The border between the United States and Mexico is unlike any other. Nowhere else in the world is there a border between a first-world nation and a third-world nation where the income difference is as large as it is between these two nations… On September 5th, I heard a journalist named Charles Bowden on WBUR’s Here and Now program talking about the migration of people from Mexico to the United States, and how our typical proposed solutions to the problem of illegal immigration, from walls to guest worker visas, are bound to fail. According to Bowden, the complete collapse of the Mexican economy, essentially the failure of Mexico as a state, has led to a mass migration of people that is inexorable and beyond the power of either nation to control. The harder it is to get here, the more will die trying to get here, but they will still come. Bowden has been watching the border situation closely for over 20 years. As long as Mexico has no work the problem will endure, and NAFTA, which was promised as a panacea, has been an absolute catastrophe for Mexico.
I don’t know too much about Mexican Folk Religion, or about the syncretism between Catholicism and native Aztec and Mayan religions beyond knowing about the festival of the Mexican Day of the Dead. Apparently, however, there has been a new devotion to a new “saint” within the last 20 years, the Cult of La Santísima Muerte. Most Holy Death.
In Mother Jones (I can just hear my conservative friends... “Mother Jones?? Mother freaking Jones?? Alright, alright… Shut up) Charles Bowden covers the same material in an article called Exodus, in which he writes about the migration of biblical proportions and the skeletal La Santísima Muerte.
She waits by the fork in the road. El Puente del Comercio Mundial, the World Trade Bridge, is on the new truck highway that each day feeds 5,800 semis in and out of the twin cities of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. This is all part of the SuperCorridor, a huge construction project designed to speed the flow of NAFTA trade. Big new ports on Mexico's Pacific coast will drain the freight from Long Beach and other California docks. The products of Asia will be unloaded in these harbors safe from the maritime unions and then sped north by Mexican truckers safe from the Teamsters union. The drivers will deliver these loads anywhere in the United States. At the moment, such Mexican truckers put in about 50 hours a week and earn around $1,100 a month. They all have wrecks, they all use drugs, and they all work like beasts–one run from Ensenada to Cancún takes five days and six nights and no one stops for sleep or anything else.
That is why she is here. The first little capilla appeared five years ago at the interchange of I–35 and the World Trade Bridge. Now there are three more chapels, each large enough for a man to enter. Trucks idle on the shoulder of the highway as men approach La Santísima Muerte, Most Holy Death. She is the saint for drug dealers and for truckers and for anyone else who understands that the game is not on the level and help is necessary for survival.
La Santísima Muerte has no flesh — her bony feet and hands reach out from her cloak. One hand holds a huge scythe, the other the world. She looks like death but promises a chance at life to those whirling in a world of death. In Nuevo Laredo, 230 people have been slaughtered in the last 16 months as a byproduct of the drug industry. In February 2006, two men entered the daily newspaper, sprayed the office with assault rifles (the lobby still has more than 20 bullet holes), cut down some staff, threw a grenade into the editor's office, and then left after 180 seconds of commentary. The paper decided to cease publishing stories on the cartels. When four cops were executed on a downtown street this past spring, the news was broken by Mexico City papers 700 miles to the south. Yesterday, a cop guarding the assistant police chief's house was mowed down. The paper buries this story in the back facing a feature on a local honey cooperative.
A trucker in his early 20s stands before La Santísima Muerte, his voice very soft as he speaks to her. He says, "She is just like us, except she has no flesh. She can speak to God. She has helped me many times."
Once he saw her standing by the road. She saves him when the highways are wet and saves him from wrecks and saves him from police and saves him from the many faces of death. He enters the main capilla, lights a cigarette, and leaves it burning for her. The altar is rich with candy bars and fruits and money.
He explains, "I have believed in Santa Muerte since I was 13 years old. If I tell you of her favors to me, I will never cease talking. I have a shrine to her in my house and offerings of rice, tomatoes, wine, apples, corn, and bullets."
