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America From Abroad : Is the Journey North Worth It for Mexico's Migrant Work Force? : Those who have made the trip to the United States--and the families left behind--have different interpretations.


JARIPO, Mexico — Guillermo Acevedo runs his general store on a corner of the plaza in the best cracker-barrel tradition.

Merchandise is stacked on shelves along the walls, leaving plenty of space and a few extra chairs for customers to linger, sipping soft drinks and chatting, well after they slip their purchases into a plastic market bag.

Just as important, Acevedo and his store are the link to life beyond the few blocks of dirt roads between the highway signs that read Jaripo.

His ledger carries the names of villagers who have borrowed money for the trip north to work in the fields of California's Central Valley or the construction sites of Los Angeles. Jaripo's three telephone lines are all hooked up to the switchboard in his store, so he knows which migrant workers keep in touch with their families--and which do not.

Just leaning against the counter and listening, a visitor can learn a lot about how the people who are left behind when migrant workers head north view the United States.

Here are the abandoned wives, the children who see their fathers two months a year, the men too old or too lame to make the 2,000-mile journey and those few, such as Acevedo, who are able to earn a living in Mexico and do not have to go. And when workers come back to the village on vacation, this is where they come to show off their new clothes and to tell their stories of life in the United States.

Those tales vary. As Mexicans say, "Cada quien habla segun como le va en la feria --What people say about the fair depends on what happened to them."

Alicia Gomez de Mendoza talks about the cold winters during the 13 years she worked in a Chicago pickle factory.

In contrast, Jesus Diaz Ceja remembers picking tomatoes during the hot summers in California's Imperial Valley. "Lots of people would stop working at 10 or 11 in the morning because of the heat," he said. "I held out the whole day."

And the people hearing the stories also add their interpretations.

To Maria Iepes, the United States is the fountain of youth.

"People come back renewed," she said. "Remember Senora Cristina?" she asked Acevedo. "She left all skinny and ugly and came back pretty and plump."

As if to provide an example, Mendoza, who returned to Jaripo three years ago to run the family farm, stopped by the store to make a telephone call.

Like Iepes, she has recently become a grandmother and still has children in elementary school. But while Iepes is gaunt and bent over, wearing dark, nondescript clothing and graying braids, Mendoza still walks with a bounce. Her curly, henna hair is tied in a ribbon that matches the bows on her pastel sweater.

She is proud of the way her stay in the United States changed her life.

"My house is concrete, like the ones there," she said. Adobe and brick are the typical building materials in the village.

The women gathered at the store listened to Mendoza with respect, then looked to her for agreement as they offered their opinions.

"In the United States, people work hard, but they eat," said Ana Maria Gonzalez, a round-faced teen-ager whose husband is working in California. "Here, all you can do is wait for them to send money."

Sometimes, that wait is a long one.

Javier Valencia borrowed money from Acevedo and headed to the United States to work 16 years ago, leaving his wife and 6-month-old son. He wrote once, said his wife, Guadalupe. She never heard from him again.

Iepes has known for 10 years that her husband lives with another woman in Santa Ana, Calif., but as long as he sent her money to support their three youngest children, she did not complain. The last money order came 10 months ago.

Now, she is angry. "He has a responsibility to his children," she said.

Neither Valencia or Iepes blames the United States for her troubles, however. "The woman who stole my husband is from here," said Iepes. "It could have happened anyway."

Diaz Ceja, after listening to the women, is not so sure.

"In my day, we never stayed away longer than six months at a time," he said. "It's just not good to go for five or six years and leave the family here."

Diaz Ceja was among the first villagers to make the journey north. He was hired in Mexico in 1943 to harvest peaches in California under a World War II program that allowed Mexican workers to cover labor shortages caused by the war.

After the program ended, he still made the journey north, without papers.

"That's where I got old, in the United States," he said. "Here, we are poor and only by going there can we relieve our poverty a little."

That opinion is repeated throughout the plazas of Mexican villages with traditions of migration to the United States. While academics and public officials on both sides of the border worry about the discrimination and abuses that migrant workers suffer in the United States, workers themselves brush aside such concerns.

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