Wetback

Why they come, and what they leave behind.

September 1975By Comments

In front of a ramshackle hut in a tiny unnamed moun­tain village, a pregnant, middle-aged woman sat shell­ing a lapful of beans. The woman—Magdalena Piñaloza de Moreno—was surrounded by her family: Jua­nita, just turned eleven months; Patricia, two years; Rosita, three-and-a-half; and the two boys, Manuel, six years old, and Gregorio, eight, “almost nine.” Between the live births, Señora Magdalena explained, as if apologizing for some social shame, there had been two stillborn babies and a miscarriage.

“And your husband?”

“Oh, Señor, he is not here. He left for the north two months ago and now he is working and making lots of money in the United States. Look!” and she pulled from a pocket an envelope bearing a U.S. postage stamp, post­marked from a small Texas town.

The letter, typewritten in Spanish, read simply: “Wife: I am working. Here is twenty dollars, the money of this coun­try. My friend who writes this letter for me tells me it is worth 250 pesos. You change the money in the town. I will send more. Kisses for my children.” It was signed, formally, Manuel Gregorio Moreno.

“When I am two years older I will go to my father and I too will earn money to send home,” Gregorio piped up proudly.

Manuel Gregorio Moreno and his wife Magdalena are campesinos, the rural people who make up about half of Mexi­co’s 60 million people. Neither Manuel nor his wife Magdalena can read or write. Nor can their children. The chances of their attending school even to the third grade are slim. They are born into—and die in—a life of labor and depriva­tion. Despite efforts by the Mexican government to improve their depressed standard of living and provide them with work, the life of the campesinos in the country or in the city is one of abject misery.

A small charcoal fire smoldered outside the Moreno’s dwelling. Responding to a sharp command from his mother, Gregorio went scurrying to a nearby stream with a chipped enamel pot to scoop up water, careful to take it from the sur­face so as not to stir the mud below. Returning, he placed the pot on the fire to boil.

“We have no other drinking water,” Señora Magdalena said.

With the torrential storm of the night before it was a won­der that the Moreno shack had withstood the driving winds. Bamboo poles, scraps of tin roofing, dried palm thatch, tar paper, water-soaked plywood, anything which might afford some shelter had been converted into building materials. It was all held together with a few nails and pieces of rope.

The Moreno shack is one of but a dozen or so equally dilapidated hovels forming this small, poverty-stricken com­munity. It is accessible only over a weather-battered, tortu­ous byway more than a mile off a major highway. There are no sanitary facilities. Water for drinking and all other pur­poses is taken from the same small stream where Gregorio filled his pot. All cooking is done outside the huts. Each shanty has but one room—sleeping five, six, or more people, children and parents alike. Furnishings might consist of a table, a chair or two; cardboard if it is available, old news­papers if not, is all that protects the families from the damp and sometimes muddy floor. Señora Magdalena’s home does contain a broken-down bed bought, she said, out of part of the money she had received from her husband.

The constant, ever-present problem is securing and provid­ing the family with food. Their diet consists of beans, torti­llas, hot chiles, and more beans… no meat, eggs, vegeta­bles, or milk. Those foods simply cost too much. Beans have increased in price more than 300 per cent over the last year. Tortilla dough and bread are up 400 per cent.

The community is a country slum whose fight for survival is as desperate as that of any city tenement. But poverty in Mexico, however extreme, is laced with dignity. Señora Mag­dalena, like her neighbors, has taken pains to plant flowers around her shack. When in bloom, as they were on this day, the flowers add a brilliant splash of color to the otherwise grim squalor. A few chipped dishes and cups and cracked glasses were laid out on a small table next to the door of the shack. What clothes there were to wash were laid out neatly over the ground near the stream. The wash had been done at daybreak, as it is every morning. Garbage, however, was merely thrown helter-skelter a few yards away.

Although more than a dozen families live in the com­munity, there were almost no men. A group of four men were gathered around a neat pile of mud bricks, apparently hoping to sell them.

One of the men, Jesús Mendoza, complained, “I have not had work for two months. My last job was gathering corn for harvest for the man who owns that field over there. It didn’t last long. I have a boy who works in the town over there. He brings some money home each night and some food. That is all we have.”

Manuel Soto was standing next to Mendoza. His voice was soft, his eyes downcast as he spoke. “I will leave here soon. My children cried last night because we had no food for their supper. This morning my neighbor [gesturing toward Mendoza] gave us some corn meal. We made tortillas. Many of my friends have gone to the United States. They say there is much work there. Like my friend Moreno, who has sent his wife money, I must go, too.”

