Yucatán, Mexico needs work and San Francisco, California needs workers.
This relationship has become a kind of love story for many decades now; the Bay Area is hard to forget for all those Yucatecan immigrants who are returning home.
But for the families that await them in their homeland, the benefits of migration have begun to lose some shine.
“San Francisco is a big part of my life”
In the city of Oxkutzcab, in the south of the state of Yucatan, Fernando Buenfil Gongora is, for many, the perfect example of an immigrant success story.
Fernando came back and built Oxkutzcab’s “Hotel Casino” with the money he earned working as a waiter in an Asian restaurant in San Francisco. The hotel has been run by its proud owner for 15 years now.
“I have the Golden Gate Bridge here,” he says pointing to one of the murals of the 11 room hotel, a shrine to the California city. The top floor is bright yellow and has painted windows overlooking a painting of “the bay”.
Many of his relatives work at the hotel. Buenfil says he is doing well economically. “I can survive,” he says. “I do not make as much money as in San Francisco, but I live happily here with my family.”
However, he acknowledges that leaving the city was like “leaving a mistress”. And he misses it so much that he actually cut contact with friends there, fearing the temptation to return. “I feel that part of my life is in San Francisco,” he says. “I get the feeling that if I return, I will end up staying, and I do not want to leave my family.”
And it is the family that makes many Yucatecans return to Mexico. In Buenfil’s case, it was his father, who was dying, that made him return; but now he is married and has a young daughter.
Traces of San Francisco are located throughout the town of Oxkutzcab, not only at Buenfil’s Hotel Casino.
San Francisco and symbols live in the hearts of many former immigrants.
Many restaurants, for example, serve Asian dishes popular in San Francisco plus burgers and tacos, as well as the pad thai (Thai stir-based rice noodles).
And the logo of the San Francisco Giants, the baseball team of the California city, is seen in the windows of taxis, in caps and even as a tattoo on more than one arm.
Oxkutzcab is far from a popular tourist destination like Cancun, which attracts millions of Americans annually. 70% of city dwellers live between moderate and extreme poverty, although the constant flow of dollars from the US has allowed the emergence of a modest middle class. This leads mostly to American style two story houses, new cars, motorcycles, computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.
As a teenager, Juan Carlos Chable got up at three o’clock to unload trucks of pineapple boxes for the central market of Oxkutzcab. A week’s earnings were the equivalent of USD $ 17, which was not enough to invite his future wife to a decent restaurant. And when they finally married, they had to move in with her parents.
“I barely earned enough to buy food,” says Chable. So he decided to go north. He spent two years in San Francisco kneading pizza and washing dishes, and then came back to the Peninsula with his savings.
Today, Chable’s passion for the San Francisco Giants is visible on his new “moto-taxi”. A San Francisco Giants fan, his love for the team is visible on the front of his moto-taxi that now runs in Oxkutzcab. Besides, when he returned from California he was able to build a large house with four rooms, a courtyard and an elegant iron gate with his savings.
He now has two sons, and in a good week he can make up to USD $120. Nevertheless, Juan Carlos has been somewhat uneasy up lately. “I want to return to San Francisco,” he says. “I have to pay a hospital bill and it’s costing me to meet my family’s daily expenses.”
He keeps his savings in three jars of yogurt above the refrigerator. Two are empty, in the third there is only a one dollar bill that he keeps as a souvenir. Chable wants to open his own car wash business.
But the people who are left behind when the men leave for the states, particularly women and children, are no longer so convinced that immigration is the solution to their financial problems. In the house next door, Chable’s mother, Sofia, is cooking a chicken for lunch dressed in traditional Mayan clothing known as “hipil”. She openly disapproves her son’s intention to go back to the Bay Area.
“He’s crazy,” she says. “His home is here and he owns a motorcycle taxi now. What is he missing? He has everything he needs right here.”
And obviously, Chable’s wife also opposes to the idea of his departure. With two children already in school, she has offered to find a job. But her husband does not want her to work.
“Here in Yucatan, it is not well seen that the man of the house, allows his woman to work,” he explains. “People make fun of one not being able to keep up with the family expenses.”
“If you push forward and work hard, you can succeed in Mexico”
In a neighboring district, Juvencia Mary Chan, 30, sells raw pork meat. She has never been scared of hard work, and along with her husband she runs a small butcher shop and food stand. They also manufacture their own soap brand and sell it.
With their earnings, they have provided education to their two children, built a house and they drive a 2005 model Volkswagen Jetta .
Neither she or her husband have ever migrated to the United States, and Chan is proud of it. “No matter where you go, it is always difficult,” she says. “But if you know you want and work hard for it, you can succeed in Mexico”.
by Monica Ortiz Uribe for BBC
This story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media.
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