Bordering on a problem: In their fathers' footsteps
BY TOM DROEGE World Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006
1/19/09 at 12:02 AM
DAY 1: A peculiar immigration history ties Tulsa to Casa Blanca,Mexico, and has brought thousands of immigrants - legal and illegal - from Casa Blanca to Tulsa.
TODAY: Life in Casa Blanca isn't easy, and every year more people leave for Tulsa. "A lot of kids have the idea in their heads already," says one resident.
DAY 3: Casa Blanca and Tulsa often share a symbiotic relationship. But there are also problems.
From the heart of Mexico they come, bringing their labor -- and leaving much of their lives behind
Welcome to Casa Blanca, a wind-swept "rancho" where residents sport University of Oklahoma ball caps and Java Dave's T-shirts. They spend money sent from relatives in Tulsa and drive trucks and minivans with Oklahoma license plates. Barely a word of English is spoken in this dusty high plains town, but the people living here sure have a lot to say about "Tool-sa."
An estimated 3,000 people from the Casa Blanca area have moved to Tulsa over the years, causing the population of this Mexican farming town to shrivel. The National Institute of Statistic and Geographic Information of Mexico puts the town's population at 1,062. Other nearby communities raise the area's population to about 2,500. Just about every one of them has either been to Tulsa or knows somebody here.
Casa Blanca sits 6,700 feet above sea level in north central Mexico. Homes are cobbled together with white adobe bricks that glow with pastel sunsets and retain the day's heat through bitter clear nights.
Lanky cattle shuffle through pastures tangled with cactus while pickup trucks loaded with tattered workers rattle down washboard roads on the way back from the pepper fields. Here, workers tired of earning 100 pesos a day, about $10, travel some 1,200 miles north -- often illegally, dangerously and out of desperation -- to land jobs in Tulsa with intentions of sending money home to put food on the table.
"Things are tough here, that's why people leave," said 62-year-old Reyes Becerra, a life-long farmer in Casa Blanca. "People leave for Tulsa and before you know it, the whole family is there." Seven of Becerra's nine children live in Tulsa, working in the concrete business. The population shift to Tulsa is generating cash, but it's also fragmenting families and educations and creating anti-migration uneasiness on both sides of the border. Mothers are left without husbands, and laborers who cross illegally into the United States live in fear.
Meanwhile, teenage boys in Casa Blanca see bleak futures at home and romanticize the benefits of running away to Tulsa. At the same time, the trend is diversifying culture in Tulsa by contributing to the city's fastest-growing minority population, while allowing Casa Blanca residents to buy electric stoves and crop fertilizer -- what they consider luxuries.
The day begins
Stars still glitter in the bitter sky over Casa Blanca when the day begins for Maria Felix De La Torre de Bernal, a 41-year-old mother of eight.
She is nursing her youngest child, 4-month-old Estáfani Juanita. Her oldest lives in Tulsa.
Maria Felix packs a small lunch for her husband, Ignacio Bernal, who joins other workers fidgeting in the cold, waiting for rides. The trucks come, and they jump in the back where men and boys huddle under pepper sacks for a teeth-rattling ride down poorly maintained gravel roads.
When the sun slices over the rugged horizon, brilliant light shines through the thin air on the low-slung adobe brick and cinder block homes.
The tallest point, the steeple of Casa Blanca's modest one-room church, stands over a silent plaza in the town's center.
Not far from the church down a sidewalk, a battered metal gate swings open to Maria Felix's property.
Clothes lines, strewn with children's shirts and pants, criss-cross above her dirt-packed courtyard. A red horse needles its head through the fence of a sideyard where a nine-foot cactus grows. When it sprouts fresh shoots, Maria harvests them for food.
A crucifix hangs on the wall by the doorway outside the tin-roof building where her children hunker under blankets, two to a bed.
Going to school
Maria Felix wakes the children and they pull a curtain across a section of the room so they can dress. The temperature is in the low 30s, and there's no heater or fireplace.
When they come out, Maria sits the girls down to comb back their long black hair, pulling it into tight pony tails.
The youngest children -- those who haven't already left for school on their own -- file into the kitchen where a tray of eggs and tomatoes sits on the table in the morning sun. Maria gives the children two small cookies from a package and a glass of milk each, more than some Casa Blanca children get before school.