A man of about 40 climbs down from his truck. He wears black, dark sunglasses, and a gold chain. He stands before La Santísima Muerte and softly speaks to her as he sprays her body with perfume. An expensive two–seater sports car rolls up. The occupants do not get out but sit in their machine a few feet from La Santísima Muerte, praying as the air conditioner roars. No one looks at them because everyone knows how expensive sports cars are earned here.
She first appeared during the late '90s in Tepito, the thieves' market of Mexico City, a zone of 37 blocks stuffed with contraband, whores, addicts, live sex shows, and violence. The priests were alarmed but could do nothing because La Santísima Muerte exuded tolerance. Women went to her to be safe from AIDS and to ensure their clients remained docile. Men sought protection from bullets. She spread north to the line and then spilled over into the ragged neighborhoods where migrants hid from view in the cities of America. The anthropologists pounced and concluded she had erupted from the long–dormant virus of Aztec death worship.
I think she is the saint of NAFTA. In 1994, the trade agreement first kicked in and within a year the numbers crawling through the wire began to spike. Within three years, La Santísima Muerte had entered the minds and hearts of those broken on this new notion called free trade. NAFTA crushed peasant farmers who could not compete with the torrent of cheap agricultural products flowing from American agribusinesses. Trade with China, Mexico's introduction to the global economy, swiftly wiped out traditional industries: toys, serapes, shoes, and so forth. Then the border plants, the maquiladoras where Mexicans assembled goods for American corporations, closed up shop and hightailed it to China where men and women work for one–fourth the wages of Mexicans. Juárez, the poster child of free trade, lost 72,620 jobs to China in less than three years, for example.
In Nuevo Laredo near the Rio Grande, a market stall sells statues of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, and La Santísima Muerte–who outsells all the others combined. She touches more human behavior than the Border Patrol or Homeland Security or the DEA. She holds the whole world in her bony hand. For years, she succored the souls being displaced and hurled north, listened to their fears and hungers while politicians talked about slight adjustments in the global economy, while others spoke of guest worker programs, as some babbled about pathways to citizenship, as growing numbers rumbled about building big walls on the line, and still others explained the need for workers to perform tasks beneath the notice of native–born Americans. All this while, like the illegals themselves, she remained largely invisible to those who believed themselves to be in control. Most Holy Death is the real face of the migration, one kept safely off–camera, one never invited to be on the cable talk shows, one worshipped by men and women who scorn presidents.
The exportation of human beings by Mexico now reaches, officially, a half million souls a year. Or double that. Or triple that. What is for certain are the apprehensions by the Border Patrol (during one week this April, agents caught 12,434 people in the 262–mile Tucson Sector, for example). And that any reduction of poverty in Mexico takes two forms: the exportation of brown flesh to the United States, and the money those people send home to sustain the people, la gente, whom their government ignores.
Everything else is talk. And bad talk.
There are no honest players in this game. People cut the cards to fit their ideology. More Mexicans come north than either government admits. They do take jobs. (They say Mexicans take jobs Americans refuse to do. This is probably true in some instances. But in the mid–1960s slaughterhouse workers earned twice the current wage for their toil. Now such jobs are held by Mexicans.) They do commit crimes. And if the arrival of millions of poor people in the United States does not drive down wages, then surely there is a Nobel Prize to be earned in studying this remarkable exception to the law of supply and demand.
They are no longer migratory workers. And it is not seasonal labor. The people walking north all around me are not going home again. This is an exodus from a failed economy and a barbarous government and their journey is biblical.
