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The North is a Chimera for Those who Stay to Wait for Relatives and Remittances

The Mayas, who in the classical era of their civilization mysteriously depopulated large stone cities in Mesoamerica, now, a millennium later, abandon their adobe and thatched roof villages in the Yucatán peninsula at a rate that could be comparable. Every year, over a thousand cross the border into the United States. This time their motives are not a mystery: local poverty and the promise of a better life, especially in California, push them to exodus. The traffic is bidirectional, in any case. While the people march north, back to the south come remittances of money, hopes and new cultural patterns. However, life for those who stay at home is not easy, especially for married women, who submit not only to an endless wait, but also to asphyxiating social norms.

12/12/2017 0:00:00

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Mother's intuition had warned her. María del Socorro May insisted many times to Saúl Naal, her immigrant son in the city of San Rafael, in northern California, to return to his home in Peto as soon as possible. Since he left, he had not seen him in six years.

Peto, a municipality of approximately 25,000 inhabitants, located right in the southern cone of the state of Yucatán, Mexico, which occupies the northern part of the homonymous peninsula that projects to the Caribbean, where a third of the population is of Mayan origin. It is known to be one of the towns from which most workers migrate to the USA. Already in 2009, the Migration Survey with a Gender Perspective, the most recent government effort to locate migrants from the entity, revealed that 5,200 people -a fifth of the population of the municipality- had migrated to the American Union.

Sitting in the living room of her house in the Benito Juarez neighborhood, on the Petuleña outskirts, —where weeds abound, public lighting is nonexistent, and the streets are made of a dirt road that floods as soon as rains begin to fall— María del Socorro says that Saúl, along with some town friends, went through the Mexican desert and faced its dangers to cross the border to the north, without documents, as 90% of Yucatecan migrants do. He wanted to save for a kidney surgery and get over a congenital malformation, which he was born with. He also looked for an opportunity to get out of the poverty, which, according to her, "he was condemned to". If almost half (41.9%) of the two million Yucatecans are poor, in Peto the proportion grows to 73.9% of its inhabitants, as indicated in the 2010 report of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval).

Saúl ended up living in the San Francisco Bay area, the Californian metropolis, with another 70,000 Yucatecans. Several times, he expressed his desire to return to his hometown. María del Socorro, 70, and her husband Bartolo Naal, 80, stare at the altar in front, with a photo of Saúl, a printed selfie, plus two vases made of jars of mayonnaise and an image of Guadalupe's Virgin. The son was dark and had short hair. In the photo, he wears a Major League Baseball cap and shows a necklace with the image of the Virgin.

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This was on May 8, 2017, two days before Mother's Day in Mexico, when María del Socorro received the news that her son had died at 33 years of a pulmonary complication.

Twenty days after carrying out procedures with the government of Yucatan and the City of Peto, Saúl's body left the airport in San Francisco to Mexico City. It was then transferred to Mérida, from where a funeral carriage moved him to town. It is a well-known route. So far in 2017, the Institute for the Development of the Mayan Culture (Indemaya) has repatriated 13 bodies, including that of Saúl.

María del Socorro cannot talk about it without drowning in tears. And when she can, she realizes that she really knew very little about his son's life. Until today, it is not clear to her where he lived. In fact, she never knew that. Just over three weeks before he died, Saúl was arrested in San Rafael, the suburb north of San Francisco, for offering cocaine to an undercover policeman, as evident in a file published on the website of the city authorities. Before crying again, she explained that the young man had gone "far away" and was assembling built-in kitchens, a work that allowed him to send US$ 250 a month (about 4,600 Mexican pesos). That was enough to buy food and pay for utilities, like power, and the heart medicines for his sick father.

The parents of Saúl tell that the vandals of the colony take advantage of their solitude and the little police surveillance to steal the backyard animals (chickens, turkeys) they count on as a financial and food support. When their immigrant son died in the USA, the income their received from him was also gone. The salaries of their other two children in Cancún, a tourist resort in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo, are not enough to send a fixed remittance to their parents. Like many elderly people in Peto and Yucatán, without pensions or fixed incomes, they grow fruits and vegetables for self-consumption.

