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Why Mexican immigrants are moving back home

As you leave the Valley of Oaxaca and wind up the narrow switchbacks of unpaved mountain road, the sun loses its lowland sultriness and grows sharp. Roadside stands appear, selling small peaches, and bantam villages pass into and out of view, offering glimpses of hanging laundry, calla lilies in mossy streams, and men joking around in half-built houses. Farther inland, their language switches from the romantic lilt of Spanish to the tonal precision of Zapotec.

Crammed in the back of a taxi colectivo, a bare-bones Nissan Tsuru that held a few other passengers and their striped bags of city bounty, my husband, Jorge, and I watched the glitter of the valley fade and the perpetual fog of the cloud forest close in. Our destination was only fifty-five miles from the city of Oaxaca, but the trip would take more than three hours. We were headed to the village of San Pedro Cajonos for its annual fiesta, which included a basketball tournament Jorge planned to photograph for a documentary project. I had taken a semester off graduate school to accompany him on his travels. We had spent much of the winter attending fiestas in villages throughout the Sierra Norte, a historically impoverished region in the center of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southernmost states.

A sacrificial bull standing in front of the church in San Pedro Cajonos, Oaxaca, after being led around town in a procession. All photographs © Jorge Santiago

A sacrificial bull standing in front of the church in San Pedro Cajonos, Oaxaca, after being led around town in a procession. All photographs © Jorge Santiago

We knew to expect long days and sleepless nights. I was readying myself for all the men who would approach and ask, “De dónde eres?” then tell me they’d been in Helena, or Indianapolis, or Los Angeles, and now had come back — who would struggle to explain why, then shrug and gesture at tortillas swaddled in cloth or sweeping landscapes of corrugated peaks.

A mix of indigenous tradition and Catholic ritual, the fiesta honors the birthday of a pueblo’s patron saint. It is the most important annual event in the mountain villages of Oaxaca — three or four days of nonstop celebration, ranging from the somber (dressing an effigy of the saint in new clothes) to the uproarious (bull riding accompanied by brass bands). People who have moved to the city flood back to their hometowns, while migrants in the United States send money for food, drink, and other supplies. The fiesta is the jubilant affirmation of an identity distinct from that of mainstream Mexico: in the Sierra Norte, people dance to traditional sones y jarabes; play basketball; speak Chinantec, Mixe, or Zapotec; and maintain a unique system of direct democracy called usos y costumbres.

The fiesta has its roots in the mid-sixteenth-century arrival of the Spanish, who whipped villagers for “idolatry” and forced them to worship Catholic saints rather than animistic gods. The Church succeeded in supplanting the idols, but not in extinguishing the customs or the exuberance: in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, bishops visiting the Mixe region of the Sierra Norte sent irate letters back to Spain bemoaning the fact that more attention was being paid to dance, food, and fireworks than to saintly devotion.

The Sierra saw its economic peak in the late 1700s, with the harvesting of the cochineal, a ticklike insect that grows on cactus pads and is used to produce carmine dye, which was briefly fashionable in Europe. Following the development of synthetic dyes, the Sierra, one of the least accessible regions of the New World, sank into decline and was largely neglected by the colonial and then the Mexican state. A wave of northward migration began, cresting in the late twentieth century. The number of U.S.-bound migrants doubled in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s, nearly emptying villages of their young men. Now many of those who left are returning to the Sierra. I met them everywhere — over adobo chicken in cramped kitchens, at rodeos and basketball tournaments, and amid the clamor of bandas in churches heavy with flowers and gilt.

Romeo Robles was one of these men, and the only one I kept in touch with later, long after I left Mexico. We’d met briefly two years earlier, at a party held by mutual friends in Oaxaca city. He had come home to Mexico that very day after fifteen years in the United States, and was heading to San Pedro Cajonos, to a life he’d left in 1995, at twenty, and since longed for with increasing intensity. Jorge and I were on our way to the United States — me for the first time as an adult out of college, after six years overseas, him for the first time ever.

