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Plenty of jobs, not enough pay: Economic forces push Mexican workers north


Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

FRANCISCO VILLA, Sonora — Casimiro Castillo shakes his head as he walks between rows of greenhouses filled with tomato plants but devoid of workers. "Nobody wants to work," he says, as he heads back to the office. He’s short 50 people today, about a third of the number needed to tend to the tomatoes. The old man rearranges his baseball cap and utters a refrain that’s become common in many northern Mexico farming towns over the past decade: "I don’t blame them. The wages are very low."

The workers who do show up to pick tomatoes this April morning will earn 90 pesos, or about $8.50, for a full day of backbreaking work. The ones who don’t are probably 500 miles north, in Phoenix or Tucson, earning $10 an hour landscaping rich people’s yards or hanging drywall in new homes.

Francisco Villa, known as "Pancho Villa" to its 1,000 or so residents, has never been a wealthy place. But the economic fortune of this adobe village in the fertile Rio Yaqui Valley took an abrupt turn for the worse in 1994. That’s when the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian governments implemented NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

By allowing goods and capital to cross borders more freely, NAFTA was intended to help the free market boost the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Labor-intensive industries would pop up in labor-rich Mexico, the theory went, and U.S. and Canadian consumers would buy Mexican goods. The Mexican economy would flourish and create jobs with higher wages, and Mexicans would have less incentive to emigrate north.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Although NAFTA created at least 2 million new jobs in Mexico and raised the average salary of Mexican workers in export-related fields, the burgeoning American economy continued to draw immigrants. Mexican factory workers earn several times what they made before NAFTA, but they can still make more money washing windows in L.A. than on the assembly line in a Tijuana maquiladora — one of the U.S.-operated factories along the border that offer steady work but little pay. And other workers have fared much worse.

Farmers such as those in Pancho Villa are among them. Prior to NAFTA, a farm manager like Castillo could sell his crops in a protected market. Mexican tariffs more than doubled the price of imported corn, for example, which meant that the country’s farmers could charge premium prices for their crops. But when the trade barriers came down, Castillo and his countrymen — most of whom farm small plots with relatively primitive technology — were thrown into direct competition with Iowa and California farmers with thousand-acre fields, giant tractors, government subsidies, and plenty of roads and rails to get their goods to market. With the exception of a handful of specialized crops, Mexican farmers have not been able to compete. Moreover, shortly after NAFTA was implemented, the open market spawned a trade deficit with the United States. That sent the peso crashing, and drove many sectors of the Mexican economy into near-ruin.

Pushed by the low wages in Mexico, and pulled by relatively high pay in the United States, millions crossed the border. Between 1991 and 2004, some 2.9 million Mexicans were admitted to the United States as legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the total number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the United States climbed from 2.5 million in 1995 to 6.2 million in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Caught in the collision of cross-border free trade, failed national economic policies, and a long tradition of migration to jobs in the north, Pancho Villa has been emptied of nearly all of its young men. Today, it is a community made up of women, children and the elderly.

"What else are they supposed to do?" asks Manuel Lopez Fierro, 64, sitting with a friend on plastic chairs outside a small store on one of Pancho Villa’s dusty streets. He laughs when asked about the 300 or so young men who have headed north from this village. "The majority of all Mexicans would rather go over there and work than sit here like we do," he says, grinning.


Two houses up the dirt road, the only sound coming from the dim shadows of Andrés Ruelas’s house is the scratch scratch scratch as he scrapes the dirt floor of the kitchen. Ruelas’ wife, Rosa Maria, age 50, left this morning at dawn to pick tomatoes, but Andrés decided it wasn’t worth it. He chose instead to put his energy into working on his home, scraping the kitchen floor to an even surface before sealing it with concrete.

Andrés is a contractor, but work is often slim. So he spends his time looking for the gold rumored to have been hidden in the mountains to the east by Yaqui Indian bandits 100 years ago. He used to hunt deer in those hills for food, but a few years ago he sold his rifle, when the electric bills piled up.