And all the solutions in political play are idiocy. Worker permits? Demand at this moment is certainly the 12 million illegals in the United States today, and it climbs each year by maybe a million more. Open the border? Mexicans would be trampled to death by Asians storming up the open route and, also, by other Latin Americans, those folks the Border Patrol calls OTMs, Other Than Mexicans. Build a wall? The border consists of 1,951 miles of desert, mountains, and scrub, a zone legally traversed by 350 million people a year–the busiest border in the world. Employer sanctions to make illegals unemployable? Fine, then Mexicans go home and Mexico erupts and we have a destroyed nation on our southern border and even greater illegal migration. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution ripped apart a nation of 15 million souls. One out of 15 died. But 892,000 fled to the United States. Now there are 108 million Mexicans. Do the math.
There are piles of studies on these matters, studies that prove illegal migration benefits the United States, studies that prove it does not benefit the United States, studies that show it enhances the GDP or has little or no contribution to the GDP. There are plans to manage this migration and plans to stop it dead in its tracks. There are proposed solutions. And, of course, there are claims that we don't really need a solution, because mass migration is natural for a nation of immigrants and as American as apple pie.
But in the end, you don't get to pick solutions. You simply have choices, and by these choices you will discover who you really are. You can turn your back on poor people, or you can open your arms and welcome them into an increasingly crowded country and exhausted landscape.
I think this country already has too many people and that the ground under our feet is being murdered and the sky over our heads is being poisoned. I find these beliefs pointless when I stand on the line.
Across it flows the largest migration on earth. Nearly 15 percent of the Mexican workforce now resides in the United States. When the dust settles, this exodus will influence us more than the Iraq war. The war is who we are; the migrants are who we will be. For a century, the United States has tolerated and sponsored various nondemocratic rulers in Mexico. When Porfirio Díaz ruled as a dictator, we celebrated him. When the revolution came, we tried to corrupt and control various factions and repeatedly invaded. When a new dictatorship settled on Mexico disguised within single–party rule for 71 years, we celebrated it. When the students were butchered in Mexico City in 1968 on the eve of the Olympics, we focused on gold medals and ignored the murders. When Mexico became a narco state in the 1980s, we denied this fact. When NAFTA proved ruinous to most Mexicans, we denied this fact. And now as millions flee this charnel house, we pretend it is simply a mild structural readjustment of globalization, something that provides us cheap labor and grows that thing we call our economy.
For several decades now our economic theology has outsourced not only American jobs but also the reality that most people on this planet must endure. We buy clothes made by children and comment on the good price. Oceans have largely sheltered us from the consequences of our actions. But the Third World has finally said hello and this time not even a wall will keep it silent or at bay. What is happening on our southern border has penetrated our entire country and the border is simply a point where we watch the world race toward us at flood level. The issue is not securing a broken border any more than the real issue in New Orleans is building a better levee. Storms are rising, and the walls and levees are simply points where we taste their initial force as they move inland.
We have entered the future even as we pretend it is simply a version of our past.
One guy, 19, gives the basic biography of a pollo: "I have never been in the U.S. before. I plan to spend a couple of years, and then go back to Mexico. There are no jobs in Guerrero. Why even go to school? When you graduate, there are no jobs. Last week, in the state capital I saw 300 young schoolteachers demonstrate because they could find no jobs. I work in the fields. I can grow beans, corn, and squash.
"His eyes are anxious. He has heard Americans think people such as himself steal jobs from them. But he does not believe this because "people who have been in the United States tell me Americans don't work in the fields."
He has two worries: dying in the desert, and not finding a job. He's heard of the recent big marches and thinks people have a right to march.
"Why," he asks, "won't the U.S. let us work and then go home? We don't want to do anything bad to America. In my village, 20 percent of the people have gone to the U.S., and in the state, about 50 percent have gone. I've been in Altar two days waiting to cross."
This story plays out of mouth after mouth in the plaza. There is no work in Mexico. Do you know where Oregon is? Do you know where Tennessee is?
Juan Hernández, a dark Mixtec Indian who has already been caught once by the Border Patrol, explains, "There is no work, no rain, nothing to do in the fields. We are very poor there. I don't know what the U.S. is like," but, he adds, already 20 to 30 people from his village have gone to America.
