A Link in the Chain


It was a sunny January day, and Antonio Gonzalez, his mother, and his infant brother moved through the crowded streets of a small city near their home in Zapotitlán de Salinas, a village in southern Mexico. Antonio was leaving in the morning for New York, and the coyote had told him to get some new clothes for the journey.

They wove their way through scores of street vendors and passed through a narrow alleyway. The courtyard ahead smelled of blood and buzzed with flies. Teresa, Antonio’s mother, handed the one-year-old, who had yet to be named, to him. One of the family’s 180 goats had died the previous night of some unknown sickness, and Teresa pulled its bloody hide from her bag and offered it for inspection. The patrona nodded, pulled a wad of bills from her wallet, and handed Teresa 200 pesos, or about 20 U.S. dollars. Teresa contributed her hide to a three-foot pile, and they walked out into the hot sun. On the corner, a five-story glass building loomed over the two-floor cement dwellings, and Antonio asked a visitor, “Are the buildings in New York bigger than that?”

Down the block they found a storefront selling jeans, soccer shirts, and baseball hats bearing the names of American sports teams. The coyote who was arranging his illegal journey had said black jeans would be hard to see at night in the desert, but Antonio picked a dark blue pair instead. The salesman asked the question that is like a mantra in this part of southern Mexico, “Vas al otro lado?“—Are you going to the other side?

“Yes,” Antonio answered, “to New York.”

The salesman had just returned from Los Angeles, and Teresa asked if New York was near Los Angeles and if the trip was dangerous. “No,” the salesman told her. “New York is across the country.” He stuffed the 100-peso bill into his pants, and said, “We’re Mexicans. In this world it is necessary that we suffer.” He agreed that if the helicopters came it would be hard to run in Antonio’s heavy work boots, and he pointed the family to a store up the block that sold sneakers. With the last of the money from the goatskin, they bought a pair of off-brand sneakers and caught the bus back to Zapotitlán.

Eighteen years old, Antonio is small and compact with wiry muscles from years of manual labor. The state of Puebla has a large indigenous population, and Antonio’s eyes are Asiatic, his skin mocha colored; there is a rumor of a mustache on his upper lip. Though he left school at 13, he has a studious air about him. He frequently breaks into an easy, self-conscious grin, and his idea of entertainment is to hike into the surrounding hills with his friends, make campfires, and sing Mexican folk songs late into the night. Even by the standards of Zapotitlán, a traditional, solidly Catholic community, he is quiet, polite, and family minded. The other local boys talk of the sports cars they will buy when they return from New York. Antonio has his eye on a maroon Dodge minivan. “I can put the whole family in it,” he explains.

Each year, at least 300,000 Mexicans cross illegally into the United States. In this three-part series, the Voice will examine the experience of Antonio Gonzalez, an 18-year-old laborer from the state of Puebla. This first installment documents Antonio’s preparations for the journey and shows how his village has been transformed by this exodus. The second segment will describe his voyage and the dangers involved, and explore the hidden world of Mexico’s human smugglers. The third part will look at the rapidly growing Mexican community in New York, and the challenges and struggles of being an illegal immigrant in our society.

If he makes it to New York, Antonio will become a link in what the locals call “the chain,” an exodus of men and women that for two decades has emptied this town—and the surrounding state of Puebla—of its youth. In some municipalities, New York has lured away 40 percent of the population.

The chain works in mysterious yet entirely logical ways: You go where your cousin or your neighbor went; you go where there is a place to sleep and a lead on a job. From the state of Michoacán, they go to Chicago; from Vera Cruz, to Reno or Las Vegas; from Hidalgo to Long Island. And from Puebla, they come to New York City. Of Zapotitlán’s 4500 natives, 1500—including nearly all of the town’s young men—are in the north Bronx, in neighborhoods along the 6 train with names like Castle Hill, Soundview, Parkchester. Puebla is not a border state; in fact Antonio will travel 1200 miles to the Arizona border. Yet per square mile, this arid patch of land in Mexico’s southeastern corner exports more people to New York City than any place on earth.

In 1990, there were 100,000 Mexicans in New York City. Robert Smith, a Barnard College professor who has spent 15 years studying New York’s Mexican community, estimates the current population at 300,000. Four out of five come from Puebla. They work in New York’s Korean delis, pizza parlors, and kitchens, their subminimum-wage labors helping to keep fresh flowers and sushi affordable, their money orders and wire transfers raising the standard of living for 5 million Pueblans. And in a generation, the attitudes, wealth, and sexual mores of New York have turned upside down a culture unchanged from the days of the Mexican revolution.

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.

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.

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?”

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.