Migrants’ Dream Homes Sit Empty

Migrants' dream homes sit empty

Residents who leave for work in the U.S. hope they'll come back to stay

11:46 PM CST on Saturday, November 25, 2006
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

SAN JOS ITURBIDE, Mexico Along lifeless La Venta Avenue, architect Salvador Chvez motions to a row of two-story homes, some made out of brick, others with neat lawns and high fences. A testament to immigrant pride, they are the envy of the block. And they are empty.

“They say I'm building homes,” said Mr. Chvez, who has worked as a plumber in Georgia and Texas. “I sometimes feel like I'm building museums. These homes are rarely occupied.”

The reason? Every homeowner on this avenue in San Jos Iturbide, a picturesque town three hours' drive north from Mexico City, also has a home in Texas, about 1,000 miles away. Most are plumbers and most are in the United States illegally.

Among the owners of new homes here are Joel, who lives in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas, Catarino in Houston, Alfredo in Plano, and Gaspar in Mesquite. One home has a placard that reads, in English: “Welcome to Patito's Home.” Its owner is a plumber living in Richardson.

As they sink roots in North Texas and elsewhere north of the border, their absence slowly bleeds the life from their hometowns, like this one in the state of Guanajuato. The gap between immigrants and their homeland widens.

About a tenth of Mexico's population of 105 million now lives outside its borders. And yet many build dream homes in Mexico.

“It's a psychological thing,” said Mr. Chvez. “We have to convince ourselves that home is calling and we'll be back. We need that incentive, a push in order to leap across the border.”

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Other Mexican towns groom gardeners, roofers or maids for work in the United States. San Jos Iturbide prepares plumbers, many of who make good money in North Texas, Houston, Nebraska and Georgia.

City official Jos Dolores Olvera Snchez, 37, who also has worked as a plumber in Dallas, estimates that more than 1,000 plumbers from this town now live in the United States, most of them in Dallas and Houston.

Many have homes on both sides of the border. Among them is Joel Trejo.

Mr. Trejo, 41, grew up in the poorest home on the block, an adobe shack. Neighbors remember him walking in tattered shoes and old clothes.

But like many others, Mr. Trejo became a plumber and immigrated illegally to Texas. Years later, under the 1986 amnesty program, he gained legal status.

Six years ago, he razed his adobe shack in San Jos Iturbide and built a large home, but disliked it, tore it down, and rebuilt. He proudly offered a tour of the two-story, five-bedroom home, painted in black with purple trimmings.

Without family

Unlike many of his immigrant brethren, Mr. Trejo chose not to bring his family wife Mara del Carmento and five children to the United States. Instead, he commutes every month or so from his four-bedroom, red brick home in Pleasant Grove. He shares that home with six other plumbers from San Jos Iturbide.

“We pass our time thinking of home, nostalgic for these mountains,” he said. “But over time when we're here, we become visitors, strangers in our own land because the job, the dollars beckon us across the border. If I move my family to Texas, I have no reason to return. That's why I prefer the commute.”

One of his neighbors is Gaspar Grimaldo, who as an illegal immigrant finds it increasingly difficult to return home. So he purchased a home in Mesquite.

Recently, neighbors gathered at his home in San Jos Iturbide to celebrate, with music and barbecue, a gift that Mr. Grimaldo had sent from Dallas: a statue of a saint, Santo Nio de Atocha. The priest from the newly renovated church across the street blessed the statue and prayed that the saint would protect the town's immigrants in Texas.

Mr. Grimaldo's wife, Rosalba Nieto, prays that her husband returns to stay. But now, with the prospect of the U.S. building a wall along much of the Texas-Mexico border, she is preparing for the inevitable.

“This is home, family,” she said as mariachis serenaded elderly men and women whose sons and daughters have left for jobs abroad. “But Gaspar says it's too difficult to cross the border these days. A new home awaits us in Texas.”

Indeed, restrictive U.S. immigration policies have broken traditional back-and-forth migration patterns. Many illegal immigrants in the U.S. say they feel literally fenced in.

Dream or illusion?

For many, the dream of returning home to Mexico is becoming harder to realize.

“We're talking about a dream that never becomes a reality,” said Luis Miguel Rionda, an immigration expert at the University of Guanajuato. “Over time, with the help of U.S. immigration policies, ironically, that dream becomes a simple illusion.”

The mayor of San Jos Iturbide, Javier de la Vega Velsquez, is concerned about the impact on his town.

Daily he goes to the town's main square to walk in the immaculate garden there named the best and cleanest in the state. He proudly shows off the manicured lawns and colorful bougainvilleas.

“My job is to keep the nostalgia alive by making this town pretty, so when these people come back they want to stay, if not for good, then at least for a while” Mr. de la Vega said. “I'm trying to keep their illusions and dreams alive. I'm trying to keep these communities from disappearing, even with so many empty houses around us.”

E-mail acorchado@dallasnews.com