Cross Purposes- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Cross Purposes

Mexican immigrants are defying expectations in this country-and changing the landscape back home

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Yet many Poblanos in the United States illegally are willing to risk apprehension; for those here legally, of course, visiting Mexico and reentering the United States poses few problems. “People from my hometown are constantly going back and forth,” says Jesús Pérez Méndez, who was born in Tulcingo de Valle, Puebla, and is now an academic adviser at CUNY. Poblanos finance their round trips by acting as couriers, or paqueteros, for clothes, electronic goods and other gifts sent by immigrants to relatives in Puebla. Between visits to their villages, Poblanos keep in touch through discount phone cards, email or Web sites. It was after listening to a live Internet radio broadcast on that I decided to fly to Mexico to assess the effects of this symbiotic relationship for myself.

The sierra mixteca, a mountain chain, stretches across the southern portion of the state of Puebla. For much of the year, the region is hot and arid, with yellow grass blanketing farm plots and giant organ cactus spiking the hillsides. But I arrive in June, during the rainy season. In the morning mist, the mountains appear almost tropically lush, their buttes and crags cloaked in green. Dry riverbeds have roared back to life. Purple-blossomed jacaranda and red-flowered colorín trees adorn the roadsides, while bananas and mangos ripen in backyard orchards. Fat goats and cattle waddle onto the highway, forcing drivers to brake and lean on their horns. Turkey vultures circle overhead, looking for roadkill—dogs, armadillos and especially iguanas.

But the Sierra Mixteca has also undergone dramatic transformations that have nothing to do with rain. In Piaxtla, most of the 1,600 inhabitants are either children or older adults. “Maybe three out of four of my constituents live in New York,” says Manuel Aquino Carrera, the town’s mayor. The cash they send home each month can be seen in new brick houses with satellite television dishes on their roofs. “As a child, I could count on my fingers the houses that were made of brick and concrete,” says Aquino, 40. “Everything else was palm-thatched adobe.” Many of the new houses sit empty, occupied only during summer months or at Christmas.

Efforts to create jobs that might keep younger adults in the Sierra Mixteca have largely foundered. In 2001, Jaime Lucero, the New Jersey-based clothing magnate and Piaxtla’s most illustrious son, opened a factory in the Puebla town of El Seco; the facility employs more than 2,500 workers. He planned to open five more plants, but says he hasn’t been able to do so. “So many young people have emigrated,” he says, “that there isn’t enough labor to set up another plant.”

Emigration has also hit Puebla’s long tradition of artisanry—ceramics, woodwork and weaving. Folk art pieces are increasingly mass-produced, and master craftsmen despair of passing on their skills. “Most young people aren’t willing to work the long, lonely hours, and for something that with few exceptions is badly paid,” says César Torres Ramírez, 52, one of Puebla’s leading ceramists. Although his exquisitely glazed plates and vases—embellished with feathery blue patterns and animal motifs—win national awards, to make a living Torres must work from dawn to sunset six days a week in a small home studio.

“These master artisans are an endangered species,” says Marta Turok Wallace, a Mexico City anthropologist who runs Amacup, a cooperative that connects Mexican artisans with collectors, interior designers and retailers. Turok and her colleagues try to locate and encourage younger artists, such as Rafael Lopez Jiménez, 20, a mask-maker in Acatlán de Osorio, a 45-minute drive east of Piaxtla.

Lopez is self-taught in a profession that tends to be handed down from one generation to the next through long apprenticeships. His grandfather, Efrén Jiménez Ariza, sculpted wooden jaguar masks but failed to interest his own children in the craft. Lopez was only 6 when his grandfather died, but as a teenager, he was drawn to his work. “Fortunately, some of his masks and most of his tools survived,” says Lopez, who, like his grandfather, uses the soft, durable wood of the colorín tree.

As elsewhere in Mexico, the craft of mask-making survived thanks to Spanish missionaries who adapted it to Roman Catholic iconography. Jaguar masks “are associated with ancient Indian rituals asking the gods for rain around the time of the planting of corn,” says anthropologist Turok. And Puebla is one of the earliest sites of corn cultivation. In 1960, the late American archaeologist Richard S. MacNeish, excavating in Puebla’s arid Tehuacán Valley, uncovered ancient corncobs 4,000 years old.

Farming in the TehuacánValley began to take off only around 1800 b.c., when yields reached 100 pounds of corn per acre, says University of Michigan anthropologist Kent Flannery, who was a graduate student on the MacNeish expedition. The development of a complex irrigation system—based on the channeling of water from subterranean mineral springs—was essential to bringing about this advance. University of Texas anthropologist James Neeley, who is also a MacNeish expedition alumnus, has demonstrated that the ancients used gravity to channel the water from the springs, which lie at the northern end of the TehuacánValley, down small, winding troughs to the lower end of the valley.

But if the ancient Poblanos were able to master corn cultivation and make it the foundation of their lives, their modern-day descendants must struggle against price controls that the government began to impose in the early 1980s to keep tortillas cheap. In addition, since the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Poblano farmers have been unable to compete with imports of new corn hybrids, produced by high-tech, low-cost U.S. farms. All along the highway connecting Piaxtla with Tulcingo 30 miles to the south, cornfields lie fallow, even at the height of the growing season. The gradual demise of small-scale farming here has also fueled emigration to the United States.


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