MORELOS, MEXICO - "I can't believe this is my job."
I must have thought those words a million times in the past few weeks. I thought them as I sat on the corner at the entrance to Santa Cruz Mixtepec, a community of about 300 people. It was late afternoon, and I was waiting for a vehicle, any vehicle, to pass so I could catch a ride. I was trying to get back home for the night - more than three hours away.
I waited an hour and a half. During that time, I chatted with a number of community members. We talked about their lives, about my life in California, their former lives in California, the weather, whatever crossed our minds. When there was no company, I just sat, appreciating the sweeping view of the mountains and the silence in the air. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face. I drew pictures in the loose dirt on top of the earthen road. I paced the road and strained my ears for a distant sound of an engine. When a truck finally arrived, I was welcomed into the back. The truck had Florida license plates.
A few days later, about 4 a.m., the words once again dubiously formed themselves in my mind as I walked through the vacant and dark streets of Tlaxiaco. "This is my job?" A few minutes later, accompanied by a number of other travelers carrying small children and bags full of agricultural products, I began a seemingly interminable journey. First, a rickety old bus passing over decrepit roads delivered me to the small village of Santa Cruz Intundujia. Another hour on winding and treacherous mountain roads in an only mildly reliable VW bug got me to my final destination of Morelos, a small village in the highlands of Oaxaca.
Upon arriving in Morelos, I sat down next to a wood-burning stove that comfortingly cut the cold out of the mountain air as it warmed tortillas. I was surrounded by the kind faces of the lady of the house and her five daughters. I nibbled on black beans, tore away a bit of the toasty tortilla on my plate, and sipped warm milk. Laughter lingered in the air after we had all jumped from our seats to rescue the milk from boiling over; there was easy conversation about the community's comings and goings. "This IS my job." The words echoed affirmatively.
The past few weeks, my day-to-day work activities have revolved around visiting different rural communities in Oaxaca trying to get a feel for what it's like out there. That's a pretty broad task, I know, but it's the best strategy I could come up with to familiarize myself with the factors that force and sustain migration, as well as the impact migration has on communities.
I wanted to step away from the big-picture plans of investors and government projects, and sit down with 'regular' people. After all, these are the people that represent the majority of the rural population in Mexico - a population with highly limited experience with the formal projects and policies touted by government bodies. These communities, with their limited economic and political influence, seem to be overlooked continuously at the regional, national and international scales.
Ironically, migration might just be the factor that continues to enable the government to ignore this population. If migrants continue to send money home and to support rural areas, that simply means that the government doesn't have to fill that role. Instead, national and regional politicians can publicly declare migrants brave national heroes. The same administrators can focus on campaigning in the U.S. for migration reform - reform that, if enacted, will ease restrictions on migration, further cushioning the government's burden to create and implement a cogent and effective rural development policy.
What did I find in these places where people seem unaccounted for? All communities shared a unanimous explanation for why their family members and neighbors are heading north: "No hay trabajo." ("There is no work.") Yet each of the communities seems to have markedly different priorities for development based on their particular needs. For example, while Morelos sought basics such as roads and more efficient transportation, Santa Cruz Mixtepec worked on getting a new Internet café up and running. Those in Santa Cruz Mixtepec spent hour after hour drafting letters to their migrants requesting funds to refurbish churches and build community centers, trying to make home a place people will want to stay in the future. In more remote Morelos, those left behind had no interest in investing in what they recognized as a failed economy. Most community members expressed with conviction their desire to drop everything and move with their children and neighbors to the other side of the border.
Much to my relief, all of the community members seemed to have a genuine appreciation for my presence. I was continuously thanked for coming to visit. I was invited to return for festival seasons and asked to help with immigration paperwork. Mostly, I was thanked for showing up, for sitting and listening, and for asking what people needed, even though I openly admitted that my job didn't allow me the resources to help them obtain it.
My warm welcome, however, did come with an indescribable sense of urgency. I walked away from each of the communities, from their distinct needs and histories, with an uncomfortable weight on my shoulders. I can't quite pinpoint it, but I think what lingers is the nagging suspicion that each community was so pleased by my presence because it somehow offered proof of their being. That having someone from afar come to visit, to listen, to learn, and later, to write and retell their stories, is one of the few tangible pieces of proof that the people and places exist - that they survive, that they struggle, that they are.
With this observation, I certainly don't intend to put a disproportionate weight on the importance of my visits. I am not by any means encountering "pre-contact" civilizations that are looking to me as the sole savior of their community and way of life. A constant stream of researchers, activists, developers and government officials passes through on visits similar to my own. Perhaps this is the problem: all of us simply pass through. We learn from what we observe, but we lack the adequate resources, time, energy, skills, whatever, to make a lasting impact. Even with adequate resources and time, would we, the visitors, be the appropriate people to "fix" the problems that we take the liberty to define from outside?
One factor distinguishes these communities from others with similar economic struggles. Although remote, they are clearly and continuously tied into the global economy and global culture by the migrants that pass in and out of their lives. This relationship with the United States gives locals - many of whom have at one point or another lived in the U.S. - a clear sense of the economic realities that they face as well as the different choices that are available to them. That's where the remittance dollars come in. The people in each community take the money that comes to them as a group - the most significant resource to come their way in quite some time - and uses it to the best of their ability, for whatever purpose they deem most worthy.
For now, while researchers and government officials observe, analyze, and attempt to manage the flow of remittance dollars, the future of rural development in Mexico continues to rest fragilely in the hands of the migrants and their families.