San Martin Peras

San Martin Peras
Two women approach a long line of people waiting to receive government funding in San Martin Peras, Oaxaca.

"There's no one here anymore"

"There's no one here anymore"
Bernardino Salvador Hernandez sits near the plaza in San Martin Peras. His son and four grandchildren live in Salinas, California.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

“No hay trabajo”

There is no work here, they say. This is the refrain in San Martin Peras. The old men say it. So do the young men with families and the women. I ask if they have been to the United States. It is hard to find anyone who hasn’t.

The talk turns to California cities; yes, they say, we used to live in Watsonville. Some say Salinas. Others say Oxnard. In fact, San Martin Peras is a kind of ground zero for migration; last year the municipality produced the largest number of migrants in the state of Oaxaca.

People here tell stories of sleeping in water storage tanks and crawling like snakes past border checkpoints to arrive in the United States. In La Escopeta, a town about an hour’s drive from San Martin Peras, I visit the home of Guadalupe Bernardino Perea Salazar, who is weaving strands of plastic together to make little birds in shades of red and white. Guadalupe is just visiting; he lives half the year in Ciudad Juarez. He will sell these birds later to gringos who come to Cuidad Juarez looking for a quick slice of Mexico.

His son, Marcelino, tells me he picked blackberries for two months in California. He doesn’t plan to go back. Now he complains that the government doesn’t do enough to help create jobs at home. That would keep people here, he says.

“The government doesn’t care about the migrants,” Marcelino says. He motions toward an adobe house where light filters through quarter-size holes in the roof. “My mother wants you to take pictures of her house so the government will help us.”

Genaro Perea Gonzalez, the mayor of San Martin Peras, points out that migration is nothing new in this part of Oaxaca. For years, people have gone to work in the fields of Ensenada or Sinaloa. In the last 20 years, they ventured further north. Genaro estimates that about 70 percent of the migrants that go the U.S. return to San Martin Peras, 20 percent stay in the U.S. Only ten percent never leave, he says.

“We have always gone to other places to look for work,” he says. “What we have here is corn and beans. We just have enough to survive.”

Fresh meat

I woke up Friday morning at 7 a.m. to find six people in my bedroom, including a tiny old woman speaking Mixteco and waving a big slab of beef within inches of my face. And this wasn’t even the most unusual part of my stay in San Martin Peras.

But back to the beef. It all started when I arrived on Tuesday morning. Alejandro Perea, the cousin of a woman I know from Watsonville, California, picked me up at 7 a.m. in his taxi from my hotel in the slightly larger city of Juxtlahuaca. We then bounced our way on rocky dirt roads toward San Martin Peras, a distance of about 25 miles that takes nearly an hour and a half. These are not roads for the timid. There are no rails, no dividing lines. Great big clouds of tan dust obscure the road as it winds through a series of tiny mountain towns.

As we pull into town, there is a small stretch of paved road. Alejandro stops the taxi, now covered in dust, next to a crude sign that says, “gasolina.” This is home.

Alejandro and his wife Florencia have five children. They live in the same complex of half-finished concrete and adobe rooms as Alejandro’s mother Augustina and four other grandchildren. Augustina is taking care of her son’s children while they are in “el otro lado,” which means Oxnard, California. She has been taking care of them for the last three years.

This is what you notice about San Martin Peras. Old women with flowered skirts and lined faces. And children. As Alejandro tells me when we arrive in town, everyone else is gone.

Alejandro and Florencia returned from the U.S. a few years back, after three years spent picking strawberries in Watsonville. Like many other families in San Martin Peras, they put their savings toward a new concrete home and a car. For extra money, Florencia makes grape jello that she sells in little plastic cups to children in the town center. Alejandro begins work at about 5 a.m. and doesn’t come home until evening. At night, neighbors knock on the door to buy gasoline from the plastic tanks that Alejandro stacks in the corner of the kitchen.

