During my stay in Mexico, a nephew of mine invited me to join him and his wife and their small daughter on a visit to land they had bought in the country, an hour and a half from the city’s bustle, in the Sierra Norte. The idea, he explained, was to take advantage of reasonable real estate prices and enjoy the nature one can still find in such places. His property has many trees, and a little stream runs through it. Over time he plans to build a cabin and spend weekends and holidays in tranquility, something impossible to find in the growing cities.
To get there we drove through urban and rural towns, over new toll roads and other older ones. To the west the smoking Popocatéptl and its companion Iztaxíhuatl slowly disappeared, while to the north loomed La Malinche, making up the trio of beautiful snowy volcanoes. As we drove, something unusual and inexplicable soon became obvious: among the poor and dilapidated rural houses were numerous recently built, large and ostentatious ones, displaying a strange and eclectic architecture.
Almost all these houses abutted the highway, demonstrating to passersby a rarely seen wealth. Some were scattered in small towns, easily distinguished by their two or three floors, well-maintained, brilliantly colored facades and excessive windows (some even polarized). When I asked my nephew about these extravagant houses, which contrasted so markedly with the landscape, he answered with two words: “the remittances.”
During the past 20 years, Puebla has been one of five Mexican states that have sent the most emigrants and their cheap labor to the United States. Many of these people have landed in New York, to the point that the area is known as Puebla York, a play on Nueva York. Many Mexican immigrants send part of their wages home as remittances, and the flow of money to these impoverished pueblos has resulted in unbalanced economic change.
Immigrants usually dedicate a portion of remittances to the construction and ownership of a house in their hometown. This has happened all over the country for decades, and the financing of excessive and unnecessary construction rather than productive projects that could benefit everyone has in many cases changed local economies. In addition, when the amount of this incoming money exceeds that generated by local labor, many poor artisans, merchants and farmers just quit working altogether and live on remittances alone.
These funded houses are rarely if ever occupied by their owners. Very few immigrants return permanently to their hometowns, instead going back to the United States when they find they can’t earn as much in their villages as they did here. Others have made a life in El Norte, or have children who do not want to live in a country they consider foreign and lacking in the comforts to which they are accustomed. Some recently deported immigrants return to a half-constructed house—these exist in abundance—or migrate to other cities because of the lack of work in their own villages.
In 2008 the money sent home to Mexico reached an all-time high of almost $30 billion. Since then that number has diminished, principally because of the mortgage crisis and unemployment in United States, which disproportionately affected Latinos, many of whom returned to or were deported to their home countries. But lately that trend has reversed, and remittances are starting to rise again.
Not all the money is spent on superfluous expenses—or diminishes productivity in migrants’ hometowns. People from the same town or region living in the same area in the United States have often banded together to provide help for their towns—repairing streets, lighting, drainage and even churches. In some cases, the Mexican government has matched this money dollar for dollar. Local governments have occasionally done the same.
When I asked my nephew for other examples of large, unsustainable projects—such as hotels or businesses that require millions of pesos to function—the conversation turned to organized crime and money laundering. Many new businesses are fueled by funds generated by these activities, including narco-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, robberies or assassinations. These activities have some parts of the country on edge, and are responsible for emigrations and forced displacement.
Our outing had the appearance of a tranquil tour through rural villages, with an idyllic picnic in natural surroundings, and someone who didn’t understand the realities of present-day Mexico might think we were truly in a country of peace and progress, where friendly and smiling people with beautiful customs and traditions were doing honorable work. In truth, we were faced with the terrible realities of extreme violence and organized crime supported by the government that have everyone worried and unsure as to how it will all turn out. Happy 2015!
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and native of Puebla, Mexico