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Globalization as a people mover

Three people on a dirt road in Jomulquillo, Mexico A man and his grandchildren on a dirt road in Jomulquillo, Mexico, due to be paved with funds from migrants. The very old and the very young are the only people left in the town; the rest are working in the States. (Elizabeth Havice photos)
How migration has both gutted and improved the small town of Jomulquillo, Mexico

JOMULQUILLO , MEXICO - A string of elusive and ambiguous instructions that began in the city of Zacatecas, nearly four hours away, brought me here. I interviewed a professor at the University in Zacatecas who told me I should go see a man called Mario in the town of Jomulquillo, just past the pueblo of San Juan del Centro. Both were about half an hour from the town of Jerez, which was a couple of hours from my starting point in Zacatecas. Once I got to Jomulquillo, I was to go to the store and ask for Mario.

I found Mario. He told me to go to the other store (there were only two) and ask for Pepe. He would tell me what I wanted to know. And like that, after a series of bus rides, barters, inquiries and negotiations, there I was, blindly stepping across the threshold from the sunny open road into the darkness that contained Pepe, whoever he was — maybe friend, maybe foe.

 Check cashing place with old man
One of the many money order/check cashing places that dot Mexico's small towns, enabling families to receive remittances from members working in the States.

That's how it is when I'm soliciting information from strangers. Before picking up the phone, entering an office, dropping an e-mail, or making the initial contact in whatever form, I have a massive moment of hesitation: what if they don't want to talk to me? What if they're not friendly? What if they simply don't want to be disturbed? It's especially strong in cases like this one with Pepe. I hate taking victims totally by surprise. It feels so much fairer when I come announced or accompanied by a contact or friend.

Slowly, my eyes adjusted. I began to distinguish objects: a candy counter, a refrigerator stocked with juice and soda, a chair. It was still so dark though, and I still couldn't get my eyes to wrap themselves around the figure that must be Pepe. I kept looking, and finally, in the corner behind the counter my eyes began to see the outlines of a human.

"Pepe?" I inquired.

No response.

I kept talking. I introduced myself. I told the unresponsive human shape that Mario from down the street told me where to find him. No response, not even a little grunt. My eyes were finally adjusted enough so that I could make out his stoic features of his face. Nothing in those features indicated that he was open to talking to me, or even the slightest bit friendly. I kept talking.

"I'm trying to learn a little bit about the '3 por 1 program.' I heard you guys have been really successful in getting projects off the ground. Any chance you'd be willing to tell me more about it?"

Still no reply. I waited. He moved. Getting out of his chair, he reached to the shelf above his head and pulled down a series of manila folders. Still in silence, he began to open the folders, removed their contents, and arranged them neatly on the counter. He looked up at me, face still unyielding, and motioned for me to move toward him to investigate the papers. I took it as a good sign. I also took at as a good sign that he was wearing a San Francisco 49ers baseball hat. Maybe we'd have something to talk about.

In the folders were elaborate and sophisticated designs for roads, schools, a community center, electricity and even for a water distribution system. The plans neatly and clearly described the financial resources that would be necessary to complete the projects. All were officially signed and stamped, indicating that they had been approved by the government and that they were, so to speak, in the works.

Slowly, Pepe began to describe the plans. He told me which had been completed and which were proposals, and when each one was expected to start and finish. He explained how the ideas for the projects emerge, who's responsible for which percentage of the costs, and how the projects move from being ideas and proposals to being actual buildings and roads. As he continued to talk his voice became warmer, more alive. Soon, he was talking so fast, and with such enthusiasm, I could hardly get my questions in. He was giving me all the details of how the government's 3 por 1 program works, and how it has changed, affected, and bettered his community.

The 3 por 1 program began in the state of Zacatecas five years ago. The goal of the program is to use remittance dollars to fund development projects in communities with high levels of "out" migration, that is, decreasing populations. It's called 3 por 1, or 3 for 1, because for each dollar that migrants donate to a proposed project, the government will donate three dollars: one from the federal government, one from the state government, and one from the regional government.

