Getting By

Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail

By Rubén Martínez. Metropolitan Books, 330 pages, $26.00

Some of us are illegal, and some are

  not wanted ...

They chase us like outlaws, like

  rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your


We died in your valleys and died on

   your plains.

We died 'neath your trees and we died

  in your bushes,

Both sides of the river, we died just the


... Who are all these friends, all

  scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says, "They are just


    --Woody Guthrie

At 5:15 in the afternoon on Saturday, April 6, 1996, a GMC truck with a camper shell, transporting 27 people, was spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol in the Santa Rosa Mountains east of San Diego, California. With the border patrol in hot pursuit, the truck miscalculated a turn, hurtled off the road, and landed upside down on its camper shell--crushing Benjamín, Salvador, and Jaime Chávez underneath. The Chávez brothers thus joined the 3,000 others who died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the latter half of the last decade.

California journalist Rubén Martínez sets out to rescue the Chávez brothers from the relative anonymity of immigration statistics. By putting faces on the numbers, he elevates our understanding of the calculus of immigration from Mexico and illustrates the push-pull factors that drive Mexican citizens to emigrate. Family ties, social relationships, and the very real dangers of crossing figure into individual decisions on emigration, which are made in the larger economic context of real need. By focusing on the extended Chávez family and its neighbors in the depressed mountain town of Cherán, Martínez provides an intimate portrait of how the transnational economy is playing out in the lives of people who have never heard of free-trade agreements.

Located 200 miles due west of Mexico City--in the state of Michoacán-- Cherán is home to 30,000 people. Once a thriving Purépecha Indian community, founded before the conquest, the town is now bereft of a self-sufficient economy. It has one hotel and one restaurant. It is difficult to generate local income there. Each block has two or three stores, located in the front rooms of homes, all selling the same items--Marlboros, Modelo beer, candy, eggs, and bread. The chief economic driver for Cherán and countless other Cheráns in Mexico is its relationship to the U.S. economy through the labor of its citizens, many of whom work more than a thousand miles from the town plaza. When Martínez initially came to Cherán in 1996 to interview the Chávez family, the town's first sewer system was under construction, only half the population had running water, and there were just 130 private telephone lines.

One-third of the town's residents go north each spring and return for the fiesta of Saint Francis in October. According to Martínez, three million citizens of Michoacán live more than half the year in the United States. Some towns in the region lose between 60 percent and 70 percent of their populations during the spring and summer, mostly migrants between the ages of 17 and 45. And what do the emigrants bring back? "The best and worst of U.S. pop culture," writes Martínez. In 1999 they also brought back to Michoacán some $5 billion in earnings. (The state's budget is less than $2 billion.) Together, retired Michoacános also receive $2.8 million a month in Social Security payments from the United States. These are the kinds of numbers that fuel Mexican President Vicente Fox's desire to normalize U.S. relations with Mexican labor.

So for many Cherán residents, life in Mexico has an ever present doppelgänger: life in the United States. In crossing back and forth, they struggle to bring continuity to their schizophrenic, transnational existence--by wearing baggy jeans and listening to hip-hop music in the mountains of Mexico or by staging a Purépecha ritual in Wisconsin farm country. In fact, at the heart of Martínez's depiction is the way that several families attempt to reconcile their split lives.

The hitch in this dual existence is the physical difficulty of traveling between the two worlds. In 1994 the United States initiated Operation Gatekeeper and built a steel wall across the border at Tijuana. (This project was linked to Operation Safeguard in Nogales, Arizona; Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas; and Operation Rio Grande in McAllen, Texas.) Since then, more than 3,000 Mexican emigrants have died in the desert, in the mountains, in auto accidents, or crossing the Rio Grande while trying to avoid the physical barriers and reinforced patrols at the major crossing points. Even when successful, the journey is expensive. Residents of Cherán pay at least $1,000 each for a coyote to conduct them along these dangerous routes into the United States. Unfortunately, whatever progress President Fox had made in trying to establish safe passage for workers from Mexico has been set back by the new war on terrorism.

All across mexico, border crossing creates hometowns of women, children, and old people. Husbands leave their families for months or years. Most send money home, but some find new wives and families and are never heard from again. Increasingly, women are making the trip to preserve their families, to bring in additional income, and to find greater opportunity for themselves and their children. Families are split between those who have gained legal status in the United States and can cross easily and those who cannot.

