Ghost Houses, Home to No One

This is the final story of a three-part series.

The aroma of guava and lemon permeate the dusty street, incongruous amid the gray bushes and aged cacti of La Venta, a town in Zapotitlán Salinas, Mexico. On a plot of fertile soil surrounded by railings, broad-leaved banana trees tower over the vibrant fruit garden that surrounds the three-story house of Leticia Rosas-Garcia, a Bronx resident who sent remittances for its construction.

Elena Garcia outside her sister's "ghost house." (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

Elena Garcia outside her sister’s “ghost house.” (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

This house, with its marble floors, arched doorways and white columns, towers above the town’s small, tin-roofed brick houses. Neighbors who peer through the oversize windows can see sun figures sculpted from granite and courtyard walls decorated with varnished river stones in a flower design.

But the house sits empty while Rosas-Garcia, 34, lives in cramped conditions in the Bronx, where she shares an apartment with her husband and baby boy, as well as the families of her brother and sister. The extended family, whose members emigrated from the Mexican province of Puebla, lives in the bustling immigrant neighborhood of Parkchester, which in recent years has seen an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants.

NY Immigrant ExperienceSitting in the living room of her apartment, decorated with onyx handicrafts and embroideries made by her mother, Rosas-Garcia only knows her grand home by description. She has never lived there and – until her immigration status allows her to travel – will never visit.

“My mom tells me that the fruit from my garden rots each season,” Rosas-Garcia said in Spanish. “No one enjoys it.”

In the mid-1990s, Mexico’s economic crisis led to the devaluation of the peso and sparked a fever among immigrants to build luxury houses in their home towns.

“Cinderblock houses with multiple rooms, cement roofs, and elaborate wrought iron decoration replaced simple adobe dwellings with tin roofs,” wrote Alison Elizabeth Lee, in a 2006 paper for The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California, San Diego. “Sofas, china cabinets, and dining room sets were routinely purchased to furnish the newly built houses, while stereos, televisions, and VCRs adorned entertainment centers prominently displayed for guests.”

But today, many of these buildings remain vacant, and are known locally as “casas fantasma” or “ghost houses.” Some immigrants worry that they will never have the chance to enjoy the homes they have built. Without legal immigration status, many immigrants cannot return to Zapotitlan Salinas to enjoy their luxurious homes.

Not all the homes built by immigrants stand empty. Carmen Contreras, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 15, managed to save enough money from her job waitressing to build a modest home for her mother, Amalia Contreras, 40.

Consisting of two small rooms made of concrete block and a mixture of cement, grit and quicklime, the house is hardly luxurious. The unpainted doors and windows do not have glass, and plastic sheeting protects the family from the cold.

Amalia Contreras outside the house her daughter helped her to build. (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

Amalia Contreras outside the house her daughter helped her to build. (Photo by Zaira Cortés)

Still, this is a step up, said Amalia Contreras, who works in the salt springs. She said her salary of less than $40 a week would not be enough to build a decent home.

“For years we lived in a small tin shack,” she said. “On rainy nights, we could not sleep because the roof leaked so badly that water rose to our knees. My daughter helped improve our lives.”

For Leticia Rosas-Garcia, the dream of returning to her family to live in the graceful house she built in La Venta is seeming increasingly elusive. In La Venta, Elena Garcia, Leticia’s 21-year-old sister, operates a beauty salon out of her sister’s ghost house, but she laments the fact that no one sleeps in the house’s grand bedrooms.

“Immigrants in New York are poor, while in this town luxury abounds,” she said. “But families are not able to enjoy the fruits of their efforts.”

Zaira Cortés is a reporter at El Diario/La Prensa

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