“Building boom in Mexican town was born in Minnesota”

This Bremerton, WA Kitsap Sun article is about as insightful an analysis of inter-country financial flows from low wage immigrant workers as I have seen. A southern Mexico town of 30,000 is receiving about $2,000 per resident per year in remittances!
By Kevin Diaz, July 12, 2006

A pickup truck with Minnesota plates bounced down the dirt road on the edge of town, raising clouds of reddish dust. It caught the eye of a grazing Brahman bull and disappeared behind a clutch of mango trees bordering a new subdivision, where tangles of steel reinforcing bars sprouted from the roofs of unfinished concrete block houses.

Many of the new houses were paid for with money sent by a secret workforce in Minnesota. By Mayor Leopoldo Rodriguez’s estimate, almost a third of the town’s workers have crossed the border – many of them illegally – and headed north to work in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area over the past 10 years.

The money they wire back arrives daily by police escort in armored trucks. Altogether, it comes to between $4 million and $7 million a month, according to money-transfer agencies in the Twin Cities region. The cash has forged an economic link between Axochiapan and Minneapolis-St. Paul that is part of a global trend. It is changing Axochiapan, one household at a time.

Padre Miguel Franco Galicia, parish priest at the Church of San Pablo in Axochiapan…has visited Minneapolis several times to minister to his expatriate parishioners. He estimates that at least 60 percent of Axochiapan’s population receives money from family members working in the United States, most of them in Minnesota. ‘To be honest, I think there are more pluses than minuses, from an economic point of view,’ he said. ‘But the social devastation is enormous.’

Axochiapan (pronounced Ah-sho-chee-AH-pahn), a town of about 30,000 in southern Mexico, has known little but poverty for centuries. People made a living by farming, or by working in the gypsum mines outside of town. The recent flow of Minnesota money has improved life. Pizza deliveries, aerobics studios and Internet cafes, alongside tortilla shops and taquerias, now serve an increasingly cosmopolitan population.

More below….