“But if you have no money, how will you travel and what will happen to your family until you get work?”

“I do not know, Señor. I have a friend in the town who might loan me a hundred pesos. This I will leave with my woman. For the rest I will trust in God.”

Jesús, Manuel, Alfredo: all potential wetbacks, examples of the many millions of desperate Mexican campesinos who have already crossed illegally into the United States, examples of the many millions more who might one day soon be forced to leave their families and country to seek work in an unknown and alien land.

Because these men are penniless, with no particular skills except their willingness to work, they cannot get visas to enter the United States. Their alternative is an illegal dash somewhere across the 1550-mile U.S.-Mexico border or a silent swim across the Rio Grande some dark night.

It is not known how many Mexican campesinos and workers illegally enter the United States each year. Many U.S. authorities will not even venture an estimate, except to say that the figure could run into several million. As one United States immigration official recently remarked, “More than 700,000 Mexicans were returned to their country last year, but like fishing, you can’t determine how many fish are in the stream by the number you take out.”

The Mexican Confederation of Labor claims that nearly four million of the country’s campesinos and workers are unemployed. According to a report issued by the United States embassy in Mexico City, half of Mexico’s rural population has no reportable income. With half of Mexico’s population under twenty years of age, the country must provide at least 800,000 new jobs each year for the young workers entering the labor market. The government admits it is only able to supply 300,000 to 400,000 new jobs yearly.

There are no jobless paychecks in Mexico. Welfare programs for the out-of-work are all but nonexistent. Food stamps are unheard of. Whenever the government considers such a program, conservative critics accuse the administration of socialism. The poor in Mexico must make do with what they can.

The village of Santa Maria on the Mexican central plateau once had a population of 4000 people. Now it has less than 3000. Most of the men have fled the village, for either Mexico City—some but not all with their families—or “the other side.” There is little or no work for the men who remain. It was a warm day in Santa Maria, and the noon sun beat down on the small village plaza. A few men, each wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, had gathered in the shade of an old wooden bandstand to gamble twenty-centavo pieces with dice. Two small boys, ragged, dirty, and barefoot, sat on their homemade shoeshine cases quietly watching the gamblers. Shining shoes in Santa Maria is a scant business, serving only the town’s few well-to-do or the occasional visitor. Most of the men wore guaraches, leather sandals soled with the rubber from old tires—a consumer item romantic only to tourists. A few yards away a traveling salesman had spread his wares on the sidewalk: a variety of plastic kitchen utensils, women’s blouses and skirts, pairs of brief sexy panties, socks, and other odds and ends. His optimism, had diminished. He hadn’t made a sale in two days.

Nearby, seated on a bench in the shade of a broad-leafed tree sat two men, one advanced in years, the other in his early thirties. The two watched silently as a group of boys and girls trooped home from school. Across the street two men worked at mixing cement, repairing the steps of a church. Except for a shop across from the plaza where the shopkeep­er idly waved flies from his meager display of vegetables and fruits, there was no other activity.

The two men seated on the bench talked of Santa Maria and themselves. “Yes,” said the younger, “most of the men have gone away. There is hardly any work here except seasonal or part-time jobs. I am a carpenter. When I work I make maybe 25 pesos [two dollars] a day. But that isn’t every day. Maybe I work one or two days a week. Sometimes not at all.”

Said the old man, “I live with my daughter-in-law. My son has gone to the United States to work. He sends money every two or three weeks and it is enough for us to live. He tells me that he is able to save some money so that when he returns he can go into his own business like Don Leopoldo. That’s his truck up the street.”

The old man pointed to a truck drawn up in front of a store a block up from the plaza. Leopoldo Torres, a well-built, stocky man about 40, was directing the work of a helper who was unloading bags of flour and sacks of grain from a medium-sized truck. Torres was well dressed; his jeans were almost new, and he sported a cowboy-type shirt and well-made boots. His broad-brimmed hat was of a fine felt, not straw. A heavy, carefully trimmed black moustache sheltered his upper lip. Torres was clearly a satisfied man; the story he told in idiomatic English was that of a wetback returned.

“I made my first crossing over the border about five years ago. I was broke then, just like the men you’ve been talking to down at the plaza. My family didn’t have enough to eat. One day I just took off for the north. I swam the Rio Grande one night and nearly got caught,” he recalled with a chuckle. “One of your border patrol guards walked within just a few yards of me where I was hiding in the tall grass on the other side of the river. I was scared.

