Sporting stereo headphones and high-top white basketball sneakers bought on his last sojourn to Los Angeles, Alejandro Rivas Perez waits to board a bus bound for Tijuana. In his wallet, he keeps a snapshot of a year-old daughter--a U.S. citizen, he boasts--whom he has never seen.
“Life isn’t easy in the north, but at least one can earn a decent wage,” says Rivas, 21, just before he and his father hop aboard the border-bound transport in Mexico City’s cavernous northern bus terminal.
They are just two of thousands who depart daily for the northern frontier, bound ultimately for thriving Latino immigrant enclaves from Los Angeles to New York. But the backgrounds of this pair of illegal immigrants speak volumes about the evolving nature of the Mexican diaspora at a time when the Clinton Administration, responding to public outcry, is seeking ways to stem the inexorable flow.
Both are capitalinos --Mexico City natives--a singular breed derided by some as arrogant and cocky, celebrated by others for their sense of humor, industriousness and ability to endure the oppressive daily crush that is life in the world’s most populous urban area. Whatever the varied personalities of its more than 20 million residents, Mexico City and other urban areas are increasingly significant emigrant “sending” zones.
And that trend, experts say, illustrates a broader phenomenon: Mexican emigration to the United States is an ever-more heterogenous affair, involving natives of big cities and hardscrabble pueblos ; unskilled farmers and well-educated professionals; men, women and children.
While pre-1980s emigrants were largely rural folk from a handful of states, the exodus that followed the collapse of the Mexican economy in the early 1980s encompasses the vast panorama of the populace, touching most regions and cities.
“There’s been a general impoverishment of the population in all of the land that has left even urban dwellers with fewer and fewer options for improving their situations,” said Wayne A. Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.
For White House strategists working to halt illegal immigration, the majority of it from Mexico, the growing diversity of the Mexican flight presents a daunting obstacle.
In fact, many scholars contend that emigration is so much a part of the Mexican-U.S. experience--and in particular of the California economy--that the flow is unlikely to abate soon. That is true, these experts say, despite the prospects for more border guards, better frontier barriers and the long-term outlook for an economic recovery in Mexico that a free trade agreement with the United States is expected to inspire.
“The people respond to a need in the United States labor market,” said Jorge Bustamante, director of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based research institution.
The Mexican immigrant work force, Bustamante and others said, adapted quickly to broader work opportunities, changing from an almost all-male, rural agricultural corps to a mixed-gender and increasingly urban mainstay of California’s light industry, its service sector, domestic work and other fields, skilled and unskilled alike.
Moreover, many newcomers are bent on staying, defying the stereotype of the bracero, or seasonal male Mexican laborer, picking crops for a few months and then returning home. (Even those who engage in back-and-forth travels and visits--including the people interviewed for this story--say they eventually want to stay in the United States.)
“When we ask them where they reside permanently, many inevitably say the United States,” said Bustamante, whose research team has surveyed border-jumpers for years.
Jobs are not the only lure. With each new arrival, spouses and other loved ones still in Mexico are tempted to join la aventura , as the journey north is often described. Reunions with family and friends are increasingly important draws for new immigrants, researchers say, especially since the 1987-88 U.S. amnesty initiative.
That program provided lawful residence status to about 3 million foreign nationals, 70% of them from Mexico. Half of all amnesty recipients reside in California; untold numbers of relatives have joined the newly legalized, benefiting from well-established social networks.
“This whole phenomenon is becoming less and less responsive to changes in the economy and more dependent on other factors, particularly family reunification, that aren’t related to the business cycle,” said Cornelius, a longtime student of Mexican migration.
Even as California’s economic fortunes have plummeted, severely reducing jobs, thousands of aspiring new Californians continue to disembark daily along the border, although these days at a somewhat reduced rate.
“Why do we come? For the money, and to be with our families,” explains Rivas as he awaited the bus that would carry him and his father to Tijuana in two days. He then planned to visit Torrance to see his baby girl and her mother (his girlfriend, a legal resident).
A proud Mexico City native--"I’m as capitalino as the Angel of Independence,” he proclaims, alluding to a downtown landmark--Rivas first traveled north three years ago, at age 18, and has made several excursions since.
The $40 daily wage that father and son anticipate earning in the United States is roughly equal to their weekly earnings as street vendors of electronic goods here.
