For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed into the U.S. in one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. But stricter immigration enforcement and new opportunities in Mexico have reversed the trend. Now, many are returning to towns like Malinalco, a rural community southwest of Mexico City. But coming home, it turns out, can be complicated.
The home that American dollars built stands out among the dusty adobe farmhouses and crumbling concrete shacks on the edge of this rural Mexican town.
Visitors may wryly refer to it as a “hacienda” because of its grandiose touches — the elaborate wooden entryway, the curved staircase leading up to the front door — but with its red brick, pitched roof and garage sheltering a bright blue SUV, what it really looks like is a little bit of Texas.
Athens, Texas. That’s where German and Gloria Almanza spent two decades toiling in factories and building, cleaning and repairing other people’s homes so that one day they could make a place of their own back in Mexico — a place to finish raising their two kids.
When in 2012 the couple brought their children back to their hometown of Malinalco, a picturesque pueblo two hours southwest of Mexico City, they were not alone.
Census data show more than 1 million Mexicans and their families left the U.S. for Mexico between 2009 and 2014, and fewer made their way north — a major demographic shift that is reshaping the immigration equation and having profound effects on both countries.
Most have left the U.S. on their own accord, drawn home by new economic opportunities in Mexico, the impact of the Great Recession on the U.S. job market and in many cases the irresistible lure of family. Others have been forced out by an increase in deportations from communities in the interior of the U.S. Security along the Southwest border has also been beefed up significantly, making crossings so dangerous and expensive that many no longer try.
The result is that towns like Malinalco, whose economies once were infused with money sent home from fathers, sisters and husbands working in the U.S., are now making room for returnees, some of whom have lived like Americans for years.
Coming home can be a powerful emotional experience. Those returning with savings can use their capital and skills learned in the U.S. to open businesses and get ahead.
But it’s not always easy. Schools are struggling to integrate an influx of new students, including a large number of youngsters born in the U.S. who often aren’t fluent in Spanish and lack the necessary identity documents to enroll. Returnees must readjust to the culture and leaner paychecks of Mexico, where the average hourly wage is less than $2.50. And many families now have children in the U.S., parents in Mexico.
“Families are now mixed-nationality families, and that’s not something policy tends to understand,” said Ellen Calmus, who runs the Corner Institute, a migrant support organization in Malinalco. The children of returning migrants are especially vulnerable, she said, often without full access to services and education in either country. “This is going to have costs for all of us down the road,” she said.
The Almanzas always knew they’d come home. It was only a matter of when.
The house they built on a hill across from a picturesque church has it all — a gorgeous kitchen, two bathrooms and a big bedroom for each of the children. Strewn with clothes, team photos and old yearbooks, the rooms look like those of any busy teenager.
There is only one thing missing from the home that their American dollars built: the kids.
On a recent steamy summer morning, as chickens clucked and roosters crowed, German slipped on scuffed cowboy boots and started work at the construction site of a house down the road from his own.
Sparks flew as German, athletically built and deeply tanned, sliced into an iron post with a high-powered saw that he brought back from Texas. He paused for a moment to wipe sweat from his brow and readjust the Ace Hardware ball cap he brought back from Texas, too.
Since he returned in 2012, it has felt like there aren’t enough hours in the day for him to finish all his work. Malinalco, with its brightly painted colonial-era homes and historic churches, has transformed into a popular tourist destination for both Mexico’s elite and its growing middle class. Each weekend, tourists from the capital flood the town, booking rooms at new boutique hotels, hiking to the Aztec ruins perched atop a nearby hillside and strolling cobblestone streets with ice cream or a michelada in hand.
The town German and his wife left nearly two decades earlier has changed.
Back then, jobs were scarce in Malinalco. A currency crisis had sparked a nationwide recession, and the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement were beginning to be felt, with agricultural workers on the outskirts of town struggling to compete with cheaper U.S. imports of corn and other staples.
German left in 1995 after graduating high school. He was one of close to 3 million Mexican immigrants who crossed into the U.S. between 1995 and 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. Between 2005 and 2010, that number fell to about 1.4 million, and between 2009 and 2014 it fell to about 870,000.
