Monday, May 22, 2006

Salvatierra - Land of Lincoln

By: Der Hurley MBA, CrFA, CFE

January 2006

Immigrant remittances are a significant factor in Mexico’s economy. Last year immigrants sent some 20 billion dollars back to loved ones in Mexico. Figures for 2006 are expected to be around $25 billion. Remittances are now second only to oil exports and well ahead of tourism in foreign exchange earnings. Many families in the states of Zacatecas, Michoacan, Oaxaca and Guanajuato rely heavily on remittances sent by relatives living in the U.S.

They say there are more Guanajuatenses in the U.S. than there are in Mexico. The municipios surrounding Salvatierra in southern Guanajuato have the highest immigration records. It is a fertile area, rich in agriculture. Perhaps this explains the exodus. Agriculture, no matter how rich, seems to produce but not hold on to large populations. Salvatierra is a pleasant colonial city, not unlike San Miguel de Allende located to the north of Guanajuato state. It is ironic but there is U.S. immigration to Guanajuato. Foreigners are mainly located in and around San Miguel which has a population of about 90,000. Around 15,000 are mainly from the U.S. and Canada. Immigrants to Guanajuato make up in prestige what they lack in numbers. Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith keep a home near San Miguel. Perhaps it is not so ironic in this day and age of fast communications and fast travel that young Guanajuatenses go the U.S. to earn a living while older U.S. citizens retire to Guanajuato.

Salvatierra has some fine 16th and 17th century churches. There is a beautiful 17th century bridge that’s still in use. The bridge leads to a park that overlooks waterfalls on the fast flowing Rio Lerma. However, you do not see many foreign travelers in Salvatierra. Tourists or no, Salvatierra is a busy place. What stands out is returning immigrants and their vehicles. Texas trucks and cars from Illinois. Lincoln’s face looks out from most U.S. number plates. Many of the vehicles with Guanajuato plates are legalized immigrant imports. I have heard many people speaking Spanish in New York, Los Angeles and Miami and found it perfectly normal but I was taken by surprise hearing young people conversing in English in Salvatierra. Probably kids of immigrants going home to see the grandparents - feeling more comfortable speaking English, the language they went to school in.

Vicente Fox is a Guanajuatense. He was governor of the state prior to his election as Mexico’s president. When he was governor he founded a state organization that aids Guanajuato immigrants. The Atención al Migrante office in Salvatierra is coordinated by Octavio García. Octavio tells me Salvatierra has a 30% immigration level. Some nearby municipios like Ocampo and Santiago Maravatio have levels of 50% plus. Octavio reckons 80% of all immigrants from Guanajuato are male. It used to be 100% male. More and more younger girls are now immigrating. This leads to a growing female exploitation problem along the Mexican side of the border. For the males the main objective is to support the wife and kids left behind. But time and distance sometimes skew that objective. The main focus of the Atención al Migrante office is to attend the relatives left behind rather than the immigrants themselves. A growing problem is household violence when men return. A much smaller but also growing problem is the HIV virus. Settled immigrants in Illinois can sometimes send their problem kids back to the grandparents for straightening out in Guanajuato. Octavio García perceives the reverse occurs - problem kids introduce gang violence and drug consumption to remote rural communities.

Most first time immigrants from south Guanajuato are illegal. An enganchador - a local facilitator and representative of the border coyote gangs, gathers a group of individuals together in a rural community. The Mexican immigration service, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, calls the people smugglers polleros - chicken runners. The group of about ten or twelve individuals will frequently be told to gather at a certain date at the bus station in Celaya or Queretaro where the enganchador will be waiting for them with their one-way tickets to Nogales, Ciudad Juarez or Reynosa. There, the border coyotes pick them up and take them to a local hotel. The total cost to cross illegally and get to their final destination varies from $2,000 to $3,000 dollars per person one way. A hefty price for a kid whose main reason for undertaking the hazardous journey is to earn money. However, illegals pay in stages. They will first pay for the ride from their hometown to Queretaro. Then pay the bus ticket Queretaro-Mexican border city. Then the hotel at the border town. More and more frequently the polleros decide to bus their groups to a smaller border town in the desert. This means further expense for the illegals in another hotel. Many illegals have to work their way across - most of the young first-timers will not have two to three thousand dollars to get them to Chicago or Atlanta.