Rocío Quintal and Iván Franco, doctors in social and political sciences, respectively, and authors of the book El fenómeno migratorio en Yucatán, contextos e impactos (The Migration Phenomenon in Yucatán, Contexts and Impacts), confirm that poverty is the "backdrop" of migration in this state, the fifth with the lowest entry of remittances in the country (0.5% of the 26,993 million US dollars that Mexico received that year). However, the collateral effects of this diaspora, such as abandonment, loneliness and disintegration of families, go unnoticed by governments.

It is precisely because of the lack of updated censuses or statistics of migrants in the USA
-mostly illegal- that it becomes almost impossible for the authorities of Yucatán to locate, support or guide the remaining relatives, if they were to do it. This means that migration does not have a real impact on the improvement of communities. The most common contact of families with the government is reduced to procedures such as locating or repatriating the bodies of their loved ones, as in the case of Saúl.

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The Migration and Remittances Yearbook 2017 of the National Population Council (Conapo) indicates that Yucatán is the fifth state with the lowest migration intensity in Mexico. The 180,000 Yucatecans living in the USA (Indemaya data) are a small number among the more than 12 million Mexicans who have moved to that country. But the proportion is significant when you look inside the entity itself, so far from the capital,
1,300 kilometers at the easternmost point of the country. The number of people who reside "on the other side" represents almost 9% of the total population of Yucatán, 68% of which choose the state of California - the richest in the United States - to work, according to Conapo. Thousands of relatives in Yucatán end up suffering the absence of the father, mother, brother or son and must adapt to new lifestyles where the common denominator is loneliness and fear for the safety of the migrant living without papers in that country to the north.

***

María del Socorro shows the rest of the house, where only she and her husband live. One part is concrete and consists of two nine sq-meter (97 sq-feet) rooms impeccably painted white, owned by their other two migrant children in Cancun (the couple had another son who died 16 years ago for pulmonary fibrosis). Due to its proximity, the state of Quintana Roo, which houses Cancun and the so-called Riviera Maya, is the second favorite destination of the Yucatecans to migrate, only after the United States of America. In this case, families get together more frequently because it is about four hours away by road.

That part of the house is the most expensive of the entire structure. A few meters away, is a traditional Mayan hut of about 20 sq meters, which the elderly couple calls home. As it is common in the landscape of Yucatán, the roof is made of huano, the dried leaves of a kind of an endemic palm that together with the adobe walls —the traditional material of Mayan houses— keep the interior cool, although the humid heat outside exceeds 40 °C (104 °F).

As in the Naal’s house, the Yucatecan migration has left this new landscape in the municipalities with more emigrants in the United States of America, where two opposing architectural styles coexist: the mud and huano Mayan style hut and the American house of concrete, Californian style. On the one hand, big two-story houses, with tub, fine finishes and built-in kitchen with stove. In the other, homes where water is still taken by hand from the well, and food is prepared on a log fire in a comal (ceramic or metal flat griddle) with which 159,000 families of indigenous communities of the state still cook.

"It is known as remittance architecture," says Carlos Ojeda Cerón, an anthropologist from Peto and doctor in Regional Development. When migrants are deported, they run out of money or their remittances are invested in more immediate needs, the houses are left half-built.

A large house in Kimbilá, a town of approximately 3,000 inhabitants in the central region of Yucatán, speaks clearly of this mixed landscape of the Yucatecan peoples.

Instead of albarradas —the walls of almost 1.5 m (4.92 ft) high of large stones stacked without cement or any other material that stick them together—, the house has a cast iron fence in red with delicate details reproduced from a photograph of a house in California. It has two stories and measures about 40 m high by 25 m wide (131 ft H x 82 ft W). It is visible from several streets back. Seeing two-level properties in the area is rare, due to its high cost. Those that exist belong to politicians who have become mayors, or to few prosperous entrepreneurs.

