During a recent visit to Guanajuato, I again appreciated the conditions of life in large areas of rural Mexico. Much remains unchanged, like the adobe walls that continue to shelter life.
The tamales, tortillas and gorditas are still made from the maize, cooked on an open fire, also fed by the mazorcas, or corn husks. The chatter of chickens, cows, pigs, dogs and a passing horse; the noises and odors saturate the air.
And the voices of children are like the songs of the many birds. Their calls and laughter are everywhere as they run and play in the dirt, under trees and in rocky fields. Much of the older youth, those of college age, must move to larger cities for study and work. The desperate choose the dangerous journey north to join their elders. In some ranchos, or small communities, almost 50% of the homes lay vacant, windows and doors sealed, the occupants unable or unwilling to return.
Increased enforcement along the treacherous borders and the cost of the “coyotes” have made it nearly impossible for workers to come and go for family emergencies and holidays, as they have done in the past. Officials estimate more than 5,000 deaths in 10 years or double the yearly number of deaths since the advent of increased border security. This does not reflect the large number of those who would never be found.
Families live in an endless state of separation, which casts deep shadows of estrangement between fathers, mothers and children. Despite the money transfers, they struggle to resist a sense of abandonment. Children might recall at age seven seeing their father leave, then years later, after Quinceaneras and graduations, they prepare to start their own families.
The flow of remittances from the United States has plunged, leaving piles of blocks and lumber meant for construction projects that lay incomplete. It is noted by every storekeeper, welder, laborer and wife, as each tries to make do with less. For many, that is all the family has to live on, especially in the winter months as they await the harvest of corn, wheat, garbanzos and sorghum.
One field of corn has just come in, and my father-in-law, Ruben Ramirez, proudly displays the 60 sacks of kernels that they husked by hand. The warehouses pay little and store the corn, eventually selling it back to the families who grew it, or to the tortillerias, which provide the round flat staple of life.
Ramirez represents a generation of laborers who helped build the prosperity that we still enjoy here, despite the current economic times. They are heroes, whose lives span an era of dramatic changes that includes world wars, endless regional conflicts over oil and empire, “friendly” and hostile U.S. presidents and the seeds of prosperity nested in fields of opportunity and, for some, betrayal.
Ramirez speaks with pride of providing his labor to U.S. agriculture when he came to work under the Bracero Act. He recalls with great sadness the news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Despite having been a rural police officer or “Judicial,” Comisario and Delegado, important political positions in rural communities, he looks forward to no retirement or other income security. At 84 years old, he continues to plow the fields, plant and bring in the harvest.
Half of the Ramirez children are still etching out a living in Guanajuato never far from Rancho Ramirez. Ruben, Theresa, Lupe and Irma (my wife) have made their homes and raised their families in the United States. During the holidays, they give thanks for the fortunes that life has provided, although it has not come without great sacrifices and hard work. They are constantly reminded that each of them made the same perilous journey here with no legal status and faced the same uncertainties that confront more than 12 million of their compatriots.
On May 1, 2010, we join thousands of other immigrants in the struggle for just and humane immigration reform. The expression of reform eludes us, as some define it narrowly, with terms like “increased border security” and “guest workers,” fines and a draconian biometric ID card. I prefer to describe it as an emancipation of modern-day slaves who only seek to provide for their families in a fair exchange of their labor. It is too late to send them back, and as long as there is no clear, defined path to legalization, there will be many more willing to risk their lives for this ambiguous dream.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.