Divided Families

Divided Families: Empty Towns,710


Cronkite News Service

ZACATECAS, Mexico _ Not long ago, Francisco Javier Balderas Medina, 18, was getting ready to try to cross illegally into the United States along with most of the rest of his friends from the small town of El Cargadero.

But he knew his father disapproved, and he was scared. At the last minute he changed his mind and stayed behind.

Now “I am one of the only men here,” Medina said in Spanish.

Medina says he misses his friends, but he admits to one big advantage for a young man: plenty of unattached young women.

Nearly half of the population of this state in north-central Mexico has left for the United States over the past couple of decades. Most are young men. Many never return.

As a result, Medina and other young men like him live in towns populated mostly by women, girls, young boys and old men.

Staying Behind

Abel Rodarde migrated illegally to the United States twice to work and save money for school. He worked on a farm in Florida picking fruits and vegetables but returned home to Jerez as soon as he could. He used his savings to help pay for his tuition at the University of Zacatecas, where he is studying medicine.

Rodarde said he’s one of just a handful of his schoolmates who still lives in Jerez.

“From middle school, it’s only me,” the 21-year-old said in Spanish. “From grade school, two or three stayed behind. The rest left to the United States because they didn’t have money to study or didn’t want to study.”

Jerez is filled with lush courtyards and towering Spanish Colonial churches. It has newly paved roads and sidewalks, reliable electricity and phone service and renovated schools, thanks largely to the migrants, who send money home to their families, Rodarde said.

“The migrants are very important here; the entire economy in Jerez depends on foreign economies,” he said. “The day that it doesn’t, there won’t be anything here. It absolutely depends on the migrants.”

Migration isn’t just a necessity for some _ it’s also part of the culture. Many young men migrate because their fathers and grandfathers have migrated before them, Rodarde said.

“If you go to the center of Jerez, you can tell who left, worked and came back,” he said. “They have a new car and money – it’s a cultural thing. More than any necessity, they have to have a new truck here. I don’t know why.”

Family Ties

Daniel Haro, 21, went to high school in the United States, but returned to his hometown of Tlaltenango after his visa expired. The town is about 80 miles southwest of Jerez.

The most conspicuous thing about Tlaltenango is the many young women running the local shops. Children chase each other through courtyards or play in the parks, while old men pass the time on park benches, getting an occasional shoe shine from one of the few young men who still live in town. Inside the churches, elderly women pray.

Haro would like to return to the United States, but he wants to do it legally. He’s waiting for the U.S. government to approve his application for residency. Meanwhile, he runs his own business. A true entrepreneur, he looked around town, calculated the opportunities, and opened a women’s clothing store.

“I can sustain myself here,” Haro said in Spanish. “My job is better here because I own my own business.”

Those most likely to migrate live on ranches outside of town, he said. They work eight hours a day for about 200 pesos. They can make that much in two or three hours in the United States.

Haro said that practically everyone he knows wants to go to the United States. They see how well their older brothers or cousins are doing when they come home with their new cars and better clothing. “And the younger ones say, ‘I want to go, too, to get more money, to help my mother or to get out of being poor.’’’

Haro’s father, Otilio Haro, estimates that more than 50 percent of the state’s population migrates to the United States for work.

“Here you’ll notice when the young men are gone and most of the town is empty,” he said.


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

Francisco Javier Balderas Medina (left) and Abel Rodarde take a break near Jerez, Mexico. Medina says he decided to stay in Mexico even though many of his friends were leaving. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

Francisco Javier Balderas Medina stands in the middle of a number of chicken coups at his family’s house and small farm near Jerez, Mexico. He says he stayed behind when many of his friends left to work in the U.S. because his family needs him. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

In Tlaltenango, as in many small towns in Mexico, the number of women outnumber the number of men, especially among young people. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

Older ranchers pass time together in the town square of Jesus Maria, Jalisco, Mexico. Many towns, especially in southern Mexico, have experienced a loss of younger, working-aged men. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Deanna Dent)