A Link in the Chain

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

The store goes quiet, or if people are polite, they try to keep talking, act like they don't hear. The kids study the floor, occasionally sneaking an embarrassed glance to see if others are listening, aware that their chances of ever again seeing their father may hang in the conversation's balance. Macarena's been around long enough to recognize the different stages of long-distance relationship disintegration: the shrinking money orders and shifting topics of conversation. "The big house I'm going to build when I get back" becomes "Nuyorican and Dominican women are so much more 'liberal' than Mexican woman." Macarena is sympathetic; her husband and 19-year-old son are in the Bronx. But she keeps the clock running.

Most of the Zapotitlán's abandoned women live in the hills above the town, in the houses of cardboard and zinc. They support themselves by taking in washing or by selling tortillas or an occasional turkey that they have fattened up. They tell the Mexican joke about eating a balanced diet: frijoles for breakfast, frijoles for lunch, frijoles for dinner. Their stories are identical; the details vary slightly: the year their man left, number of years before the money stopped arriving, the ethnicity of the woman he ran off with in New York.

Often the women at home were pregnant when their husbands left. One woman pointed to her 10-year-old son, who has never seen his father. "He lies when his classmates tease him," she said. "He tells them, 'My father is working in New York too. He'll be coming home soon.' " Another abandoned middle-aged woman stood in the hot sun, her torn housedress fluttering in the breeze. In addition to her vagabond husband, her son and daughter are in the Bronx. She told a visitor, "They say that I'm too old, that the gringos won't hire me." She wanted to know one thing. "Do you think it is too late for me to go to New York?"

Antonio's mother worries less about abandonment than about the safety of her son; she worries that he'll become one of the nearly 400 Mexicans found dead each year along the border. Or he could be killed in a bar fight or a robbery in New York, as has happened to numerous men from San Antonio, a neighboring village. "You watch them grow up and they risk their lives to go to the other side," she said.

On the morning of January 12, Antonio awoke early, dressed, and packed a small bag with an extra pair of pants and socks, a T-shirt, and some pills for stomach sickness. Near the house, a pig was tied to the shade tree, waiting to be slaughtered at the baptism of Antonio's sister. Antonio stood for a few minutes at the pen, watching the dozens of goats, many of which he knew by name, as they milled about, bleating and bumping one another. His parents and younger siblings waited awkwardly a few feet away, the warm smoke from a cooking fire drifting around them. As he came toward them, his father suddenly became animated and began to talk of his animals and a plan that he had devised to extract lead from rock.

Antonio waited for a pause, picked up his bag, and said, "Well, Papa, I'm going now." His father fell silent as they embraced, then backed away quickly, sat on a stump and put his head in his hands. In the quiet morning air, his sobs mixed with the bleating of the goats and the muffled explosions from the distant mines. A group of vultures circled and drifted slowly down like cluster bombs, homing in on a carcass in the desert nearby. Antonio said again, "Well, I'm going now," and set off for the highway where the bus would take him to Tehuacán, the nearby city where the coyote was waiting.

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