This piece was originally published in the National Observer and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.
Miles short of the Mexico-US border, rough hands yanked Javier Hernandez from the trunk. They beat him, fractured his skull and then buried him with straws poking from his nostrils for air.
Known as coyotes, Javier’s smugglers threatened to abandon his bloodied body in the desert unless his family paid a hefty ransom.
Javier had been on the road for three days. He’d left his rural farming village in central Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, to find work in “El Norte.” One by one, Javier’s siblings had quit the family’s rain-dependent corn patch to slip over the border as undocumented immigrants. His eldest brother had immigrated to California before Javier was born. The summer Javier turned 19, drought withered the corn on the stalk. With no employment possibilities, Javier hired a coyote. He was the seventh Hernandez child to bid his teary-eyed mother goodbye.
He didn’t make it this time.
Before burying him alive, Javier’s kidnappers called the brothers, who dismissed the call as a scam. The kidnappers held the phone close to Javier: “Soy yo! Soy yo!—It’s me, it’s me,” he cried.
The family paid the $10,000 extortion fee with borrowed funds. A traumatized Javier was set free. To spare his mother the sight of his broken face, he stayed in a safe house. When I saw him at home months later, he complained of memory loss and anxiety. His sisters said he jumped at small noises and was terrified of leaving his room alone. Despite his ordeal, he told me he would try to get to the other side—”el otro lado”—again. “There’s nothing for me here,” he said softly.
Hundreds of thousands of young Indigenous campesinos, farmers, like Javier are putting down their tools to seek work abroad as harvests continue to drop dramatically. This migration coincides with an increased demand for work in Canada as foreign workers are recruited from Mexico.
In San Bartolomé Quialana, population 2,500, where the Hernandez family lives, pale stalks of sparse corn sway amid dry blades of grass. Women in embroidered huipils over ample skirts, their babies wrapped in rebozos on their backs, greet one another on the street in their native Zapotec, the pueblo’s official language. Instead of tractors rumbling, you hear the grunts of yoked oxen plowing hardened fields, led by men in straw hats, wide trousers and sandals called huaraches.
Nearly 80 per cent of San Bartolomé’s menfolk have gone north. Dozens of houses are in various stages of construction and neglect. Some have never been lived in; others are boarded up, their plots abandoned.
Every country, including Mexico, is facing climate change, from weather unpredictability to crop failure. And campesinos like Javier, who come from largely Indigenous communities and grow corn for their personal consumption, are feeling its worst impact. Struck by recurring drought and few employment opportunities, many see no way out but to go abroad to feed their families.
In Oaxaca’s colonial capital city, about half an hour from the central valley communities, school-age children beg on the streets, peddling China-made goods to soft-hearted tourists.
Of course, migration is not unique to Mexico. According to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, an estimated 200 million people will be climate migrants in 2050.
However, in rural Oaxaca this trend has created a unique social phenomenon whereby between 60 to 90 per cent of the men have gone north, leaving the women behind.
It’s a rare local family without kin in “el otro lado.” In some pueblos, it’s mostly women, children, old men and stray dogs on the streets.
Seeds of migration
Nowhere is migration more evident than in Oaxaca’s central valleys—the birthplace of corn nearly 8,000 years ago.
It would be hard to underestimate the importance of corn to Mexicans, said Toronto researcher Lauren Baker, whose book Corn Meets Maize, documents how corn is central to food security, biodiversity and culture. Called maize in Mexico, corn was once revered as a gift from the gods. According legends, Popol Vuh had forged mankind from one of its grains. Another folklore says the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl gave the Aztec one grain of maize, from which they’ve cultivated ever since.
“We’re children of corn,” Mexicans are fond of saying.
“Corn is a cultural symbol tied to identity,” Baker said. Beyond a commodity, a staple crop and a core of the economy, “it’s who they are,” she said, and it’s woven into everyday life, culinary traditions, rituals, festivals and the spiritual system of Mexico.
As the poorest of farmers, campesino corn growers continue to suffer the worst from overlapping crises—political, economic and climactic—that deplete biodiversity and drive migration.
Among the most notable is the free trade agreement (NAFTA) signed in the 1990s that led to the dumping of cheap, hybrid corn (sold below the cost of production) on the Mexican market. Campesinos can’t get good value for their surplus grain. And their personal consumption and survival is threatened by water shortages and drought conditions.
Environmental scientists from Princeton University, who crunch census data along with statistics on crop production and climate data, say changes in rainfall, climate risk and rural vulnerability propel Oaxaca’s farmers north in greater numbers. They warn that these changes will have significant future impacts on human mobility and displacements.
What’s at risk for Mexico’s people of the corn?
“All, absolutely all of it, is at risk,” Baker replied. “From globalization to climate change, from youth not being interested in farming anymore to the homogenization of agriculture and the pressure to grow only certain varieties.
“But there’s also renewed appreciation for how special corn is in Mexico,” she said, as well as for the role that campesinos play in preserving the culture of maize.
Oaxaca’s massive migration of campesinos worries government agencies including the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT. As people abandon their farms, the biodiversity of maize suffers, says the organization, one of many that’s fighting to save native corn varieties by supporting an ecological approach to sustainable planting.
The planting projects are testimony to the fight for sustenance in a nation bound by the saying “Sin maiz no hay pais” (“Without corn, there is no country”).
Javier’s father jokes that once his son leaves home, he’ll be stuck with only women. “And, God willing, my last remaining son will pass the border safely,” the elder Hernandez says. “I’ll be left with pura mujeres (only women at home).”