Kimbilá is one of the small towns called townships - among the 106 municipalities of Yucatán, where no more than 5,000 people live and where the municipal government exercises direct authority. In these townships there are no economic activities that allow their inhabitants to be self-sufficient. Therefore, many have to be blue-collar workers in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, or in neighboring Quintana Roo. Or, obviously, to the United States of America, like the three children of Sebastián May Llanes and Ligia Arjona -the inhabitants of this mansion-, José, Abel and Sebastián, who 18, 15 and 13 years ago, respectively, migrated without documents to the city from Fort Bragg, California, four hours north of San Francisco. With Abel's last seven years remittances (2 million pesos or 120,000 US dollars, about 17,000 US dollars a year), Ligia and Sebastián, who do not have pensions, have been able to build this house with large windows emulating the typical vacation homes of American families. The second of the children, an independent gardener, photographer and social event cameraman at Fort Bragg, personally designed the house. The terrace is under construction. But there is an outdoor kitchen roofed with metal sheets that reminds us that we are still in Yucatán.

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Ligia is sitting in her hammock, where she sleeps; most Yucatecans are reluctant to use a bed. Sebastián is fumigating the doorway. The two speak Mayan and a Spanish that is difficult to them, especially when conjugating verbs. Forty years ago, in their old huano home, they had to divide an apple into seven pieces to give their children something to eat. It is a very present family memory with which they illustrate the poverty of the past. Now they have a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi —once some children from the village slipped into the house to take a bath—, and the apples have multiplied in their refrigerator inside the kitchen decorated with stone details, a handmade exclusive design.

Since their children left, the couple has not seen them again. They act as caretakers of the goods acquired with the remittances. They buy the designs of stone and blacksmithing, watch the construction and take care of the house in which they dream to see their grandchildren running someday. They show José's framed studio photos, which are stacked on a wooden table protected with plastic bags. This is how they keep all the other furniture that Abel has bought. On the second floor, they have a double bed with flower a comforter, which has been made for several years, waiting.

At the end of the work, they built an independent room where they hope to spend their last years of life. That big house is foreign to them. Ligia is still cooking in the back, in the old stove next to the wooden table covered with a plastic tablecloth, where she can see her backyard birds, chickens and turkeys, as well as her orange, lemons and ramón trees, an endemic plant used as fodder for the consumption of farmyard animals.

To Yucatecans, working in the USA is an alternative to get out of backwardness and poverty. For a local, reaching the standard of living of the May family, for example, is a rarity. A worker here earns an average of 46,680 pesos per year (around US$ 2,593)
—nearly 15% of what the May family receives for remittances in a year. Migration has not had a real impact on the economy of the state and its communities. Annual remittances of 142 million US dollars are left in the houses and do not translate into more local sources of employment.

There are still 900,000 people in Yucatán - almost half of its population - who do not have access to appropriate food, social security or health services, according to figures from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval). In Kimbilá, the May’s village, where the sale of typical embroidered clothing offers some work opportunities, this is visible in the lack of access to drinking water, dirt roads, lack of public lighting, and absence of ambulances.

***

Anthropologist Pedro Lewin Fischer, one of the few researchers in Yucatán who studies migration from the perspective of those who remain, assures that when the families of the state become fragmented, everything becomes "a drama". Children grow up without a father figure and women practically face alone most of their adult lives.

And when talking about migration, economic and gender biases still persist; i.e. you only think about the people who left, mostly men, and the money they send. The author of the book Las que se quedan (Those Who Stay), for which he interviewed over 200 women from Yucatan, found in this research that migrant couples are on average between 20 and 40 years old, suffer from loneliness and feel unprotected, and they renounce to their sexual, emotional and creative lives when their husbands go to the United States of America.

