A Link in the Chain

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

Locals joke about building a miniature Statue of Liberty in the town square. Lady Liberty's face would be replaced with that of the coyote's oldest brother, Luis Garcia. Luis had been the first to leave Zapotitlán for New York, in 1983. The coyote, four more brothers, and two sisters eventually followed. The youngest one, Rolando, came home in a coffin in August 2000. He was killed on a Manhattan street, hit by a car while making a bicycle delivery for a midtown restaurant. They had wanted to sue, but his mother forbade it; it was blood money, she said, and it wasn't going to bring her son back. The coyote shrugged. "We risk our lives because that's where the money is," he said.

Few here know when their families came to Zapotitlán. They know their fathers and grandfathers worked in the mines and maybe their great-grandfathers as well. Before that there is nothing written, and the old ones are gone. Twenty years ago, if you were a man in Zapotitlán, chances are you spent your adult life as a two-legged pack mule, carrying 150-pound chunks of onyx on your back up a steep slope. You might have worked 70 hours a week, or you might have worked more. When you get paid by the ton, you don't watch the clock. Twenty years ago, if you lived in Zapotitlán, you lived in a shack with dirt floors—the walls of mesquite and greasewood lashed together, the gaps filled with cardboard. Luis Garcia changed all that.

"I started working in the mines when I was 13," he said recently. "The mines took from you; they gave nothing back. We made just enough to eat, but there was nothing to build a house. We lived in a one-room shack like everyone else in Zapotitlán—me, my mother, and my nine brothers and sisters. A friend of mine, Emilio Sanchez, passed through from Matamorros [a city in southern Puebla]. He had been to New York before. He saw how we worked in the mines. He said, 'Come, it's better in New York.' Everyone warned me not to go. They knew from the movies that it was dangerous and cold; they said I'd get killed there. But I was 26 then and I had nothing—with nothing, you can't get married. That was in 1983."

In the Bronx he joined a dozen Mexicans in a railroad flat on 138th Street. His piece of America was a mattress on the floor. He stood it against the wall each morning when he left for work. The other men showed him how to wash his clothes in a laundromat and found him a job as a dishwasher at the Grand Shanty on City Island: 72 hours a week for $170. It beat carrying rocks, but the Bronx winter was cold, and on Friday nights, the muggers stood across the street in front of the Mitchell projects, waiting to take down those coming home with full pockets.

Luis decided to return to Mexico. Not wanting to go back empty-handed, he saved for a month and sent a $500 money order to his mother. He made one last call before his return. He heard his mother's voice, incredulous. "Five hundred dollars!" she said, over and over. No one in Zapotitlán had seen that kind of money, and his mother persuaded him to stay and send more. His brothers began to build a concrete house for Luis to return to. Neighbors saw the house going up, and the town was mesmerized. The modest one-story concrete dwelling might as well have been the palace at Versailles. Luis sent for a brother, then three cousins. A few months later a dozen neighbors left for New York. "And so the chain began," he said as he sat in the living room of the concrete house, where he still lives with his wife and two of his three sons. The third son works in New York. He is sending money home. Luis is overseeing the construction of his house.

The Chain Reaches Antonio

Antonio was born the year Luis Garcia left for New York. In 18 years, much has changed in Zapotitlán. One thing has not. As a laborer in Mexico, Antonio faced a future of toil and poverty. Antonio's father is a goat herder; it seemed natural that his son's first job would be on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. Some men simply slit the goat's throat—it was easier for the worker, but the beast would thrash and bleat as it bled to death. This seemed cruel to Antonio, and so he would sit astride the trembling animal on the blood-slicked floor, sever the spinal cord with a knife-thrust just behind the skull, then bleed the carcass dry and skin and quarter the animal, reducing it to neat piles of bones, organs, meat, and hide in about two hours. Four days a week he worked from seven to seven, Friday and Saturday from seven in the morning until two the next morning. The pay was $10 a week. Antonio was 13.

The teenager thought nothing of leaving school after the sixth grade. The myth of success through higher education is not part of rural Mexican culture. In a country where many workers are paid by the bushel or the ton, a hardworking 14-year-old can be as valuable as a grown man.

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