SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, Mexico — Isaias Garcia had labored for decades to raise a family in Torrance when in 2009, the Zapotec Indian faced a life-changing decision.
The authorities of his family village of Santa Ana del Valle in the state of Oaxaca had called him home to serve without pay as a councilman for three years. If he refused, they could confiscate his property — a house and nine acres — under a centuries-old system of local Indian governance known as usos y costumbres (uses and customs).
Garcia came to America illegally, and he knew that going home would be tantamount to permanent deportation; border security and drug-cartel violence had made returning to the United States more dangerous and costly. Nor could he afford to pay someone in Santa Ana to do the job for him.
PHOTOS: Life in Santa Ana del Valle
Under usos y costumbres, a system recognized in Mexican law, Indian towns choose municipal workers — mayors, councilmen, policemen and sanitation workers — in open assemblies. The system is practiced by 418 Indian municipios, similar to counties but much smaller, across Oaxaca.
In most villages, each man before he turns 60 must perform at least 15 years of work — each job can last between one and three years — or pay someone to take his place.
California has close to 300,000 Oaxacan Indian migrants, and more than half of them live in Southern California. Virtually all are from villages run by usos y costumbres; many are in the same bind as Garcia.
For centuries, usos y costumbres kept Mexican Indian villages functioning and unified. But many villagers were now in the United States, and the system increasingly pitted migrants against those who remained behind. Migrants say the system keeps their hometowns and people in poverty, and as Garcia prepared to return home, Santa Ana migrants in the U.S. were battling the system.
In December 2010, Garcia, 59, with his wife, Angelica Morales, 54, left their apartment in Torrance and returned to Mexico for what he assumed was forever.
A quiet, self-effacing man and a political novice, Garcia would soon become a conduit for the cause of upending, at least in Santa Ana, the system that had governed the town for centuries.
"It would be a radical change," he said. "Change is good. We only need the village to approve it."
Santa Ana del Valle — 20 miles east of the state capital of Oaxaca City — had once been a town of weavers and subsistence corn farmers living in adobe houses.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of young men immigrated to California, finding restaurant jobs in Culver City, Venice and Torrance. Garcia was among two dozen who found kitchen work in a Torrance Szechwan restaurant.
Now he walked Santa Ana's quiet streets. Red-brick homes had replaced the adobe. There were small grocery stores, and even though men often herded donkeys and bulls through town, many families also had trucks.
As he began his tenure as councilman, he and his wife settled into the house that he and his brothers had built in place of their late father's adobe home. He also planted corn on their nine acres, just as his ancestors had on the same soil. Like them, he plowed the fields using bulls.
He also knew that many villagers thought the migrants were getting rich in the United States.
In 1986, villagers decided that migrants had to do service jobs, even if it meant they would have to return home. The jobs began to proliferate. Because the workers didn't draw a salary, essential services could be provided without draining the municipal budget. In one instance, a different person for every day of the week was put in charge of turning on the water system.
Some migrants, preferring not to leave the United States, began paying others to do their work, and it became common in Santa Ana to name migrants to jobs in the expectation that they would pay others back home. Some villagers relied on this income. Migrants compared the system to extortion.
Others saw the essence of Indian life and culture wrapped up in usos y costumbres. The work helped youths understand their responsibilities to one another and to the town, said Jacinto Matias, a former weaver who spent 31 years in the United States and now lives in Santa Ana.
That labor "is how we're a community," said Matias, who has put in nine years of service work as a police officer, a caretaker at a school and a church, and an operator of the water system. His brother helped him a little financially, but he and his wife mostly supported themselves by working in the fields, growing corn.
To change the system, he said, "we'd just be like one of those other cities that they have out there in civilization. It would be to lose a part of what it means to be Zapotec, just like the language. They go together."