The past decade has seen an explosion in emigration from poorer countries to the United States, the majority of it from Mexico.
Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, sent an estimated $20 billion back home last year from the United States. This rivals the $25 billion that Mexico takes in from oil exports.
It’s not just happening in North America. More than $223 billion flows annually from migrant workers in the United States and other developed countries to poorer nations around the world. It’s a flow that is transforming families, towns and, in some cases, entire countries, creating a new force in the global economy.
By dint of its migrant workforce in Minnesota, that global economy has come to Axochiapan.
Residents say the money pipeline has changed it from a provincial farm town to something almost reminiscent of the United States. There’s a new hospital, built mostly with Minnesota money, and hundreds of new houses. American cars with Minnesota plates roar down the town’s streets. And stores carry the latest CD players. All of which leaves residents worrying about prices inflated by the steady stream of American dollars.
This kind of money and labor flow has major consequences. In Axochiapan, the lure of American money has created a town where fathers and husbands are absent for years on end, women are left alone to raise the children, and the community is growing increasingly dependent on money made elsewhere.
Padre Miguel Franco Galicia, parish priest at the Church of San Pablo in Axochiapan, understands the lure of the green check. Padre Miguel has visited Minneapolis several times to minister to his expatriate parishioners. He estimates that at least 60 percent of Axochiapan’s population receives money from family members working in the United States, most of them in Minnesota.
‘To be honest, I think there are more pluses than minuses, from an economic point of view,’ he said. ‘But the social devastation is enormous.’
Pizza and the Internet
Axochiapan (pronounced Ah-sho-chee-AH-pahn), a town of about 30,000 in southern Mexico, has known little but poverty for centuries. People made a living by farming, or by working in the gypsum mines outside of town. The recent flow of Minnesota money has improved life. Pizza deliveries, aerobics studios and Internet cafes, alongside tortilla shops and taquerias, now serve an increasingly cosmopolitan population.
‘Axochiapan would not be growing like it is without the people who go up north to work,’ said Antonio Estudillo, an aide to the mayor. ‘They suffer to bring a better life to their families.’
Estudillo knows this firsthand. He made enough money working for a money-transfer agency in Minneapolis four years ago to build a house for his family and open a stationery store for his wife.
His friend Eduardo Navarro has seen business at his Axochiapan grocery store shoot up 50 percent in the past decade because of the money sent by migrants in America.
And then there’s Jose Campos, who parlayed his wages from a dishwashing job in Minneapolis into a video arcade in Axochiapan. Campos also runs a long-distance telephone service, charging cash for the use of his phone. Many of his customers call relatives in Minnesota.
A pool of potential migrants
Even though thousands of workers – primarily men – have left, Axochiapan’s population has held steady. That’s because the town’s prosperity has become a magnet for farmers from the surrounding countryside, people who traditionally cultivated corn, sugar cane and onions.
They can be seen selling their produce beneath the colorful tarps of the town’s open-air market, which has doubled in size over the past decade. Now they represent a growing pool of potential new migrants.
The town has changed in other ways, too. Until recently, sewage and refuse piled up in dry creek beds along dusty side streets. There were no fire trucks and only one ambulance, which served a single overcrowded hospital near the bus station.
Now the town has money for sewer pipes and a new sewage treatment plant. Money is being raised for a second ambulance and a firetruck, courtesy of a group of Axochiapan expatriates in Minnesota.
The most conspicuous improvement is the gleaming white private hospital, the $3 million Clinica San Antonio, built almost entirely with Minnesota money. The hospital was built by the family that owns Envios America, a money-wire agency that handles a large part of the remittance market from the Twin Cities.
That money gives the town a future, said Envios America manager Fabiel Sanchez. ‘Five years ago, we didn’t have the Internet and cell phones,’ he said. ‘People are better dressed now, and cement houses are replacing old adobe structures.’
Just about every week, young men set off from Axochiapan bound for Minnesota or other parts of the United States. Many go as soon as they graduate from high school.
The average weekly wage in Axochiapan is about 600 pesos, or $60. That’s about one-sixth of what most immigrants can make in the States.
‘They see the things that people have who have worked in America,’ said Omar Lorenzo, a traveling salesman in Axochiapan. ‘They want to make money.’
Cash economy
As Axochiapan prepared for a recent festival, Osvaldo Pliego pulled up to the church of San Pablo. He was driving a Dodge minivan with Minnesota plates. In the back, he carried a load of drums, torches, and other things his band would need for that night’s procession.
In Minnesota, where he worked construction for five years, the van had carried the tools of a different trade. Now, back in his hometown, he also used the van as a taxi.
Like many of those driving newer American cars, Pliego couldn’t have bought a car in Mexico. That’s due in part to the difference in wages. But another key reason is the financing, which is out of reach for most workers in this country town.
And the absence of a mortgage industry means that residents must pay cash for a house. A typical concrete-block home is about $15,000 – far too expensive for the average farm worker, who makes about $10 a day.
Not all feel the pull north
Some people are starting to wonder how long the American money pipeline can last, particularly as political leaders in Washington push legislation to fortify America’s border with Mexico.
Some economists also question whether this steady infusion of American dollars truly improves the fortunes of towns like Axochiapan, or makes them increasingly reliant on future generations of migrants. They fear that the flow of American money has fostered a culture of dependency that stifles local work.
Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., says that the millions of dollars sent back to towns such as Axochiapan cause inflation and sap enterprise.
‘It goes back to national aspiration,’ he said. ‘Sure, I can work in the fields, and sure, I can open up a business. But why don’t I just go to Minneapolis illegally and work for a while?’
Not everyone in Axochiapan feels the pull north. One who has resisted fiercely is Jose Sarafin, a 56-year-old gypsum miner with leathery hands and a sister and brother in Minneapolis.
‘Yes, you can make money in America,’ he said. ‘But I’m proud of my work. We can live well here.’
Other locals decry the migration north as a continuation of Mexico’s historic domination by the United States. They fear the weakening of traditions and the loss of their regional identity. ‘Unfortunately, those who leave are the young,’ said Isodoro Sanabria, a retired high school history teacher in Axochiapan. ‘Many get spoiled by life in America, or they start new families there, or only bring back problems like drug addiction.’
Sanabria worries about a drain on the town’s talent and brains; those who head north, he said, seem to be the ones with the most ambition and education.
Studies by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that those who go to the States have a higher level of education than the adult population of Mexico at large.
Mexican author Pablo Ruben Villalobos, who has written a poem praising Axochiapan’s indigenous roots, says: ‘The money is a great help, but you have to think about who is left behind and what’s lost.’
Maria Luisa Morales is one of those left behind. A widow and a church volunteer, she tends pigs and chickens in the back yard of her tidy stucco house next to a gypsum plant.
Her son Roberto sends money from Minneapolis, where he is a landscaper. She hasn’t seen him in six years. ‘He said he would be gone a year,’ she said.
Roberto left Axochiapan when he was 20, following a girlfriend who had gone to Minneapolis. Since then, he has sent enough money back to help build a house for his sister.
But now he also has a house and a child in Minnesota – a grandson Morales has seen only in photos.
Her son is in the United States illegally, and visiting Mexico would mean another risky border crossing back to Minnesota. Morales is coming to terms with the thought that he might never come back. That thought fills her with dread.
‘I ask him if he likes it there,’ she said. ‘It takes him awhile to say yes, and in his silence I believe that the real answer is no.’
‘Their only sin’
The Rev. Lawrence Hubbard (‘Padre Lorenzo’) of Incarnation Catholic Church in Minneapolis and Padre Miguel of Axochiapan pray with many of the same families, separated by 2,000 miles and an international border.
Some of their immigrant parishioners call the priests the glue that holds the two cities together. Both men say they try to discourage the migration and family separation, even though they understand the reasons behind it.
‘Lots of people expect to come here (to Minnesota), work and then go back,’ Padre Lorenzo warned. ‘That’s the ideal, and it does happen. But it’s not that common.’
Studies show that a third or more of the migrants go home again, but increasingly more are staying in the United States – or are trying to stay.
The sight of half-constructed houses in Axochiapan, the ones with the rusting reinforcing bars jutting out of unfinished concrete walls, are a testament to broken dreams – or permanent detours to America for workers who have not returned.
The danger of romantic betrayal and family abandonment is very real in a population of young men far from home.
‘If you’re a man (in America), it’s hard to be faithful to your wife in Mexico,’ said Padre Lorenzo. ‘You have to live a life of abstinence.’
Depression is a common affliction for the migrants he counsels. The same is true for migrants’ families in Axochiapan who seek out Padre Miguel.
‘America can offer success or failure,’ Padre Miguel said. ‘People go to the United States to find work, but they also find alcoholism, drugs and family breakup. They make money, but they lose sight of God.’
Still, he knows that it’s the desire for modern housing and a decent life that is driving the rush north.
‘Their only sin,’ he said, ‘is they want to work to make a better life for their families.’

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