The californian dream is like a concrete nightmare

The city of San Francisco, in California, is the most expensive in the United States of America and one of the most sophisticated. Birthplace of the hippie movement in the 60's and the current revolution in computers and the Internet, it now can pay a millenarian anachronism, as it is surrounded by a string of Mayan communities. More than 70,000 immigrants from Yucatán -5,000 kilometers (3,106 miles) away- swarm in suburbs like San Rafael or the Mission district. Attracted by what seems to be like a new gold rush, most arrive without knowing a word in English and just a few in Spanish to work as dishwashers and kitchen assistants in restaurants. However, the journey is not only through distance, but through culture, and the clash between ancestral customs and the demands of the post-industrial society, like alcoholism and drug addiction, arises.

7 December 2017
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"When illegal migrants from Yucatán die, they die of fear," says Sara Mijares, an activist and promoter of migrant rights, based in Los Angeles, California. She is from Yucatán and refers to her countrymen, 180,000 Yucatán migrants living in the United States of America, according to estimates from the Institute for the Development of the Mayan Culture (Indemaya), an entity attached to the state government of Yucatán. It is about thousands of people who left their places of origin in the homonymous peninsula, in the southeast of Mexico, heart of the Mayan culture, and traveled almost 5,000 kilometers in search of better living conditions for them and their families. About 90% of them crossed the US border as illegal.

According to Indemaya, migrants from Yucatán are spread across 43 cities in the USA, like Portland-Oregon, Denver-Colorado, Seattle-Washington, Las Vegas-Nevada, and Dallas-Texas. But without a doubt, the state of California is their preferred destination, particularly in the San Francisco Bay: 68% of Yucatecans is the reported figure from the Migration and Remittances Yearbook 2017 of the National Population Council (CONAPO) of Mexico.

The only authority that can carry out deportations from the United States is ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but with the arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency, the pressure among Yucatán migrants for not attracting the attention of law enforcement authorities has been increasing.

Hence, they die of fear, insists Sara Mijares, as many do not even go to the hospital for fear of losing what little or much they have achieved in the USA; otherwise, they could obtain a ticket back to poverty in Yucatán, where 41.9% of the population cannot meet basic needs like food, a concrete house, and access to health, as indicated in the 2010 report of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval) of Mexico.

Mijares was born in Muna, a municipality in the south of Yucatán very close to the archaeological area of Chichén Itzá, and came legally to the USA in 1968, when she was 15 years old, to live with his father, a farmer who participated in the Bracero program, a cooperation plan with Mexico that allowed the first Yucatán migrants to travel to Texas and California to work in the fields. The program was in force from 1942 to 1964. Historically, the areas with the most immigrants from the state have been the southern and central regions, where the Mayan population that still works in agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn and citrus fruits like lemon and orange, is concentrated. According to Indemaya, the exodus intensified in the 70's and 80's of the last century. And it was triggered by the Mexican economic crisis in late 1994, adds Pedro Lewin Fischer, a researcher and anthropologist specialized in migratory movements in Yucatán.

"We were always afraid to go out, but now I am terrified. When the bell rings, I do not know if it will be the Migra (immigration agents) or the police that will take us and will keep my children,"

On January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States of America, the lives of many Yucatán migrants changed as well. They are very uninformed and fearful of potential deportation, says Sara Mijares.

Eyder Ávila, 31, and Carmita Hernández, 32, born in Peto, southern Yucatán, and based in San Rafael, a city 30 kilometers (18.64 mi) north of San Francisco, —home of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Yucatecans— live with the fear that their worst nightmare will come true, that because they are illegal, the government will snatch their two children born in the USA, Eyder and Daphne, aged 11 and 7, respectively, and never see them again.

"We were always afraid to go out, but now I am terrified. When the bell rings, I do not know if it will be the Migra (immigration agents) or the police that will take us and will keep my children," says Ávila, who came to California 13 years ago fleeing poverty in his hometown, the Yucatán municipality with the largest number of Mayan migrants, 5,000 kilometers away. There he walked free but without money or hope for a better life. Nowadays, he fears that at any moment the police will stop him and point a gun at him only for not having identity papers.

Although he left Peto, he brought the town with him. He talks in Spanish, with idioms and the characteristic pronounced Yucatán accent, which he mixes with words in English. “Dale né, quédate para la party de mi esposa, yo voy a cocinar. Vienen todas las amigas de Carmita, se pondrá muy chingón” (Babe, stay for my wife's party, I'm going to cook. All the friends of Carmita are coming. It will be really cool.)