The eggs and tomatoes are for dinner. When the children have finished their breakfast, Maria hurries Briceyda and Johny through the gate out to the street.
One of the family dogs squeezes through the gate and follows the children across the plaza and about a half mile more down gravel roads to Casa Blanca's elementary school.
Outside the school's locked gate, a group of students play with each other. At 8 a.m. promptly the groundskeeper unlocks the gate, and the children run through, gathering in the courtyard.
A teacher on a loudspeaker tells them to divide into groups, based on grade, and wait for directions. She guides them through a series of exercises before telling them to walk in a line to their classrooms.
In the sixth-grade classroom, teacher Raul Ramos agrees to a class discussion of the children's perceptions of Tulsa.
"It's pretty and there's work there," said David Ramirez Ortiz, 13. "I can visit my uncles."
Ramos listens patiently. But later, standing in the schoolyard, he said the answers disturb him. Each year, more desks in his school go empty because more families leave for Tulsa.
"We are going to have more emigration," said Ramos. "A lot of kids have the idea in their heads already."
Those children not here -- or those who didn't go to the nearby middle school or to the high school a bus ride away in Tacoaleche -- are most likely in the fields.
Some teenagers say they go to work either because they like it better than school or their families need the money.
"People here usually stop after middle school because of economic reasons," said Ramos. "They have the capability to be bright professionals. Out of 20 students, only one will continue to study."
In the fields
Armando Gaytán and his family, dressed in hooded sweatshirts and jeans, gather in a field around a small fire made of straw to warm their fingers before they start picking.
His sister, Maria Elvia Gaytán Del Rio, and her daughters have come to help.
Maria Elvia's face is bronzed and creased from years of working in the arid, windy conditions.
"We are very poor," she said. "We have work when God gives us work."
Pepper plants stretch for acres in all directions. The family moves in a line together, each working a row from the near side of the field to the far.
It will take the better part of a morning to cross the field, before they pick their way back. Stooping into the dried plants, they harvest the rich, red guajillo peppers and toss handfuls at a time in waist-high bags.
The withered, less-desirable peppers are thrown into another bag to be ground later for seasoning. Nothing is wasted.
Picking wears on their backs and hands. Hours of reaching into the bristly plants leaves their hands, wrists and arms scratched and raw.
Maricarmel, the 19-year-old daughter of Maria Elvia, wears kitchen gloves with the wrist openings taped around her sleeves to protect her skin.
If nobody is at home to watch the very young children, mothers bring them and lay them on a blanket in the truck or on the ground.
"Sometimes mothers have no choice but to bring their infants to the fields," Armando Gaytán said.
By late afternoon, it's time to go home. The infant's cheeks are sunburned, and the truck is packed with sacks of peppers.
Back at the house, families sit around the kitchen table to eat. They tear off pieces of tortillas, scooping beans out of a bowl into their mouths.
After dinner, they go outside and sit together on the sidewalk in front of their house chatting with neighbors and watching the end of another day.
When Armando Gaytán sells his peppers to a buyer he gets about 18 pesos, about $1.80, a kilogram. But about 22 miles away, a Wal-Mart store sells the same peppers for eight times that amount.
Farmers blame "intermediaries" for the difference.
As in other places, the globalization and corporatization of agriculture has hobbled small family farmers like Armando Gaytán.
With agricultural distributors able to buy and sell on a global scale and name their price, small farmers in Casa Blanca are losing.
Each harvest Gaytán says he makes just enough money to plant, cultivate and harvest the next season's crop.
Over the years, the water table in the Casa Blanca area has dropped, leaving wells dry. That forces farmers to pay higher prices to have water pumped in.
Gaytán saves very little. His four children in Tulsa help out with rising costs of fertilizer and irrigation by sending money home.
Two worlds meet
Dr. Jose Luis Navarro Olvera, 25, spent a year managing a small medical office in Casa Blanca as a visiting doctor through a Mexican government program. The community faces a critical point, he said.
In the past, the farming community was isolated and self-sustaining. People didn't have much back then, but they didn't know it, either.
"Casa Blanca is no longer an itty bitty place on the brink of poverty," Olvera said. "It has the privilege of knowing the United States, but it doesn't even know its own country."