Three of Rivas’ five brothers live in the United States, providing all-important job contacts and places to stay. Although California Gov. Pete Wilson says new immigrants are a burden on public services, immigrants themselves speak of a more traditional social safety net: family and friends already in the United States.
“I have my sons to take care of me there,” says Ruben Rivas, Alejandro’s father, who is making his first trip north.
Having heard accounts of hardships from his children, the elder Rivas doesn’t share the common misperceptions about lives of leisure across the border.
“The people who’ve never been there believe everything is so easy on the other side; they think you work a little and make a lot of money,” says the younger Rivas. “I know better.”
Unlike Alejandro Rivas and his father, many city dwellers who have resettled in the United States or are contemplating the voyage are themselves originally campesinos who abandoned their farms seeking a better life, part of the great postwar wave of urbanization.
Now, the continuing Mexican economic crisis has battered many rural transplants who call the capital and other cities home. Luis Santos and his wife, Julia Eutimio de Santos, parents of four, migrated to the capital two decades ago from their farm in Veracruz state. Santos recently lost his $5-a-day job here when the textile plant where he worked for eight years shut down, throwing the family into a crisis.
“We want to stay in Mexico, where we feel at home, but relocating to the United States is something we may have to consider,” says Eutimio, who, along with her husband, recently scouted out visa prospects at the U.S. Embassy.
Each weekday, would-be emigrants line up outside U.S. missions throughout Mexico, many desperately hoping to rejoin kin north of the border: women and children separated from their husbands and fathers; college graduates frustrated by their lack of earning power at home; members of the rural and urban underclass eager for whatever opportunities are available.
But with waiting lists of almost a decade for some family visas, many give up and head for the porous northern border.
Along the Paseo de la Reforma, the boulevard that fronts the U.S. Embassy here, taxi driver Roberto Chavez weaves his watermelon-green Volkswagen Beetle through the city’s baffling traffic. Told that a passenger is from Los Angeles, Chavez whips out two of his prized possessions: a crude “green card” and an equally amateurish-looking Social Security card.
“I bought them on Alvarado for $25,” Chavez says, referring to the street fronting MacArthur Park in Los Angeles where young men openly hawk fake papers, essential possessions for undocumented job-seekers. A 1986 U.S. law requiring employers to verify legal residence status created a booming market in bogus paperwork.
Chavez and his young family live in one of the capital’s northernmost precincts, in a hillside barrio known as Cuauhtepec, which offers striking views of the Valley of Mexico. The neighborhood is an urban version of the archetypal Mexican village sustained by expatriates sending checks from abroad. Many here have family ties to the United States.
“As a little girl, it was a great adventure to go north and work in the fields,” Alejandra Serratos, Chavez’s wife, recalls during a conversation at the family’s simple but comfortable home, which has a stereo, television and other goods purchased in California.
“You liked to eat all the cherries,” teases her elder sister, Araceli Serratos, who also remembers the annual sweeps through the vegetable fields of the Central Valley and the orchards of Oregon and Washington state.
For decades, their late father, a man of rural stock, worked through the West as a seasonal farm laborer, sometimes bringing his family along. But he returned to Mexico each year, as was then the custom.
Roberto Chavez, his son-in-law, represents the modern version of the Mexican migrant. He toiled in a Los Angeles factory, undocumented, living in South Los Angeles in a house bulging with new immigrants. Unwilling to expose their daughter to what they view as the urban mayhem of Los Angeles, the couple came home two months ago to the smog and crush of Mexico City.
“The schools are a lot better here--and safer,” says Chavez, 28. “Yes, there’s violence in Mexico City, but you don’t have kids taking guns into schools.”
That said, both Chavez and his wife are considering, with great ambivalence, a return north. The money he earns driving a cab from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. simply isn’t enough. Often he pockets $12, he says, and that must pay for gasoline and his Volkswagen’s upkeep.
Frustrated, Chavez favors a return to Southern California. But his wife is less enthusiastic about again facing what she sees as a dangerous, materialistic and rootless society. But she also sees potential benefits.
“I know that our daughter would ultimately have a lot more opportunities there,” the young mother said. “Here, she can only go so far.”
For Carla Chavez, the 6-year-old, talk of leaving her friends and classmates in Cuauhtepec is disconcerting. Is there any way she would agree to go back?
Her firm reply: “If I could live in Disneyland.”