Due to increased U.S. side border vigilance illegally crossing is becoming more and more expensive - and dangerous. The coyotes have to decide whether to take the safe route near population centers where the risk of getting caught is higher. Or take the desert route where the risk of at least some of their group losing their lives is greater. If the coyotes themselves get caught, they don’t get deported, they get jail. More and more they opt for the desert route. When crossing time comes and the illegals are faced with the enormity of the task before them, they have little choice but to move ahead as they are by now deep in debt to the coyotes. Octavio García, the Atención al Migrante coordinator in Salvatierra, reports what he perceives to be a disquieting trend. Illegal immigrant’s call his office from U.S. jails claiming they are serving time falsely accused of being coyotes. The story goes that the entire group is caught. The real coyote pretends to be just another illegal. He, frequently a good English speaker, ingratiates himself with the Border Patrol. He falsely accuses a non-English speaking illegal of being the coyote. The would-be illegal immigrant goes to jail. The coyote gets deported and lives to fight another day.

Everywhere you go in South Guanajuato you meet immigrants who have their fascinating story to tell. Like 22 year old Armando Montes who cleaned my sneakers in the Jardín of Salvatierra. Six years ago Armando made his first and last attempt to get in to the U.S. He crossed the Rio Bravo near Laredo along with nine others, including a coyote. Armando reckons the coyote was inexperienced. He allowed another one of the group to play his Walkman while crossing the river at night! They got to the other side okay and Armando began to relax a little. The then sixteen year-old allowed himself the luxury of thinking he might possibly succeed in getting as far as Atlanta. There his cousins had set-up a successful house painting business. Three days into the U.S. disaster struck. The Migra picked up eight of the group in San Antonio, including Armando and the inexperienced coyote. Armando was back in Mexico the following day. The Walkman player was one of the two who made it. I asked the would-be Atlanta house painter how much he charged for the shoeshine. Armando replied - whatever I thought was appropriate.

Vicente Zepeda left San Nicolas de Los Agostinos when he was twenty years old. San Nicolas is a rural community located close to Salvatierra. Vicente Zepeda immigrated to Moline, Illinois. It was tough at the beginning. He got the odd laboring job. After a while he got regular work and began sending money home to his parents. He saved enough to rent a shop selling Mexican food products. By now there was a huge Mexican population in Moline. They cried out for real tortillas, Mexican cheese, genuine sauces and a variety of chilies. Vicente now owns a chain of stores called La Imperial. In Guanajuato the governor initiated a program called Dos por Uno. For every peso an immigrant would put into a social program, the state government would invest a peso and the municipal government another peso. February 2005 Governor Romero inaugurated a badly needed health clinic in San Nicolas. Vicente Zepeda returned home for the first time in twenty eight years to be at the ceremony. He had contributed some $40,000 dollars towards the construction. The governor asked him to say a few words. Vicente went to the podium but no words came, only tears.

In 1550 the Augustinians built an awesome fortress-like church to dominate the local people around Yuriria. The magnificent monastery still dominates Yuriria to this day. The same Augustinians engineered a huge lake nearby. Strange bunch the conquistadors! They drained a beautiful natural lake in Tenochtitlan/Mexico City and they created a shabby, artificial one in Yuriria. Maybe it wasn’t back then but it’s pretty shabby today. Coca-Cola and Pepsi would be swamped if they organized a return of their plastic bottles. Neither the lake nor the church draws many tourists to Yuriria these days. Yuriria is better known for the travelers that leave.

Rafael Cisneros is known to all in Yuriria as Don Rafa. He looks older than he is. Don Rafa has been through some tough battles trying to make a living. He first entered the U.S. illegally when he was 18. Since then he has come and went many times. No coyotes for Don Rafa, he believes in doing things himself. He almost died after spending three freezing nights in the desert near Yuma, Arizona. The longest he held down a job was for four years as a maintenance man in a Chicago golf course. He earned twelve dollars an hour there. In one of his returns to Yuriria he married Doña Socorro. While in Yuriria he and Socorro worked a mobile taco stand. In 1985 Don Rafa availed of an amnesty and received a U.S. green card. He traveled to Alaska and worked processing fish at twenty five dollars an hour. Coming and going. Off to the U.S. for a few months, back to Mexico for a few months. Come 1990 his wife put the foot down. By now they had six children. Sink or swim, Don Rafa was back to Yuriria for good. They moved their tacos to a permanent location on the road out of Yuriria towards Morelia. Though roofless, it was a good spot. They began to bring in about five thousand pesos a day. Don Rafa bought a plot of land and built a house. About eight years later disaster and salvation came calling the same day. Disaster in the form of the local municipal authorities informing the road needed widening. The Cisneros would have to move on. Salvation came a few hours later while Rafa sat dejected at one of his open-air tables. An individual came to eat and told Don Rafa he had a big site for sale about a half-kilometer up the road. Don Rafa went to see it and immediately decided to mortgage his home for a bank loan. He moved the open-air kitchen, tables and chairs to the new place. The first day he brought in fifteen thousand pesos! When he lay down to sleep that night Don Rafa made two promises to himself. The first was that one day he would employ a hundred people. The second promise; he would never return to the U.S.