The couple is known for their skills in jarana, the traditional Yucatán dance, characterized by its zapateado (foot stamping) and orchestral music inherited from the Spanish regions of Andalusia and Aragon. They make the mosy of any vaquería —a popular party where the jarana lasts until dawn—to show off their best steps, dressed in colorful and elaborate regional costumes received from their homeland.

After having tacos of roasted beef and carnitas with the classic Yucatán “Modelo” beer, they chat in the living room of the small apartment of two rented bedrooms (bathroom, one room and a living room) northeast of San Rafael. There is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the main room. For several months they rented their couch to other Yucatán migrants to complete the rent of US$ 2,500 per month, twenty times more expensive than what is paid on average in Peto (1,500-2,000 Mexican pesos). Eyder says that he has worked hard since the age of 15 to survive. He tried to study, but his parents did not have money to pay for school. He began to ride a tricycle to sell bread in the streets of Peto. Months later, he went to work at a construction materials store where he earned 70 pesos a week (just under four dollars), which was barely enough to invite his-then-girlfriend Carmita to an ice cream and a ham and cheese sandwich in the Holanda ice cream shop in the center of the town. Eyder did not eat for fear of not being able to pay the bill. He told Carmita that "he had already eaten at home". She laughs as she remembers the anecdote.

Eyder and Carmita began their life as a couple at that age. They lived with his parents. Soon they opened an establishment selling Yucatán food, drinks and snacks that was called La Bendición de Dios (God’s Blessing) but, despite their great effort, the business failed. At age 19, in 2005, they agreed that Eyder would leave to the United States of America on September 1, the day of his wife's birthday, in search of money to build his house and try to start another business, the recurring dream of Yucatán migrants. Two years later, Carmita followed him and crossed the border as an illegal, after four attempts. Reunited, the couple began their adult life in a foreign country with a language they did not know, but in which they fortunately had the support of her parents and siblings, who have been living for several years in California, in the city of Santa Rosa, 50 kilometers north of San Rafael.

Eyder remembers "hell", as he describes it to refer to what he experienced when he arrived in a place so big and different from Peto. They did not speak his language and he could not express himself. He felt useless, because he could not articulate a sentence in English to ask for help, to know which bus to take and look for work, or simply to buy a soda. Like many of the Yucatán migrants, he started working as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant in Sausalito, a coastal town near San Francisco. There, he learned English while translating the ingredients of the dishes and kitchen accessories in his free time. Then he was promoted to the grill, and to the post of assistant waiter, and so on until he became a waiter. On the other hand, Carmita works doing acrylic nails in a small space that she has assembled in her apartment to get extra money. She cannot work in a beauty shop. Although you do not need papers to do it, you do need to take a US$ 2,500 course—equal to each month rent—to get a license and be certified.

Eyder says, on the way to his children’s school, an elementary school where all the children speak English, that he misses his country and his people. That is why he tries to teach Eydercito and Daphne the love for Mexico and Yucatán, although their children know almost nothing of Spanish. "I love Mexico, but my children can have an education and a better life here," he concludes.


The consistent beauty of the Victorian houses and the imposing height of the skyscrapers of the financial district of San Francisco, California, are abruptly cut off when you arrive south of Mission Street. There appears a container overflowing with garbage, and a mixture of aromas with the smell of fried corn dough predominating. A man dressed in jeans, a
T-shirt and a baseball cap, the Giants, speaks in Mayan language on his cell phone outside a Yucatán restaurant.

The district of Mission, at the southeast of the city, is a neighborhood of about five square kilometers (1.93 square miles) with a high concentration of Central American and Mexican migrants, including Yucatecans, who arrived in San Francisco, mainly during the 80's and 90's of the 20th century to work mainly in the field of services, as dishwashers, waiters and cooks. Touring the neighborhood gives the feeling of being in an extension of Latin America, with ads in Spanish and several Mexican products businesses.

The Bay Area of ??San Francisco, a peninsula surrounded by nine counties, is home to just over seven million people, including around 70,000 Yucatecans, almost half of all Yucatecans registered in the USA. The metropolitan area of ??San Francisco is an attractive destination not only for migrants from Yucatán, but for people from almost all over the world due to its developed economy. According to figures from the US Bureau of the Census, attached to the US Department of Commerce, the average income of a household is US$ 63,024 a year, the highest in the country. The economic bonanza generated by the California gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century, which transformed the village of San Francisco into a large city, never disappeared, but consolidated the so-called Californian dream —the mental motivation to achieve "great wealth in little time," as described by the American historian H. W. Brands in his book The Age of Gold. No wonder California is the most prosperous state in the United States of America. If it were an independent nation it would be the sixth economy in the world.

