Letter from Oaxaca — From the July 2014 issue

Good Pilgrims

Why Mexican immigrants are moving back home

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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.

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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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