In Yucatecan society, as in other societies, it is well regarded that the migrant has a partner outside of marriage; but it is the opposite for the wives who stay. The mother or the husband's family usually controls them through mobile phones or even social networks. Leticia Paredes Guerrero, a specialist in gender studies of the Regional Research Center "Dr. Hideyo Noguchi "of the Autonomous University of Yucatán (UADY), affirms in her work La violencia de género contra las mujeres en Yucatán (Gender Violence against Women in Yucatán), that the ethnic condition is a component that makes them live more discriminated at a social, economic, educational and political level. In 2011, Yucatán registered the highest percentage of women speaking an indigenous language who have been victims of violence by family members (16.6%), and occupied one of the first places among the states with the highest percentage of indigenous women who declared any kind of aggression in public places (18.6%), according to the Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships prepared by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

These women also have limited access to education or work. The last census, conducted in the country in 2010, revealed that in Yucatán, 9% of the population is illiterate. Of every 100 women, 10.62 do not know how to read or write, while men are 7.78 for every 100. In Mayan society women have more limited access to education because they are destined to marry so their husbands can be providers. The census also showed inequality in income from paid work: while women earned an annual average of US$ 4,521 per capita, men received US$ 10,065, more than double.

There are other examples. Mayan women need to consult their husbands before getting medical tests. In rural communities of the state, it is still not accepted that women perform preventive exams for breast or cervical cancer, because it is understood that doctors will touch them. It is a society in which the roles of men as providers and chiefs and that of women as housewives, in charge of caring for the house and children, with little to say, are stressed. In the women who remain, a double burden falls on them that is rarely discussed in public and that is not tangible like the economic one: that of assuming the role of mother and father, and that of not being able to claim the absence of the husband. Among the Mayas of Yucatan it is not acceptable for a woman to complain about this. If she receives enough money from the husband to cover the basic needs (food, education) of the children, the man will have fulfilled.

***

"I felt like a widow when he left," says Lidia Tuz about Sebastián, one of the May’s three children who migrated to Fort Bragg. Lidia has waited for him in Kimbilá for over 13 years, when Sebastián crossed over to the USA as an illegal immigrant to achieve the greatest aspirations of his life: the concrete house and money to open a business the turn of which he will decide when he returns. Lidia has lived with the fear that her husband will find another woman in California, have another family and forget his own.

Lidia was 22 years old when Sebastián left, and her two children were eight and three. She needed four years to adapt to the new situation. The eldest son of the couple, Emanuel, suffered depression when his father emigrated because he thought he had abandoned him. Johnny, the youngest, substituted his father with toys, video games, smart phones and electronic tablets, unattainable for the vast majority of the children of the village, who play ball on the dirt roads or in the only park in Kimbilá that has one basketball court only. Now, they are 21 and 17 years old and drive sport motorcycles of about US$ 3,000 (60,000 Mexican pesos) bought with the remittances their father sent from Fort Bragg.

But they have claimed Lidia for the absence of Sebastián, who does not travel to visit Kimbilá because he does not have identification documents. He would have to cross the border again and, to return to Fort Bragg, rehire a coyote or pollero, as they call those who guide them from Mexico. Thirteen years ago, Sebastián paid one of them 25,000 pesos (about US$ 1,300) with the money his brother Abel sent him, who was already living in the USA. Currently, the cost of crossing ranges between 12,000 and 15,000 US dollars —figures collated in Indemaya reports and the testimony of an illegal migrant from Oxkutzcab with whom we spoke, who planned his trip back to San Francisco, after fifteen years—. Stratospheric amounts that those who leave can only have by selling their land or pawning their houses. At best, they should work at least a year or two in the USA just to pay back what they spent on arrival.

ArmandoInfo

Lidia

The family's assets grew from two concrete rooms next to the house of Sebastián's parents to a house with living room, kitchen, bathrooms and three bedrooms. In just two years, they got what they would not have reached in many more years of work in the maquila of Lee brand jeans in Izamal, when they barely had 207 US dollars a month (4,000 pesos) just enough to eat. In addition to a larger property, they now have enough money for meals, clothes and shoes for Lidia and her children. Sebastián's two jobs at Fort Bragg - as a waiter at a coffee shop and cashier at a supermarket - have allowed him to raise enough money to buy two more lots where he built the houses he will hand out to his children.

Lidia says her husband expects to be up to two more years in California, which is the time in which he would complete the process to regularize his immigration status, which he started a few months ago. She is aware that his income will fall when Sebastián returns, but until now, he has not made concrete plans for when the time comes. Maybe open a traditional embroidered clothing store and cover the rest of the expenses with the income from their houses.