There are a few rules, of course. The project plans must come from groups of migrants in the United States who are formally organized and are registered with the U.S. government as nonprofits. These groups are often called Home Town Associations (HTAs; see Dispatch 6 for more information). The government limits the amount of funds it will match for each community, and all project decisions, both in planning and in economic aspects, are made by representatives of the HTAs and the Mexican government. Because of this last clause, the Mexican communities and the ultimate beneficiaries of the programs thus face the very real prospect of being shut out of the planning, financing, and implementation aspects of the projects.

To me, that seems quite an important oversight. If the ultimate goal of the projects is to help communities take steps toward becoming economically successful, then requiring community members to be involved in the process would be an excellent way for the community to gain important skills that would prove helpful and necessary in the overall picture of development. This phase, which is what I would call "capacity building," is mysteriously absent.

  Pepe and a bridge
Pepe poses on a bridge in Jomulquillo funded by the 3 por 1 program.

Jomulquillo seems to be a shining example of how well the project can work. Pepe demanded that I let him show me through the community so he could point out all of the projects that have successfully been completed, thanks to 3 por 1 and especially thanks to the strong organization of migrants from their community who now live in Los Angeles. As he drove me around, giving me a thorough tour of past and future projects, he told of the changes in the community and shared his thoughts on the future of the community.

Jomulquillo today is merely a skeleton of what it once was. More than half of its members live in the United States. As a result, the streets are unnaturally quiet, Many homes and buildings have been left vacant or in the care of the remaining neighbors.

My tour ended back at Pepe's small shop where he sat me down, opened a icy beverage for me and handed me a few pieces of candy. He picked up the phone and began dialing. Before I knew it, I was speaking, in English, to Raúl Arriano, one of the leaders of Zacatecaños en el Sur de California (Zacatecans in the South of California), which is Jomulquillo's HTA. I spent nearly 30 minutes learning how the U.S. side of the 3 por 1 transaction operates, all from the comfort of a tiny shop in the middle of the countryside in Mexico — this is truly global integration and transnational networking in action. The whole time, Pepe was not only enthusiastically urging me to ask Raúl specific questions about the projects and the HTA's function, but prodding me to ask Raúl to have dinner with me when I get back to California. (Everyone's a matchmaker!)

Several noteworthy points came out of this experience, the most important being the warm and enthusiastic reception that I received from Pepe. I was welcomed into the community and introduced to several people who chatted openly with me about their lives and the project. They urged me to return at my earliest convenience so that we could all enjoy a cold beer together in the comfort of the community center — built thanks to 3 por 1 funds.

"In en Out Burguer" shop
Migrants who return to Mexico often bring back inspiration from the States. The owner of this burger stand worked in California for a while and loved In-N-Out Burger so much he opened this shop in Jerez, 30 minutes from Jomonquillo, with his U.S. earnings.

On the technical side, the 3 por 1 program seems a fascinating and quite polemic project. Its success largely depends on the organizational skills and commitment of migrants in the United States. Luckily for those in Jomulquillo, migrants who have left the community want very much to stay connected to home and eventually to return. Their investment and commitment to the community, by way of 3 por 1 and the money they send directly to their families, is the only source of capital and projects in this economically depressed community. Jomulquillo has truly taken full advantage of the program in ways that not all communities have been able to. San Juan del Centro, for example, just five minutes down the dirt road, was unable to tap into the 3 por 1 program because infighting kept migrants from deciding on which projects to carry through. When they finally agreed on several, but weren't able to provide the promised funds, the program was canceled.

In Jomulquillo, where the 3 por 1 program has succeeded, there are some interesting contradictions. The commitment of migrants has achieved great results in the community, but in many ways they are barred from ever being able to return permanently by the community's dependence on their remittance dollars. Although there are roads and electricity in Jomulquillo , there is still no functioning economy. The small sewing factory is not yet up and running, and agricultural fields (the traditional economic stronghold in the area) lie fallow due to a lack of water and the capital needed for agricultural inputs.

So then, does 3 por 1 really offer a rural development solution as it claims? Or is it increasing the dependence on outward migration, a strategy that has little hope of fostering long-term economic viability and community development? How can 3 por 1 live up to its claims if in order to bring money into the community, everyone has to leave?

Hopefully, when I take Pepe up on that offer for a beer, we'll talk about this more.