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Mexican Hearts, California Dreams : Simpson-Rodino Is Losing to Tradition and the Harsh Reality of Economic Survival

September 27, 1987|ALAN WEISMAN | Alan Weisman is the author of "La Frontera: The United States Border With Mexico" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986). He is a professor at Prescott College in Arizona, where he teaches writing and directs field courses into Mexico.

Throughout Mexico, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, better known as the Simpson-Rodino act, is the most absorbing topic since Fernando Valenzuela. It has meant hope to those who seek to qualify for its amnesty provisions, but its main purpose--controlling U.S. borders--inspires mostly scorn. Mexicans conclude that, like the flurry of panic when it went into effect last May, Simpson-Rodino will eventually subside and be forgotten. They dismiss it as a unilateral reaction to a bilateral dilemma, conjured by distant politicians who haven't the faintest idea of what is happening in Mexico, let alone in much of the United States.

Three times each day, researchers from Tijuana's Colegio de La Frontera Norte photograph Zapata Canyon, where most indocumentados cross the line, to count the numbers passing through. In May, they noted a slight decline, but things have since returned to normal. Just to the north, immigration scholar Wayne Cornelius at the University of California, San Diego, calculates the labor shortage he expects in the United States by the 1990s and figures that we'll soon be inviting Mexicans back.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has spent millions of dollars, added staff members, and recently imposed its first warning sanctions against employers. But, given Mexico's economic prognosis for the rest of this century, passing legislation to halt extra-legal immigration across the southern border of the United States smacks of trying to repeal the law of gravity by edict. Instead, the Simpson-Rodino act may accomplish the opposite of its original intention, awarding permanent residency to thousands of former illegals while others continue to arrive.

WHEN THE NEW U.S. IMMIGRATION BILL passed, priests in the pueblo of San Juan de Los Lagos braced themselves.

Each year, 3 million people descend upon this shrine in the Los Altos highlands of the Mexican state of Jalisco to glimpse an icon credited with resuscitating the dead. According to legend, in 1623 an acrobat in a traveling circus slipped from a tightrope suspended over daggers and was impaled. But she sat up, unharmed, when an Indian girl placed a painted figurine of the Virgin upon her breast. The original statue, draped in blue silk and crowned with gold, remains in San Juan's cathedral; replicas are found throughout Mexico, Texas and California.

During the Vietnam War, many Latino veterans came here, limbless victims of land mines and shrapnel, crawling alongside pilgrims who shuffled on bloody knees down the long center aisle of the domed basilica, imploring divine intervention. When Simpson-Rodino took effect on May 5, everyone expected another influx from the north, this time of displaced undocumented workers seeking meals and shelter.

Sacristan Jose Guadalupe Marquez watched them begin to arrive in groups of eight or 10, distinguishable from local peasants by their North American denim work clothes. Kneeling before the holy image, they gave thanks for their safe journey from the United States. "And they asked her not to forget them, now that they were back in Mexico."

But after the first trickle, the massive numbers the newspapers were predicting didn't materialize. The fixings for thousands of sandwiches to be served in the San Juan seminary weren't needed. "Did the U.S. change its mind?" Marquez asks.

State borders in Mexico are often erratically drawn--the result, many historians believe, of deals stemming from people's devotion to their patrias chicas , or native birthplaces, loyalty frequently more intense than their allegiance to whatever government currently rules the nation. Jalisco's shape, resembling a blob of jelly with fingers leaking outward, suggests just such gerrymandering. " Ay, Jalisco . . ." goes the refrain, " tus hombres son machos y cumplidores, valientes y ariscos y sostenedores --your men are all male, all dependable, brave, tough survivors."

To be from the state's northeastern finger, known as Los Altos, invokes even more pride. Foreign conquerors, both Spanish and French, were seduced by Los Altos' balmy climate. Many established haciendas here when their empires were overthrown in the capitals, and the locals, known as altenos , frequently allude to their continental roots and European physiognomy.

The cobbled, red-tiled villages of Los Altos, each clustered around a resplendent, gold-domed church, share a weekly newspaper, which regularly boasts that the region produces nearly one-fifth of Mexico's eggs and is famed for its hogs. Yet only in the standings of local futbol and basquetbol leagues do team names such as "Angeles" or "Los Lakers" hint at the truth about Los Altos. Spiritually and geographically, its soul is in San Juan de Los Lagos--but its heart has been transplanted 1,200 miles away.

It's a hefty commute, but the whole region is a gigantic bedroom community of Los Angeles.

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