Within five minutes of my arrival, Florencia brings out bowls of turkey in a dark mole sauce and fresh tortillas. We are in the family’s kitchen, one small room made from adobe with a dirt floor. The next room over is a new addition, a three-room concrete home constructed with the money they earned from working in the U.S.

Here in the kitchen there is a small wood table and two chairs. The children circle to mop up the sauce from Alejandro’s plate. At first, they are shy. Then, emboldened, they stare at the camera and speak to me in Mixteco. None of the children speak Spanish, except ten-year old Anahi, the eldest.

After we eat, Alejandro and I drive to San Jose. About ten minutes away, San Jose is a small community of about a dozen homes perched on the side of a hill. This is where Margarita Mendoza lives.

Margarita is the mother of Isidro Juarez, Alejandro’s cousin-in-law, who has lived in Watsonville for the last seven years. In a one-room shack with one double bed, Margarita lives with four of her grandchildren. Their parents have also gone to “El Norte.”

I am carrying with me a letter from Isidro for his mother. In a plain envelope, there is $200, a short note and photos of his three children. Alejandro reads aloud the note that Isidro’s daughter Erica wrote to her grandmother. In it, Erica writes in Spanish that she misses her grandmother and that she loves her very much. Margarita does not know how to read and she does not speak Spanish. She looks at the pictures and smiles.

And so, when I come back to Alejandro’s home on Thursday afternoon and find a bag of warm, fresh meat on my bed courtesy of Margarita Mendoza, it is tough to explain why I would prefer not to lug two kilos of beef in my backpack to California. It will go bad, I tell them. It will not dry in time. This seems the most judicious explanation.

So instead, we eat one hunk of the meat for dinner. Florencia laughs as I try to chew the tough meat and shows me how to tear it into bite-sized beef jerky bits, then roll the pieces in bites of tortilla.

Back to Friday morning. Margarita had returned to San Martin Peras to pick up this piece of meat, the one she is now waving within inches of my face. There is a quick conversation in Mixteco, laughter, a final wave of meat and Margarita leaves. I ask Florencia why Margarita was laughing and she says, “She said you don’t understand anything she says.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Connections in Juxtlahuaca

I left Oaxaca Sunday morning via what is called here a "Suburban," basically the term for van travel. Along with ten others, I took the two hour trip to Huajuapan, then changed for another Suburban for the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Juxtlahuaca.

On the second leg of the trip, I was alone with the driver, a guy in his early twenties who had recently returned from working construction and restaurant jobs near Stockton, California. Working 15 hours a day, Rodrigo Quiros told me he was able to send about $1,000 a month back to his wife and three children. "In one year, where I am going to earn $50,000 pesos around here? Not even in two or three years," he said.

Juxtlahuaca is the kind of place where worlds collide. There are at least ten internet cafes. There are also dogs barking from rooftops and piles of watermelon in the street. I am definitely the only American in town.

With the help of my journalist friends in Oaxaca, I arrived in Juxtlahuaca with the cell phone number of the president municipal here (the equivalent of the mayor). I left a message, but didn´t speak to him directly. Hours later, already settled into my hotel room and watching CSI en español, a little boy knocks on my door. My uncle is waiting for you downstairs, he tells me.

Before I know it, I am sitting in the living room of Carlos Martinez´home, along with about 20 members of his extended family. The main topic of conversation is the size of Mexican families, as more and more cousins trickle into the room and Martinez jokes about the number of pregnant women in his family.

He offers to drive me around town in his red pickup truck, pointing out the number of businesses that line the street here, many still open at 9:00 p.m. on Easter Sunday. "Look, another business, and another and another," he says. It is remarkable, especially considering that this area is one of the biggest source of migrants to the United States. Of course, that is exactly why so many small businesses are thriving here. "All of this comes from the migrants," Martinez says. "If it weren´t for them, none of this would be here."

