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In the Newsroom

October 20, 2008
As migrant money drops, Mexican villages worry

Producer Rebecca Haggerty reports from two Mexican hillside villages with Ara Ayer and Martin Savidge about the local effects of the U.S. economy’s downturn. The story grew out of a small news item about remittances — or money sent back home by Mexicans living in the U.S. — which fell by about two percent in July.

View the story here: U.S. money to Mexico slows.

A road climbing through the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, where villagers are feeling the effects of fewer remittances. Photo: Martin Savidge

Outside of Ixmiquilpan, the road climbs up the Sierra Madre mountains and into several small villages populated mostly by indigenous Mexicans from the Hnahnu tribe.

For centuries, the Hnahnu scraped a living growing corn from the rocky, semi-arid land. But in the last few decades, they started traveling to the U.S. to work in construction, agriculture and restaurants. Those journeys changed the landscape of the countryside – literally.

Migrant money builds new roads and public buildings in the villages, and countryside is dotted with two-story concrete houses embellished with flourishes worthy of suburban McMansions.

In Puerto Dexthi, a town of about 800, the town hall/health center was built with money sent from abroad. That’s where we met Hillario Cerroblanco, who worked in the U.S. for 15 years. Before he went North, Hillario made baskets from the tough fiber of native plants. He showed us the traditional house that he and his extended family still use.

It was one room, made from wood and thatch. But after years working construction in Florida, Hillario designed his own dream house. His hand-drawn plans show two stories and four bedrooms.

When we met him, he was building his own house full-time, along with help from his neighbors. Hillario had returned from the U.S. because he missed his family, and he also couldn’t find full-time work. He wasn’t sure how long his money would last, but he was determined to keep building.

Down the road, in the village of San Nicolas, Maria Felix Garcia still lives in the traditional style, with an open air courtyard where chiles and corn husks dry under the fierce mountain sun. The 45-year-old mother of five paid her doctor’s bills for eye surgery using the money her oldest daughter earned working in a restaurant in Georgia. Maria and her youngest daughter spend the afternoons embroidering the elaborate blouses traditionally worn in the village.

They hope to sell them in the craft market, but it takes a month to complete the elaborate designs. Her husband makes $8 dollars a day working in the fields. In contrast, the money that her oldest daughter was able to make working in a restaurant seemed like a fortune, and it helps send the younger children to school. Still, that cash comes at a high price. Maria doesn’t have a phone, and her contact with her daughter is infrequent. “I miss her,” she confessed, breaking down in tears.

Across the valley, Maria’s worries echoed. Forty percent of Mexicans live in poverty, and the InterAmerican development bank study estimates that another two million families – most in Mexico – will be pushed below the poverty line if remittances continue to fall. We left the valley as the sun set, tired and sobered by the trip. Just days after we returned, the Mexican Central Bank published the newest monthly figures — remittances dropped even further.

— Rebecca Haggerty

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