Editor’s note: This blog is the fifth 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.
“Money isn’t the only thing the young people bring back from the city.” -Don Antonio, elderly resident of San Juan Coatzóspam, Oaxaca, Mexico
The first time I visited the rural village of San Juan Coatzóspam in 2006, I noticed a generation gap in the small coffee-farming town in the mountains. Men and women alike, between the ages of 15 and 65, had all left this Mixtec indigenous community. The reason? It is simply not possible to make a living farming coffee in towns like Coatzóspam, as a result of “free” trade agreements with the U.S., Canada, and other nations. So the coffee farmers leave town, and look for work elsewhere.
During that first visit in 2006, I met some teenagers who had worked in the big city for years. “Come on in, güero,” they called from the open door of a cinder block house as I walked past. As I stooped to walk in the doorway, I was met with an overpowering chemical stench. I looked down and, by the light of a single light bulb, saw that they young men were passing a stained rag around, breathing deeply from it. Paint thinner, read the English label on the tin canister at their feet.
Jaime, a nineteen year old who lived in the house, looked up at me, his eyes hazy and unfocused. He held the rag up towards me. “Want some?” Jaime’s clothes hung loose on his wiry, emaciated frame. For some reason, I thought of Stephen King’s movie, “Thinner”. As the title of the horror film suggests, the protagonist suffers a supernatural curse, and he grows ever thinner. My mind drifted back to scenes from the campy Stephen King movie—images of a man losing his vitality, his nutrients, withering away—as I sat down and chatted with Jaime.
I noticed that none of the young men were speaking their native Mixtec language—all were speaking Spanish. I asked them how it was that they spoke Spanish so well. They laughed. “We’ve spent most of our lives in the city,” Jaime said as he took another huff from the rag. “I was in Mexico City for years, looking for work.”
“Do you think you’ll go back?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to find work there, and people mistreat you if you’re from an Indian town like this one.”
“So do you plan to stay here?”
“I don’t know. There’s no work here, and I don’t really like it here.”
Jaime was sitting underneath a pencil drawing that hung from a nail on the wall. The drawing depicted a clown holding a pistol, in sideways “gangstah” style, pointed directly at the observer. Beneath the clown, the enigmatic text—written in graffiti-esque lettering—read, cien por ciento loco. “One hundred percent insane.”
I asked them why they preferred to speak Spanish rather than Mixtec. Most of them stared at me through the ether of their paint thinner high. One of them simply shrugged and looked down at the floor. “I don’t really like my language,” he said.
Many young Mixtecs who have left for the city end up in the same place. Not only do they discover new vices in the city—alcohol abuse, inhaling paint thinner, crystal meth—they also learn a new way of thinking about themselves. Indigenous people like the Mixtecs are often discriminated against by non-indigenous society in Mexico. Thankfully, Mexico has nothing that resembles the racial hatred that exist in parts of the United States. There are no violent gangs which beat or kill people because of their ethnicity—this is uniquely North American. However, racism and discrimination do exist. As an indigenous person, it can be hard to find a place in urban society.
And yet, they have been driven out of their home towns by poverty. Many of these youths grow to resent their own town. Tragically, some of them come to resent their own cultural identity. When migration is the only option for survival, many young migrants associate their own identity—their language, traditions, culture—with poverty and want. And many associate the “outside culture”—in the case of Coatzóspam, the Spanish language and mainstream Mexican culture—with opportunities and progress.
But most of them don’t find prosperity in the big city, or in the United States. They move to Mexico City to look for work. They work on corporate factory farms in northern Mexico, in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California. Some cross over to the United States in search of work. Most of them face hard times. Eventually, they come back to Coatzóspam.
In the case of the young men I met during that first trip in 2006, they come back floating in a cultural void. They resent their own identity, but haven’t found a place in urban Mexican or United States society. They are youth without roots, without a language. “Nuestro idioma no sirve,” is a refrain repeated many times by the young migrants who have come back to Coatzóspam. “Our language is good for nothing.” The belief that Mixtec cultural traditions have no value—including the language itself—is extremely widespread.
* * * *
When I meet disaffected youth in Coatzóspam like the paint thinner addicts who greeted me in 2006, I am reminded of a friend whose family migrated from Nicaragua to southern California during the U.S. sponsored “CONTRA” war. In the 1980s, Reagan-sponsored insurgents in Nicaragua drove thousands of refugees northward. My friend entered the southern Californian school system; years later, as an adult, she made the following comment:
“I never would have suspected that literature existed in the Spanish language. My whole life, I assumed that Spanish was good for nothing but tagging buildings and goofing off. I assumed that only English was good for writing documents, language, literature.”
Many in Coatzóspam feel the same way about the Mixtec language—that it is “primitive”, lower, unrefined, useless. Many Mixtec parents speak Spanish to children, hoping it will make life easier for them when they migrate somewhere else to look for work. The problem is, most of these parents do not speak fluent Spanish. Their conversations with their children and their interactions with their families are extremely limited and disjointed.
During my latest visit to Coatzóspam in 2012, I saw an entire generation of children who were almost exclusively monolingual—most of them could not speak with their parents in Mixtec. I can scarcely imagine the far-reaching effects of this: An entire generation of children who cannot fully communicate with their elders—children who lose the continuity that comes from being part of an unbroken chain of family traditions and interactions.
Vices, addictions, and cultural disillusion are not the only things that young Mixtec migrants bring back from the city. I met one young man who spoke with the very recognizable norteño accent of northern Mexico. He caught my eye during a visit in 2011. “Hey, you’re not from around here, are you? Man, have I got something to show you. It’s an ancient stone necklace. It’s part of our town’s cultural patrimony. Our ancestors passed it down to us for generations.”
“Wow, that’s beautiful,” I responded, taking the artifact from his hands.
“How much would you pay me for it?” he asked.
This was the only value he could imagine this ancient relic had—not cultural value, not value to the community—monetary value.
And of course, many other practices and ways of thinking have made their way back to Coatzóspam as well. Some of the teens have graffitied parts of the town, imitating the “tagging” they found in the big city. Some youths come back during the town festivals, get drunk and high, and fight with each other. Even the walls of the ancient colonial church have been tagged.
It all goes back to trade—the international coffee trade. NAFTA made it easy for Big Coffee to exploit towns like Coatzóspam. So people have left to look for work elsewhere. The youngest generation is thrust into this existential void, and comes back not knowing who they are. In a sense, it’s an exchange of sorts:
Coffee is exported for a cheap price. Poverty is imported.
Dependence on the foreign market is imported. Human beings are exported.
The labor of people is sent abroad to fuel corporate farms and factories. In exchange, marginalization and violence are imported.
The life blood of the community is exported. Vices and dependence and addiction are imported.
Sound like a fair trade?
* * * *
Despite all this, Coatzóspam is still—thank God—a very tranquil place. Most of the town’s youth have avoided any sort of criminal activity or vices. In other rural towns, though, things have gotten far worse. During my recent 2012 visit, my local friends told me about a neighboring Mixtec town across the river, a day’s hike from Coatzóspam. “Over there,” they say, “the narcos (drug traffickers) have moved in. They have gangs, and kidnappings, and assassinations.”
When rural campesinos are no longer able to make a living by farming, this vacuum gets filled in many ways.
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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