The whole town of Comachuen, a Purepecha Indigenous village of roughly 10,000 people situated high in the pine-clad mountains of Michoacan’s western state, depends on money sent home by migrants working in the United States.
Remittances, or money sent from abroad, kept families nourished after local woodworking sales fell off a decade ago as pine lumber became scarce. Their families have been able to stay in Comachuen instead of going to other parts of Mexico in search of job thanks to the money.
This, combined with the fact that most children spend the most of their time with their moms and grandparents, has contributed to the preservation of the Purepecha language among practically everyone in town.
Traditional textiles, woodworking, and building industries are still alive and well, thanks to migrants who send money home to build houses here. Migrants pay for a lot of things here, including the church, the bull ring, and charitable donations.
Last year’s remittances are expected to top $50 billion for the first time, according to the Mexican government. However, whether remittances enable families to simply subsist or to grow sufficiently so that their children do not have to move depends on a person’s aspirations and vision.
The chilly winter mornings in Comachuen are reminiscent of a bygone era. Because of the seasonal slowdown in agricultural work in the United States, the men have returned to town.
Many Comachuen employees obtain H2A temporary work visas in the United States, while others go undocumented. Every year, hundreds of men plant onions, harvest squash, cabbage, and beans at the same vegetable farm in upstate New York.
Porfirio Gabriel, an organizer who encourages laborers to migrate north, believes that one farm has brought in $5 million to the town over the last three years, making it the town’s single largest source of income.
In Purepecha, residents say greetings as they pass one other on the tiny streets. Three drovers from one end of town lead their teams of oxen through the streets and towards the nearby hills, pulling tiny carts loaded with freshly cut pine logs. The tree trunks are arranged in the street in front of the house.
Men dragging bricks and wheelbarrows of sand and gravel into half-built dwellings combine with the whirr of wood lathes. In the winter, Comachuen comes to life.
On a rudimentary lathe, Tranquilino Gabriel — a common last name here — is putting out ornate wood spindles. To keep his decades-old family business alive, the 59-year-old does this exclusively in his spare time while working in the United States. The 5 pesos (25 cents) he receives for each is just a bonus.
He claims that wood is becoming scarce, and that they are unsure how much longer they will be able to do so. “More area is being cleared and avocado trees are being planted,” Gabriel explains.
Gabriel has decided to stay in the United States as long as possible. From the money he makes working in the fields, he sends home roughly $7,500 every year. That money is primarily used to pay for his children’s education, including private college tuition so his eldest son can pursue his dream of becoming a registered nurse.
He hopes that his children will be able to obtain university degrees and will not be forced to emigrate. “I’m paying for their studies so they don’t have to go through what we went through,” Gabriel explains.
Apart from spindles that are shipped to a nearby town to be assembled into bookshelves and shelves, the local economy is based on migrants selling to other migrants.
“But it wasn’t enough to cover our fundamental requirements,” González continues, his visage severe and contemplative like that of an Indigenous drill sergeant. He had to emigrate after working in the fields in Mexico for a while. His well-stocked store now offers canned goods and meals to migrant families.
Omar Gabriel, 28, distributes sand, gravel, cement, and rebar to migrants in Comachuen who are renovating or expanding their homes with money earned in the United States. Gabriel, one of the foreign laborers who was younger and more educated, studied accounting at a local institution. He has goals that do not entail travelling north every spring to plant onions.
His earnings from farm work in the United States are used to grow the family business, Don Beto Materials, and to fund his younger brother’s architectural studies at university. With money he earned in the north, the family just bought an old bulldozer. They purchased a dump truck previously.
“My goal is to work for another five years (in the United States) to raise enough funds to get the company up and running properly” as a full-service construction firm, from drawings to excavation to construction, he says.
However, even if Gabriel does not have to travel in the future, his firm looks to be reliant on a continual stream of migrant consumers with cash in their pockets.
Will the influx of remittances allow Comachuen’s young adults to make a life in Mexico instead of working as stoop laborers in American fields?
Andrés Reyes Baltazar, 20, is a 20-year-old student at a public institution in Morelia, the state capital. During his winter break, he was working in the family’s furniture workshop with his father, Asención Reyes Julian, 41, on a large wooden cupboard that was six feet wide and eight feet tall. (Many Mexican homes are devoid of closets.)
Since 2011, the father has commuted north to work since, in the furniture industry, “sometimes there are customers, and sometimes there aren’t.” Reyes Julian spends a large portion of his earnings in New York to cover his living expenses.
Andrés hopes to use his knowledge to grow the company, possibly by purchasing a truck to reach new markets and obtain better rates for their furniture. Making finished items has higher profit margins than making furniture parts, and the Reyes family is one of the few who still does it.
Andrés, on the other hand, is evasive when asked if he plans to work in the United States in the future. “Perhaps I will. But first and foremost, I must complete my studies.”
Andrea Sánchez, 21, is fluent in English. She moved to California with her family without documentation as a little girl in 2002 and attended American schools until the sixth grade.
“It was a great shock… it was really different,” she remarked when her family returned to Comachuen. In the ten years since, she’s grown to like her hometown, even if it lacks the enormous homes and well-kept yards she remembers from her childhood. “This is where I call home.” “I’m drawn to this culture.”
Despite the fact that she is learning to be a teacher and assisting her mother in the family’s traditional embroidered textile business, she still want to return to the United States.
“If that’s an option, I’d take it,” she added, adding, “but I’d prefer do things legally.” That would be the objective.”