Had Romeo been a tourist, newly back from Asia or South America, I might have quizzed him about his travels, assumed some sort of personal transformation. But like many Americans, I categorized the journeys of migrants as matters of economic necessity, neither spiritual nor existential in nature. This is how many migrants, too, imagine their pilgrimages before they leave: they will cross the border, earn some money, have some adventures, then return home to build a house and start a family. Only later do they realize how much more complex their lives have become.

Shortly after Jorge and I arrived in San Pedro and began wandering the roller-coaster inclines of its streets, we ran into Romeo. His eyes seemed to swell at the sight of us. “I didn’t even recognize you,” he said. This was the start of our friendship.

He invited us to his house around the corner. It reflected his relative wealth: two stories, a kitchen with a gas stove, and a big living room with couches. Marketing books from his American college courses sat on wooden shelves. He poured us glasses of watermelon water, fleshy and seed-filled, and his mother and sisters served us rice, potato croquettes, and the standard thick tortillas wrapped in cloth. “They’re going to donate a bull right now,” he said when we’d finished, and proposed that we go see it.

Past some nearby shops and pottery stands, we found the bull, a zebu, tied to a tree by the side of the road. Layers of flesh aproned his neck and chest. His ears were floppy, his eyes sad. A festive bow was fastened around his neck. A migrant in Los Angeles had donated him; he would feed everyone at the fiesta over the next several days.

En route to the church, where the bull would later be blessed, we stopped in at an improvised cantina. A few old men, bleary with beer and mezcal, hunched over some folding tables while younger men clustered outside and observed the intermittent traffic: a mototaxi carrying a woman with an armful of flowers, trucks whose tarp-covered beds were full of campesinos returning home from the fields or arriving from out of town for the fiesta. We sat by the window, and a young guy popped open three Coronas and handed them to us.

Young men at the rodeo, Totontepec Villa de Morelos, Oaxaca

Young men at the rodeo, Totontepec Villa de Morelos, Oaxaca

I asked Romeo what the bull’s donor did in Los Angeles. The man worked with glass, he replied. He was talented with design and color, but earned most of his money from marijuana pipes. “He tells me, ‘I don’t even smoke!’ ” Romeo said.

We were interrupted by the sound of a banda in the distance. (The groups were such a festival commonplace that Jorge and I became accustomed to walking up a hill and seeing the bell of a tuba rising over its crest, followed by a dozen red-cheeked kids playing their way toward breakfast.) We stood and gazed through the windows, picking out between the concrete-and-adobe houses a loose procession of clarinets, cymbals, drums, and horns, followed by señoras with gladioli, then sundry villagers, and then a group of men pulling on ropes, yanking hard against the force of something stubborn and heavy. Two, three, four men with tense faces — and then a second donated bull came into view. Bow around its neck, the animal trotted up to the men as though to taunt them. They retreated to get the ropes tight again, then resumed moving laboriously uphill. Soon the bull thrashed a second time and charged the men, who once again dispersed.

Jorge excused himself to go take photos, and Romeo began speaking to me in English. “You see all of those houses?” he asked. The village hugged a concave stretch of mountainside, its homes perched above cornfields and scattered around the narrow roads. Many were freshly painted — burgundy, canary yellow, pink — and two or three stories tall, with windows taking in the generous view. “They’re almost all empty,” he said. “Built by migrants. . . . Puras casas vacias. Ghost houses.” Men and women working in the United States would send money back to construct expensive homes, then find themselves unwilling or unable to return.

“Do the migrants come back for the fiesta?” I asked.

“Those with papers, yeah,” he said. “But the others, no. It’s too difficult.”

Romeo had spent the previous year working as the village secretary. It was a cargo (literally, “burden”), an obligatory job delegated to him by his pueblo’s assembly under usos y costumbres, in which each citizen ascends a hierarchy of mandatory unpaid civic and religious duties — starting, for example, as a municipal errand runner or policeman and eventually becoming secretary, president, mayordomo (the host of the fiesta), or fiscal de iglesia (church treasurer). Cargos, which last for a year, have in the past been assigned only to men, by men. The more significant ones demanded uncompromising sacrifice.

