BY AMY ISACKSON JULY 22, 2010
Despite the economic downturn, the desire to work and live in the U.S. continues to drive migrants north. As part of our Envision series “Crossing the Line: Border Stories,” we bring you the story of one man who understands that desire well.
Rogelio Mendez comes from the village of Tlacotepec in Oaxaca. It’s about 1,700 miles south of San Diego, nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains.
Many people there speak the indigenous language Mixtec. Half the homes have dirt floors. But many of the cars have California license plates. And, like other villages dotted around Oaxaca, people can rattle off the names of freeway exits in San Diego.
That’s because, for the last 70 years, men like Rogelio Mendez have headed north to San Diego to find jobs. “We’re the kids
of an ex-bracero. They told us that in the United States the
dollar was worth something, more than the Mexican peso,
” says Mendez.
Mendez sits in a wooden chair in the living room of the small pink stucco home he rents in Spring Valley, and travels back in his mind to that first border crossing.
“It was 1974, when I was really young. My cousin brought me and my dad and big brother. We found my cousin’s relatives in Colonia Libertad in Tijuana. One of the kids helped us cross,” recalls Mendez.
In those days, there was barely a fence. “There was barbed wire. There were a few fence panels, but there were a lot of holes,” says Mendez.
There weren’t motion sensors or infrared cameras like there are these days. “The Border Patrol wasn’t so strict. You could cross where you wanted to,” muses Mendez.
Mendez, his dad and his brother eventually landed work in the fields in California. “We didn’t have money or food. We ate tomatoes and a plant we recognized from Oaxaca for three weeks, until our first check arrived,” he says.
They lived in a canyon. When the picking season ended, they went back to Mexico.
Mendez repeated this pattern for a dozen years.
His brother taught him how to do roofing and his wages went up.
In 1986, along with nearly three million other illegal immigrants, Mendez earned residency in the United States under the immigration reform act.
Mendez went through ups and downs, but he was able to work most of the time. He says, “We were able to send home four or five-hundred dollars a month. I built a house in
Mendez brought his family to San Diego.
In 2004, 30 years after he first crossed the border, he bought a home here. Many of his friends and family from Oaxaca did, too. “We all bought. Then we all lost. I think we are in the worst crisis in the United States,” laments Mendez.
The economic crisis is visible on street corners across San Diego County, like this one in Vista. Men read the newspaper and tap their toes as they wait for someone to drive by and offer them work. The men say some days eight hours pass and they still don’t get jobs.
Jorge Ruiz has picked up work on North County street corners for 20 years. He also earned his residency with immigration reform in 1986.
He says he used to earn $20 to $30 an hour. Now, it’s $8. He hasn’t worked in two weeks.
“A lot of the time, you just have to endure the hunger. It’s tremendous suffering. I don’t have anything. And the family in Mexico, they say, hey, what about your kids here and paying for their school? But, I haven’t worked. I’m living out in a field,” says Ruiz.
He says many of his friends who can’t make rent anymore moved back into the canyons.
Mendez says, even so, it’s still more attractive to stay here than go back to Mexico. “Many people don’t leave because their kids were born here. Even if they’re just working once or twice a week, they can dress them. If they go south, there’s no work,” he says.
UCSD Professor Wayne Cornelius studied migration in the small Oaxacan village where Mendez is from.
He says people there and in villages throughout Mexico have been hit by the economic downturn in the U.S. and Mexico. “It’s been far more severe in Mexico than it has been in the United States. So it’s required a great deal of ingenuity to ride this out on both sides of the border,” says Cornelius.
Mendez says he has an idea.
He’s working on plans, with three San Diego engineers, to tap into underground aquifers in his village back home to irrigate hundreds of acres of arable land.
“A big water project like that will need machines and workers. We’ll create work. And why will they come here if they have work there?” questions Mendez.
He says a reliable water source will grow new crops and new life in the village.
Wayne Cornelius says that might provide an incentive for older people to stay put. But for 17-year-olds raised on the idea that they’ll go north, farming doesn’t compete with the possibility of, say, an iPhone in the U.S.