As Martínez describes them, the economic and social stations in Cherán are largely derived from the jobs that residents hold in the United States. At the top of the economic ladder are the town's millionaire coyotes. Next are the norteños, who have work permits, own homes in the United States, and don't toil in fields. They use their two-story houses with tinted windows and wrought iron, which are empty most of the year, as Mexican vacation homes. Norteños come back from the United States wearing Gap shirts and jeans. When the Enríquez family, for example, returns to Cherán, they cruise the highway through the center of town in five Chevy Silverados, blaring hip-hop from their trucks' speakers. They've turned their house into an impressive compound and clearly enjoy their high social status.

In Norwalk, Wisconsin, three generations of the Enríquezes live in a large house near a meatpacking plant that employs seven family members. (After cutting pine trees and doing farm labor in Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, and Kentucky, the family moved farther north to get jobs in the meatpacking plant.) They all signed up for $10 an hour. With seven people working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, 45 weeks a year, they brought in $189,000 a year. They purchased their house and gained legal status under the U.S. government's amnesty program.

The next rung down the social ladder in Cherán consists of people like the Chávez family. They have been working in the United States for a number of years, mostly as farm laborers. Most are undocumented. For them, the crossing each time is expensive and a huge risk. Not long after the funeral for the three Chávez brothers, their older brother returned to California, and their sister, Rosa, crossed with her two-year-old daughter to join her husband near St. Louis, Missouri. When they come to the United States, they share trailers or apartments with several others and often long for home. Their houses in Cherán are typified by the beginnings of second stories; rebar emerges from their rooftops. They wear Chicago Bulls jackets, Oakland Raiders caps, and Air Jordan shoes. They are somewhat intimidated by the norteños but are much more worldly than the cholos, who never leave.

The cholos are at the bottom. Their average Cherán salary is three dollars a day. They affect gangsta style, don't work much, and seem to have no prospects for anything more than bare subsistence.

According to the latest U.S. Census, immigration from Mexico to this country has increased dramatically since 1970. Fewer than 800,000 Mexican-born immigrants lived in the United States 30 years ago. Almost eight million live here today, nearly threequarters of whom arrived since 1980. Seventy-three percent of these immigrants live in California, Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico. According to the Census Bureau's March 2000 Current Population Survey, approximately three million Mexican-born immigrants are in the United States without documentation.

Since 1960, the globalization of the Mexican economy has had a marked effect in stimulating emigration from the rural regions of Mexico. Urban industrialization during the sixties produced goods that replaced the work of small local industries and artisans. The "green" revolution's irrigated corporate farms drove rain-fed, subsistence farmers off the land. Foreign investment grew, including the creation of the foreign-owned maquila factories massed in northern Mexico along the U.S. border and exempt from many Mexican export duties. The most significant factor has probably been the periodic devaluation of the peso relative to the dollar--including steep drops in each of the past three decades.

"The future lies in the U.S., the past in Mexico," Martínez writes. He seems to ignore the fact that some of the Mexican past also lies in the United States, where investors had a large hand in transforming Mexican industrial, agricultural, and monetary policy. As Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz once lamented, "Poor Mexico--so far from God and so close to the United States."

Rosa Chávez remains hopeful that a better future awaits her family in the United States. She and her husband, Wence Cortez, have crossed the border annually for the past few years. Rosa seeks a good education for her daughter, as well as the liberation that life in the United States offers a woman from the mountain villages of Michoacán. She knows the success stories of people like the Tapia family from Cherán. Raúl Tapia grew up in a home in which only Purépecha was spoken. As a non-English speaker, he spent years on the migrant trail in the United States. Raúl finally landed a job with the city street crew in Warren, Arkansas. His children grew up speaking English and have all gone to college. Today, 60 families from Mexico live in Warren. Most are from Cherán. They are changing the landscape of the rural United States. Meanwhile, Rosa and her husband continue to struggle, sharing an apartment in West St. Louis County with other Cortez family members. Wence makes $5.75 an hour on a tomato farm. The couple constantly considers returning to Mexico.

And what about the actual crossing? Martínez recounts Rosa's attempts to join her husband that winter in Missouri. (Strangely, Martínez used the first half of the book to build up to the crossing experience, arranged with a coyote to cross with Rosa, and then went back to Los Angeles for Christmas and missed the crossing he'd arranged for--no doubt irritating his editor.) The coyote, Mr. Charlie, led Rosa, her daughter, and others in seven attempts to cross. They tried direct and indirect routes, only to be picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol. Each time, they were returned to Mexico, where they regrouped in a safe house near the border. Finally, after they waited six hours in the desert, Mr. Charlie and his van transported them to Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. Charlie bought another van there and took Rosa and others through a snowstorm to rural Illinois, where she met up with her husband.

So much for the physical crossing. The psychological crossing takes place every day, all day long, in the minds of immigrants from Mexico. And then, of course, as Martínez tells it, there is the continual crossing between cultures and economies of north and south as the lines of demarcation become less and less precise.