NOCHISTLAN, MEXICO — When I arrived at the hotel ten minutes before 5 a.m., Julian and my new traveling companions were already waiting for me. In the pre-dawn darkness, the six of us piled into Julian's truck to start some seriously quality "car time."
A previous contact had put me in touch with Julian, a schoolteacher who had turned activist/politician when there were suddenly no more kids to teach in his community. Ten years ago he had 82 students, today, he has six. All of the families have left to go north.
Working with other schoolteachers and community leaders, Julian formed an organization called the Fund for the Integrated Development of Southern Zacatecas. The organization helps local entrepreneurs (all of whom are funded exclusively by remittance dollars, money sent home by migrants working primarily in the States) develop and realize business ideas. Much of this effort is focused on helping them make marketing connections, perhaps the trickiest step in making the new businesses viable.
Luckily for me, Julian happened to be passing through the city of Zacatecas to solicit government support for some of the projects. He offered to pick me up and take me to Nochistlan, his hometown, so that he could show me some of the projects the Fund has helped to start.
Conversation was casual throughout the subsequent days' adventures. But while such conversation in Zacatecas bounces carelessly back and forth from talk of the most recent soccer championship to herbal alternatives for modern medicine and the like, it nearly always comes to a natural resting point on the topic of migration.
Let me assure you that this wasn't because I was probing, asking questions or continuously returning to the topic. Yes, my companions were aware that I study migration, but their subtle and continuous references to the subject were not for my benefit. Migration is intensely pervasive in these communities. It has touched every person's life. It permeates the consciousness of every person in the community because of the empty spaces around them that were once filled with family and friends, because of the source of the money that they use to buy their bread or soap or gas, and because if, by some small chance, they haven't yet "gone north," they're considering it. Seriously considering it.
Some snippets of the casual conversation over the days I spent with Julian and his friends:
Mario, over dinner: "When I got there, things got really tough, I had to steal oranges from an orange grove one day so that I would have something to eat. Can you imagine? Stealing oranges?"
Juan: "I got across the border with the coyote [a smuggler of immigrants], and was planning to go and meet family members in the city. Next thing I knew, I was being loaded on a plane for Northern California, when I got off that plane, they told me about my new job in the drug trade."
Julian (in the truck, upon our late-night arrival in Nochistlan): "Elizabeth, you're not staying in a hotel tonight, you're staying at my house with my family. Hotels around here aren't like hotels in other places. This is a place of movement and migration and all of the ills that go along with it.you know, drugs, prostitution. Hotels around here are not nice or safe places for regular people."
Lupita (at Julian's family's house): "Four years I spent in Texas. I came home because I just wanted something different from the way of life there. Twelve of my brothers and sister live in the U.S. now, the other two live on the border. I live here alone with my mom and a couple of cousins. But between my savings from my work in the U.S. and the money they send home, I've been able to really succeed with my bread shop. It wouldn't have been possible without the money to buy the industrial ovens and mixers. But Elizabeth, are there a lot of single men where you live?"
Lupita's mom: "Their kids are hungry. What else are they going to do? Of course they're leaving, they have to feed their kids. What are their options?"
Options, that's exactly what Julian and his colleagues are trying to create. He graciously escorted me from shirt factory to water purifying plant to Mezcal distillery (Mezcal is an alcohol made from agave, the same plant used to make tequila) to nopal canning facilities (nopal is a delicious, popular edible succulent), showing me his new vision of rural development for the areas surrounding Nochistlan. As we went, I got to talk to the new entrepreneurs and to learn about their successes and challenges.
The projects were impressive. For the most part, they all required quite intensive investments of both capital and time to get them off the ground. The equipment for the water purification system and for the Mezcal distillery, for example, each cost more than $500,000. The owner of the water purification plant worked in the U.S. for eight years to save the necessary funds. The plant is now up and running, and profitable: it offers a product that people need on a daily basis. In the case of the Mezcal distillery, the owner and his three collaborators have been working on their project for more than 10 years and still don't have a finished product ready to market. Add to the delay the saturation of the Mezcal market in Mexico and the geographic isolation of their processing plant, and the distillery's challenges seem large.
The resources are available: money keeps flowing in from the U.S. to fund the ventures. And as long as the money is there, new projects continue to pop up, giving those left behind by the wave of migration a sense of purpose in their vacated communities. Their task is daunting. They get little to no help from the government or from private investors in the way of loans or business advice. They are quite literally building an entire economy brick by brick, rather than inserting a new business idea into the infrastructure of an already functioning marketplace. They are responsible for all aspects of making their venture profitable - all aspects, that is, except for the initial capital inputs necessary for the projects, which their families send to them from the United States.
So, considering the relationship between migrant remittances and new business development in the south of Zacatecas, how then, do we answer Julian's quandary, posed over dinner one night?
"Migration.is it a problem, or a solution?"
That is perhaps the hardest question of all, and it's one that Julian faces personally. Ironically, this activist, politician and community leader, who has dedicated his work to creating a new vision of rural development in his community, is close to accepting a position advising a new chain of restaurants. The restaurants are set to open later this year in Los Angeles.