For generations dating back to the 1930s, throughout Mexico, including in this region in the central state of Guanajuato known as El Bajio, the towns have emptied themselves out of their youths during what’s called the “winter blues.” The young would head north to seek out their own version of the American Dream: Jobs.
In North Texas and other places they worked in everything from gardening, to restaurant service, to roofing and to constructing some of the area’s most iconic buildings. They helped build D/FW International Airport, Texas Stadium and just about every high-rise in Dallas.
“Dallas was the dream of my father – it’s not my dream,” said Jairo Villalon, 21. With his friends, brothers Carlos Padilla, 21, and Rigoberto Padilla, 18, he runs a fruit stand between San Miguel de Allende and Queretaro on the weekends to help supplement a weekly income at one of the growing automotive plants in the region. “I’d rather stay here and work in Mexico. I think things are going to get even better.”
Traveling through a half dozen towns to ask the locals whether they wanted to work in Texas, the answer was sometimes evasive, but more often emphatic: no.
Their choices will have far reaching consequences for the U.S., particularly in North Texas, experts and economists say.
“For many families, the idea is for their young sons and daughters not to follow in the footpaths of their elder tios, primos, abuelos who have become permanent manual laborers,” said Neil Foley, historian, co-director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU and author of Mexicans in the Making of America. “In short, the implications for industries like construction are obviously not good. Cheap labor on demand from Mexico is never going to happen again, like the numbers that came over before 2000.”
Overall migration to the U.S., predominantly led by Mexicans, is at a historic low, down from a peak of 1.6 million in the year 2000 to less than 400,000 last fall. Plainly put: More Mexicans are leaving the United States than arriving there.
Demographic changes such as smaller families, plus fears about security along the northern border, nativist anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. and, perhaps most of all, a surging Mexican economy are keeping many satisfied that Mexico is where they belong. And there’s a widespread rare sentiment here, too – hope.
A great deal of that hope springs from Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, who marked his 100th day in office this month. For now, Mexicans are feeling good about their man-of-the-people president. Many believe a real transformation is underway; that a brighter future looms, say experts like Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at CIDE, the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City and a media commentator and columnist for Reforma newspaper.
“Today most people are hopeful, and that’s something we haven’t seen in a long time,” Bravo Regidor said. “Most Mexicans believe in him and are willing to give AMLO a chance. But there is a risk: Expectations are so high and problems are so big that, sooner or later, there will be disappointment. He has nowhere to go but down. The key question is, what can his government actually deliver in the meantime?”
Lopez Obrador, who won last July’s presidential election with a historic 53 percent of the vote, remains strong in the polls, with an approval rating hovering at or about 80 percent, according to several publications. A whopping 73 percent of those surveyed believe the country will improve under his presidency.
Luis Carlos Padilla slices mangos and prepares corn-on-the-cob for the San Miguel de Allende crowd bound for Mexico City by car. He laughed when asked about migrating north.
“I tell my friends the American dream doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Who wants to go to a country where you’re treated like a criminal? I like what AMLO is doing and what he’s promised to do. Plus, I think my father would be heartbroken if I wanted to do the same thing he did decades ago, especially these days.”
Many Mexicans believe a transformation is underway and trust in Lopez Obrador’s almost daily promise that he will make significant inroads against corruption and impunity.
They were pleased when he ditched the presidential palace, plane and motorcade. He flies coach. They appreciate that he’s folksy, good natured with dry humor, and every morning at 7 a.m. dominates the airwaves with a news conference.
They like that he will disrupt the status quo by going after the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the “people.”
When he launched a military assault on the country’s fuel theft gangs, the move seemed hasty and led to gas shortages across the country. But his popularity soared.
And perhaps more importantly, many believe AMLO will make Mexico a more just and equal nation. In a country where the rich are few but potent, that’s a powerful promise.
“Mexico has very little social mobility,” Bravo Regidor said. “If you are born poor most likely you will die poor. Poor children are pretty much condemned from birth.”