In Los Angeles, Romeo had worked with a hometown association of fellow migrants from San Pedro. They remitted money for development projects and the fiesta, thereby exempting themselves from cargos and tequios — smaller daily or weekly jobs. In some villages, if a migrant didn’t return to fulfill his cargo, he and his family could be ostracized, his land seized. Romeo had been able to make a life in the United States without losing his place in the village. But it had been a challenge to come back and take on a major cargo right as he was struggling to readjust. Assigning important duties to recent returnees was fairly common in villages in the Sierra. It was a mix of pragmatism — migrants are often the most worldly, enterprising, and educated men in their villages — and revenge against their having pursued destinies elsewhere.

At first Romeo had chafed. He had returned to San Pedro for good on May 10, 2010. When he showed up, a Mother’s Day party was under way. He watched everyone celebrating and felt almost foreign.

“You know how in the U.S., no puedes pasar en la back yard?” he asked me. “You have to go in the street. You can’t walk in the back yard.” He no longer knew San Pedro’s back yards. As a kid he would slink through cornfields, around and behind houses, with the implicit understanding that he was free to do so. Now people saw him as changed, as someone who thought differently, and they were right. But he wanted to be seen as the Romeo Robles who still spoke Zapotec, and who had chosen to come home.

When he began his cargo, he became the center of attention. Everywhere he went he was invited in for a meal, and his resocialization picked up speed. People had to know who he was and why he had come back. Why did he speak Zapotec when he seemed so alien? Why was he so eager to know them after being gone so long?

He started spending time with a group of returned migrants: two men who’d been living in Los Angeles, and several who’d been in big Mexican cities. They were excited by the possibilities, brainstorming small ecotourist ventures, arts programs, scholarships. They started work on a picturesque cabaña in the cloud forest. And they received funding from Oaxaca’s ministry of social development to build a farmacia viva — a garden from which they could make holistic medicines. One of them had a cargo as the commissary of communal lands, and he got a grant from the national forestry commission to plant 25,000 trees.

The biggest initiative Romeo helped push through in his year as secretary was the remodeling of the village’s elementary school, including the construction of a roof over its basketball court. The project had been started fifteen years earlier by the San Pedro hometown association in the United States, and it was completed with the help of Mexico’s three-for-one program, which supplies three dollars of funding for every dollar of migrant investment in infrastructure projects. In 2008, as head of the hometown association, Romeo had put together dances and sold tlayudas and tortas on the streets of Los Angeles. Between this fund-raising and other donations, San Pedro migrants raised $30,000. There would be a ribbon-cutting ceremony the following morning at the primary school.

It began to drizzle. We decided to go see the first bull, now tied up behind the church. A mass was taking place, so we followed the sound of the priest’s monotone, which was being broadcast over the village by a loudspeaker. We passed the bull and took cover from the weather in a small shrine. It was new, with aluminum-framed glass walls. At its back stood the figure of San Pedro, staring solemnly over a flock of wavering candle flames. Beside him was a small gold Virgin. We sat in a corner next to two buckets of yellow wax tailings, and I asked Jorge to tell me about the saint.

“He has the keys to the sky,” he said. “He decides who enters.” The rain outside was quiet and consistent. On a hill above the church sat a cemetery, where bowed villagers adjusted memorials or laid flowers.

Villagers carry flowers in a parade on the morning of the patron saint’s birthday, Totontepec Villa de Morelos, Oaxaca

Villagers carry flowers in a parade on the morning of the patron saint’s birthday, Totontepec Villa de Morelos, Oaxaca

Romeo had chosen to try his luck in the United States after a cousin, Everardo, told Romeo he was planning to cross with his sister, Maricela, who had papers and a job in Los Angeles. “Let’s go to L.A.,” Everardo said. “You’ll make a little money.” The United States was everywhere in San Pedro. Migrants were visiting in new clothes: jeans, Nikes, Starter jackets. They were different, not just in their wealth but in their mannerisms and attitudes. Instead of “Dónde me voy a estacionar?” (“Where am I going to park?”) they asked “Dónde voy a parquear?” They said they were going “a ver movies” or “a ponerse unos jeans,” the foreign terms set like gems amid their Spanish. Romeo didn’t know at the time that they didn’t really speak English, but back then — his eyes widened as he told us the story, emulating his teenage self — “Wow. Me gusta, me gusta.