For the time being, they recently celebrated in Kimbilá the four years of their granddaughter Melani, the daughter of Emanuel, with a theme party of Disney’s Sofia the First. Lydia recreated a fairy tale castle. Melani wore the princess’ dress. Instead of tamales and panuchos, there was pasta, caramel apples and cupcakes.

***

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From Tekax, a town of 39,000 inhabitants in the foothills of the small mountain chain of southern Yucatán, 1,400 people have left to the United States of America. Here lives Yamily Novelo, waiting for her husband, who left two years ago to Pennsylvania, 2,500 kilometers (1,553 mi) away, in the northeastern of the USA, for ten of the twelve months of the year. He emigrated with a working visa to work in a plant nursery. He is among the 10% of Yucatecan migrants who cross the border with identification papers, which allows him to return to visit without major problems.

Although her husband (whose name Yamily refrains from giving due to fear of a migratory problem) did not expose his life crossing the desert, she spends most of the time with her daughter, a year and a half old baby, waiting for news. It's Saturday afternoon. She is looking out the door of her mother's house, where she lives to have company and to save the money her husband sends her to build her own home. She will spend the weekend at home waiting to make a video call. She considers herself lucky because her husband earns money impossible to earn in Tekax. His university studies barely allowed him to obtain an average profit of 4,800 pesos per month -about 260 US dollars-, a figure that is multiplied eight or nine times in Pennsylvania.

Both got a degree in Tourism Business Administration and worked for three years in Playa del Carmen, a tourist resort near Cancun, but they returned to their native Tekax in the wake of Yamily's pregnancy. The husband decided to migrate because the salary of both, anyway, was not going to be able to cover the cost of caring for their baby. It was very difficult not having her husband around. "I did not know what I was going to do without him," she says.

Yamily is the daughter of migration. Her father also went to the USA to send remittances to her, her brother and her mother. He lives in Colorado. They have not seen him in 15 years. They already resigned themselves. Yamily's husband plans to stay five more years in Pennsylvania. With what they save, in addition to the house, they want to open a store in the town, but they still do not decide if it will be a clothing or grocery store. She is calm because she knows that her husband has a secure job and will return. "If he were illegal, I would not support it. It is not worth the risk."

Carlos Ojeda Cerón, an anthropologist from Peto and a long-time scholar of migration from southern Yucatán, warns that the lack of advice and ignorance for business management leads to the failure of most of the projects that migrants undertake when they return to their communities. "They invest the money they saved [in the USA], but few prosper." In a short time, they return to the condition of poverty they had before leaving.

***

Angelica Moo's husband, Nicasio, left a decade ago to San Rafael, in northern California, but she still lives in Peto in a straw house with no basic services and dirt floors. In Yucatán, the emigration of one family member does not always represent the economic redemption of the family. Sometimes it does not even enough for the redemption of emigrants themselves.

The average age to marry in rural indigenous communities in Yucatán is, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, between 16 and 19 years old. Angelica Moo married Nicasio Tec at fifteen. He was 25. He was a bricklayer since his adolescence, but because of the general poverty and his personal alcoholism he never built a concrete house for his family. His three children grew up in a house of huano, in which they still live, with an enabled latrine at the back of the patio, in one of the most remote areas of the center of Peto because the land to build houses is cheaper there.

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Angelica, 37, talks in a broken Spanish, because her main language is Mayan, and remembers that her husband has always worked as a mason. "He only worked as a mason. Since he was poor, he worked since he was 14 years old. He did not study. He did not even finish his sixth [grade of primary school], that's why he went far away with the Chiapanecans he worked with in Cancun", she says while sitting at the door of her house, where you can smell the wood with which she cooks and the handmade tortillas.

Their children Laura, 22 years old, already married, Santos, 20, a mason and a temporary migrant to the city of Mérida to work, and Reina, 19 years old, a student of Information and Communication Technologies, never had phones, electronic tablets, no American clothes or sport shoes.