A century and a half later, but in the service sector —although they also work in construction and in the field, Yucatecan migrants follow, in essence, the same path as gold diggers of California. They have been well received because it is also a very diverse city ethnic wise —33% of its population is of Asian origin and 14% of Hispanic origin, thus, minorities are the majority— and tolerant of different ideologies and ways of living and thinking. It is not a surprise that movements that have marked modern history have developed in its streets.

Although the Mission area has been going through a process of gentrification for a few years now, and it is being repopulated by young adults between 25 and 35 who work in large companies in San Francisco and the nearby Silicon Valley —the Mecca of world technology and headquarter of companies like Google, Apple and Adobe—, the presence of the Yucatecan Mayans in the last three decades has been so significant that in June of this year, the city government recognized them with the construction of the In Chan Kaajal Park, a space of 3,000 square meters (32291.73 ft2) whose name in Mayan language is translated as My Little Town. According to local press reports, this was the first park to be built in the city in a decade.

Mission Street, an eleven-kilometer (6.8-mi) road that crosses San Francisco from north to south, has several restaurants serving Mexican and Yucatecan food, especially from its crossroads with 16th to 24th streets, from east to west. These include Castillito Yucateco, Yucatan Yucatasia and Yucatasia. The latter, is where Isaiah Chan Cauich, 43, and Martha Peraza Carrillo, 50, work. They are originally from Tekax and Oxkutzcab, respectively, municipalities of southern Yucatan with high rates of migrants. They do not have identification papers, but since 2004, they work with the Vietnamese Sandy Duong, also a migrant who was married to a Yucatecan she met in San Francisco. They had a daughter, Effy, who helps her mother in the business by serving the orders. As if it were a popular regional food restaurant in southeastern Mexico, Yucatasia offers around 50 dishes from Yucatecan cuisine, like black stuffing, cochinita pibil (barbecued pork) and poc chuc (roasted pork), as well as Dondé crackers and Cristal sodas, also emblems of Yucatán.

Sandy, who has learned some Mayan phrases such as ma'alob (ok), bet uts (please) and mix bo'al (thanks) due to her daily contact with her employees, shows in the kitchen what they have prepared for the next day: a pot full of boiling mondongo, a typical Yucatan stew consisting of a broth made with spices, chilies and beef belly. Next to her, Isaías sets out to bake the chicken for panuchos and salbutes, appetizers made with dough, lettuce, onion and tomato, so successful that they are so much liked by the nostalgic Yucatecan community that visits the place, as well as customers like Michael, an American who lives a few blocks away and buys a couple of panuchos every day to eat at home with some beer.

Ángel Granados Ontiveros, president of the Federation of Yucatecan Clubs of Northern California, an organization that congregates numerous groups of migrants from all over the region, says: "Most of us came here dreaming of building a house and having a business in our town". The arrival of his countrymen, he tells, was intensified by the networks created by Tomás Bermejo, an immigrant from Oxkutzcab, who opened in 1965 a Yucatecan food business, Tommy's, which is still open in the district of Richmond, about four kilometers (24.85 mi) to the south of the mythical Golden Gate Bridge. Over time, Tomás Bermejo
-who died in 2011- became a “coyote.” He passed migrants across the border. Then, he employed in his own restaurant the people he brought from Yucatán (primarily from the south of the state) for them to pay the crossing, which was around 500 Mexican pesos back then (around 26 dollars today).

The Twin Towers terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a milestone in migratory security. Testimonials from veteran migrants agree that twenty years ago it was enough to cross the Rio Grande, the natural division between the two countries, or jump a small fence to reach the USA. Currently they have to pay between 12,000 and 15,000 US dollars to the coyote or pollero just to try to pass, because the entry is not guaranteed.

Indemaya confirms this profile: 45% of them are between 18 and 29 years old. For every four men migrating, only one woman migrates.

There is an increasing array of technology, agents and movement sensors that make the border traffic as illegal aliens more complicated. But there have also been cases of coyotes that kidnap migrants and demand the families of the victims large sums of money to release them. The danger is latent on both sides of the border.

Since Tomás Bermejo institutionalized the figure of the coyote among the Mayans, most Yucatecans kept the habit of working in restaurants. When they arrive in the USA, the most common is that their friends or relatives get them jobs as dishwashers in restaurants. The Yucatecan networks work like those of any migrant community: they reinforce their bonds by the common culture, recommended each other in works, get together in their homes in the traditional festivities. But there is something that distinguishes them, according to several testimonies. They do not complain or complain less about the long and exhausting days of work in the suffocating heat of the kitchens of the restaurants. This is attributed to the fact that they used to live in a climate of over 40 °C (104 °F) and worked in the field or as masons in their villages, activities that demand great physical effort.