The day he crossed over, the U.S. Border Patrol had encircled his group of twenty or so migrants as they scrambled up a dusty hill past a fence just outside Tijuana. An agent grabbed his ankle, but Romeo kicked him off and ran. He spent hours roaming the desert before reaching a safe house in San Diego. From there, he made the trip to Los Angeles crammed with seven others into a false compartment in the back of a van.

Maricela worked as a maid at the mansion of Yousuf Tar, the billionaire president of the high-end men’s-fashion company Bernini, and she soon secured jobs for Romeo and Everardo. The Tar Mahal, as it was known locally, had sixteen and a half bathrooms, fifteen bedrooms, a twenty-car garage, a theater with balconies, a cigar room, a fountain, a gazebo, a pool complex, a piazza, a spa, and a koi pond. In 2009, Michael Jackson considered buying it for $38 million; the blog Curbed LA described it as “Marie Antoinette by way of the Sultan [of] Brunei on a Vegas bender.”

Romeo worked there twelve hours a day, six days a week, sweeping floors, washing windows, cleaning bathrooms. He, Everardo, and Maricela lived in the basement with a Salvadoran woman and a German shepherd named Bingo. Romeo earned $500 a month. He had Sundays off but nothing to do with his free time. He felt like he was in jail. So one Sunday morning he walked away from the Tar Mahal and found a job in la costura: the sewing factories, where many migrants wind up. He worked there for seven years, making ten cents per pair of jeans while trying to put himself through school.

Romeo graduated in 2003 from East Los Angeles College with a two-year degree, then attempted to go on to California State University, Los Angeles, to complete a four-year degree. He was kicked out of school when the IRS flagged the Social Security number on his tuition form. Eventually he re-enrolled as an international student, but he couldn’t afford the higher tuition. And then, nine years after he crossed the border, while he was working as a busboy at a billiards bar in Santa Monica, he received a call from Everardo, who said he was going back to Oaxaca. He asked whether Romeo wanted his job as a gardener for a wealthy couple in Pacific Palisades.

The couple eventually took him on full-time, inviting him to live with them and to manage their house and staff. They became like family, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Romeo grew so comfortable in Palisades, and so impervious to neighbors’ stares, that he would skateboard around the empty streets in the afternoons, towed by the family’s Labrador. When his boss discovered that Romeo hadn’t finished school, he helped him apply to Loyola Marymount University and covered his tuition. Romeo graduated with a degree in business administration in 2008.

At LMU, he’d dreamed of being a CEO. But having cleared several significant hurdles, he began to question himself more deeply than he had since arriving, wondering what tied him to the United States, and what he really needed. He had a great job and an education, but he wasn’t happy. Life there was worth it, he decided, if you believed in it. And he no longer believed.

So he left, becoming one of the 1.4 million migrants who returned to Mexico from the United States between 2005 and 2010 — nearly double the number who’d done so between 1995 and 2000. Just two years after he got back, net migration to the United States from Mexico dropped to zero for the first time in four decades.

Before leaving, Romeo tried to pay back his boss.

The man refused and said, “Go and find what you’re looking for.”

A truck came up the narrow cobblestone road to the church and stopped just before the plaza.

“Those are migrants,” said Romeo. “The first thing they do is come to the church.”

The bull was gone, blessed and off to be butchered. We left the grounds and walked toward Romeo’s house. The casa de la mayordomía came into view, a huge, four-story structure whose third floor was level with the street. We could see its kitchen, a cafeteria-style room with a wall of windows opening onto a large patio of poured concrete. Men stood outside, carving out the bull’s viscera. One of the men stretched tight the tissue holding the liver in place, then sliced through it, loosed the organ, and lowered it into a blue bucket. “Look,” Romeo said. “He’s still moving.”