Now that he’s back, German has a good job with the government helping to maintain the municipality’s water system. He also manages an avocado farm and an outdoor event space for weddings and other parties that he and his wife built from scratch.
In between those jobs, German has been scrambling to finish up the house down the street. Like German’s own home, this two-story stucco structure sticks out so much from the others that locals have started using it as a landmark when giving directions (“turn left at the tall pink house”). One day soon it will be occupied by his brother, who is sending money to pay for it from Texas, and his brother’s wife and young son.
Every day, German works from sunrise to sunset, stopping for only a few moments just after noon to gulp down sweet agua fresca and a hot lunch cooked by Gloria, whom he started dating when he was just 15. She spends her days sweating, too, cleaning their house, pulling weeds at the event space and distilling a local liquor to sell to neighbors on the side.
They work because that is what they have always done. And they work because they don’t want to spend long days in an empty house.
More than a year has passed since Danny, then 17, sat his parents down and told them he wanted to go home.
For his parents, home was Mexico. But for Danny it was Texas.
He grew up playing football — the American kind — and eating Texas chili. He listened to Coldplay and Linkin Park, not the Spanish-language music his parents favored. He had just finished seventh grade in 2012 when his parents told him and his sister to pack their things for the move to Mexico. He spent the next four years dreaming about the day he would come back.
Gloria and German supported his decision to return to the U.S., but they were heartbroken. They had gone to the U.S. with a meticulous plan: Work, save, build a future for their children in Mexico. Their plan hadn’t accounted for this.
Both had grown up on the impoverished outskirts of Malinalco, where cobblestone gave way to dirt roads and fields planted with corn and squash.
German was the oldest child of a couple who sold slow-cooked barbacoa along the one-lane highway that led to town. Gloria was one of five sisters who chafed under their machista father, who barred his girls from looking for work even if it meant them dropping out of school for lack of funds.
Both grew up fighting their siblings for space in one-room adobe shacks. Both knew they wanted something different for their children — a good education and a house with indoor plumbing, with a bedroom for each kid.
“Come with me,” German implored Gloria on a visit to Mexico after he had been working for a year in Costa Mesa as a roofer. If both of us work in the U.S., we can earn twice as much, he said.
“It is not easy,” he warned her.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she replied. “Let’s go.”
They paid a smuggler $500 to cross the border and set off for Texas, where a friend of German’s said jobs were more plentiful and rent was cheaper than in California.
“You go to work and then you come back here,” was German’s mantra as they neared the border. His was a Mexican dream, not an American one. “Our future is here in Mexico,” he insisted.
The couple got jobs at a factory in Athens, about 70 miles southeast of Dallas, that made levels for use in construction. On weekends, to earn a little extra cash, Gloria sold tamales to the town’s growing community of Latino immigrants. She was 21 when she gave birth to Danny and 22 when she had Mally — a name her parents thought sounded American but also reminded them of Malinalco.
They liked the orderliness of Texas, where police gave out tickets when people broke the law, unlike in Mexico, where a bribe could get somebody out of anything.
The bosses liked Gloria and German, who went on to work in construction, learning several well-paying trades. Sometimes his bosses invited the family over to their big homes for barbecue dinners.
But underneath the smiling Texas hospitality something felt amiss. The Almanzas were unnerved by the way families burrowed in their sprawling homes in the suburbs, away from their extended families. It was so different from Malinalco, where homes were crowded with aunts and cousins and every year each of the town’s neighborhoods hosted elaborate feast-day festivals and people danced until sunrise.
German didn’t like that his kids were growing up without knowing their grandparents, that they took for granted that the refrigerator was “like a grocery store,” always filled with food. To pay for everything, he and Gloria worked until late each night, missing out on time with the kids.
Back home, meanwhile, opportunities were growing. While NAFTA had brutalized Mexico’s agricultural communities — forcing an estimated 2 million people off their farms and creating deep pockets of poverty in parts of the country — free trade had helped expand Mexico’s middle class by more than 11% between 2000 and 2010. Malinalco, a scenic town that had famously been a training ground for Aztec warriors, was well poised to capitalize on that growth.
