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Migrants' Job Search Empties Mexican Community

Benancio Nieto, 77, works long hours in his field. This season, the subsistence farmer is planting rice with the help of his son. But he says times are hard because of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR /
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Benancio Nieto, 77, works long hours in his field. This season, the subsistence farmer is planting rice with the help of his son. But he says times are hard because of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).

Some places in Mexico have a long history of migration. But for others, including the provincial capital of Malinalco, it's a relatively new phenomenon. After leaving for better-paying jobs in the United States, migrants find themselves missing their families and communities back home.

On the surface, Malinalco -- with its cobblestone streets and weekend visitors from Mexico City a few hours away -- looks fairly prosperous. But something is ravaging the community: Its people are leaving.

"At least five to 10 percent of the population here goes to the United States," says Benito Ceron Mancio, who works with the Malinalco municipal government. "It's been increasing incrementally, but we can see that today it is much more than it ever used to be."

Salvador Hernandez is among those who've gone north. The 20-year-old man has been working as a bricklayer in Georgia for three years and has just returned home for a visit.

"You miss your family when you are [in the United States]," Hernandez says. "I am lonely there..."

He left school at 14 and started to work in the countryside before deciding to follow his many relatives who are working in the United States.

"One goes north for the work more than anything," he says. "There is always work there, in the fields or the restaurants -- many things."

In the United States, Hernandez lives with four other immigrants in a two-bedroom apartment. He manages to send $100 to $500 home each month. He says he works long hours. In his spare time, he watches TV or goes to the mall. He misses the festival days in Malinalco and going to church with the community.

But in Georgia, he earns in one hour what it would take an entire day to earn back home (if there were steady work in Malinalco, which there isn't). His dream is to make enough money to come home to Malinalco, get married and build a house.

Cecilia Gonzales works at a lunch counter in Malinalco. The young girl's brother is in the United States, and some of her friends have just left for there.

"Here it's the same story, almost all of the young girls and boys go over there to make money and to realize, according to them, their American dream," Gonzales says. "There isn't any work here, everything is scarce, and there's lack of money."

She also is thinking of leaving. She sees that many of her friends and family come back from the United States with clothes and cars. Still, Gonzales thinks immigration may not be so great for her country.

"On the one hand it's good, but on the other it's bad because Mexico is belonging more and more to the U.S.," Gonzales says. "Everyone is heading over there. Mexico is emptying."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.