“But I got as far as a little town in northern Texas where I heard they needed men. I stayed there three months making a fair, for me, amount of money. Some of it I sent home to the family and managed to save some too. But I got home­sick one day. I went on down to Laredo, crossed the bridge, and was back home within a day. As usual, there was no work here and I didn’t want to go to Mexico City. I kept hearing that things were worse there. So back I went to the States following the same route I’d taken before. This time I was more fortunate. I got a ride on the highway with a guy who, believe it or not, was also a wetback but had lived in the States for almost ten years. He’d married an Anglo and was living in Colorado. He offered to take me with him, so I went. I had had some experience as an electrician the time before in Texas so I eventually got a job as an electrician’s helper. Had a hell of a time with a local union but we finally managed. That was good money, no stoop labor. I stayed. Sent money home, saved more. I worked there four years and then got homesick again.

“With the money I brought back with me this time I was able to buy a small house, this truck, and set myself up in business. I’m making a down payment on another truck next month.

“I’ve got to get back to work but let me tell you one thing more. I went to Mexico City six months ago and applied for a visa to the United States. The embassy gave it to me! Sometimes I make trips to the border. I cross to the other side and buy things, like these clothes. And when I go I al­ways take some of my friends here with me. They cross over on their own but at least I help get them to the border. The dollars they send back to their families help keep this town alive.”

The office of the presidente municipal (the mayor) of Santa Maria contained a desk, two chairs, and a file case. A large poster of Mexico’s President Luis Echeverría was the only adornment. Hugo Palacios, the mayor, is a licenciado, meaning he holds a degree in law. That a lawyer holds the office of presidente municipal in a tiny pueblo such as Santa Maria is not surprising. Many of Mexico’s most powerful politicians today rose from much more humble positions.

“Is Santa Maria typical of other pueblos in Mexico?”

“Yes. The people are leaving the land, flooding into the city, working on the other side. But not all take that route. Some have more militant ideas.”

“What does that mean?”

Palacios leaned back in his chair, speaking slowly and care­fully. “Some to the hills… what I call the angry men. There are guerrilla bands out there,” he said, waving his hand in the general direction of the mountains. “Don’t get the idea that these people are bandits no matter what Mexico City says. All of them are politically motivated. They want to change the system. They are, I suppose, what you might call com­munists, that vague term you people always apply to anyone who protests. I wonder if you’d agree that there is something in Mexico to protest about?”

Like the men he described, his words became angry. “These men are not communists, they don’t know nor do they care what the word means. What they are, most of them, are fathers of hungry families. It might help if you’d take that message back to the city or to your country or wherever you come from.”

“Why?”

“Because there is misery in this country and no one gives a damn.”

“President Echeverría,” Palacios went on, looking up at the poster on the wall, “has demonstrated more interest in the campesino and the nation’s agrarian problems than any other president since the Cardenas administration in the Thirties. But only because he has to. He’s damn aware that if he doesn’t this whole country is going to blow up in his face.

“I try to convince my people here not to go to the other side. I tell them they’ll only be exploited by your people. Even if the money they make is more than they can earn here, it is still substandard to what is earned in the United States. That man Torres might have come back and profited, but for every Torres there’s a thousand who come back beaten down.

“No, I tell our people to stay here, to make their fight here. Mexico can be great. Perhaps what we need is another Zapata, another revolution. But this time a real revolution.” Santa Maria and Hugo Palacios are fictitious names, but both exist. Palacios is typical of an increasing number of educated, outspoken young Mexican men determined to change the status quo. Despite Palacios’ hope for another Emiliano Zapata, the 1910 revolutionary peasant leader, an­other Zapata might not necessarily be the answer. There is still no clear solution to the problems of Mexican agriculture and the campesino. Debates rage in Mexico over private property versus collectives versus the Indian commune versus the ejido, a system native to Mexico where jointly owned farm lands are cultivated in any form agreed upon by the ejido members. While large, mechanized landholdings might increase production, they would not necessarily employ the millions of out-of-work campesinos. The ejido system has not proven successful, the Indian communes work best with Indians, and collectives border too closely on socialism or Marxist-Leninism.

The present national government is placing greater empha­sis on the problem than previous regimes, but the president’s recently announced National Farm Plan runs the danger of creating “rising expectations” which by the very magnitude of the problem cannot quickly be satisfied.

