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Cross Purposes

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

Herminio García says he saw the collapse coming more than 30 years ago. He left his family’s failing farm in Piaxtla and crossed the U.S. border in 1971. After a succession of factory jobs, García did “what I knew best”—he went into the tortilla business. Today he holds dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, and his Tortilleria La Poblanita factory in Yonkers, a gritty northern suburb of New York City, employs 27 Poblanos, half a dozen of them from Piaxtla. Mounds of corn dough are fed into a machine that turns them into flat patties; they move by conveyor belts into an oven and then a cooler. At the end of each workday, 648,000 tortillas are shipped to supermarkets, delis and restaurants across the Northeast.

García, 62, lives with his family in a New Jersey suburb. But as retirement nears, his thoughts turn more and more to Piaxtla and the house he built there on his ancestral property, which he visits a half-dozen times a year. “I’m still a farm boy,” he says. “I know how to plow with an ox, fix fences and weave palm leaves into a hat.” What he recalls most fondly is herding goats. As a child, he would take the animals to graze in the hills hours before dawn, carrying a kerosene lamp to read his school lessons aloud: “Neighbors would hear me and say, ‘There goes Herminio—he’s as crazy as his goats.’ ”

The town of tulcingo de valle is a 40-minute drive south of Piaxtla. Its 8,000 residents have thus far resisted New York City’s temptations only slightly more successfully than those in Piaxtla, though the money returned to Tulcingo’s coffers by its emigrants has helped restore the town church, damaged in an earthquake in 1999, and caused the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, a global financial giant, to open a branch here. Remittances have been invested in restaurants and cybercafés that have replaced pulquerías, old-time saloons with swinging doors.

Signs of newfound affluence are everywhere. There are dozens of taxis—though the town can be traversed on foot in less than 20 minutes—and repair shops of all types, for cars, bicycles, television sets and stereos, have sprouted like cactuses. Video games are so popular that parents complain their kids have given up sports and grown too sedentary. Main streets have been asphalted.

The night of my arrival, David Bravo Sierra, 53, owner of MacD, a spacious pizza and hamburger restaurant on the main street, hosts a dinner attended by a dozen friends. In the 1950s, Bravo’s father picked asparagus in California. The son migrated to New York City in 1972, shared a one-room apartment with several other Tulcingo immigrants, and worked alongside them as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant. (“You got three meals a day free and you could spend whatever you made on housing and remittances [to send home],” he says.) He earned a few extra dollars playing lead guitar for a Latin band—“The first band from Puebla in New York,” he claims. Bravo returned to Tulcingo in 1990. Now, his oldest daughter, who holds dual citizenship, lives in New York City and travels legally to Tulcingo, paying her way as a paquetera.

Of the dozen dinner guests I met that night at MacD, about half have lived in the United States. Radio journalist Elsa Farcier, in her early 20s, has never been north of the border. I had heard her, on an Internet radio broadcast in New York City, interviewing 60-something Fernando Flores about 1950s courting rituals at a no-longer-celebrated festival known as a kermes. Farcier told me she was trying to reacquaint Tulcingo residents in New York City with their traditional roots. “Young people here never saw a kermes, so it was new to them as well,” she says.

On my last day in the Sierra Mixteca, I drive back to Piaxtla to meet with a man who reputedly arranges to smuggle people across the border. Often called “coyotes,” most smugglers prefer the term pollero—someone who guards chickens. My instructions are to wait for him at the edge of the weekly street market next to a folk healer’s stand.

The healer, Cobita Macedo, hawks herbal cures, some of them handed over the centuries. For kidney disease, she offers a gnarled clump of dried flower that, she explains, must be boiled in water. “You drink a cup of the broth twice a day, and you will pass any kidney stone within weeks,” she promises. Other herbal concoctions, she says, treat gastrointestinal, pulmonary and heart ailments. But in recent years, she adds, the most sought-after remedies have been for hypertension and diabetes—illnesses associated with the more stressful lifestyles (and eating habits) of expatriate Poblanos.

When the reputed pollero, a slim man in his 40s, at last shows up, he suggests we have breakfast in the market, where local farmers have set up scores of stands selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and freshly prepared foods. We share a plate of barbacoa—kid goat that has been barbecued in an underground pit and served with chile sauce, cilantro and roasted scallions, wrapped in freshly made tortillas.

In the Mexican and U.S. media, coyotes are routinely and adamantly denounced for trafficking in human lives. But my breakfast companion claims that “most people think my profession is a necessary and honorable one. They entrust me with their sons and daughters and friends.” (He also says that while his vocation is widely known, he has never been bothered by the police.) His job, as he describes it, is to escort the departees to the border and there turn them over to someone who will smuggle them into the United States and arrange for transportation to their ultimate destination—usually New York City. His fees range from a rock-bottom 1,800 pesos ($160) for Poblanos who want only to get across the border, to 10,000 pesos ($900) for door-to-door shepherding, including airfare, from Piaxtla to New York City.

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