A young man holding the skull of a rodeo bull, San Pedro Cajonos, Oaxaca. Right: A traditional brass band playing “Las Mañanitas.”

Left: A young man holding the skull of a rodeo bull, San Pedro Cajonos, Oaxaca. Right: A traditional brass band playing “Las Mañanitas.”

Later Jorge and I were invited to sit in the dining room of the casa de la mayordomía, eating beef soup elbow to elbow with señoras in thick shawls and men wearing Oakland A’s caps, sipping mezcal against the cold as we looked out at the Sierra. Everywhere we’d gone in these mountains, we’d been met with unquestioning generosity. Only once had I encountered hostility about my home country, over another bowl of beef, when my host, who had just returned from Denver, looked at me with disdain and said, “La vida allá es suave” (“Life there is easy”). His tone was full of accusation.

Allá hay money, no?” he asked. I nodded. “Aquí no hay money,” he said.

It was a hard, essential fact: there is money on one side of the border and not on the other. But still, he had returned for good. He was hosting a meal at his house, feeding the hundreds of people coming in and out while women spooned steaming broth into red clay bowls and brought out tortillas. He carried case after case of beer onto his patio, and apart from the brief moment of tension during our conversation, he seemed relaxed and happy to be where he was. What mattered to him and the other returning migrants was here: the fiesta, the beef soup elbow to elbow, the birthday song “Las Mañanitas” at five a.m. as the sun rose behind the church, the waltzes on a basketball court in the fog, the rain of candy from balconies. “Here, people will always offer you beans,” one migrant told me. “There, if you don’t have your ninety-nine cents, you’re not worth anything.”

Once, I asked Romeo why he’d majored in business. “When I was growing up,” he said, “I wanted to understand how money works. Who makes the money? Old men? I couldn’t understand it. How is it possible that some people have all the money, and they are in charge of giving it to others?”

What he found was “te dan gato por liebre”: they give you cat and tell you it’s hare. They rip you off. He shrugged, then affected the tone of an American man on the street. “What do you do for a living?” he asked.

He replied as himself.

“I’m not doing anything. I’m just living.”

By eleven p.m., the few lights from cantinas and taco stands seemed like oases; households retired into themselves and animals hunkered down. We made our way to Cafeteria Lupita, part funky bar, part cave, part den of oddities: basketball trophies, deer heads, painted masks, dancing-girl figurines. The walls were encrusted with varnished river stones.

Romeo greeted the owner and ordered us micheladas, ice-cold beers spiced with chili, lime, and salsa. We talked about the pizzerias in Venice Beach and how they were full of Oaxaqueños — ones who spoke Zapotec and ones who insisted they’d forgotten how. “Muchos Chicanos,” Romeo said, “don’t want to know their roots. When it comes down to it, you choose where you want to be from. You choose. Family, country, all of that doesn’t matter. There are things that pull on you.” The term he used was “lazo,” which can mean either a lasso or a connection to something or somewhere. Romeo felt a lazo con inglés. He had been drawn in by many things in the United States, he said: the food, the television, the fantasy.

Villagers watching fireworks explode in front of the church, Guelatao de Juárez, Oaxaca

Villagers watching fireworks explode in front of the church, Guelatao de Juárez, Oaxaca

We were interrupted by a man with a thick white bandage wrapped around his head. Romeo stood up, shook hands, and gestured at the bandage.

Qué pasó?

“I got robbed in Oaxaca,” his friend said. “A guy hit me upside the head with a pistol.” He’d spent several days in the hospital; now he was going to the back room to shoot some pool and drink.

Tranquilo,” Romeo said reassuringly. “Nothing can happen to you here. There’s no violence here.” It was true; pueblo life seemed tranquil in the extreme. Too tranquil, one migrant had said to me — verging on stagnant.

