They are the monuments immigration built, and they now stand empty in towns such as Tecalpulco, Mexico.
Homes were erected with money sent by men of the village, who left looking for work in the U.S. with promises to return — but never came back. Some started second families in the U.S., leaving the village a shell of itself.
The women left behind call themselves the widows of Tecalpulco.
“The houses in the villages, the old ones, the adobe ones, they continue there, and the people live in them, but now there are many big houses made with fine stone facing, firm but abandoned constructions, nobody lives there,” one of the women said. “The village is a ghost town, nobody in the street. In the old adobe houses are women, old folks and children. The men who sent money to make these homes never returned.”
It’s a tale that played out across Mexico at the turn of the century, when 1 million Mexicans a year were caught trying to enter the U.S. and perhaps 1 million more sneaked into the country undetected.
In the years since, the patterns have shifted.
A better economy and reforms have managed to keep Mexicans at home. Statisticians have found a net drain of Mexican illegal immigrants as the number who return home, die or gain legal status outstrips arrivals.
Yet Tecalpulco stands as a reminder of a generation of men drained from the land — and a warning to Central American countries, which have replaced Mexico in the past few years as the largest source of illegal border crossers.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2011 the number of people coming to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — what is known as the Northern Triangle — has jumped tenfold.
The migrants pay $12,000 or more to travel dangerous paths north through Mexico and pay a $1,000 fee to the cartels that control access to the U.S. border. They then get smuggled to their final destinations or, in an increasing number of cases, simply turn themselves in to the Border Patrol with the expectation that the U.S. government will quickly release them to go on their illegal journey.
The women of Tecalpulco told their sisters to be wary of getting caught in the same cycle.
“I will tell the Central American women to take care of their babies. If your husband has money to make such a long, dangerous journey, this money should be spent on your children,” said one woman from the Mexican state of Guerrero. “If he has already left, you will probably not see him again, except in defeat. I feel sorry for your situation. Tell your man that it is better to stay at home in his own homeland.”
The population of Tecalpulco, which had been growing around the turn of the century, dropped from 1,515 in 2005 to 1,386 in 2010.
Some Central American regions are starting to see the same shifts.
A full 1% of the populations of Honduras and Guatemala moved to the U.S. in the seven months starting in October, said acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
One region in Guatemala, Huehuetenango, lost nearly 3% of its population as people left for the U.S. over those seven months. Mr. McAleenan pointed to research funded by the U.S. government that found 1 in 4 Guatemalans are looking to flee, with 85% of those, about 4 million, eyeing the U.S. as their preferred destination.
Activists in the U.S. say the surge of Central Americans is different. They point to abhorrent levels of violence, high homicide rates and unstable politics and say those headed north are refugees rather than typical illegal immigrants.
Homicide rates have been dropping, though. Some of the Central Americans complain about violence, but few offer enough proof to win asylum.
Instead, surveys of those making the journey, and the stories they tell border authorities in the U.S., suggest that most are similar to the Mexican migrants of the previous decade and are eager to find a job or reunite with relatives who preceded them.
Underscoring those conclusions is that the migrants don’t stop in Mexico, which is safer than their home countries but lacks the family connections to Central America and the tenfold surge in earning power that can come from reaching the U.S.
Analysts say that while push factors causing people to leave the region are there but what has really changed in the past couple of years are the pull factors. Migrants have figured out how to game the U.S. system with iffy asylum claims earning them entrance, after which they quickly disappear into the shadows.
Those arriving as families have the surest path to release. A Guatemalan mother whose child died in Border Patrol custody after making the rough journey with her father last year told Reuters they had heard that if he arrived at the border with the girl they would both gain quick admittance.
Mexicans, by contrast, generally left women and children at home and promised they were on temporary sojourns to make money.
“You said that you were only going for a year, yet now our oldest child is already 15 years old and I only ask you to return to me,” wrote another woman who, like others in the town who agreed to correspond with The Washington Times, asked to remain anonymous.
“I know that your life is not easy there. There are many comments asking me if you have made a life with another person. Just tell me and you will see that although I will know how to tolerate and go forward alone with my daughters, I don’t have enough for your daughters to study, dress, eat — but please come back here to the ones who love you,” she said. “We will work, and we will give our daughters a family home together and eat what God provides us, all of us together. Despite everything, I miss you and look forward to your return soon.”
Central American governments say they want to stop their citizens from leaving, yet they have hefty incentives not to.
Guatemala gets 12% of its gross domestic product from remittances, or money expatriates send home. Hondurans get nearly 20%, and El Salvador 21.1%, according to World Bank statistics covering 2018.
Not all of those remittances are coming from the U.S., but given that nearly 90% of Salvadoran expats, 87% of Guatemalans and 82% of Hondurans are in the U.S., the vast majority of that money is dependent on jobs those migrants are working in the U.S.
For Mexico, just 3% of its GDP is from remittances.
Yet it’s that money that built the houses in Tecalpulco and other villages in the Guerrero province, and provided clothes and other items the residents there would perhaps have gone without were it not for regular cash wires from relatives afar.
That’s not enough to overcome the loss the women feel, and they warned their Central American counterparts to expect the same.
One woman said her husband departed on what they planned as a three-year sojourn to earn money for the family.
“I was left alone with a 6-month-old son, and to this day he has not returned, and I am very worried because my son is almost 13 years old and he needs his father’s support, his advice,” she wrote. “I prefer to tell him that I miss him and his son misses him a lot, and I only ask him to come back soon to be together again. We are waiting with much love and much joy for the man of our house.”
Neither the State Department nor its Agency for International Development could offer any information about the situation Northern Triangle women face at the moment. The Organization of American States did not respond to multiple efforts to discuss the predicament.
The U.N. International Organization for Migration repeatedly promised information from its people working in the Northern Triangle, but despite weeks of prodding never followed through.
The women in Tecalpulco coped by forming an artisans cooperative to sell jewelry and make some money. The internet has given the Artesanias Campesinas opportunities to sell more widely. They have even written a book that contains instructions on crafting traditional Mexican jewelry and page after page of letters written to their loved ones in the U.S.
At home, both livelihoods and lives are forced to continue in ways that may not please the departed.
“Ha, ha, ha,” one woman remaining in Tecalpulco said recently when asked whether the town’s population had dwindled. “There are even more children now because the women want to make more men!”
Some women in Guerrero urged their men to return to greener pastures than they left.
“In particular, I can advise you now in these times there are better opportunities here in my state as in several states of the Mexican Republic,” one said.