High birth rates and skepticism about education hold the area back, he said.
Instead of refashioning themselves to excel in changing times, Casa Blancans abandon their homes for comparative financial success in Tulsa.
Low education attainment and what Olvera referred to as ingrained cultural "machismo" are disabling the community and many others like it in Zacatecas, he said.
Money is wired home, but the problems persist. Now some townspeople find themselves hanging between two worlds, belonging to neither.
'The hard times have come'
On a chilly November night in Casa Blanca, 20-year-old Norma said goodbye to her home as she boarded a northbound bus with her mother, Juana, and her 3-year-old child.
Terrified of crossing the Rio Grande with her infant, she left the 10-month-old behind with relatives.
At the border they planned to pay $3,600 to a human smuggler, known as a "coyote," to sneak the three of them across and take them on to Oklahoma.
The money came from Norma's two brothers, who arrived in Tulsa a few years earlier and are making a living as house painters.
"The hard times have come. That's why we're leaving," said Norma, who asked that her last name not be used. "I'm only leaving out of necessity. We know when we're going; we just don't know when we're coming back."
So they'll close the small grocery store that opens onto a sidewalk in Casa Blanca. The 10-month-old child will stay with an aunt until they find a way to sneak him across.
'Money helps, but you need luck'
CASA BLANCA, Mexico - For days they walked in the desert, sucking on limes to ease the thirst. They saw huge snakes and drank from puddles when they had to.
But they kept returning to what looked like the same point in the desert. It seemed like they were walking in circles.
Each time he sneaks across the border, 41-year-old Gonzalo wonders if it will be his last.
"You fear for your life," he said.
Gonzalo is an illegal immigrant. His complete identity is not being published to protect him.
There are many ways to cross the border if you don't have paperwork such as a tourist visa, he said.
You can pack inside the trunk of a car or hide behind a panel and hope the vehicle isn't searched at a checkpoint.
You can walk across deserts too vast for border agents to patrol. You can tunnel under the border or swim the Rio Grande.
Or you run for it.
Then, if you've made it that far, you meet your "coyote" at a predetermined landmark on the United States side for a ride on to your final destination. A coyote is a smuggler of humans.
Gonzalo started coming to Tulsa from Casa Blanca when he was 18. He makes about $15.50 an hour pouring cement for commercial buildings and hotels around Tulsa. His brother and two sons are in the same line of work in Tulsa.
He returned to Casa Blanca in November to help with the pepper harvest. When it's over, he plans on going back to Tulsa.
"The hardest part is getting there," said Gonzalo, standing next to his truck in a pepper field outside Casa Blanca.
Gonzalo pays a coyote to find the best place to cross and pick him up on the other side. He won't bring his wife and daughters because he's heard horror stories about coyotes raping and abusing women.
Up until recently, Gonzalo was hiring the same coyote to get him to Tulsa because he trusted him and never had any problems. But after years of smuggling illegal immigrants, law enforcement caught up with that coyote.
He usually crosses near Juarez, which is adjacent to El Paso, Texas. On the Mexico side he pays the coyote half the $1,500 fee. He crosses, usually in a different place in the countryside each time, and is picked up by a driver.
Once he gets to Tulsa he pays the coyote the balance.
"Money helps, but you need luck."
Cinthya Esparza Chavez is a first-grader in Casa Blanca, Mexico. From a young age, many residents hope to immigrate to Tulsa.
Norma, 20, left for Tulsa in
November with her mother and her
3-year-old daughter. She left behind
10-month-old Brandon (right).
Maria Felix De La Torre de Bernal (center) feeds her
children Briceyda (left) and Johny breakfast before school.
Each child gets two cookies and a cup of milk.
A loaded van sits in
Casa Blanca, Mexico, at 5:30 a.m.
with luggage bound for Tulsa.
Casa Blanca’s butcher,
Arturo Castro has never been to
Tulsa but has friends and relatives
30 field workers
leave a field after picking peppers.
Ana Lidia Bernal
worked for Tulsa six months.
She left behind her 3-yearold
Ana Lidia Bernal (left) and
Maria Elvia Gaytán Del Rio
pick guajillo peppers in Casa
first-graders celebrate a
classmate’s birthday. A
large majority of these children
have relatives in Tulsa.