During the first eight years he was in California, Nicasio assured Angélica that he had no job and that he never wanted to work in restaurants like most Yucatecans of Mayan origin, "because he was a mason and he only wanted to do that." During that time, she did not receive regular remittances, so she began to work to support her children. She bought a tricycle that drives for several kilometers to the woods to cut firewood that she sells for approximately 100 pesos (around four US dollars) per day, which is barely enough to buy beans, eggs and tortilla dough, and also to buy fuel for cooking and heating water for bathing in the winter.

He also does piecework in Perez chicken farms, where he kills, plucks and gutted birds for sale. The salary paid there is symbolic because it barely exceeds 80 pesos (about three US dollars), or exchanges work for the meat of the animals to feed his family. He also cleans seasonally the land of the Southern Valley agricultural company, a subsidiary of the Southern Valley company based in Georgia, USA, which has been operating in the south of Yucatán since 2003. These trades require him to have a lot of physical strength and tolerate, many times under the sun, common temperatures of over 40 °C (104 °F), with the risk of death from heat stroke.

Angelica's assets are reduced to two 4x4 meter (13x13 ft) rooms of concrete, independent of each other, in addition to her huano hut. The three structures are in the same land. The first was obtained through a housing program for families in extreme poverty, promoted by the government of Yucatán, and the other was completed a few months ago with money sent by her husband, whose remittances has been more consistent for the last two years.

At Nicasio’s insistence, with the last remittance she installed a wooden door with carved details valued at 7,000 pesos (almost 400 US dollars), like those of the houses he builds in California with prefabricated material and luxurious finishes. Nicasio, says Angélica, does not want to return without having fulfilled that goal that indicates that the Mayan migration "to the other side" has been successful: the concrete house. For now, there is only the wooden door, which looks out from behind the one meter (3 ft) high wall and is visible from the street. There is an empty room behind it. Angélica and her two youngest children continue, however, sleeping in their old straw house. She compares herself to the wives of other migrants from her village that receive more remittances, do not work and are dedicated to take care of their children. "I do not know how they manage to spend even the money of their husbands."

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Nicasio calls Angélica by phone once in a while and she does not have enough money to pay for an internet plan for her cell phone. And even if she had it, she cannot read or write. When the husband calls her, she identifies the number because she learnt it by heart. She has spent up to two months without a call from her husband, because he says that when it rains, he cannot work or pay for the telephone service, as "everything is expensive there."

Last May, a woman called her by phone to tell her that Nicasio had died at the general hospital in Marin, seven kilometers (4 mi) from San Rafael. Angélica tried to communicate, but since Nicasio never answered the calls and she did not know his friends or anyone else in California, she started the inquiries to transfer the body. Almost two weeks passed. The husband called her. He had blood pressure problems, he said, and that was why he was in the clinic. There a group of Christians offered him a place to live while he recovered. He lost contact with his acquaintances and they thought he was dead.

The case was mentioned in many newspapers such as Diario de Yucatán, the most important newspaper in the state. Reporter Pedro Cauich, a correspondent in the southern part of the state, found out that Nicasio had suffered an accident while he was drunk, and he was taken to the hospital due to his injuries. The Yucatecans in San Rafael with whom we speak remember having read the news that one of their countrymen had passed away, but they do not recognize him by name. They believe they identify him as an alcoholic they saw on the streets, along with other compatriots without regular work.

Alcoholism is one of the most severe problems affecting Yucatecan migrants in the United States. They tend to drink to entertain themselves, and thus the patterns that place Yucatan in the first national spot in intoxications for alcohol abuse in the country reproduce —7,057 registered in 2016, according to figures from the Ministry of Health of Mexico—, almost double of Jalisco, which ranks second in this measurement and which reported 3,761 fewer cases, even though it triples the population of Yucatán.

There is a community of approximately 10,000 Yucatecans in San Rafael. Canal Street has been known for many years as the favorite destination of Mayan migrants who arrived in the city. Hidden in the bushes were bottles of empty alcoholic beverages. Several people pointed out that until a few months ago, Nicasio frequented this area, but it was not possible to find him, which coincides with the version of Angélica that after the accident, he left the place and went to build houses in other places in northern California.

Angélica does not know when she will see her husband again. Just like when he left, she thinks Nicasio will make that decision without consulting her.

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