In 2010 Malinalco was declared a “Magic Pueblo” by Mexico’s tourism secretary, freeing up federal money to help make the town more attractive to tourists. Roads were improved, historic buildings renovated, and cafes selling lattes started springing up. Migrants were coming back, using the money they had saved in the U.S. to open up restaurants and water parks.
So even as they were building lives in Texas, the Almanzas were making plans to leave.
German had crossed back into Mexico several times to build their house on the hill. It was ready.
“We wanted to be closer to each other,” Gloria said.
“They needed to visualize another way of living,” German said of his kids.
The years after they came back to Mexico were the happiest of Gloria and German’s lives. They worked a little less, and spent more time with the kids. On the weekends, the family would cheer on German as he played soccer at a grassy pitch with gorgeous mountain views. Each night, they ate together at a pretty wooden table in their impressive new house.
But the kids were struggling.
At middle school in Malinalco, Danny’s clumsy Spanish was the butt of jokes. Bullies stole his backpack and tried to goad him into fights. They listened to Spanish rap and made fun of his taste for Coldplay. He let his grades slip, hoping his father would feel guilty and send him back to the U.S.
The ploy didn’t work — German transferred him to another school. Danny worked hard and managed to graduate. Not long after, he renewed his U.S. passport, which had expired, and flew back to Texas. He wanted to go home, and he wanted to earn dollars, not pesos, to help his family in the future.
Several months later, Mally, by then 17, told her parents she wanted to join her brother. She had fit in more easily in Mexico, and had plenty of friends, but she wanted to finish her senior year in the U.S. and try to go to college there.
There was another reason Mally wanted to return: She was pregnant. She knew that medical care in the U.S. would be better, and she feared that it might be a hassle getting the baby U.S. citizenship if the child wasn’t born on American soil.
Her parents said goodbye to her this year as she boarded a plane in Mexico City. Then they drove back to Malinalco alone. Back home, Danny’s cat Gonzalo and Mally’s cat Venvena mewed often, as if in pain.
Over the last several months, the Almanzas have peered at the computer screen over bittersweet video chats to see Mally’s stomach grow. They have watched their teenagers making a life for themselves in a small trailer back in Athens they share with a cousin, who is in the country illegally.
Each day German and Gloria wake up thinking about joining them.
“I want to be with them so much,” German thinks. “I want to go tomorrow.”
But the border that allowed generations of migrants to cross easily back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico has become more rigid.
A journey that once cost $500 now costs $7,000. Nearly 700 miles of border fence, which President Trump hopes to extend across the entire U.S.-Mexico dividing line, has forced migrants to take riskier routes and pay off the drug traffickers who increasingly control them.
Life inside the U.S. has also taken a darker turn for immigrants in the country illegally, and those in Texas have felt it keenly. Legislators in Austin, inspired by Trump’s tough talk on immigration, passed a bill that permits police officers to question a suspect's immigration status. Parts of the law have been blocked by a federal court, but Danny, a U.S. citizen, says he has felt a more general change. Some white Americans seem to regard him differently, he said, including one neighbor who has started calling the police when he and his cousin spend days fixing their cars in their yard.
The border has always broken families.
Generations of Mexican children grew up with a parent absent — Mom or Dad working in the U.S. and sneaking home for visits on Christmas and Easter. Now, a new generation of Mexican parents, deported or electing to return, is facing the same challenge and heartbreak.
One morning in July, Gloria and German hopped in their SUV and drove out along a bumpy dirt road to the plot of land where they had planted avocado trees. The plan was to do some work. They didn’t know their daughter had gone into labor and would soon give birth to a boy.
A few weeks later, while friends in Texas were having a baby shower for Mally, German played soccer with some friends while Gloria cleaned the house alone.
Each night, she still prepares dinners, patting corn dough into a metal press and warming the tortillas on a griddle. She stirs a pot of soup or prepares tacos and pours tall glasses of agua fresca.
German washes up, and they sit down together — just the two of them at a table built for six.
Additional credits: Produced by Sean Greene and Iris Lee