A Link in the Chain

Bound for The Bronx, A Mexican Teenager Says Farewell to His Family and Culture


The Village

The last rains fell on Zapotitlán in September. In the hot winter light, the village sits silent and dusty, surrounded by desert and mountains studded with cactus: low, spiky maguey and nopal, and astonishing forests of 40-foot saguaro. From the old Spanish church on the hill, one can look out over the town, a composition in brown and tan, concrete and dirt, the one paved road bisecting it like a black scar. Alongside the road, small groups wait for the bus—the one with the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe on the dashboard—that passes every hour or so.

Zapotitlán is considered a big town for this part of Puebla. (In many smaller nearby villages, the inhabitants still speak various Mayan languages.) Families here tend to be large—eight or 10 is not uncommon—and maybe 25 percent of the town is named Gonzalez. It is nearly impossible to mention the name of a resident without another responding, "He's my cousin," or "She's married to my uncle." People are hospitable and a bit formal: The men wear long pants and button-down shirts, the older women long skirts and braids. Nearly everyone is Catholic and devotedly so, though this does not mitigate their toughness. Residents recently decided that the local administrator—who does not reside in Zapotitlán—was giving inadequate attention to their wants. Several hundred took their guns and waited in front of his office; he resigned the next day.

The streets are dirt. There are small mansions and there are shacks, and the town has begun to stratify in that peculiarly Latin American manner—the "casas de cartón," cobbled-together shacks, look down from the mountainsides on the grander residences below, in the town center. In front of the San Martin church there is a large plaza where, in the evenings, children chase each other about and old men congregate on benches. Probably 75 percent of Zapotitlán's dwellings are under construction; work proceeds according to the vagaries of remittances from New York. Some are having a second floor or an extra room added; on other lots there is merely a foundation sprouting steel rebars like uncombed hair. The construction workers are from neighboring villages; they've come to take the place of the men in New York. Locals say you can guess the length of an individual's stay in New York by the size of his family's concrete house and the number of electrical appliances.

Twenty-three-year-old Esperanza Silva stood in the yard of her half-built house. Her two daughters played nearby amid the detritus of the day's construction. Esperanza pointed to a faint contrail in the cloudless sky. "When the planes fly over, my girls say, 'My father's on that plane. He's going to New York.' " Actually their father left years ago, at 17, when Esperanza was pregnant with Carmina, now five, and six-year-old Juanita was an infant. The man the girls call "Papi" is actually their uncle. They know their real father, who washes dishes in a Brooklyn restaurant, only from the hour-long Tuesday-night phone calls. "He'll be back when the house is done," their mother tells them. Esperanza has two brothers and a brother-in-law who are working in New York, and she has two uncles who left when she was five and were never heard from again. She performed a quick survey of her neighbors' houses: "In this house, the father and two sons are in New York. In that one, four brothers, one daughter, and a brother-in-law. The house on the end—the three daughters' husbands are gone."


Saying Goodbye

As night fell, Antonio's mother sat at home listening to one of the local radio stations. Between songs—cumbias, rancheras, and norteños—the announcer sent out greetings to families that lacked telephones: "To his mother, Julia, in Altepexi, your son Eufemio has arrived safely in New York. He loves you. He will write soon." "To his sister Mary Cruz in Teotipilco, Miguel Angel is well in the Bronx. He will be home in July."

Antonio quickly bathed, put on his best clothes, and made his way through the dark streets. He stopped every few blocks to say goodbye to grand- and godparents, cousins, and various people he met along the way. "I'm going to the other side," he told them. "To New York, to join my brother."

He was performing a ritual that men leaving for New York have practiced for hundreds of years, in many languages. As he walked, he asked a visitor, "What does Westchester and Castle Hill mean?" Informed that it was an intersection in the Bronx, he tried out his two phrases of English: "Oh my God" and "Excuse me," which he had been told was a greeting. He had to get final instructions from the coyote, but the coyote was not home. A child was sent to find him, and he soon appeared, paunchy, unshaven, and reeking of tequila. He does not shave because he does not feel like it, and he has more money than nearly anyone in town. He moves 300 people a year to the border, makes a thousand a week—more if there are Slavs, Guatemalans, or Chinese passing through. He told Antonio to be at the bus station in Tehuacán, a nearby city, at noon the following day and reminded him of the $1600 due upon arrival in Phoenix. What Antonio did not know was that he was about to enter the billion-dollar-a-year business of buying and selling people, and that the coyote would sell him up on the border as one would sell a head of cattle.

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