Outside what looks like a small arena in the center of town, we drive by a line of men in the street. They are waiting for a cock fight to begin. A savvy politician, Martinez tells me I should bring my camera. We get out of the pickup and approach the men, but they say the fight between roosters won´t start for another two hours. Sort of relieved, I head back to the hotel.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Semana Santa in Oaxaca

I spent Thursday and Friday visiting markets, wandering around churches and watching the processions in honor of Semana Santa (Holy Week). The silent procession through town on Friday night lasts for about an hour, as barefoot and hooded men lift wooden crosses and others carry statues depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

On Friday afternoon, I met with two journalists from Televisa, the largest television station in Mexico. Juan Manuel Vignon, a hilarious older reporter who has covered Oaxaca for 18 years, said the federal government’s economic development efforts in the Mixteca region, where I am headed this weekend, have been sporadic at best. “Compra la coche , pero no la gasolina” (They’ll buy the car, but not the gas).

On Saturday, I spent the day with Yamilet, one of the Televisa reporters who has been a tremendous help with showing me around and setting up contacts in Juxtlahuaca. We visited the small town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, famous for its “barro negro” or black clay. Valentino Nieto Real, a 79-year old potter, showed us each step of the process made famous fifty years ago by his mother, Doña Rosa. His shop has become so famous, in fact, that it is lined with photos of the family with Nelson Rockefeller, Luis Miguel and Jimmy Carter. On each street in San Bartolo different families sell hundreds of variations on the black clay pottery; Valentino told us that 60 percent of the population make a living from pottery.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The road to Oaxaca

There are little moments that hit you when you are sitting on a bus for six hours. An hour from Mexico City, an old woman and a little boy walk alongside six or seven goats. Three hours later, a man in a cowboy hat lines up bright red plastic dump trucks on the side of the highway, with no town in sight. Outside the town of Nochixlan, the walls have been whitewashed, but you can still see the graffiti: “Get out Ulises,” a remnant of the 2006 political turmoil in Oaxaca. The landscape changes from dry brush to pine forest to hulking mountains and back to dry brush. There are cacti that look like trees and others that look like long stalks poking through the dirt.

I am traveling on a first class bus to Oaxaca, which means the air conditioning is on full-blast and movies play constantly: The Gospel, Pirates of the Caribbean II and Brittanica. No one on the bus seems to be watching.

I arrive in Oaxaca at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday and head to my hotel, a very basic room in the center of the city. For dinner, I stop at one of the many restaurants surrounding the zócalo, where couples dance to live music. Little kids run around with massive balloons and women sell candied nuts and chocolates from baskets on their heads. The place is packed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mexico City days

After three productive days in Mexico City, I am headed by bus to Oaxaca on Wednesday morning. I have had a remarkable experience here so far, staying in a beautiful historic area called Coyoacan and meeting a number of excellent foreign correspondents and Mexican journalists. So far, consensus on the Oaxaca story: less space, time and the diminishing number of correspondents in Mexico City mean fewer in-depth investigative pieces that delve deep into these kinds of immigration stories. As longtime San Diego Union Tribune correspondent S. Lynne Walker pointed out, the goal for writers covering immigration is not more of what she called “sob sister” stories, but a new twist on a big story that is just not going away.

There hasn’t been much time for sight-seeing, but I did visit the massive Mexico City cathedral, the oldest and largest in Latin America. On Sunday, women wove palm leaves into crosses outside the cathedral and people lined up for blessings by bare-chested healers in the zócalo nearby. Today, I stopped in at the Museo Frida Kahlo, the famous blue house where the artist lived and worked in Coyoacan, which features very little of her own art but a good view into her daily life.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Welcome to my blog

I write this from a library at Stanford University, where I am a graduate student studying journalism this year. Look out in the next few weeks for reports on the road from Mexico, where I will be examining how journalists are covering emigration from the southern state of Oaxaca, as well as reporting on a few stories of my own.