A Link in the Chain

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

The oldest of Antonio's seven brothers is 24, the youngest a year. As each brother reached adolescence, he left school and found work. It went without saying that his salary would help support the family. The Gonzalezes were by no means destitute; their father, Pedro Gonzalez, a kind, weather-beaten campesino, had started 20 years ago with a dozen goats. His herd now numbered about 180. And his wife, Teresa Zamora, a small, rugged, partly Mayan woman, had performed an unheard-of feat: She had bought her own car, a battered '75 Ford LTD, with money she made weekends selling pasteles in the town square.

But though they were not hungry, marriage prospects were dim. There were men who had been to New York and owned a concrete house, and there were men who had stayed at home and lived with their parents. The local women knew the difference.

By the fall of 1999, the oldest son, Juan Carlos, was waiting on a call from a friend in New York. The family's home had no phone, and so the call came in to the general store in the middle of town, and they sent a runner to the mine where Juan Carlos was working, carrying rocks just as Luis Garcia had done 15 years earlier. The message was simple: His friend in New York—a man who had left Zapotitlán two years earlier—had saved the $1500 for Juan Carlos's passage to the Bronx. He never finished his shift at the mine. In New York, he found work and paid the $1500 back. He roomed with his friend in an apartment near the el, along Westchester Avenue, where the people of Zapotitlán are scattered like seed. Now it was January 2001, and Juan Carlos had saved $1000 for his brother Antonio's passage. A friend of Juan Carlos pledged to loan him the rest. Juan Carlos called the general store in Zapotitlán and they sent a runner—this time for Antonio.

When he reaches New York, Antonio's first goal will be to send home money for a kitchen, which he believes his mother needs. It will be added on to the concrete house that his brother paid for with two years of labor in a Bronx car wash, and the kitchen will have electricity, running water, and a gas stove. It is unclear that his mother wants such a kitchen. An excellent cook, she and her husband still have not moved into the concrete house, but live in the dirt-floored dwelling out back, where she cooks large meals over an open fire, adjusting the heat by moving a burning log in proximity to the pot. After his mother's kitchen is completed, Antonio plans to start saving for his own house and eventually return home and get married. As Luis Garcia said, "With nothing, you can't get married."

But in this part of Puebla, men like Antonio and his brother—men who plan to come back—are becoming a rarity. "Why return to a place that is mostly children and old people?" goes the reasoning, especially when there is now a thriving Mexican community in New York.

And there is another factor in the exodus: Increasingly, the town's teenagers, some as young as 14, are leaving because they've heard that New York is where the action is. They've heard that New York is where the girls are easy.

In Zapotitlán, the customs dictate years of dating before marriage and sex. "It's a big investment," said one man who had made several trips to New York. "In the Bronx, you take a girl out a couple of times and she sleeps with you."

On one of the town's main streets, a pair of 20-year-old men leaned against a green Toyota with chrome rims. "El rap"—listened to only by those who have been to New York—was blasting from the sound system. A teenage girl walked by, resplendent in a turquoise skirt, leather sandals, and long braids. She had a brightly colored Mayan shawl over her shoulders. The men watched her pass. "Let's face it," one said. "Mexican women are ugly. After you've been to New York and you've seen the Puerto Rican girls in their thongs at Orchard Beach, you don't want to come back here and see that."

Some blame the town's disintegrating families on youthful attitudes like these. Yet abandoned women and children are nothing new to Zapotitlán; for some wives, the dream of a house and financial security—so close at hand when their husbands left for New York—has turned into a lifetime of loneliness, single motherhood, and brutal poverty. Zapotitlán's lonely women congregate around the two phone booths at Macarena's Papeleria, a small general store in the middle of town. If you're lucky—if your man is still in love with you—he will call you at a prearranged time. If not, you can call New York and pay by the minute.

The children stand outside the booths in broods; the women sit inside, cajoling for money or begging the men to return, the clock running against them. The booths are made of flimsy quarter-inch plywood; the glass is broken out of one booth. On any given evening—if you hang around long enough—you can hear a woman crying and the plaintive question, "But when are you coming home?"

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