The fact is that Mexico, the fifth largest country in the Western Hemisphere, is running out of land. Of the nation’s more than 760,000 square miles, only twenty per cent is suitable for cultivation. Of that, only seventeen per cent is irri­gated land. Mexico’s population today is nearly 60 million people, of which an estimated 40 per cent are campesinos, who desire to work the land, own it if they can. Land has been redistributed almost continually over the past 40 years. The large landholding haciendas—for the most part—have been broken up. But as a recent issue of Comercio Exterior de Mexico, a monthly publication of the National Bank of Foreign Commerce, pointed out: “One of the fundamental problems in agriculture has long been an unwieldy distribu­tion apparatus, particularly injurious to the poorer farmers and favoring the proliferation of monopolists, usurers and venal leaders. Such middlemen have cornered an important part of agricultural income, exploiting the farmers and raising the cost of farm commodities to the detriment of the con­sumer.”

While farm production grew 3.8 per cent between 1960 and 1970, it grew only 1.7 per cent from 1970 to 1974. President Echeverria’s National Farm Plan for 1975 to 1980 takes its premise in part from the following proposition: “Farming and livestock-raising are not simply a question of increasing rural credits; inputs, technical assistance, farmer education, middlemen-free marketing; a clearing out of politi­cal and economic bosses, and a moral cleansing of the farmers themselves, perverted by their official exploiters, are only a few of the chapters a real rehabilitation plan should contain.”

But President Echeverría’s six-year term comes to a close next year. He cannot succeed himself under the Mexican constitution and the country’s political history is such that rarely is there consistency in policy from one administration to the other. It will not be surprising if the next Mexican president’s ideas differ distinctly from those of the current regime.

Conditions in the countryside remain grim. An intensive study conducted by the National Committee of Arid Zones found that even in one region of the country—classified “good” compared with more depressed areas—29 per cent of the population between the ages of six and fourteen did not attend school. Worse conditions were found in the state of Guanajuato, almost in the geographical center of the country. Seventy per cent of that state’s population cannot afford meat, 68 per cent cannot afford eggs, 52 per cent above the age of ten are illiterate, while 65 per cent of the children between the ages of six and fourteen do not attend school.

The report added that 74 per cent of the rural population in the southern state of Oaxaca have family incomes of less than 200 pesos (sixteen dollars) monthly. Eighty-seven per cent of the rural population of the state of Oaxaca and its neighbor Puebla live in homes of but one or two rooms, only 25 per cent have electricity, and 85 per cent do not consume milk.

Mexico City is like a magnet to the campesino in much the same way as the United States is. He borrows, begs, or steals the pesos neces­sary to get himself, and sometimes his family, to the city where he hopes to secure work. Packed into second-class buses, they arrive in the capital penniless, confused, and frightened by the sprawling, impersonal metropolis.

The population of greater Mexico City is now estimated at more than ten million people. At least a thousand more arrive from the country each day. According to published statistics, more than 30 per cent of the city’s population are crammed into evil smelling, filthy slums. While luxury apart­ments rent from $400 and up a month in the city’s better residential districts, housing is at a premium in the slum areas where the tumbledown shacks provide little shelter from summer rains or winter cold. The city government admits it cannot meet an annual shortage of 100,000 homes.

A single water tap for a city block, little or no sanitation facilities, garbage dumped wherever it is convenient, the roar of traffic, the heavy smog are the fate of a people who not long ago at least enjoyed the clean, clear air and wide expanse of the lands in which they were born.

The unemployed line the streets and gather in the many plazas. An electri­cian props a crudely lettered sign an­nouncing his trade against a small box of tools and patiently awaits employ­ment. Alongside him are a carpenter, a mason, and men of various other trades. Further down the street stand the wom­en, many in the traditional dress of their region. They wait for hire as maids, cooks, or other menial employment. Too many girls as young as twelve or thirteen turn to prostitution. A Mexican sociologist declared on a recent televi­sion talk show that there are more than 400,000 women so employed in Mexico City alone.

From vantages such as these the al­ternatives are few. One may remain patient and hungry, one may turn to violent protest (which is increasing throughout the countryside), or one may become a wetback. The United States has always been a golden land of opportunity. So it was for years past for Europe’s poor and hungry, so it is today for Mexico’s. No matter the dan­gers or obstacles in crossing the border to illegally seek work. This is no worse than what the campesinos leave behind.

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