Ángel Granados —who left Oxkutzcab in 1985 at age 16 after graduating from high school and is now a waiter at one of San Francisco's most popular restaurants, The Stinking Rose, famous for its garlic-based cuisine— adds that today, most Yucatecan immigrants are young men from municipalities and the most remote indigenous communities, without academic training, Mayan speakers, who understand a little Spanish with difficulty and do not know any English. Indemaya confirms this profile: 45% of them are between 18 and 29 years old. For every four men migrating, only one woman migrates. The third part of the population of two million people of Yucatán is of Mayan origin and speaks Mayan. Upon arriving in the United States of America, they find in the diversity of nationalities the comfort to talk without grief in the indigenous language, unlike what happens in their native Yucatán, where 67% of the people who speak Mayan are considered discriminated, as revealed by the 2014 State Survey on Discrimination conducted by the State Human Rights Commission. The Yucatecans in the kitchens, like Martha and Isaías, prefer to communicate in Mayan, since they express their disagreements or complaints with freedom, knowing that neither their bosses nor companions, immigrants from other states of Mexico or from other countries will understand them.

That same third part had never left their village before emigrating. Arriving in San Francisco or other cities in the USA causes a strong cultural shock: the crossing of customs of people from various countries, large buildings, and hundreds of cars are diametrically opposed to what they are accustomed to see in their native communities, where almost everything indispensable, such as the main park, the market, the work and the houses of the relatives, converge in a radius no larger than one or two kilometers (0.62-1.24 mi); towns where most inhabitants are friends, acquaintances or relatives, or some mixture of the three, and in which there are no cinemas, restaurants, museums or discos. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography of Mexico, 73% of the 106 municipalities in which Yucatán is divided, do not have more than 10,000 inhabitants.

Granados observes that, to face the depression caused by this cultural shock, migrants take refuge in drugs and alcohol. "With that money that they had never had before, and away from their families, they feel free to do whatever they want," he laments. At the rate of ten dollars per hour, a Yucatecan migrant in this city can earn at least 30,000 dollars a year. In the area of ??the bay they are trying to reproduce behaviors that are socially accepted in the towns of Yucatán, such as drinking and urinating on public roads, which costs them fines that remain in their police record, and that could make a difference between being deported or not. On a tour of Canal de San Rafael Street, several bottles of empty tequila are seen behind the bushes, a space that becomes the ideal place to hide and get drunk. Back home, Yucatán is the state of Mexico with the highest number of alcohol intoxications - 7,057 cases reported in 2016 -, according to the Ministry of Health, almost the double than Jalisco, which is second in the ranking with half of the cases, although it triples the population of Yucatán.

For Angel Granados, the key to survival in the United States of America is to work hard and not get in trouble with anyone. "You just have to collect money and cross your fingers so you can regularize your documents".

Sara Mijares, the Los Angeles activist, says that the Mayans who live in this country "desperately" seek for the Yucatan government to take them into account and be more involved with them and the families they leave in their villages. They do not want the government action to be reduced to repatriating corpses from time to time, the only procedure that the Mexican authorities deal with on a regular basis.


José May left the town of Kimbilá, a town of 3,000 people in the center of Yucatán 18 years ago. Since then, he has lived in Fort Bragg, a tourist town of about 7,000 inhabitants located on the Pacific coast and four hours away from San Francisco, where he tries to fulfill the fundamental dream of almost any Yucatecan immigrant: building the concrete house in his town and, also, buy other land, at the cost of up to three jobs a day and being far apart from the family. He still does not have documents. A few months ago he was swindled by a person who assured him that he would complete the procedures to regularize his immigration status. For fear of being deported, he did not denounce or request assistance from the Consulate of Mexico. It was his own employers who pushed him to sue the scammer, who is now in jail. José did not know he could do it.

The oldest of three brothers, he was the first of them to cross the border. Abel, the second, arrived in California three years later, after turning 20. Two years later, in 2004, they were joined by Sebastian, who left his wife Lidia Tuz and their two children in the care of his parents. He share the land where they built the houses where they now live in Kimbilá, including a Californian style house valued at about $ 120,000 (approximately 2 million pesos), two stories, with a fully equipped kitchen and a bath tub. There used to be two concrete rooms and a house of straw where they grew up when they were children. Not even the work of a lifetime could suffice to build it.

