Cactus plants spill onto the deeply rutted dirt track to El Porvenir, a gray village in the land-locked Mexican state of Zacatecas. Farmers complain that it hasn’t rained in seven years and the ground offers little more than a bountiful crop of dust that swirls through the region’s scattered pueblos.
The trail to El Porvenir, in English “The Future,” runs about 12 miles from the nearest tarred road. But the path to any future for this impoverished village runs another 500 miles north, across the treacherous frontier to El Norte, the United States.
Half of the working-age men of El Porvenir, which has a population of 1,200, live in the United States and their extra dollars sustain those left behind. In fact, the amount of money sent home from immigrants in the United States is about 50 percent more than the entire federal government budget for Zacatecas.
“That’s how we can afford to eat. Whenever they have money to give, they send it back,” said Jose Asuncion de Iasanai, who has returned to El Porvenir for good after crossing the frontier seven times to work in the United States. Weather-beaten and wearing a ubiquitous cowboy hat, De Iasanai is now unemployed and depending on funds from his four children working menial jobs in North Carolina.
Few sounds break the silence of the isolated pueblo, even in the middle of the day. Some boisterous children squall on the playground of their crumbling school and a few pickup trucks, bearing Texas and California license plates, scramble around the dusty streets. The men left behind eke out an existence doing minor repairs on people’s homes and tending to their small plots of land.
“We don’t have any machinery to do more than cultivate enough for the people here,” noted de Iasanai.
Years of below-normal rainfall have taken their toll. The flat, parched soil stretches far into the horizon, broken up by gnarled cacti struggling to live off the pitiless land. It’s a welcome home only for rattlesnakes and scorpions.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years with a scatter-gun economic policy of massive subsidies to favored state enterprises while mostly neglecting rampant poverty. It was ousted from power last summer when voters were permitted to choose an outsider, former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox.
But the PRI’s legacy will take a long time to root out of the countryside of Zacatecas.
In El Porvenir, it can be seen in the 11 wells built over the past 50 years, misguided efforts to help the villagers to fend for themselves by providing a guaranteed water source in this arid climate.
The wells are victims of the suffocating economics in Mexico, where the electricity to run the pumps costs as much as $3 an hour, an extravagant cost for residents. Nowadays, the taps are turned on sporadically between May and October to allow villagers to grow some basic staples such as beans and chilies.
In the meantime, people await the trickle of cash from the United States.
It is estimated that more than $350 million flows back to Zacatecas annually from the United States from the 400,000 to 500,000 residents who live across the border, most in California, Texas and Illinois.
The numbers paint a picture of the dependence between Mexico and the United States.
Overall, an estimated 8 million Mexicans work in the United States, legally and illegally, and they send nearly $7 billion to their homeland, making remittances the third-largest source of income for the Mexican economy after oil and tourism.
The government, despite a promise by President Fox to address the issue of migration, appears unable to stem the flow of people out of the country.
“The only way to stop migration is to create jobs. But I don’t think [government officials] have any idea how they are going to do that,” said Fernando Robledo Martinez, who is head of the political science department at the University of Zacatecas as well as an adviser to the state government.
Old story in new world
In Nuevo Mundo, a town with a population of 600 about five miles from El Porvenir, teacher Mario Nevares supervises dozens of children playing in the spacious playground of Christopher Columbus school.
Nearby, the clock on the church spire is permanently stuck on 6:30. The village square boasts a stone centerpiece bearing a fading declaration by the PRI: “The biggest hug you can give your child is a good education.”
The words ring hollow to Nevares, who admits that the majority of the bright-faced children running around during their lunch break have no future in Mexico.
“The only thing that people could do around here to earn money is to work in agriculture,” the earnest young teacher said. “And when the land isn’t producing very much, they have to move north.”
In the United States, Mexicans do the plentiful work that Americans often won’t do: picking grapes, digging ditches, minding children and washing dishes.
A rite of passage
The migration to the United States has led to negative population growth in 35 of Zacatecas’ 57 counties, but work in the United States is still the only hope for most people.
“If we don’t receive remittances, the local economy will fall apart,” said Professor Rodolfo Garcia Zamora of the University of Zacatecas, who has examined migration patterns.
Zacatecans in the United States are linked economically and culturally through more than 100 clubs that have created bi-national communities for many villages, an extraordinary phenomenon in which as many as half of the adults live in Mexico and the other half in the United States.
The clubs have come up with a program to finance projects in Mexican villages called “three-for-one.” Under the program, every dollar sent home for development in villages is matched by $2 in local and federal funds.
Garcia said that of $6 million recently raised for infrastructure work in Zacatecas, $1.5 million came from former villagers now living in the United States.
In Jomuquillo, population 500, the evidence is underfoot — a gleaming paved road that runs from the outskirts of the village to the church, which sits near the village square. Horses hooves clip loudly on the new surface as young men ride around town.
On a cement stoop, a group of older men gather around Rafael Barajas, who works as a gardener in the lush San Fernando Valley but who is treated like a lord when he returns home.
Barajas and his brother head a village club in Los Angeles and have led the drive to improve Jomuquillo.
They raised $12,000 to pave the road, and another $5,000 for a new bridge. “At least if it does ever rain, we won’t get flooded,” said Jose Arellana Asevedo, a friend of Barajas’.
Barajas, the father of 11 “very American” children, returns annually to check the fruits of his efforts. “Going to the United States is the only choice the people have,” he said. “There are no jobs.”
Fabienne Venet, the director general of Sin Fronteras, a Mexico City-based organization devoted to the cause of migrants, agrees. “It seems like a rite of passage for adolescents. They have to go to the United States to become adults,” Venet said. “I think it’s the future of our world.”
The deadly border
The United States doesn’t share the same vision. Over the past six years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has stepped up enforcement along its 2,100-mile-long border with Mexico, building a high wall along long stretches, installing sensors and doubling the number of border agents to more than 8,000.
And even though the journey across the frontier is more perilous than ever — 455 Mexicans died crossing the frontier last year, many from drowning and heatstroke — young people are not dissuaded.
Staying home in El Cargadero “is not an option,” said Nancy Amon Carillo, 16, who admitted that she is frightened about the prospect of slipping over the border, a trip she plans to make when she’s 18. “I feel I have to go to earn some money,” she said.
Her father, Ramon, is the local contact person for the village’s network of clubs in California, which have helped pave the town’s roads, improve services at the health clinic and renovate the dilapidated school. He spent several years in the United States, at one time cleaning up after fans at the Angels baseball stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
Carillo is resigned to his four children following the well-worn path he took 20 years ago. “People know it’s bad for their children to leave, but there’s nothing here,” said Carillo as he sat under a lime tree outside his simple flat-roofed house, now anchored on a slope by a stretch of concrete roadway financed by remittances.
For Nancy, the future is among her extended family in southern California. As for Zacatecas, “I won’t miss it. I won’t look back.”