When Ruelas finishes his current project, he says, he’ll replace the outhouse and outdoor shower with indoor plumbing. "And a laundry room. We want to add that to the back of the house." All this home improvement, Ruelas says proudly, is "what my boy has been able to do for us." The Ruelas’ son, Gabriel, left for the United States three years ago at age 18, walking for five days before he reached Phoenix. Now, he earns enough money laying concrete foundations to send $100 home every week.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, more than 60 percent of the millions of Latin American-born people in the United States send money home on a regular basis. For Mexico, that amounts to nearly $20 billion per year, or 3 percent of its gross domestic product. Although such remittances generally make up only about 10 percent of the sender’s income, they can account for 50 to 80 percent of the incomes of those receiving the payments.

The Mexican government embraces this practice. In 2005, Mexico’s "3-for-1" program gave $60 million to communities to match $20 million invested by immigrants. Morelia, in the southern state of Michoacán, is using the money to build a cathedral; Cumpas, Sonora, is building a community arts center. The government also issues identification cards to immigrants, making it easier for them to open bank accounts in the United States. Expatriates contribute so much that President Vicente Fox calls them heroes.

Gabriel didn’t feel very heroic when he first reached the United States, however. "Gabriel called us once he arrived, saying ‘Mamá, this is so hard. I want to go home,’ " says his mother. "He was scared, he didn’t know anybody. But I told him, ‘Stay and finish what you said you wanted to do.’ " Her response was tough, she knows, but realistic: "He went through too much to get there."


A giant whack is followed by singing as a group of small children, gathered in a circle, take turns swinging at a yellow Esponga Bob Squarepants piñata. Over an open fire in a brick pit, a pot of tamales cooks; Rosa Maria and Andrés are throwing a small birthday party tonight for their grandson, who just turned 2.

Angelica Machado, the Ruelas’ oldest daughter, sips a Tecate beer, watching the kids cheer as Esponga Bob gets another whack, his right arm flying off. Now in her 30s, with long black hair, Machado met her husband, Ezequiel, when she was 17, working alongside him picking tomatoes for $5 a day.

His quick wit and quiet pride attracted her, and they married soon after and began to plan their future. They left Pancho Villa six years ago for the sprawling border city of Tijuana. Three years later, they returned home, broke; they had taken low-paying jobs on an assembly line in a maquiladora. With two babies already and a third on the way, Ezequiel decided to follow the other men in Pancho Villa across the border, traveling illegally to Phoenix to take a job as a roofer. That was two years ago.

"I miss him," Angelica says, her eyes shining in the harsh light of the single bulb illuminating the backyard. "He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave his family."

She stops for a second, gathering herself, then speaks again. He came home in December for his first visit since leaving. It’s easy to cross the border from the United States back into Mexico, but the return is risky: Border Patrol agents, fences, a dangerous desert crossing that costs upwards of $1,500 for a smuggler.

A guest-worker plan would help her family, she says: "It would make it easier for him to come home more often. He’s missing his children growing up." Still, he sends money, $300 to $400 a week. "We were able to buy a house and fix it up," she says. The next step is new furniture, she says, and maybe an extra bedroom.

In March, Angelica heard of the United States Senate’s proposed immigration legislation. If it passes, it will create a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for many of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Ezequiel heard about it too and called her.

If it happens, will you come back? she asked him.

I don’t know, he replied. I hope so.


Other feature articles in this special issue on immigration:

The Immigrant's Trail - introductory essay

Perseverance - Illegal border crossers face a dangerous journey filled with heat, dust, flies and thirst, and always the danger of capture and deportation

Apprehension - U.S. fish and Wildlife Service Officer John Schaefer is one of only two officers patrolling the 860,000 acres of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and armed drug smugglers

Contradiction - Once in the U.S., immigrants find themselves in a land of contradictions, facing an uncertain welcome, sometimes even from other Latinos

Hope - After 16 years of living in the shadows in Pasco, Wash., Wendy and Erendira Santana finally win legal residency