. There's no future in Cuquio, so the only thing we can do is go north."

Throughout the state of Jalisco, the scene is the same. Tuxcueca, located on a lake of the same name, is scenic but so poverty-stricken it's difficult to even see the natural beauty. Poverty is punishing and inescapable in rural Mexico—unless one leaves and heads north. Many of the escapees arrive in Silicon Valley.

I accompanied Dr. Ann López, of UC–Santa Cruz's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, on her annual research trip to west central Mexico to see for myself why they leave. López's 10-year study of farmworker families on both sides of the border was published last year as The Farmworkers' Journey.

Finding Mexicans with family working in Silicon Valley without papers was as easy as getting out of bed in the morning and going out for breakfast on my first day there. Our first stop was Cuquio. The owner of the small hotel has five brothers in San Jose. Lossano, who brought us our breakfast, has a sister and brother-in-law on the East Side.

Everyone I spoke to, on remote ranchos and in town squares, from destitute campesinos to city officials, had family working in Los Angeles. In the cities, almost everyone I met had worked, had family or knew someone in Silicon Valley.

Ernesto Agredano de Alba owns Cuquio's only hotel, the Meson del Agave. When his wife's father died, her family couldn't keep their auto shop going. The oldest brother, then 15, left and found work in San Jose. Four others followed him.

"If they stayed in Cuquio," says Alba, "they would have gotten poorer and poorer because there are no jobs here."

He said the reason Cuquio has few beggars is because when people get close to that point they head north for work.

"Some men become drunkards, die and are lost," he says. "Others get capital and come back and start businesses. If they don't work out, they go back. There's always this flow back and forth between Cuquio and the U.S."


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CAN'T EAT THE SCSNERY: Rancho Varaz Dulces is one of 134 beautiful ranchos in Cuquio that have been decimated in the post-NAFTA era.

Bad Dreamland

There are 134 ranchos in the municipality of Cuquio. Ranchos are communities of farm families deep in the countryside. Few are wealthy. López says that since NAFTA, corn crop prices have dropped by as much as 70 percent due to competition from U.S. corn, while the cost of food, housing and essential services in Mexico has increased by about 250 percent.

"Most rancho families now earn about $300 per year, which puts them at sub-Saharan levels of poverty," she says.

Alberto Estevez was one of six farmers who met with Dr. López one afternoon to talk about creating CSAs for their ranchos' subsistence farmers. They want to sell organic produce to affluent Guadalajarans to get out of poverty and to preserve indigenous food plants. Estevez says he used to work in San Jose, and has two brothers there.

He wore a huge cowboy hat and his thick belt had a knife in a sheath and a cell phone holder. He smelled like sunlight and hard work, and had the leathery brown skin of a life spent outdoors caring for plants.

He left San Jose when his father died. "I lost my standing to get legal residency status because I returned to take care of my family," he says. "What can you do?"

He says if he hadn't worked in San Jose, and if his brothers weren't sending the money he uses to support his farm, his extended family would be as bad off as the poorest in his rancho.

How poor are the ranchos? We visited over a half-dozen in Jalisco and Michoacán. López says between 80,000 and 100,000 leave Michoacán annually for U.S. destinations. She visits each study site twice a year bringing shoes, toothbrushes and underwear to dozens of rancho families.

Tree-lined dirt roads took us through green valleys filled with cornfields and topped by blue skies. There were yellow butterflies, birds and small adobe and brick homes in the green fields. Silicon Valley must have looked like this 200 years ago, but for the signs proclaiming the varieties of genetically modified corn that have been planted: "Dekalb 20-2021," "Un Angel En Tu Tierra," "Agrow-Tiegre" and "Ceres Tornado X."

It's old Mexico, Zorro the movie, charming until you notice the adobe is crumbling, nothing is paved and the metal and tile roofs have plastic sheets on them that are held on by rocks. These houses leak when rains, they aren't insulated or heated and they're falling apart.

Most homes are two or three rooms with no running water. Chickens wander in and out and it's best not to think about the plight of the dogs. Kitchens are three walls, a dirt floor, a small stove, a rickety table, and dishes, bowls and buckets with no food in them. This setup could feed the household of a dozen or so but I never saw food or families eating.


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POVERTY'S PRINCESS: Luz Maria Bernal, descended from one of San Jose's prominent founding families, in the wash area of her home in Tuxcueca.

 

Dirt Poor

I asked López what kind of food campesinos typically have in their kitchens and how many meals they ate each day. After 10 years of field trips, she doesn't think they have meals. She couldn't recall ever seeing one served. "I think when people are hungry, the mother makes whatever they have," López said. "I've never seen food in their kitchens other than what's being cooked right then."

They wash dishes, laundry and kids by filling a sink on stacked bricks with water from the nearest irrigation ditch or well. Dirt courtyards have muddy holes filled with parasite-rich rainwater that kids happily play in. The children seem to wear their shoes until they fall apart. They have rashes on their arms, sores on their lips and they're too thin. And it's obvious that no one's going to dentists.

Rancho families without transportation are common. "There's no bus, so you have to lean on a neighbor to take you or walk far or pay a neighbor to get somewhere" says Estevez. Only seven of Cuquio's 134 ranchos have medical clinics. When there are accidents most have a long drive on a bumpy road—if they can get a ride.

"If you want your kid to go past the sixth grade," he says, "you have to find a relative in Cuquio that your kid can stay with during the week so they can go to school because there's no way to get to a secondaria [high school] from the ranchos."

Jovita Santos, a farm mother in Sauces de Peréz, told me they pay property taxes of about $18 per year or risk losing their land. Taxes don't get them running water, libraries, public transportation, schools or emergency services.

We saw few adult men on the ranchos. López says given these conditions, anyone who can get up north is there working. Santos says that most families depend on remittances from them to survive. Her sons are farmworkers near Watsonville.

"Had they not gone north, they would have lived in poverty," she said, "and we would have died of starvation without their money."

López calls rancho families NAFTA's collateral damage. "We're really seeing the physical manifestation of years of trade abuse," says López, "and its adverse impact on the campesino culture."

Juan Carranza was driving the first taxi we hailed at bus stop on a remote highway outside of Huáncito, a Purépecha village near Zamora, Michoacán. Carranza was a farmworker at the McCarthy Ranch in Milpitas. A season there and a year in New Jersey driving a forklift got him the money he needed to come back and buy his taxi and improve his family's farm.

When he went north 10 years ago, Carranza says, he and his friends just walked across the border in Tijuana. This past March, he hired a coyote to get him to Watsonville to work the strawberry harvest. He went with 12 friends. Six got over. He tried to cross three times at Mexicali and once at Tijuana. He says the reason he couldn't get over was "la Migra." He politely refused to provide more details. The coyote gave him his money back.

He wanted the work so he could pay for his children's schooling. Even with the taxi he can't make ends meet. 'If I worked the strawberry harvest I could support my family for a year on a four-month harvest," he says. "I work hard but I earn little. In Zamora there are lots of jobs that pay $12 for a 9 or 10 hour day, but everyone there makes the same amount: too little!'"

 

Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad is descended from the Bernal and Peralta families recruited by Juan Bautista de Anza to leave their Sinaloa, Mexico, homes to come north with him. On Nov. 29, 1777, they arrived and founded the Pueblo of San Jose near the Guadalupe River.

Smestad says his family left Sinaloa for the same reasons emigrants have always left: "For opportunities and to live a better life."


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