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Father's Modest Dream Leads to Tragic Journey

Mexican migrant who hoped to earn enough to finish his home died in rail car.

October 23, 2002|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

LOS CONOS, Mexico -- Roberto Esparza was a skilled, hard-working young man with a welding shop in his mother's garage. He had a baby son, the joy of his life, and a modest start toward his dream: the mud-brick walls of a little home for his new family.

But one day in June, Esparza despaired of his limits and made a heartbreaking choice. Welding jobs in this poor farming village bring $4 on a good day, too little for building materials in addition to food, so he turned to a thriving local businessman for help.

The man was a wealthy migrant trafficker. For $1,500, he would get the 23-year-old tradesman to Sarasota, Fla., where he might earn enough to return next year and finish his house. On June 10, Esparza kissed his wife and left for the Texas border with two cousins.

Then something went horribly wrong. Esparza, one cousin and nine other migrants died after being left in a locked grain car, and their skeletal remains were discovered only last week in a Denison, Iowa, rail yard. The trafficker called the family from somewhere in Florida to beg forgiveness.

The family's tragedy underlines the poverty that spurs migration from thousands of small communities across Mexico, making people-smuggling their most lucrative enterprise and draining away their ablest workers. The gruesome scene in Iowa was a sign of the risks Mexicans are willing to take for higher-paying work in the United States.

The problem will be high on the agenda this weekend when President Vicente Fox, playing host to world leaders, will press President Bush for a revival of Mexico's proposals to make migration by its laborers to the U.S. easier and safer. Talks on the issue were shelved after the Sept. 11 attacks diverted Bush's attention.

The U.S. Border Patrol has stepped up its checkpoints in populated areas along the Mexican border since the mid-1990s, but this has only prompted undocumented migrants to take more perilous paths. At least 320 people have been reported dead trying to cross the frontier in the last year.

"It's terrible what happens to them," said Father Jesus Mendoza, the Roman Catholic priest for Los Conos and the 23 other villages of El Llano municipality in Aguascalientes state, about 260 miles northwest of Mexico City. "They die in train cars, drown in the river, get lost in the desert."

At least 600 of El Llano's 16,000 people work in the U.S., most of them in Florida, authorities here say. The priest said he has buried at least a dozen others who died trying to get there over the last eight years.

Villagers leaving Mass here Sunday said the latest deaths left the community shaken but not surprised, gripped by new fears for those trekking north but no less certain that they'll go anyway.

"You can never trust the smugglers," said Saturnino Martinez, a chicken farmer whose teenage son followed one smuggler to Texas this year. "But you cannot stop the young people from going to them. There aren't enough jobs here."

Mayor Francisco Silva estimated a 20% to 30% jobless rate in El Llano. A textile plant, its biggest employer, is losing jobs to China, and farmers are adjusting poorly to a decade-old withdrawal of government subsidies. There's little commercial traffic on the muddy streets save for the twice-weekly Corona beer truck.

So poor are people here that, when a collection was taken up for the Esparzas, the heartfelt sympathy for the family translated into just $69.05 from 44 donors.

Although remittances sent home from U.S.-based migrants are Mexico's third-largest source of income, El Llano has not benefited as much as some places have.

"Our young men go north, dreaming of returning with money for a car, a house, or so a brother or sister can go to university," Father Mendoza said. "But they get there and forget why they went. They try to live like Americans. They get another wife. They drink."

Roberto Esparza seemed an exception. He labored 11 months in an Indiana shoe factory in 2000, came back to start a family, and left again in mid-2001 to build swimming pools in Sarasota, sending hundreds of dollars home each month.

Back from Florida last March, he met his son for the first time, and the two became nearly inseparable. His mother's four-room house began to feel cramped, occupied as it was by 11 members of the Esparza clan, so he started building his own. To pay for bricks, he bought welding equipment and set up shop, making metal doors and signs.

"He wanted his son to grow up better than he had, in a nicer place," said his wife, Irene Godinez.

But Esparza soon realized there wasn't enough money here. Without one last trip to Florida, he told his wife, the new house would remain an illusion.

"We can build gradually," she remembers arguing, begging him to stay. "But he was driven to finish it."

Godinez, 22, and her mother-in-law, Leticia Rico, 45, told this story while playing with the toddler, now 14 months, in their tiny living room. Both women wept as the tale turned to woe.

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