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SAN MIGUEL ACUEXCÓMAC, Mexico -- While the debate over immigration rages in the United States, its impact is providing one Mexican village a sense of community pride, self-identity and the means to survive under waning local resources and employment opportunities.
In the two decades that residents of 900-year-old San Miguel Acuexcómac have been migrating to the United States, their village has been transformed with necessities and amenities that most would take for granted.
New kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high schools line the main street leading to this agriculturally based community in the state of Puebla. Children pass the time on a playground at the edge of the square, while residents work to install a new stone patio behind their church. A jail, town hall, and health clinic are just some of the services that have been built here, and the expansion continues.
"Residents here started migrating because there was a need to progress. In order to progress we had to leave, and that's what some have done," said Bernardina Aguilar, a fruit and vegetable grower and one of the community's elders. Aguilar was among a handful of residents who gathered in the village square on a warm and rainy April afternoon to share his migration experiences with a group of Ohio State University Extension Educators.
The informal gathering was part of a Mexico Extension Study Tour, sponsored by Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Office of International Programs in Agriculture and the Colegio de Postgraduados, Mexico's premiere agricultural institution. The purpose of the 10-day central Mexico tour was to learn more about rural Mexico and Mexican agriculture, and how they relate to Mexican migration in the United States.
"This tour may help OSU Extension participants better understand the reasons why farmers migrate, their strong cultural and social ties to their families and communities back in Mexico, and the objectives they pursue when they leave their families behind," said tour host Fernando Manzo-Ramos, Extension and adult education specialist for the Colegio.
According to the PEW Hispanic Center, over 300 million Mexicans legally cross the border into the United States each year, with an estimated 11 million more unauthorized migrants joining them. Four percent of Mexico's 22 million households have migrants in the United States. Migrants temporarily leave their families and give up their jobs at home to seek better education for their children, more employment opportunities, and a better way of life for themselves and their community. The majority send money home in the form of remittances.
Nationally, 4.4 percent of Mexican households receive remittances from those living in the United States. In the state of Puebla, 4 percent of households have migrants in United States. Additonally, over 3 percent of households in Puebla receive remittances.
"Migration is very important in these small, traditional communities. It helps build social relationships that link people from one community to the next and even across borders," said Manzo-Ramos. "There is a strong connection between the reasons for migrating, the economical and social activities residents perform in their communities, and the community and family needs people fulfill through the constant flow of migration's remittances."
At the base of this connection lies Mexican "community" -- an ancient tradition of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and values that instill progress for the collective rather than for the individual.
"Everything, from the link with the environment to cultural and social issues and family affairs, creates what we call ‘community'," said Manzo-Ramos.
Even in instances where migration can separate families, efforts are made to maintain community ties between Mexican communities and members living in the United States. This effort is evident in San Miguel Acuexcómac, where the elders have formed a committee that maintains ties with a similar committee formed from "los norteños", those village residents living in Los Angeles.
Through this constant communication, migrants send money to the village twice a year to cover the multiple expenses of religious festivals. What is left over from the festivities is used to repaint the church, pave roads, repair buildings, launch beautification projects and perform other activities.
In the past, residents would often travel to surrounding towns for medical services or to marry because of a lack of local services. Now, most of what residents need is available outside their front door, even running water, which is a scarce resource throughout most of the Mexican countryside. Villagers used to carry water from the river into town via donkey.
Resident Rafael Barrales recounts how the progression toward a better life began.
"In the 1980s, people from our community in California learned that a woman here needed medical attention, but we didn't have those services here. We had to take her to another town. So they decided to do something about that," said Barrales. "Each ‘norteño' sent $100 and that basically helped an appointed local committee to build a health center. The same thing happened when we needed a town hall. The sense is that because the people who went away send money back, there is a moral obligation to do things here."
The benefits of migration have improved San Miguel Acuexcómac to such an extent that the village of 2,500 residents is close to becoming its own municipality. The village has its own post office, and has one of the few libraries and cultural centers in the region. Almost all households have telephone lines through a unique satellite system partially paid by all the families who were interested in such a service. Residents have also been able to repair and beautify their 18th century church and main plaza, both of which are important to Mexican communities.
"Such solidarity efforts provide 'norteños' with a way to still be part of their community and participate in social and economical development, regardless of the distance. Migration and the sense of community have provided the families with new ways to rebuild their identity," said Manzo-Ramos. "With the help of all these new social and technological mechanisms, families separated by time and distance are building this transnational community and diminishing the potential negative effects of temporal or permanent migration."