When Americans debate how to regulate the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans crossing the border to work in the U.S. each year, they sometimes forget the toll migration takes back home. That toll is especially high in rural areas, where families are divided, villages are deserted and cherished traditions are gradually slipping away.
But in the tiny pueblo of Zoochila, in Mexico’s southeastern sierra, a group of would-be entrepreneurs is brewing up a reason to keep their friends and neighbors from leaving.
“The idea is to create a source of work so that people don’t have to go,” explains Francisco Siguenza, the pueblo’s volunteer treasurer. Instead of exporting workers to America, Siguenza and about 20 other Zoochilan men hope to send thousands of bottles of top-quality, hand-made mezcal – a fiery local liquor made from the spiky maguey plant.
It may sound like a simple plan, but it is full of hubris. The forces driving the Mexican migration have been building for decades. Since World War II, tens of millions of Mexicans have been drawn to the U.S. by the promise of jobs and economic opportunity. Communities throughout Mexico have come to depend on the dollars the migrants send back. About half of Zoochila’s 300 families are now based in America, most of them in Los Angeles.
Erasmo Luna Mateos lived in L.A. for about 20 years before returning to Zoochila. But he’s one of the few who have come home for good. “Once people get used to making money over there, it’s hard for them to come back,” he admits.
Visit Zoochila during its annual fiesta and you’d think the town was booming. There are bull-wrangling competitions, basketball matches and native dance performances. Local bands parade up and down the dusty streets. Returnees from LA videotape everything and dance the local jarabe into the wee hours. Their cash and the local mezcal make for a festive blend.
But when the celebration is over the picture looks very different. Sturdy new houses stand empty in their lots. The handsome town hall has been restored, but the all-volunteer government is stretched perilously thin. Residents fear that Zoochila, like other nearby mountain villages, could become a ghost town.
Members of Zoochila’s mezcal collective know it won’t be easy to compete with more established producers for a piece of the export market. One of the few companies that sells traditional, single-pueblo mezcal in the United States has only just begun to have some success. “I’ve devoted nine years to building a market,” says Ron Coooper, owner of the export company Del Maguey. “It’s overwhelming.”
Zoochilans are well aware of how time-consuming and expensive it is to produce a distinctive liquor of consistently high quality. And they know that they’ll need to do more than just break even if they want to lure their townsfolk back from America. But they’ve done the math and they believe they can succeed.
Erasmo Luna’s daughter, Mercedes, has also done the math. She says she probably couldn’t have gone to high school if her father hadn’t been sending money home. But she insists that 20 years without him wasn’t worth it. “Who cares if we didn’t have money?” she says. “We wanted our Papa to take care of us, to hug us.”
– Marianne McCune