The next step was to put a roof over the tables. Then came the construction of a hundred and twenty table restaurant. Next a twenty-four bedroom hotel on two floors over the restaurant. Then the construction of a salon-de-fiestas behind the restaurant. Don Rafa is currently building another restaurant down by the lake. Right now he employs about 50 people, including his six kids. Don Rafa hired a professional accountant to administer the business as well as a professional restaurant manager. They need the accountant. When I checked out of the hotel I asked Doña Socorro for an invoice. She looked around a little embarrassed and whispered she did not know how to prepare one. She said the accountant was not in but she could give me the invoice block so I could prepare it myself!

Doña Socorro and her kids have vacationed many times in the U.S., mostly visiting relatives in Illinois. They tried to persuade Don Rafa his promise was no longer binding. Last year he vacationed in Cuba. The year before he went to Cancun. The year before that Puerto Vallarta. He plans to travel to Canada this year. Don Rafa is a man of his word; he intends to keep both promises he made to himself that fateful night.

Santiago Maravatio has the highest per capita immigration rate of all the municipios of Guanajuato. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, there is an air of prosperity about the place. The fields surrounding the town all seem to have electric pumps providing water for irrigation. You see in and around Santiago Maravatio something rare in rural Mexico - tractors. Adolfo Sanchez left for Wheeling, Illinois when he was seventeen years old. Adolfo did okay for himself. He initially stayed with relatives and did part-time work. He soon got regular night-shift work at a Honeywell plant. He made enough money to rent his own apartment and buy a car. When he was twenty seven years old Adolfo got engaged. Jennifer Wiedemann was a twenty year old classical piano player and live-in nanny at the home of one of Adolfo Sanchez’s wealthy relatives in Wheeling. Adolfo visited his uncle’s place often. The couple got to know each other and decided to marry. But a few months later Jennifer called off the arrangement. She returned the engagement ring to Adolfo. He spent a couple of days trying to persuade her back. She was adamant. In the early hours of September 22, 2001 someone with a key entered the house where Jennifer worked, went down to the basement and shot her dead while she slept. A blood stained shotgun was found in Adolfo’s apartment and his abandoned car was found a few days later in Milwaukee. Local authorities believe Adolfo fled to Mexico.

María del Carmen Cardoso left Salvatierra when she was eighteen. Carmen is not her real name. She did not want her actual name published out of fear of getting booted out of the Phoenix university where she is currently studying law. She found a novel and safe way of entering the U.S. illegally. She traveled to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora where her aunt has a small hotel. Puerto Peñasco is located on the bridge of land connecting Baja California with Sonora, north of the Sea of Cortez. It is a beach resort little known in Mexico but well known in the U.S. state of Arizona. It used to be known as Punto Peñasco. Punto Peñasco´s English translation is Rocky Point. The beaches around Rocky Point are about a four hour drive from the two desert cities of Phoenix and Tucson. People from Phoenix go to Puerto Peñasco as frequently as people from Mexico City go to Acapulco. They are welcomed warmly by Puerto Peñascans despite sporadic outbreaks of trouble making, especially during Spring break. Many Arizonians have beach homes in the rapidly developing resort and many have immigrated there permanently. Puerto Peñasco´s population is about 100,000, around 8,000 of whom are U.S. immigrants. Carmen Cardoso found work cleaning the Puerto Peñasco beach home of a wealthy Arizona family. About a year later the parents asked her if she would like to become a nanny in their Phoenix home. Carmen jumped at the opportunity. One Monday morning she joined them in their minivan along with their three kids. There was a long line of RV’s going through the border crossing at Sonoyta, Sonora and Lukeville, Arizona. The border authorities on both sides just waved the family through.