Mexican Ties Fade With Immigration
By MARK STEVENSON
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 4:09 PM
PURUANDIRO, Mexico — It's hard to find a family in Mexico that doesn't have relatives in the United States. Even President Felipe Calderon says he has distant cousins, uncles and in-laws scattered in Chicago, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, many of them living “a salto de mata,” a Mexican phrase that translates roughly as “on the run.”
In other words, he acknowledged that his own relatives may be violating U.S. immigration laws.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon speaks during a joint news conference with U.S. President George W. Bush, not shown, in Merida, Mexico, in this Wednesday, March 14, 2007, file photo. It was an admission that stunned many in the U.S. and grabbed headlines: Standing next to U.S. President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said he had distant relatives in the U.S. and he didn't know their legal status. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson) (Lawrence Jackson – AP)
But Calderon also maintained he doesn't know their legal status _ and that's plausible because the Calderon clan has lost touch with its migrant relatives, according to family members interviewed by The Associated Press.
And that illustrates another trend: As the immigration boom enters its third decade, many Mexicans have committed themselves to one side of the border or the other, weakening family ties, often forever.
Like the crumbling rows of low stone walls that mark abandoned family farm plots in this village where generations of Calderons once lived, the passage of time has disrupted once close-knit families.
When a reporter confronted Calderon about his relatives during a news conference in Mexico with President Bush, he refused to share what little information he had about his family, saying he wanted to avoid drawing unwanted attention to them.
“It was an insult to the American people,” said Stephen Eichler, executive director of the Minuteman Project, a citizen group that patrols the border in search of illegal immigrants. He said Calderon's response showed the U.S. can't enforce its laws.
Calderon's aides told the AP they don't know the names of the president's relatives in the United States. And Calderon family members in Mexico who agreed to be interviewed for this story _ one in his mother's hometown of Puruandiro, the other in his father's town of Morelia _ said they didn't know of any relatives in the U.S. at all.
A third cousin on Calderon's father's side, Jose Calderon Zendejas, who lives in Monterey Park, Calif., provided details that match the Calderon family tree _ the grandfather's birthplace and the school the president attended. But the president's close relatives in Mexico don't recall Calderon Zendejas, who crossed illegally in 1985 and is now in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
About 1.2 million Mexicans _ including many who live in the States illegally _ return to Mexico for the holidays, despite increased border security. But the visitors say ties to their extended families are weakening.
“Life is up there. The job is up there. The opportunities are up there,” said Adrian Alvarado, 29, a bakery employee who has lived in Omaha, Neb., for 11 years.
He brought his sons to Puruandiro, in western Michoacan state, but said he has no plans to return permanently. “We won't come back until they start paying the same here as they do there,” he said.
Even as Alvarado enjoyed a stroll around Puruandiro's main square, his grade-school sons spent their time speaking English, appearing bored and uncomfortable.
While Mexicans have long emigrated to the U.S., there was a notable boom in the mid-1970s, as the U.S. agricultural industry increasingly recruited Mexicans. A 1986 amnesty encouraged many more other immigrants to bring in relatives, and the U.S. immigrant population boomed from 10 million in 1970 to more than 28 million today, according to the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls.
Mexican emigration to the U.S. increased tenfold during this time, from less than 800,000 to nearly 8 million today.
Hundreds of miles east of Puruandiro, in the Huasteca mountain town of Jalpan de Serra, migrants have returned for years to show off their prized American pickup trucks in an annual competition known as “La Camioneta Mas Perrona,” literally, “The Bitchin'est Truck.”
A few years ago, dozens of trucks would parade through the town's few paved streets, taping U.S. dollar bills to their windshields to show they had “made it” in the United States.
But while this year's contestants increased in wealth _ the trucks included a $70,000 Hummer _ they declined in numbers: only 17 joined the Dec. 28 contest, less than half the participants of previous years.
In some Michoacan villages, “whole families are leaving, and businesses are closing down,” said Agustin Constantino Aldame, a 50-year-old migrant farmworker who has harvested crops all around the United States.
Calderon's cousin, Jesus Madrigal Hinojosa, 60, still runs an autoparts store in Puruandiro, but none of his 15 uncles or aunts lives there anymore. He says they are spread around Mexico, not the United States, but added: “We don't know a lot of the cousins.”
For Calderon's immediate family, their lives are in Mexico and will stay that way. None work for his administration, and all are doing pretty much what they did before he was elected. They still live in middle-class houses; one is a water company official, another a gynecologist. A third studies in Spain.
“Some people expected I would move to Mexico City and get some kind of post in the government _ they thought maybe as the secretary of health,” mused the president's brother, gynecologist Luis Gabriel, as he sat in his office wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt and listening to Jimi Hendrix.
“We're not interested in that. I wait in the same lines, and pay the same bills. I do the same work I did before. We don't want Felipe to have to carry that (family) weight.”
Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this report from California.
On the Net: