Editor’s note: This blog is the sixth part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in the summer of 2012. The goal of this series is to educate and inform readers about the reasons why immigrants come to our country so that we can better understand and relate to them. Read his previous entries here.
It’s my last day in the southern Mexican village of San Juan Coatzóspam. I’m drinking a cup of coffee—brewed from Arabica highland beans grown in this very town—and chatting with a local family in their adobe kitchen. The man of the house is talking about selling his donkey for money. The women are cooking handmade tortillas over the open fire and conversing in the fluid, musical tones of the Mixtec language. Amidst stories of marriages, births, burials, and other local gossip, the eldest woman mentions to us that her deceased husband once went to the mountains to ask the Devil for money.
“He went to a witch who lived on the outskirts of town,” she tells us. Outside the adobe kitchen, a thick cloud passes in front of the sun. “He asked the witch to help him conjure up the Devil, because he wanted to meet with the Devil on the mountaintop to ask him for money. The witch told my husband to go to the mountain at midnight, to come alone, and the Devil would give him a bag of gold coins.”
“So what happened?” I ask.
“He never told me what happened that night he went up to the mountain,” the elderly woman says, punctuating her words with slaps to a ball of raw corn dough. “He just disappeared, and came home a few days later.”
“So did he have money when he came back?” one of the other women asks.
“Not one cent. Whatever my husband saw in the woods that night, he didn’t come back one bit richer. I guess the Devil didn’t deliver the goods.”
* * * *
I’ve finished packing my backpack for the trip out of town. Three shirts, a couple changes of socks and underwear, and a bag of homegrown coffee that my hosts gave me. I’ll be headed to Oaxaca City, the state capital, and then to the southernmost Mexican State of Chiapas. I leave my things at the house and walk up the main road to the highest part of town, where my friend Alejandro lives. Time to say my goodbyes.
On my way up the solitary road, I pass by the home of Gregorio, the former town mayor. Gregorio suffered a stroke a couple years ago, and is now reduced to a shell of his former self. He has trouble speaking, and can’t move his right arm. Gregorio is leaning against the corner of his house as I walk past. He extends a withered left hand to greet me.
“Cuidado,” he tells me. “Be careful.”
He keeps repeating this single word. Folks in town explained to me that, ever since Gregorio had the stroke, this is one of the only words he can really get out. “Cuidado,” he repeats.
I realize, of course, that Gregorio says this to everybody when he sees them. But something feels vaguely ominous about it.
* * * *
Alejandro is a schoolteacher in Coatzóspam. He’s working on tomorrow’s lesson plans when I show up at his house. Alejandro stands from his desk and invites me to follow him into the kitchen for lunch. As we eat bowls of chicken soup with hierbasanta, scooping it up with tortillas, he asks when I’m going back home to the States.
“Not yet,” I say. “I’m headed south. I’ll be going through Chiapas, to meet up with some Fair Trade coffee farmers I know there. Then I plan on crossing the border into Guatemala. Maybe hit El Salvador and Honduras. I’m going to try and make it all the way down to Nicaragua.”
“So you know coffee farmers in Chiapas? Have you told anybody here in Coatzóspam about this ‘Fair Trade’ thing?”
“I’m trying. I have to tread lightly, though. I know some of the coffee farmers here get paid off by the middlemen, the buyers for Big Coffee, and they don’t want things to change. In other coffee farming towns, when people have tried to get a better price for the farmers, the people who represent Big Coffee sometimes have them killed.”
Alejandro nods his head as he stands to stoke the fire. “You’re right. Hay que tener cuidado—you have to be careful. Some people don’t want the status quo to get shaken up.” Alejandro lowers his voice as he hears a couple people walk down the solitary street outside his house. Somewhere off in the distance, I can hear a stereo blasting rap music in English.
“So how many people have asked you to help them get to the U.S.?” Alejandro asks.
“Nearly everybody I’ve met. Everyone wants to know if there’s any work up there.”
“Not me,” he responds. “I may not make much money as a schoolteacher, but I don’t think the United States has much to offer me. I look in the same direction you’re headed—I look towards the south for inspiration. Toward our brothers and sisters in other Latin American nations. The other indigenous people of the continent. I think we have a lot to learn from them, from each other.”
I tell Alejandro I couldn’t agree with him more.
* * * *
That evening, I stop by a general store on the main street of Coatzóspam—one of the few paved roads in town—to buy some batteries for my camera. The store is located in the front room of a house; the owner walks out from his living room to greet me.
“How’s business?” I ask.
“Slow as usual, güero.”
I tell him I’m leaving town tomorrow. He asks when I plan on going back to the States. “You know, I went to Virginia to work in the fields for a season once,” he says as he rubs the knuckles of one hand. “I needed money, so I agreed to work for the owners of the big tobacco farms up there.”
“Would you do it again?” I ask. It’s started to rain outside.
“I honestly don’t know if I would. It was really rough; back breaking work. First day in the tobacco fields, the other workers all told me to wear long sleeves. I didn’t understand why—it was brutally hot there. But then I started to meet laborers who’d been there for years, and they showed me the scars and welts on their forearms—tumors, cancer, from handling all that tobacco. I heard of workers in the vegetable fields dealing with the same kind of problems, from all the pesticides.”
“How did you cope?” I ask.
“One day at a time.” He looks out the open door of his shop, stares out at the wet streets of Coatzóspam, towards the town’s iconic Colonial-style Catholic church. “While I was in Virginia, I kept thinking of my hometown. My family, my land. I wanted to break down crying after the first week. I felt like I’d sold my soul. I would talk to the other guys working there, and I would say, ‘What am I doing out here? These fields aren’t mine. I’m slaving away to make someone else rich. Back home, I have my own fields, I can grow coffee and sugar cane. I could be back there, in my own town.’ They all told me they felt the same way, of course.”
I ask the obvious question. “So why did you stay there?”
The shopkeeper gives me the obvious answer. “Because I can’t make any money farming coffee and sugar cane here in my own town.”
* * * *
It’s still drizzling when I leave San Juan Coatzóspam early the next morning. I catch a ride in the bed of one of the blue pick-up trucks that transport people up and down the federal highway. The truck takes me forty minutes up the road, to the city of Huautla de Jiménez, where I find the bus station and buy a ticket for Oaxaca City.
I have an hour to kill, so I decide to have breakfast at a small shack where tamales and hot cups of atole porridge are sold. The business owner notices I’m not from around here, and asks where I’m headed. I mention Guatemala.
“You know, every now and then, Central Americans come through Huautla,” he says. “Some of them are on their way to Mexico City, looking for work. Others hope to cross over into the States.”
He tells me a story of a group of Guatemalans who came through town years ago. They were just passing through the State of Oaxaca, and had no idea how to get around. A man from Huautla found them at the side of the road near Ayautla, a town two hours from here. The driver—known in Huautla for being spiteful and mean-tempered—charged the migrants the exorbitant rate of $20 US for a ride to Huautla. The Guatemalans had a bad feeling about it, but they were desperate to keep moving north. So they agreed, and paid the driver.
“And then, when he pulled into town, the driver called the cops on the Guatemalans!” the man tells me. “He got hold of the Mexican Immigration Service and reported them, and had them deported back to Guatemala!”
I ask why anyone would do such a thing.
“I have no idea. I guess some people are just very cruel towards migrants. You always have to be careful who you strike a deal with.”
This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in Summer 2012.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
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