Treasures Lost to Immigration: Young People, Old Skills

Video by Zara Katz and Jane Teeling

Second of a three-part series.

Sitting in a corner of Europan Café on Seventh Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan, Angelo Cabrera, a community organizer who lives in the Bronx, lifted his shirt to show a scar on his torso. The jagged gash stretched from his lower abdomen to his chest.

NY Immigrant ExperienceThe result of an accident with a saw used to cut the onyx stone of Cabrera’s hometown in Mexico, the scar is a reminder of a childhood spent working too hard in dark places, sometimes even literally underground.

“The saw hit me when I was cutting onyx in my dad’s workshop,” Cabrera explained. “I approached it from too far and I lost control of the machine.”

At the age of 10, Cabrera started working in his father’s workshop in San Antonio Texcala, a town located midway between Zapotitlán Salinas and Tehuacan, where he would cut and polish onyx.

The stone quarries produced granite for construction, small onyx pieces used in the manufacture of mosaic flooring, onyx blocks to make jewelry and handicrafts, and marble used in bathrooms.

Workers at a stone quarry near San Antonio Texcala. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

Workers at a stone quarry near San Antonio Texcala. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

The dangerous, back-breaking work of mining and carving onyx sustained the local economy in San Antonio Texcala and its neighboring municipality, Zapotitlán Salinas, since the 1960s. But the appearance in the 1990s of cheaper Chinese-made stone handicrafts left local artisans unable to compete, and drove many of the former onyx workers to New York in search of income.

Cabrera, who immigrated when he was 15, found his work conditions in New York hardly better than they had been back home.

“Although I was a kid, I worked as an adult, locked in the basement of a supermarket in the Bronx,” he said. “The American dream was not pretty.”

But it was then that the seeds of a new ambition began to take root in Cabrera. Through a window looking up at the street, he watched children with their book bags walk by on their way to school.

“Seeing them,” he recalled, “I understood that education was the only way to become free.”

A friend helped Cabrera escape from the supermarket, and he went on to finish high school and college, then a Masters in Public Administration at Baruch’s School of Public Affairs. As part of a 2001 campaign focused on attaining the right for undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, Cabrera and others went on a hunger strike. He went on to found Masa, a group that advocates for the educational needs of Mexican Americans. He has received several awards, including the American Dreamer Award in April 2013, awarded by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Miguel Cabrera, with some of his onyx carving work. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

Miguel Cabrera, with some of his onyx carving work. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

Back in San Antonio Texcala, Cabrera’s mother, Irma Rodriguez, 64, flicked through her treasured album, filled with the photos and New York newspaper clippings that tell her son’s success story. Her husband, Miguel Cabrera, 63, proudly thrust forward a photograph of his son with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

An experienced onyx and marble craftsman, Miguel explained that in the last 20 years most of the local onyx craft shops have closed, with only seven remaining in operation out of the more than 100 that used to fill San Antonio Texcala. There is no one to carry on the artisanal traditions of the region.

“Our town is empty of young people,” Miguel Cabrera said. “Only children and senior citizens remain. There is no one that can inherit our traditional skills of working rocks and transforming them into beautiful art pieces… Before the migration started, you could hear machines working rocks everywhere. Now only silence reigns, and the streets are empty.”

Puebla’s Amnesty International office estimates that 15 towns in six municipalities in the southeastern part of the State of Puebla are becoming “ghost towns,” because of the high rate of immigration, including Zapotitlán Salinas, San Luis Temalacayuca, Coyomeapan and San José Miahuatlán.

As well as being dangerous and exhausting, the onyx business is punishingly expensive to enter. A ton of rock costs $100 to $200, depending on the color.

Creating artisanal pieces – lamps, decorative guitars and vases, for example – can take several days, depending on its size and style. More elaborate pieces fetch higher prices, but many artisans only sell small pieces for around $4 each to craft stores, who resell them at higher prices to tourists.

The onyx industry is unlikely to see a revival, wrote the anthropologist Alison Elizabeth Lee in a 2006 paper for The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California, San Diego.

“While the quarries and the success of the first workshops stimulated the industry’s growth,” she wrote, “the rising cost of electricity, primary material, and labor combined with shrinking markets for onyx products and the migration of the labor force led to the eventual decline of the industry.”

Cheaper replacements began to take the place of the stone products made in this part of Mexico, Lee explained.

“The market for all stone trophy bases eventually contracted when trophy producers substituted wood for stone in trophy manufacture,” she wrote. “In parallel fashion, ceramic tile floors substituted for floors made from blocks of cut onyx and onyx fragments, and plastic and metal wind chimes imported from China replaced onyx wind chimes.”

Manuel Barragan hopes to immigrate to America. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

Manuel Barragan hopes to immigrate to America. (Photo By Zaira Cortés)

Some craftsmen and artisans say that they rarely make more than $45 a week these days. Work in the quarries is not better paid. Despite the risk of explosions, falls and landslides, the men that extract the stone only make $50 to $100 a week, according to some workers.

“Tourists do not want to pay what we deserve,” Miguel Cabrera said.

That’s why so many young people, including 18-year-old Manuel Barragan, who has worked in the quarry for two years, hope to follow in the footsteps of Angelo Cabrera and others, and immigrate to New York.

“I’m saving to leave,” said Barragan with a shy smile. “I do not want to grow old in this poor town. I want to earn dollars to build my house and buy a nice car.”

Having made that migration to the U.S., Angelo Cabrera finds himself mourning the loss of the skills his father taught him as a young man.

“The craftsmanship of onyx is beautiful, and is worthy of exhibiting in museums or art galleries,” he said. “Experienced artisans could offer classes in universities.”

That is, he said, “if they were not so busy working more than 48 hours in the restaurants of the Bronx.”

Zaira Cortés is a reporter at El Diario/La Prensa

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