SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, Mexico — Isaias Garcia had labored for decades to raise a family in Torrance when in 2009, the Zapotec Indian faced a life-changing decision.
The authorities of his family village of Santa Ana del Valle in the state of Oaxaca had called him home to serve without pay as a councilman for three years. If he refused, they could confiscate his property — a house and nine acres — under a centuries-old system of local Indian governance known as usos y costumbres (uses and customs).
Garcia came to America illegally, and he knew that going home would be tantamount to permanent deportation; border security and drug-cartel violence had made returning to the United States more dangerous and costly. Nor could he afford to pay someone in Santa Ana to do the job for him.
Under usos y costumbres, a system recognized in Mexican law, Indian towns choose municipal workers — mayors, councilmen, policemen and sanitation workers — in open assemblies. The system is practiced by 418 Indian municipios, similar to counties but much smaller, across Oaxaca.
In most villages, each man before he turns 60 must perform at least 15 years of work — each job can last between one and three years — or pay someone to take his place.
California has close to 300,000 Oaxacan Indian migrants, and more than half of them live in Southern California. Virtually all are from villages run by usos y costumbres; many are in the same bind as Garcia.
For centuries, usos y costumbres kept Mexican Indian villages functioning and unified. But many villagers were now in the United States, and the system increasingly pitted migrants against those who remained behind. Migrants say the system keeps their hometowns and people in poverty, and as Garcia prepared to return home, Santa Ana migrants in the U.S. were battling the system.
In December 2010, Garcia, 59, with his wife, Angelica Morales, 54, left their apartment in Torrance and returned to Mexico for what he assumed was forever.
A quiet, self-effacing man and a political novice, Garcia would soon become a conduit for the cause of upending, at least in Santa Ana, the system that had governed the town for centuries.
"It would be a radical change," he said. "Change is good. We only need the village to approve it."
Santa Ana del Valle — 20 miles east of the state capital of Oaxaca City — had once been a town of weavers and subsistence corn farmers living in adobe houses.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of young men immigrated to California, finding restaurant jobs in Culver City, Venice and Torrance. Garcia was among two dozen who found kitchen work in a Torrance Szechwan restaurant.
Now he walked Santa Ana's quiet streets. Red-brick homes had replaced the adobe. There were small grocery stores, and even though men often herded donkeys and bulls through town, many families also had trucks.
As he began his tenure as councilman, he and his wife settled into the house that he and his brothers had built in place of their late father's adobe home. He also planted corn on their nine acres, just as his ancestors had on the same soil. Like them, he plowed the fields using bulls.
He also knew that many villagers thought the migrants were getting rich in the United States.
In 1986, villagers decided that migrants had to do service jobs, even if it meant they would have to return home. The jobs began to proliferate. Because the workers didn't draw a salary, essential services could be provided without draining the municipal budget. In one instance, a different person for every day of the week was put in charge of turning on the water system.
Some migrants, preferring not to leave the United States, began paying others to do their work, and it became common in Santa Ana to name migrants to jobs in the expectation that they would pay others back home. Some villagers relied on this income. Migrants compared the system to extortion.
Others saw the essence of Indian life and culture wrapped up in usos y costumbres. The work helped youths understand their responsibilities to one another and to the town, said Jacinto Matias, a former weaver who spent 31 years in the United States and now lives in Santa Ana.
That labor "is how we're a community," said Matias, who has put in nine years of service work as a police officer, a caretaker at a school and a church, and an operator of the water system. His brother helped him a little financially, but he and his wife mostly supported themselves by working in the fields, growing corn.
To change the system, he said, "we'd just be like one of those other cities that they have out there in civilization. It would be to lose a part of what it means to be Zapotec, just like the language. They go together."
Still, most townspeople pointed out that jobs were handed out without consideration of someone's training, qualifications or desire. It seemed as if jobs were assigned to those perceived as prospering.
"When you have something — a car or some cattle — pretty soon they name you to a job, and you fall back," said Frumencio Bautista, who had returned home from the United States in 2009. "They don't like seeing people get ahead."
The town assembly had named Bautista chief of village-owned lands, an unpaid job that lasted three years. To support his family while working for free, he went through his savings and borrowed 30,000 pesos — almost $3,000 — an amount he has no idea how to repay.
Many men could tell similar stories. In years past, when the border was easier to cross, they often left for the U.S. to pay off such debts. Now that wasn't an option.
Others refused to do the work, and villages cut off utilities or destroyed storm drains that served their families.
Migrants, like Garcia, acquiesced. Even after decades in America, they viewed themselves as Oaxacan and feared losing houses, farmland and respect in the towns where they hoped to retire.
Those who survived the unpaid assignments were often the most insistent that others do the jobs too.
Several years earlier, villagers, most of whom had family in the United States, shouted down Garcia's brother-in-law, Fantino Gutierrez, when he proposed that each migrant in the United States pay $100 a year instead of serving. When the town assembly didn't agree with Gutierrez's proposal, he called them "hard-headed."
The episode reinforced villagers' notion that migrants thought they knew better and wanted to avoid their obligations.
Garcia hoped to nudge the town toward a similar proposal: In exchange for being exempt from service, each of the hundreds of migrant families would pay $300 a year. The proposal would boost Santa Ana's annual budget by $150,000 — almost a third of the town's budget — enough to fund public works, pay a salary to each city worker or even hire trained staff.
The idea had come from Rodolfo Martinez, a Culver City waiter who had paid more than $23,000 to avoid four calls to serve, and figured that was enough. "We have to modernize," Martinez said. "We have to catch up with the world."
Garcia spoke with Martinez before leaving and agreed to push his proposal.
Once in Santa Ana, Garcia sought out the new mayor, Enrique Sanchez, a music teacher who was chosen to run the town's government for three years. Sanchez's support was crucial. The previous mayor threatened to expel any visiting migrant who hadn't served, Martinez said.
Garcia explained to Sanchez how high the cost of living was in the U.S. and how little migrants earned in restaurants. Some had to take two jobs to be able to pay workers in Santa Ana. Garcia had to accept support from his brothers in California to get by.
Sanchez saw that the new revenue from migrants might pave roads, dig a well or build classrooms. But changing a centuries-old system, he warned, was "very delicate."
Over time, he and Sanchez spoke with others around town about their proposal. In private, few objected to the idea.
One afternoon in August, two months before the village named those who would perform service jobs, Garcia took his seat outside the Santa Ana City Hall before a town assembly of 150 people to discuss whether to change centuries of tradition.
Garcia listened as Sanchez explained the benefits of Martinez's proposal: increased revenue and an end to unpaid jobs. Everyone would win, he said. The town should tap into this funding source instead of making migrants spend that money on trips home and on smugglers helping them return to the U.S.
But passions flared. The support Garcia and Sanchez found in private vanished in public.
Some, who spoke against change, had been paid to do jobs on behalf of migrants in California and were dependent on that money. Others who had once lived in the U.S., among them Jacinto Matias, also rose in opposition.
"Money isn't enough," Matias, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said later. "One has to give a bit of oneself."
It took little for an age-old image to sway the crowd: migrants getting rich in Los Angeles while avoiding their local duties.
The assembly demanded that to avoid service, each migrant family pay $1,200 a year.
Garcia knew no cook raising a family in Los Angeles who could afford that. He kept silent.
It was the villagers' way of declaring, according to Sanchez, that "we want to continue the way we always have."
And so they did.
This report was supported in part by the French-American Foundation through its Immigration Journalism Fellowship.