Romeo said “tranquilo” with the afterglow of recent conversion in his voice. There was pride in the way he said it — he was showing off for us, talking up his pueblo — but there was also the need to convince himself of the vision of his village he had returned for.

The bandaged friend disappeared through the swinging wooden doors, passing into what was still an essentially male realm. My presence spoke to vast changes in the pueblo; twenty or thirty years ago, a woman, even a foreign woman, in the cantina would have been unthinkable. It was still taboo for women to drink like men, but the migrants took for granted that I could hold my own. They had brought back with them the understanding that it wasn’t unusual in the United States for a woman to drink or have male friends. As one rough-faced former bricklayer told me ruefully, “In your country there are lots of laws to protect women.” Chauvinism is still pervasive in Oaxaca, particularly in rural areas, but returned migrants have helped bring about some stunning advancements. Last June, Romeo and several friends succeeded in persuading the all-male village assembly in San Pedro not only to allow women to vote but also to assign them cargos. The town now has its first female president.

“One more before bed?” Romeo asked.

Jorge assented quickly. “Okay! One more and we’ll call it a night.”

Looking at me, Romeo switched to English.

“You know, I had it all,” he said. “I did it all. I had a college education. I had a good job. I had a car. I had a house. But where do I get my happiness? In Target? In Gap?” He leaned forward now with urgency as the waiter set down three beers.

“I was living in a place where they were living the American dream,” he said. “They had cars, houses, this perfect place! It was una jaula de oro.” A golden cage.

It was a speech, the rhetoric by now perfected. The dream, the disillusionment, the golden cage. Spouted by my compatriots, these were platitudes. But Romeo’s account felt true. America had failed to sustain some deeper sense of spirit. The meaning he sought in Oaxaca, however, was tangled up with the poverty he’d fled. Many returned migrants were as shocked by the corruption, the inefficiencies, and the marginalization they found in Mexico as they’d first been by the scope of cultural difference they’d experienced in the United States. And so they struggled in the in-between, a state the psychiatrist Celia Falicov has called “living with two hearts.”

The cantina’s owner gathered our empties, still caked with ice.

“One more before bed?” Romeo asked.

“One more,” said Jorge.

We awoke the following morning in time to attend the inauguration ceremony for the elementary school’s new basketball court. A stream of bureaucrats extolled the honor and virtue of migrants; the few migrants in attendance stood by awkwardly. Afterward, we went with most of the pueblo to a half-built ghost house where señoras were serving beef barbacoa and champurrado, one of Mexico’s many ancient sustaining beverages made of ground corn. As we ate, Romeo told us there would be a calenda, a parade, at six p.m.

Several years back in the United States had eroded Jorge’s and my awareness of how Mexican time tends to function, so we naïvely showed up at the church at six. At first it looked as though the parade might actually start at the designated hour. Women picked their way uphill, balancing baskets of carefully arranged flowers on their heads, and a group of men held up a towering papier-mâché mona while another man slipped inside. There were two of the costumes — a female figure with traditional braids and a bright-green huipil tunic, and a male with a bumpkin’s grin and a checkered shirt — and they tottered at first, their huge faces leering suddenly at passersby or tipping haughtily upward. Then the men found their rhythm, and the monas swung their hollow arms and moved uphill in time with everyone else. (The costumes pass in the course of a festival from man to man. Once, at a fiesta in Nuevo Zoochiapan, a man’s eye peeked out at me from the fly of a mona’s enormous jeans. “Hola, preciosa,” he said. Later I saw his hand reach out to accept a shot of mezcal.)

Six o’clock came and went. There was a long mass to bless the dancers and initiate the parade, and as night fell a new sermon drifted over the village. Drumbeats rose from the casa de la mayordomía, and in the distance, on black hillsides no longer distinguishable from the sky, the pueblo’s lights brightened and winked.

Finally the mass ended. The villagers brought out the saint and propped him up in the back of a white truck with California plates, and women climbed in after him or assembled behind. Each had a number pinned to her shirt or her flower basket; the best dancer would be awarded a prize.

