Wednesday, June 21, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Pajacuarán, Mexico: Where U.S. dollars fuel middle-class dreams
By Lynda V. Mapes
PAJACUARAN, Mexico - From paved streets to three-story homes with satellite dishes, this remote rural village is a changed place because of money earned in Washington's orchards and fields.
And while many earn their wages illegally, the politics of immigration law are of little concern here. American-made money feeds families and fuels middle-class dreams in a place where field hands labor for $8 a day and milkmen still ride donkeys through cobblestone streets.
Some farmworkers return to Mexico after the growing season; others stake their claim on a new future in the United States.
But ties run deep though several generations of immigrants. And come each winter, this town hosts a reunion as those who can afford it find their way home for Christmas.
'You've only got one mother'
Every December, Martín Rodríguez, 37, fires up his maroon low-rider truck, RODRIGUEZ emblazoned on the bug deflector, and makes the long drive south from Manson, Chelan County.
He goes to check on his mother, Josefina Alejo, and on the progress of her new kitchen and bathroom, complete with whirlpool, bought with the wages he sends home.
Fifteen years of work in Washington's orchard country has lifted the Rodríguez family out of poverty one apple at a time.
"I would never make a house like that if I just lived (in Pajacuarán)," he said. "I'm only just working in the field, driving the tractor. The difference is the money - $80, $100 a day."
Rodríguez came to Manson illegally in 1983. He is now a U.S. citizen, fluent in English and a foreman in the orchard. The grower he works for pays him $1,700 a month, and provides a house, farm truck and health benefits.
His wife, Elvira, is a clerk and barrista at the Manson market. Together, they make about $40,000 a year - enough to support their four boys, ages 2 to 13, and to spoil Rodríguez' 70-year old mother in Pajacuarán.
"You can be with lots of people, plenty of company, and have too many wives," Rodríguez said. "But you've only got one mother.
Rodríguez sends her about $100 a month for food and other bills. He withdrew $12,000 from a savings account he keeps for her to remodel her house, damaged in an earthquake in 1985.
That's a lot of money in a town where $50 will hire a construction crew for a week.
Homesick, he stayed for the pay
Rodríguez went to work in Manson because his cousin and uncle were there. He had no papers and no English.
"No one spoke Spanish," he said. "I would go into the store and just point to things."
He had never seen an apple, but told growers he was good at picking them. He was frightened and homesick.
Then he earned his first paycheck. "That's why I stayed a long time."
He taught himself English by watching television and paid cash for everything.
Rodríguez became a U.S. citizen after voters in California tried to keep migrant children out of public schools. Although he was living in Washington, he feared similar laws could someday affect his children.
"The boys, that's the most important thing," he said.
He hasn't had a raise in four years. And his eyes sting from the pesticides sprayed in the orchards. He thinks about changing jobs, becoming a truck driver or starting a construction business with his oldest son.
"I'm not afraid of working but I want to see my kids get old."
He and his wife dream of returning to Pajacuarán, to live in the house he rebuilt for his mother. But not until he can afford to retire.
"I don't think I can go back to work for $7 a day again."
Different financial universe
Consider the options in Pajacuarán.
"When there is no school, the kids come to the fields to learn how to work," said foreman Manuel Rodrigues.
A day's work brings her 20 or 30 pesos, about $3. She also sells bread in the town square to help support herself, her husband, their 12 children and 10 grandchildren.
"For a Mexican it seemed like a fortune," Tamayo said.
He used the money to build a two-room house in Mexico, so he could move his family out of his parents' home.
As soon as Tamayo finds someone to mind his goats, he wants to move back to Los Angeles to earn money to build a stable for his goat business.
Streets paved with greenbacks
An estimated 40 percent of the people in Pajacuarán are poor, according to the mayor.
"We have families with five children where the father works maybe three days a week, and is paid $8 a day," he said through an interpreter.
U.S. farm wages seem extravagant by comparison. Migrant cherry pickers will live in their cars, by river banks and in the woods, for a chance to earn $80 to $100 a day in Washington.
Now some side streets in Pajacuarán are paved with greenbacks: Families with relatives working in the U.S. pay for their own pavement, which sometimes stops in the middle of their street or at the end of their block.
A two-story stucco home boasts a gated, landscaped front yard, satellite dish and new SUV with California plates. It towers over an adobe cottage no taller than its doorway, where a child burns garbage and pigs root in the front yard.
Once some Pajacuarán natives living in California pooled their money to buy an ambulance for the village, but it was never delivered. There was talk of an accident on the way to the village, a story many doubted.
So Pajacuarán's ailing and injured still rely on an old Ford van, with duct tape in the back window in the shape of a first-aid cross.
As much as the town depends on money from the north, the largesse comes at a cost.
The shiny vehicles that stampede down the main street sport bumper stickers like "Drink 'til He's Cute" and radios that blast American pop music.
The elders notice new customs taking root: Kids in town have started celebrating an American-style Halloween, and women are having baby showers. Fewer young girls dress up for the feast days of the saints.
"The way of life, of dressing, speaking, eating - it's changing," said Rogelio Oseguera Rodríguez of the Pajacuarán Cultural Society, a small history and cultural club.
He worries Mexicans will become obsessed with chasing dollars - an American illness that he says brings "drugs . . . greed and ambition."
"You are losing your family love," he said of Americans. "The money is your passion, it is your church. You can buy anything you want, but you are isolated from personal things and social things."
His is still a traditional village, where girls and boys court in the town square, circling the park in opposite directions. Family life spills onto the sidewalk, where three generations will gather on a street corner to pass the time. The front doors of adobe houses are painted peach, yellow, aqua and pink, and stand open to visitors.
But with continued poor economic conditions in Mexico, and a U.S.-Mexico border that so far has defied control, nobody expects the flow of workers north will slow.
In fact, the mayor says the town would die without its lifeline to the United States.
"If they didn't go, it would be very sad because there are many people here who depend on them."
Ochoa laughs, remembering his own trip in 1976, at age 16, to Toppenish to work illegally in the apple harvest.
"I went just to see what it was like. I lived in a house with about 17 guys. It was my job to make the tortillas."
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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