Francisco Garcia, 39, has smooth skin, black hair and mustache, and the slack gut of a man who does not work in the fields. Until recently, he was the mayor of Altar. Now he works for the Catholic aid center for migrants six blocks off the plaza. Those defeated by the desert and the Border Patrol come here for food and shelter. And then they head north again — Garcia knows one migrant who tried 25 times before he succeeded. He thinks at least 90 percent of the migrants get through.
He explains that the traditional economy of Altar was cattle and farming. Now it is pollos and drugs. "The migrants are like a curtain that hides the money of the drug business." Almost all the people in the pollo industry — the people running phone services and boardinghouses, the coyotes — come from outside Altar.
He describes the people–smuggling business as like a string of rosary beads, with each bead a self–contained cell. In the Mexican south, men recruit pollos, then other men round them up and ship them on buses to, say, Altar. Here another cell plants them in flophouses and arranges van rides. Sixty miles north, another cell moves them through the wire. At the end of their desert trek, they brush against the next cell, which loads them in vans and takes them to stash houses.
Here a key representative of the coyote arrives, copies down names and phone numbers and destinations, makes the calls to tell the pollos' relatives of the charge. Sometimes these people double the price from what had been earlier agreed. After forking over half the fee, the pollos are loaded into vans according to their destinations. On arrival, another key figure appears, some blood kin of the coyote, who pockets the rest of the money. The top coyote remains in the shadows, Garcia says, an intelligent, cunning, and mysterious figure….
This year he thinks 800,000 Mexicans will pass through Altar on their way to El Norte. The sign behind his desk advises that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were migrants looking for a better life….
Down at the plaza, people line up at the public restroom (three pesos a visit). Outside, buses keep arriving and unloading people from the south. Two pollos stop at a stall to buy foot powder before climbing into a van. Vans depart more and more frequently. They will haul Mexicans until at least 8 p.m., people who, if everything goes per schedule, will move through the wire on Good Friday. Where the road leaves Altar and heads north into the desert stand three crosses. One says "Children," the next "Family," the third states that "2,800 have already died on this journey and how many more must die?" The town priest put them up. Then he was shipped to the Vatican where he couldn't make such a fuss….
The tired and frightened men and women crawling through the line soon become founts of money and wire $340 a month back home on average. This is the largest transfer of wealth to the poor in the history of the Western Hemisphere and it dwarfs all the American gestures of aid and all the revolutions that have filled the plazas of Latin America with tired statues. Remittances to Mexico alone are now estimated to be $20 billion a year, a figure much greater than tourism and rivaled only by the drug trade. (After the U.S. offered migrants amnesty in 1986, families reunited and the motive for remittances ended. Were remittances to dry up today — due to amnesty or a seriously toughened border — the Mexican economy could implode.)
This is also the largest teach–in of American values in history. Some 12 million illegals are studying law enforcement without massive corruption, contract law, the joys of homeownership, the existence of real public schools with real textbooks, the pleasures of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and recently, in the marches and protests, the strong drug of dissent. Beneath the Mexican and other flags in the demonstrations, a deep shift is taking place as strangers in a new land become part of that new land. American employers have inadvertently created the most affluent and politically active generation of poor people in the history of Latin America. Sending them home would detonate the nations they have come from. The politicians all know that….
The catholic casa del Migrante Nazareth sits on the Nuevo Laredo bank of the Rio Grande. Men can seek refuge here for three days, women sometimes for six. But these days, the Casa is seldom open for the migrants. The woman who answers the door says come back in five hours when a priest will stop by. For blocks near the Casa, men are sprawled on the sidewalks. She looks out at them and explains they are not migrants and so not her concern. Across the Mexican north a silent battle has been taking place between priests influenced by liberation theology and bishops picked by the increasingly conservative Vatican. Here liberation theology seems to be losing….
We want an answer, a solution. But there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. At the moment, we insist on the wrong answer to the wrong question. And so, the Border Patrol will grow.There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.