The languor of the preceding hours had passed. The calenda began swiftly making its way downhill. The first stop was the house where we’d eaten breakfast. The women danced demurely and stoically, one hand on their skirts and the other on the baskets. The crowd watched, dutiful and admiring, until the hands on the baskets reached inside and began chucking dulces. An old lady next to me scavenged hard candies from the concrete with quick hands, shoving them into her apron pockets. “I got one — strawberry!” she said, rubbing her scalp. “But one got me, too.”

Another volley of candies rained down on us, and everyone groped along the ground, trying to bring up suckers in the shape of chickens and beer mugs, rolls of spicy tamarind, and bubblegum and milky caramels.

Then we were all off and marching along to a new house, a new spot in the street, and the cycle repeated.

The next morning, everyone would wake before sunrise and gather at the church. Men would hoist the saint on their shoulders, stepping out into the cold and quiet as the band struck up “Las Mañanitas.” I missed all this, instead sleeping until ten a.m., worn out by the fiesta’s incredible persistence.

I had seen “Las Mañanitas” weeks before, in Totontepec. Carrying flowers, I walked in a slow-moving procession under rising light, past gardens of sour-orange trees and tangled rose bushes. Two old women walked behind me. One was carrying a small green pot made in the village of Arrazola. It was full of burning incense that moved in thin wisps around her face. The women were whispering. “Ave María, protégenos. Ave María, sálvanos,” they were saying. “Hail Mary, protect us. Hail Mary, save us.”

Up ahead, fireworks rocketed into the darkest part of the sky. We rounded a massive rock outcropping, and suddenly the entire Sierra was spread before us as if from behind a magician’s cape: range after range in purple and blue. The sun rose beyond them, as if all the mountains had been rolled out to introduce the morning. The women kept whispering, and a firecracker whinnied and burst at the bottom of the hill. For a moment I was weak-kneed with gratitude: my ego and the earthly swagger of my life, my culture, momentarily hollowed out by a great humility.

We proceeded to the church, where I returned my flowers to a señora to be reused. People poured in, and I hovered at the entrance as the service began and the priest read villagers’ prayers from slips of paper:

“For protection, work, and good health for the Alcantara family.”

“Good health for the Méndez family, and may their children find work.”

“For his work in los Estados Unidos del Norte, may nothing happen to him.”

“May God continue to bless him, even though he is living in Los Angeles, California.”

On the eve of the saint’s birthday, the fiesta in San Pedro moved to the basketball court, which served as the village’s stage, arena, ballroom, arcade, park, and central command. “Quieres bailar?” Romeo asked. We moved onto the court below, not touching as we made our way through the surging crowd, then stopped and faced each other. I put my hands stiffly on his shoulders; he put his lightly on my waist. The band was playing sones y jarabes, which are notoriously difficult to dance to. Every two minutes, the rhythm seemed to change, the steps changing with it: from two steps to three, from front to back, from a sideways twist to a passing embrace. I struggled to keep up, lagging and lurching, and we laughed. “It’s okay, you’re doing fine,” Romeo said. “You’re good.”

We seemed to question each other: How much did he know of my world, and how much did I know of his? El otro lado — the other side — was no longer the dream of escape and dollars but the much more complicated return. Romeo and many of his fellow migrants understood the need for a new way of living, carved from a space between the two worlds: not fully here, in poverty and tradition, and not fully there, in emptiness and wealth. The space between the quick steps our feet made to the sones y jarabes.

The calenda moved on, downhill from the basketball court, across a small river, and up again to the summit of a hill. Eventually, Jorge and I fumbled our way back through the pueblo’s consuming darkness, up the narrow, twisting dirt paths, across the silent yard, and upstairs to our thin mattress and the welcoming poof of our sleeping bags. At three or four, when the night was at its thickest, we heard the calenda go past. The band was still vivid and glorious, the dancing, talking crowd clumped together. A wave of triumphant noise crashed over us in half-sleep, and soon was absorbed by our dreams.

lives in the United States and Mexico. She is the founding editor of Vela, an online magazine of non-fiction writing by women.

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July 2014

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