Editor’s note: This blog is the fourth 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. His first entry can be found here, and his second one here. 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.
I once spoke with a man from the U.S. who had visited the Soviet Union just a few years after the end of World War II. The American visitor was horrified to find that he could visibly see the generational gap in Russian society. The devastation of the “Great Patriotic War”, as it was known in the USSR, was so thorough that an entire generation of young men were missing from the streets. Walking around Moscow, a foreigner could observe a gaping hole in the population–young men simply weren’t there. They’d been taken by the War.
The same sort of generational gap is notable in towns like Coatzóspam.
As in hundreds of rural towns and villages across Mexico, almost all young people of working age have left Coatzóspam. As has been mentioned in past articles, the reason for this has to do, in large part, with trade policies. Policies like NAFTA which were signed–with the goal of providing cheap consumer goods, like the coffee farmed in towns like Coatzóspam–had the effect of making it virtually impossible to survive in such country towns.
So people left.
The difference, of course, between World War II in Russia and the war on the countryside in Mexico, is that the latter has taken young women as well as young men. Because of the fact that it is not economically viable to farm coffee–because of policies tied to the cheap coffee you and I drink–families are sending their lifeblood out of Coatzóspam to look for work elsewhere.
The young women and men go to Oaxaca City, or Mexico City to look for work. They go to northern Mexico–many of them find work as migrant agricultural laborers on the vast “factory farms” in the northern Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California.
The great irony of all this, of course, is that these people were driven off their land in the first place by policies pushed for by our big agribusiness companies. After they leave towns like Coatzóspam, Mixtec indigenous people often end up working on factory farms in northern Mexico which also exist to service these very same agribusinesses. No longer able to make a living farming their own land, they end up working for a pittance on someone else’s factory farm. They pick tomatoes, strawberries, chilies, zucchinis, and other produce that will be shipped immediately northward, across the border, in order to stock supermarkets in the United States. (Recent estimates indicate that, in the U.S., 45 percent of the tomatoes we consume, and 80 percent of our eggplant, were grown in Mexico.)
Of course, many of the migrants who leave towns like Coatzóspam end up crossing the border themselves, looking for work in the United States.
Many of them are treated horribly when they arrive. They are given strange looks. They get called names. Sometimes, white supremacist gangs attack them. Other times, vigilante “patrols” harass them. They are told to “go back to Mexico”. More polite citizens just glance at them in silence, then whisper their opinions to each other in private: “Why did they come here? Why don’t they just stay home?”
But nobody asks, “Why did the cheap coffee they grew come here”. Nobody complains that the cheap, accessible tomatoes which “they” picked were able to come here, crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. Nobody complains about the cheap electronics and garments that were assembled in maquiladora factories in northern Mexico–often by people who, like the residents of Coatzóspam, had to leave their hometowns in rural Mexico.
And nobody seems to question the fact that this border isn’t really a border. It’s more of a semi-porous membrane. Textiles, assembled products, sneakers, clothing, coffee, tomatoes, strawberries, squash, all these things produced through the labor of people in Mexico–all these things can freely cross the border northwards. But people–the working poor who create these products in Mexico–these people are, in most cases, not allowed to cross that same border.
Discrimination, mistreatment, marginalization, racism–these problems all exist for migrants who move around within Mexico as well. Indigenous people like the Mixtecs of Coatzóspam are often treated poorly when they go looking for work in big cities across Mexico. They are not fully accepted in Spanish-speaking society. They look different, talk different, sound different, and have different mannerisms. They are often treated as second-class humans because of it.
The end result is a personal, psychological, transformation. As many of the old-timers in Coatzóspam told me–people too old to ever leave their coffee fields and learn new tricks–“These youngsters, they leave town to go work somewhere else. Sometimes they come back. But they don’t just come back–they come back changed.”
The change the old folks are referring to is the direct result of being forced to leave everything you know in order to make a living, to survive–and then realizing that you aren’t fully accepted in the place you’ve gone to in search of work. It’s the result of being cast into an existential void, where you can’t seem to find a place in Coatzóspam or in the big city. Where you say, as the popular Mexican song lyric goes: “No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá” [I am not from here or from there].
In the upcoming article, we’ll take a look at some of the profound changes that many young migrants undergo through this process.
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 writes these posts as a volunteer for World Relief Garden Grove serving all of Southern California. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
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