It’s been 25 years since Maria Gonzales left her family’s four-acre farm in Mexico to make a life in the United States.
Even as she worked and raised a family in Los Angeles, she dreamed of one day returning to that small plot of land in Jalisco where her father planted corn and wildflowers grew.
But after her parents died, she got word that a stranger had taken hold of the land. Local officials told relatives that her family no longer had a claim to it.
Gonzales, 56, who is living in the U.S. without permission, didn’t want to risk going back to Mexico to resolve the dispute herself. “They’re taking advantage because we can’t be there,” said her husband, Ezequiel Becerril, 56, who is also in the country illegally.
Last week, Gonzales took the first step to reclaim the land with the help of a Mexican government program that assists immigrants in the U.S. who are having problems with their property back home.
Large numbers of Mexicans have land rights because of a series of agrarian reforms enacted after the Mexican Revolution, when many peasants were granted privileges to farm parcels of communal land known as ejidos.
Local governing bodies enforce strict codes that dictate how the parcels can be used and transferred. If people don’t pay dues to the body or leave the land fallow, they can be stripped of their rights.
High rates of migration to the United States have added a layer of complication to the ejido system, Mexican officials say. Some immigrants have lost their property rights because they weren’t home to cultivate the land. Some leased their rights to others. Some don’t even know the status of their rights because the land was in the name of a deceased parent.
A team of Mexican agriculture officials was in California last week to resolve some of those issues. The officials spent several days doing one-on-one consultations with immigrants at the Mexican consulates in Los Angeles and Fresno.
Catalina Rodriguez, an official with the Mexican agency charged with resolving irregularities in the ejido system, said her team had helped dozens of California residents with their cases.
In some instances, specialists simply looked up who held the right to a plot of land using an electronic database of ejido parcels. In other cases, they helped immigrants draw up formal documents to protect their ability to pass on property rights to their descendants.
The agency also has officials in Mexico who can represent immigrants in local land disputes, Rodriguez said.
She said she has been moved by the strong ties that immigrants in the U.S. have to their land back home. “It’s their patrimony,” she said.
The program, launched last year, is part of a larger effort by the Mexican government to connect immigrants abroad with their homeland. Under another program, the Mexican government provides matching funds to immigrants who donate money for infrastructure and other projects in Mexico.
At the same time, Mexico has sought to make it easier for its citizens to stay in the U.S. In January, consulates here began issuing birth certificates to Mexican nationals to help them obtain the identity documents needed to apply for new immigrant driver’s licenses as well as work permits under President Obama’s contested deportation deferral program.
Adriana Lucia Argaiz Parra, who does community outreach at the Mexican Consulate, said immigrants can be committed to life in the U.S. while still involved in life back home.
“It’s amazing that they’re so engaged,” she said. “It’s a part of not losing who we are, or who we were.”
Gonzales, the immigrant who was fighting for her family’s land rights in Jalisco, said she wants to protect her ability to one day return home.
After she shared her story with one of the agriculture experts at the consulate Thursday, one of them typed her mother’s name into a computer program. The Jalisco property showed up under her name.
“Legally, it’s your mother’s,” the official said. He promised her a printout of the deed, which she could use to help convince authorities in Jalisco to help move the interloper off her family’s land.
“Amazing,” she said. “Amazing.” Then she started crying.