Letter from Oaxaca — From the July 2014 issue

Good Pilgrims

Why Mexican immigrants are moving back home

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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.

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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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October 2019


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