Puebla to the Bronx: Three Decades of Exodus

photo by Zaira Cortés

Photo by Zaira Cortés

Part one of a three-part series.

As she fanned the small fire of ocote pine that she uses to heat her coffee at dawn, Rosalia Rosas complained about the birds that peck at the red cactus fruit, xoconostle, in her garden in the desert town of La Venta, in the region of Zapotitlán Salinas. Water is scarce in this part of the state of Puebla, and maintaining a garden on this bleak hill is expensive.

NY Immigrant ExperienceAt 75, Rosas and her husband, Juan Garcia, 74, depend financially on their sons and daughter, who live in the Bronx. But although she welcomes the biweekly checks that arrive from New York, Rosas sighed deeply when she spoke of how far away her children must live to earn their living.

“I gave birth to 10 children,” she explained in Spanish, pulling the smoke-stained shawl she uses to cover her head tighter to keep out the morning’s chill. “Four daughters live in nearby towns. The other six went to New York. And one died there years ago.”

The pungent smell of wet earth slipped through the rickety kitchen door, made ​​of woven wire and wooden rods. Outside, the family dog barked franticly at workers heading to the nearby onyx quarry, tramping through the biznaga cacti and thorny bushes on dense, rocky trails.

photo by Zaira Cortés

Photo by Zaira Cortés

Until the 1980s, La Venta – like other towns in Zapotitlán Salinas – got by on the sale of goats, handicrafts made with palm leafs, and onyx products, as well as salt production using a 2,000-year-old evaporation technique handed down from the indigenous Popoloca people. Over the last three decades, however, the exodus of working-age people from Zapotitlán Salinas – many of them bound for New York City – has transformed La Venta, leaving less than 100 residents wandering empty streets lined with shuttered businesses.

It all started in 1984, said Juan Garcia. That year, Garcia recalled, his 20-year-old nephew, Luis Garcia, left his job at the onyx quarry and emigrated with his brother-in-law, a man from another town who had crossed the border several times to work in restaurants in the Bronx.

A year later, Luis, who other residents also describe as the first immigrant from La Venta, financed the trip of his two brothers, who had also worked in the onyx quarry.

“Soon it became a chain reaction,” Garcia said. “Luis and his brothers took their cousins, and those in turn took other family members.”

At first, small groups of around five people would leave Zapotitlán Salinas, but soon the town’s young people were streaming across the border, said Juan Garcia. By the late 1980s, the onyx artisan shops began to feel the effects of a shrinking labor force, crippling the already precarious local economy.

In October 2003, not even 20 years after Luis Garcia left for the Bronx, one town in Zapotitlan Salinas provided an illustration of the demographic shift. A study found that 2,713 people lived in the town, Zapotitlán, and an estimated 500 to 700 townspeople – equivalent to about a quarter of the town’s current population – lived in the United States, mostly in New York City. The survey, by the anthropologist Alison Elizabeth Lee of The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, also found that of 142 households, 62 included at least one person with U.S. migration experience.

photo by Zaira Cortés

Photo by Zaira Cortés

By 2010, a census by the government group Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía found that between 2,500 to 3,000 people from the region of Zapotitlán Salinas – the equivalent of a third of the population of the region’s population of 8,220 – had immigrated to the U.S. in the last 25 years.

Most of these immigrants from Zapotitlán Salinas send money home, but they must earn it in the shadows of the U.S. economy. Almost all – 98 percent – of U.S. immigrants from Zapotitlán Salinas do not have legal immigration status, according to a study released in 2011 by the Universidad de las Américas Puebla.

As the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate last year languishes in the House of Representatives, families split by economic migration see little hope of a reunion anytime soon. The Senate bill, which would have offered millions a path to legalizing their status and, eventually, U.S. citizenship, has seen fierce opposition from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.

Angelo Cabrera, a co-founder of the Mexican American Students’ Alliance and himself a Bronx resident, said the vast majority of his fellow immigrants from this region of Mexico live in Parkchester, Castle Hill and Zerega in the Bronx.

“The first immigrants came to the Bronx, and later brought their families and established a large community,” Cabrera said. “Some of these immigrants became business people, owning bodegas, auto repair shops and barbershops.”

For some of those left behind in Zapotitlán Salinas, the benefits of this economic migration seem doubtful. Uninhabited “Ghost Houses” built by immigrants crumble and molder. The onyx industry that once defined this region has collapsed, and the skills that generations of workers handed down are disappearing. And for families divided by thousands of miles, the pain of prolonged separation leads to guilt and resentment for both those who stay and those who leave.

Natividad Garcia (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

Natividad Garcia (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

In La Venta, Natividad Garcia brushed aside a lock of hair matted to her forehead with sweat as she toasted pumpkin seeds in her kitchen, with its corroded beams and tin roof. An old radio covered in grime and dust played boleros and rancheras from the fifties.

“In this town, all households have someone living in New York City,” she said. “Many say that it is pretty there, but the beauty does not extend to those who remain here.”

Garcia, 53, is the sister of Luis, whose departure in the 1980s is said to have opened the floodgates of migration. Three of her four adult children live in the Bronx, Garcia said, while she cares for her youngest daughter and teenage grandson.

“I do not know New York, but it outrages me,” she said. “It’s as if the city had magnets pulling our people, and taking them forever.”

Zaira Cortés is a reporter at El Diario/La Prensa


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