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Mexicans lose lifeline as family in US lose work

CHRIS HAWLEY
The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – Not long ago, Pacula, Mexico was in the middle of a construction boom as families proudly built their American-style dream homes using cash sent by relatives working in the United States.

Work on those houses has stopped, leaving shiny steel rebar jutting awkwardly from concrete walls across this town of 4,500. Residents have been forced to cut back on staples such as rice and corn. Eggs, meat and milk are now out of reach for many families.

“Thank God, we haven’t had anyone die of hunger yet,” says Jesus Tello, 63, a farmer. “But things are getting harder and harder. People are living on beans.”

Across Mexico, desperation is increasing among the millions of families who depend on money sent home by relatives in the United States. With many immigrants out of work because of the recession and stepped-up immigration enforcement, those money transfers suffered an unprecedented drop in May, falling nearly 20 percent from a year earlier to $1.9 billion, according to Mexico’s central bank.

The consequences have been particularly devastating in rural towns such as Pacula that are known as “pueblos fantasmas,” or ghost towns, because so many men have left to work in the United States, often illegally.

About 80 percent of households in Pacula, roughly 100 miles north of Mexico City, rely on the cash transfers, or remittances, for basic needs.

Graciela Gonzalez, 52, recently sold one of her 12 cows so she could afford food.

“My husband has been up there five months and hasn’t been able to send back anything,” said Gonzalez, who was cooking tortillas in her kitchen over a wood fire because she can’t afford to cook with gas.

The hard times testify to the effects of the recession not just in the United States but also abroad. Before last year, the amount of money sent to Mexico had grown nonstop for several decades.

Immigration-control advocates such as Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform say the decline in remittances may force Mexico to create jobs at home and tackle income inequality, describing the cash transfers as a “crutch that the Mexican government has leaned on for quite a while.”

It won’t be easy to live without the money; remittances generated $25 billion for Mexico last year, an even greater windfall than tourism.

About 8 percent of Mexico’s 103 million people depend on them to some degree, says Manuel Orozco, a specialist on remittances at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That may not be a large percentage, but those who rely on the money tend to be disproportionately poor, he says, so even a small decline can lead them to become malnourished. Some areas of Mexico can fall back on fertile farmland or factory jobs when remittances drop.

It’s not clear what else could save Pacula.

The town is so geographically isolated that getting there requires a one-hour drive on a rocky dirt road that hugs a sheer mountainside. There are no telephone lines and no school past ninth grade.

Poverty would be much worse if it weren’t for the remittances, Mayor Olga Hernandez says.

“Before people started going to the United States, this town had straw houses and no cars,” she says. “The economy of Pacula depends on those dollars.”

In recent years, donations from the migrants, most clustered in southern states, have put a new roof on the church, built a water system and bought an ambulance for the town.

Now, migrant-funded projects, such as a new grandstand for the local soccer field and plans to buy a new backhoe for the town, have been put on hold as donations disappear, town spokesman Cirenio Leal says.

At the Nortena general store, sales have dropped about 50 percent since the beginning of the year, owner Dimna Trejo says.

“If before you bought a kilo of rice, now you buy three-quarters of a kilo,” says Maribel Aguilar, a community organizer. “People are eating less.”

Making matters worse, Mexico’s economy is suffering from a range of other problems. The market for its manufacturing exports in the United States has collapsed, and so has tourism following the swine-flu outbreak.

Philip Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, says the cash from abroad has long helped Mexico avoid the kind of “social conflict” that might otherwise occur because of low living standards.

The trend may already be having an effect on Mexican politics, says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Sunday’s midterm elections saw major gains by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and was famous for its system of patronage and government handouts.

“If you’re getting family remittances or other sources of income, you have a little more (political) independence,” Selee said. “If not, you turn to those who can fix the little things in life.”

The PRI’s gains have weakened the power of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a strong U.S. ally who is leading an unprecedented crackdown on drug traffickers. There isn’t much cushion left in El Epazote, a village about 40 miles and several mountain ridges southwest of Pacula.

From a distance, the unfinished concrete houses there are nearly invisible in the rocky landscape speckled with nopales, or prickly pear cactus. The town’s main landmark is a bright-orange church, built with migrant donations and completed last year before the U.S. economy crashed.

About half the village’s 180 residents, including most of its men, are in the United States, mostly in Oklahoma and Missouri, village Administrator Marcelo Resendiz says.

Villagers in El Epazote have stopped buying eggs, meat and milk, general-store owner Juliana Resendiz says.

Asked whether there will be enough to eat, Marcelo Resendiz, the village administrator, pauses.

“Well, there are a lot of nopales around here,” he says, referring to the cactus pads that grow on nearby hills and, if boiled, can make a passable meal.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com


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