None of the three have residence papers in order yet; hence, they cannot return to Kimbilá. They live here in Fort Bragg in a complex of eight apartments. Theirs is ten meters long by fifteen wide (32.8 in L x 49.21 in W). It has two rooms, a kitchen with barely enough area for two, and a room, where a 50-inch LED TV stands out. The additional works allow them certain comforts, send enough remittances to the family, and equip themselves with devices -mainly acquired by Abel- that they never dreamed of having in their childhood, like cable television systems and a home theater, photographic equipment and Abel’s computer with software, as well as a sports car and a work van.

The three have experienced difficulties, but it was José who made the advance. During the first months, he was afraid to go out into the streets, faced the barrier of language, worked without receiving a salary, without complaining, spent the night outdoors in the forest, one snowy night, after a whole day cutting wood, because his employers forgot to pick him up. "I thought, my God, what I am doing here?" he says. After two years, he adapted, felt more secure, more comfortable with English, with a stable work and savings. Then Abel arrived, who was more adventure than financially driven. Now José has two jobs, in one shift he works in a rest home for adults and in the other as manager of a small supermarket in Fort Bragg. "With what you earn in the USA, you can see the results there (in Yucatán), but I feel that I lost my youth," he confesses. Abel, for his part, has worked as a gardener, due to his knowledge of the field where he grew up, but he also gets by as a photographer of social events. He is the designer of the house in Kimbilá that Sebastián May Llanes and Ligia Arjona, the parents of the three children, have been building. When he left Yucatán, he wanted to know the world, other cultures, and other ways of seeing life. That is why he has traveled to several cities in the USA. But he stopped doing it because he fears getting on any plane and being deported.

The story of Sebastián, the youngest, is different because the economic need encouraged him to leave Kimbilá to improve the income of his family, his wife Lidia, their two children and now a four-year-old granddaughter. The monthly salary of 4,000 pesos (about 207 dollars) sewing in the maquila of Lee brand jeans of his hometown, where he worked with Lydia, was only enough for food and for the house expenses of two small concrete rooms. Now, he receives that income in three days of work at Fort Bragg; in the mornings, in a cafeteria and in the afternoons, at a supermarket, the same one where José works. "Sometimes I think I cannot do it anymore, but then I see what we have achieved and I think it was worth it". With the remittances, his children always had toys, video games, smart phones and, as adults, sports bikes, but Sebastián did not see them grow, although he has maintained contact with the family through technology. And now, he says, he's ready to return soon to Kimbilá and stay there for good. He already has the house and the two lands.

Today is September 5, 2017. José, Abel and Sebastián are a nervous wreck while waiting at the San Francisco International Airport. They entered the air terminal with fear. They even got confused at the entrance, but did not want to ask the guards for fear of deportation. Their parents, Ligia Arjona and Sebastián May, are about to land from Yucatan. They come to stay two months thanks to a program of the state government called Cabecitas Blancas that brings together Yucatecan migrants with more than ten years in the USA with their families. It is a "break" that will help them wait for the procedure to regularize their legal status in the USA, ordered by a judge who found that José and, by extension, his brothers were emotionally affected by that scammer. It is the first time they have seen each other since they left Kimbilá. When their parents arrive, José receives them with flowers and tears. "Dad, I'm Sebastian!" exclaims the younger brother as if he fears they would not recognize him after these years.

Already in the apartment, with the parents recovered from the nearly ten-hour airplane trip, the May Arjona brothers do not skimp on attentions. They bought an iron hanger online to install the hammocks in the room where their parents will sleep. There is a festive atmosphere. They all speak in Maya about the calls that were made at Christmas. Abel acts as a translator. They remember that when they lived in their town they wanted to stock up with electronic devices, and their father always repeated them: "Where are you going to put your TV if you do not have a house?!" Now they have the house, cars and savings. Sebastián Sr. compares their lives with that of young men from his village, poor and addicted to drinking, who even take off their clothes to sell it for 10 pesos (50 cents of US dollar) and thus be able to buy more alcohol.

Like the May Arjona brothers, despite the hardening of the border crossing and the constant threats of President Trump, there are still many Yucatecans who consider crossing the border as the only way to escape the poverty of their homelands. Data from the Migration and Remittances Yearbook 2017 of the National Population Council of Mexico indicate that every day, at least three Yucatecans continue crossing without documents. In a month, they will be at least 90. In a year, there will be around 1,100 migrants who will leave parents, wives, children and siblings in their communities, whom they will not see for 10, 15 or 20 or more years because of their immigration status. Everything is done to improve the family budget and get the longed for concrete house.

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