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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MIGRATION

Sept. 11 Leaves Carpet Loomers Idle in Oaxacan Town

Mexico: Some seeking work are delaying crossings until the U.S. economy improves. But hardship may spur more to risk the trek.

November 28, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH and KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, Mexico — In this small town in southern Mexico, Juan Aquino Cruz puts the finishing touches on a wool carpet fresh from his family's hand-operated loom and wonders if the Sept. 11 attacks will keep it from being sold.

"As far away as we are from all that is happening, why is it affecting us so much?" Aquino asks.

More than two months after the terrorist assault, carpet sales in this Oaxacan village have dried up, locals say. The tourists and foreign buyers have vanished. It has been a devastating blow to a town where almost every home has a loom, a source of income rivaled only by the dollars sent home by the town's migrants laboring in California.

The distant attacks have had a series of interwoven consequences here. For one, some residents who normally would have headed to the United States at this time of year are waiting for the economic hardship north of the border to subside, knowing that American jobs are suddenly scarcer. And there are signs that more migrants already in the U.S. are staying put rather than going home and risking the tougher crossing on their next trip north.

These trends would help explain a huge drop in arrests at the border, a key indicator of illegal migration. In October and the first week of November, arrests were down 54% from the same period a year ago. A combination of the economic slowdown, tighter border controls and resulting higher costs for smugglers have contributed to the decline.

At the same time, the hardships afflicting people in Santa Ana suggest that the falloff in migration could prove temporary. People here say that if carpet sales continue to be meager, some who managed to stay home in recent years will have no choice but to hit the migrant trail again.

In another household here, Severiano Antonio said he is waiting until January to decide whether to return to Los Angeles, where he has trekked each of the last 10 years to work in restaurants.

"After the 11th, I am rethinking my plans," he said. "What happened there is punishing us here. We are waiting for things to calm down there."

Information About Situation in the U.S.

Technology helps migrants such as Antonio swap information across the border more readily than ever, making it easier for would-be border crossers in Mexico to respond to new conditions in the United States, from economic shifts to fears of anthrax.

Pessimism over jobs "is transmitted almost in real time back to migrant-sending communities, through phone calls, television news and even e-mail," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. "History shows that Mexican migration patterns adjust very rapidly to perceptions of an adverse economic environment in the U.S."

But the income Antonio and his wife, Gabina Cruz, earn from carpet-making has vanished since the attacks. Cruz, who joins her husband on the migrant trail, said the family normally earns $55 to $85 a week from sales. But sales and prices have fallen so low that the family is not bothering to produce carpets at the moment.

Such economic problems in Mexico mean that the lull in unlawful border crossings may be short-lived, Cornelius said.

"As Mexico's economy contracts--dragged down by recession in the U.S.--this will generate stronger pressures for emigration," he added. "Even with greater competition for jobs in the U.S., most migrants will still have a better chance of finding adequately paid employment north of the border than if they remained in Mexico."

At the modest town square in this community of about 2,000 people in Oaxaca's Central Valley, the communal carpet shop is struggling. Like many Zapotec Indian villages in Oaxaca, Santa Ana is governed by a traditional system in which town leaders volunteer their time for local services. For council member Felix Bautista, that means staffing the carpet shop one day a week.

Sales have plunged from between $300 and $400 a week earlier this year to $30 to $40 a week since Sept. 11, he said. Many people in the town sell their output to retailers in the nearby carpet town of Teotitlan, but Bautista said many buyers there have suspended purchases. So the community of Santa Ana has been buying up residents' output, at discount prices, just to give them some cash. But that has meant a buildup in unsold inventory for the shop.

"Even now, with all the problems up there, people are still leaving" for the U.S., said Bautista, who lived in Los Angeles for six years until he came home last year to care for his elderly parents. His wife and three daughters are in Los Angeles.

It Now Costs More to Make Journey North

One disincentive is the greater cost of going north.

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