Over the last few weeks, in dozens of interviews, such opinions resonated among Guanajuatenses, in the so-called Bajio region, known as the Heart of Mexico.
Ironically, Guanajuato is the only state that AMLO’s MORENA party lost in the election. Still, in towns from here in San Diego de las Trasquilas, outside of San Jose Iturbide, Pozos, San Luis de la Paz, Doctor Mora, and San Miguel de Allende, all with strong ties to Dallas, many expressed more of an interest in staying in Mexico than leaving.
Pedro Vizcaya Tonala spent 10 years – from 1998 to 2008 – in Dallas, until he was deported. He was making four times what he makes now as a technician in Mexico at an aerospace company. In Texas, he lived in an apartment with four other men near Oak Cliff where he worked as a dishwasher and busboy, gardener and roofer.
“I would definitely work in the United States again,” he said. “But only on a temporary, contractual basis. There’s plenty of work here. You won’t die from hunger anymore. The money is obviously better in Dallas, but this is home and I’m hopeful.”
Of his time back in Dallas, he said, “I came of age in Dallas, but the United States is an ungrateful country. In Mexico I feel we’re building something better together.”
His colleague, Ana Campuzano, 22, has never even considered migrating to the U.S. Sometimes, she said, family members, including her father, grow nostalgic when they watch movies set in cities where he once worked, like Chicago and Dallas.
“I’d like to see Six Flags in Texas, maybe shop, see buildings up close that my father helped build, but I don’t want to work there,” she said. “I like where Mexico is headed under AMLO. He cares and connects about us, the people.”
Lopez Obrador’s popularity comes amid some setbacks. In recent weeks, drug violence has flared up in several regions, particularly along the Texas-Mexico border. Leading credit ratings agencies, including Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, issued warnings about Mexican sovereign debt. And despite Lopez Obrador’s insistence that the economy will grow at 4 percent annually, growth is anemic, projected to be as low as 1.5 percent by some economists.
Some investors, including in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are nervous.
“The Mexican economy is slow, but the foundation is solid,” Pia Orrenius, a labor economist and vice president at the Dallas Federal Reserve, said during an interview last month. “That said there is a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty is bad for business investment.”
Alberto de la Pena, an attorney at Haynes and Boone, a law firm with a portfolio including top clients with investments in Mexico, said, “The attitude in North Texas is one of caution, not lack of interest. It’s a cautionary wait-and-see attitude.”
Some economists and business leaders, including in North Texas, are nervous, too. They need laborers.
Labor scarcity is playing out in the U.S., especially among low and mid-skilled workers, Orrenius said. Difficulty hiring impacts economic growth and increases labor costs. Some investment projects are not viable at higher costs, she said. U.S. labor force growth will continue to slow over the next 10 years.
“In the past, immigration from Mexico accounted for a lot of the growth of the low- and mid-skilled labor in the state,” she said. “In Texas, we’ve been spoiled because of steady migration. This may be changing. That immigration has mostly dried up. Migration across the Southwest border is now predominantly Central Americans, many of them women and children seeking asylum.”
So what comes next?
“Mexican migration to the United States keeps dropping, even with a strong U.S. economy, but migration from Central America, Asia, and Africa is up, and these will likely be the new sources for immigrants in the United States,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Institute.
“Overall, almost half of all recent immigrants have a college degree, something that is particularly true of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America, though less true for those coming from Central America,” he said. “Recent Mexican immigrants, too, are far better educated today than only a decade ago.”
The trip through the towns of Guanajuato continued amid a sea of new construction. At one gas station, the attendant, Camilo Loya, who once worked in Chicago, offered a solid tip to where to find migrants headed north. Drive closer to the railroad tracks, he said.
“We’ve passed the baton,” he said, with a wry smile. “To Central Americans.”
There, about an hour away, on a busy street, stood Jonathan David Cardenas, 32, with his 8-month-old son and his wife, asking for handouts from motorists. They were part of a caravan that originated in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and were headed for Houston.
“We’re looking for the American dream,” Cardenas said.
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