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Part 3: Poverty drives migrants north

Sunday, 2 September 2001 15:28 (ET)

Part 3: Poverty drives migrants north By IAN CAMPBELL, UPI Economics Correspondent

(Part 3 of UPI's 14-part Mexico-U.S. immigration series)

QUERETARO, Mexico (UPI) -- Consider their lives. No need for names of people or places; each is one among many: millions of people; thousands of places.

She is a woman of about 30. Her short, thin body speaks of childhood malnutrition. Her pueblo has a couple of hundred basic houses, a church, a small school and a handful of lightly provisioned shops. She takes the bus at 7 a.m. to bring herself and her 10-year-old daughter to town. The journey takes one hour and costs 10 pesos ($1.10) each way.

She leaves her daughter at school and works as a maid from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and on Saturday mornings. For this she earns 350 pesos a week, about $39 at the current, unusually strong, rate of the Mexican peso. The bus takes 120 of these pesos, more than a third of her earnings, leaving her with 230 pesos ($25) for a week's work. And yet the bus does not get her all the way home. Each day there is only one direct bus from the town to her pueblo; it leaves at 7 p.m. And so on the way home she takes a different bus and walks for half an hour with her daughter to reach the pueblo.

Walking is still a main means of transport in the poor villages. Take the family of another, younger woman, still a teenager, who also travels to and cleans in the town and earns 350 pesos per week. Her parents walk two hours each morning to reach their own plot of land where they grow corn and beans. She, for her part, has little education or opportunity to advance herself. She left the village school at 13 so that she could bring some money to the family. Two of her older brothers have gone: to the United States.

The town to which both young women commute is relatively prosperous. Historic, safe and known for its spa waters, it attracts wealthy visitors at weekends from Mexico City, two hours away by car. Their capital city money flows into the town.

There is another good source of income in the area: industry in a second, more workmanlike town 10 miles away. Export-oriented companies there employ many, including English-speaking salesmen, managers and accountants. These educated, middle-class Mexicans, like the weekend visitors to the area from Mexico City, want maids and cooks and gardeners. The pueblos of the mountains around supply them. The stream of money trickles slowly uphill and irrigates the mountain villages barely.

Take another individual from the many. He, a strongly built man of about 30, works in construction. He is paid around 100 pesos ($9) per day and works six days per week if the work is there. Thus he earns 600 pesos, about $66, per week. It's enough to eat well, he says, and look after his children, but not more. You can't get yourself a nice house, he says, waving at the house he is helping to build.

Previously he worked in the United States, in North Carolina, in construction or in factories. There he earned $10 to $13 per hour, more than he earns in Mexico in a day.

He got to the United States by walking for three days in the desert. It was very tough and a little frightening, he says. He crossed the border near Reynosa, wading the Rio Bravo, carrying food and water above his head. He paid a so-called coyote $1,500 to help him get across. How did he raise that much money? "You can't here," he says. "You have to have family already in the United States. I have some there."

Why did he return and not remain with the family bridgehead? The money was good but he did not like the United States so much. There was a lot of crime and drugs in the area in which he had to live. His home area in Mexico, to which he has returned, has little crime and hardly any violence. He preferred to be near his family in Mexico. "After all, it's your own country," he says.

Could he not find better-paid work in one of the big towns, Mexico City or Guadalajara? "Bad people," he says. Crime flourishes among the poor areas of the big towns. He wants to live in safety.

How do Mexicans get by? Do $30 or $60 go further in Mexico than in the United States? The answer is yes and no. Most foods -- corn tortillas, beans, bread, meat, vegetables, fruit -- are cheaper than in the United States. Medical care costs much less. But cars cost more in Mexico than in the United States, as does gasoline, and a good house in a safe area may cost just as much to buy or rent as one in a similarly safe area in the United States.

For those who are not in the wealthy, well-paid elite, what hope is there?

Education is crucial. But public education suffers from a lack of qualified teachers and keeping a teenage child in school costs a poor family an income, even if it is meager.

To send a child to private school will cost $2,000 or more per year: far beyond the reach of the vast majority of Mexicans.

This is a society, then, with little opportunity or social mobility. With work, you can get by. But there is not enough work to go round. And you can never get very far.

It leaves one route ahead: go north. Cross the river to where money flows not in trickles but a flood. The poorest-paid jobs there offer hope.

Whatever obstacles are put in their way they will keep coming, numberless individuals from innumerable pueblos, all seeking simply to better themselves, until opportunity flows in Mexico.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 05, 2001

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