In the decade since I met the Hernandez family, their modest hacienda-style home—several tin-roofed rooms scattered around an inner courtyard—has improved thanks to the buying power accrued through remittances sent from the US. Erika, one of the three Hernandez sisters still living in the area (the fourth immigrated), gives me a tour, saying that a new room will be added there, where now the ox and sheep are tied to a post.
Among the many gifts from the siblings in el otro lado is a green Chevrolet pick-up truck, an eight-cylinder model with nearly 100,000 miles on it. It’s been parked idle in the courtyard for several months while the chickens peck at its giant tires.
“No one knows how to drive it,” Erika says with a shrug.
The Hernandez family relies on about two acres of rain-fed land, a milpa field where maize is planted among beans and squash. Backyard chickens supplement meals, along with fruits and vegetables from a kitchen garden, set up a few hundred metres behind their house. Any surplus produce goes to market to cover necessities and sundry items such as electricity and medicine, Coca-Cola and alcohol.
It’s a late afternoon in San Bartolomé. As Erika leads me to her mother’s garden along a dirt road, she comments on the dwindling population and the houses no one lives in.
“That’s my brother Oscar’s house,” she says of a modern two-story cement and brick construction that went up slowly over two decades as remittance pay trickled in. “He’s never lived in it. He keeps promising my mother to visit. But he never does.”
We stop under a lemon tree. The garden is lush with avocado and apple trees. Its water source is a 10-meter well on the property. Rows of chrysanthemums and alfalfa bend under in the sun next to tomatoes, beets, lettuce, onions and radishes. The cornfield on the outskirts of town has no well or irrigation system and relies entirely on rainfall.
When it doesn’t rain, the corn doesn’t thrive, Erika says simply. “Everyone is leaving because there’s no work and no water.”
But ambitions for a better future are etched against the emotional toll migration continues to exact. All our families are torn apart, Erika says. Oscar, the oldest brother, left nearly 20 years ago, followed in two- to three-year intervals by several others. One brother recently came back to marry a local woman, Erika says, but as for the others, “it’s not likely they’ll ever come back.”
They’ve put down roots and got married and their children are American. As illegal undocumented immigrants they can’t take the risk of getting caught sneaking across borders.
“We talk on the phone a lot, but my parents have grandchildren they’ve never seen,” Erika says.
There are 14 grandchildren living on the other side. Erika’s mother, Felipa Martínez Gómez, takes a faded photograph hanging on a nail on the kitchen wall, of her adult children when they were very young. She hugs it to her chest. “Six gone and a seventh almost got killed trying to get there,” she says, wiping a wet cheek.
The central valley area is no stranger to human displacement. The archeological ruins of Mitla, Yagul and Monte Albán are magnets for tourists. The ancient city of Monte Albán, about 1940 metres above sea level, was the former economic and political centre of the Zapotec civilization. The site was abandoned in 700 AD, historians say, after loss of basic resources and ecological balance led to its collapse.
Their descendants, adhering with pride to prehispanic Indigenous customs despite 500 years of conquest, are facing similar challenges. The annual migration from Oaxaca usually starts in August, once campesinos realize the corn will not flourish.
Some say migration has destroyed family structure, while others maintain that some have benefited from increased wealth from foreign remittances.
Sociologist Socorro Monterrubio, who worked with several communities in the Tlacolula District, located between the ruins of Mitla and Monte Albán, says that in Oaxaca economic migration has become a way of life.
Usually, people migrate to areas in the US where they already have family or a social network, she said. But it can be quite hard on those left behind.
Monterrubio noted that women have always worked and contributed to food security. But with changes to family structure, women have been forced to assume new roles—head of family, keeper of the home, responsible for the agricultural work, their children’s upbringing and education—for which they were not prepared. It’s not just a question of division of labour but of capacity to get the work done.
Often, the women are abandoned. Some husbands return to Oaxaca every few years, stay long enough to impregnate their wives, and then slip over the border again, Monterrubio said. Sometimes the men disappear into the unknown—arrested or killed. But more often they find new wives and start second families, she said, “abandoning their Oaxaca partners. It’s more common than you think.”
Increasingly, it’s the women who tend to the corn and cactus fields, the backyard chickens and children. Faced with dwindling remittances, many work as domestics, caregivers and house cleaners. And turn to skills passed down from mother to daughter—making tortillas and tamales, ceramics and pottery, sewing and embroidery, rugs and baskets.
They sell their goods door-to-door in Tlacolula, paying a few pesos for a ride into town in rundown collective taxis that routinely squeeze six passengers into a space made for four. The busiest day is Tlacolula’s famed Sunday market, a meeting point for thousands of Zapotec, who come from the surrounding valleys and mountains to sell and socialize. Kiosks with cheese and meat, vegetables and fruit, pottery and rugs are spread along the streets from the central 17th-century church plaza. A tantalizing odour of meat and onions roasting on braziers fills the air.
From dawn to dusk hawkers call: “Que va llevar?” (What will you buy?)
Javier’s mother takes a spot at the entrance to the central plaza, close to the cheese and meat vendors, swatting at flies. She lays a cloth on the ground and arranges a spray of flowers, some cabbages and radishes next to bowls of lemons and avocados. The price of three avocados is about 10 pesos, or a few cents.
Last year, the Hernandez family celebrated the birth of their 15th grandchild, the first on this side of the border. Javier and Erika’s sister Angela Hernandez married Victor Diego, a campesino from San Lucas, a village five miles east of her home. The couple named their son after the archangel Gabriel, “God’s strength.”
Like many farming families I’ve met, the Hernandez and Diego families are curious about travel restrictions to Canada, work visas and the cost of living. “What kind of work is there for campesinos? How much do plane tickets cost? Do you need tortilla bakers?”
All of Diego’s brothers have immigrated, his mother tells me at the Sunday market. He is the last one, she says, and her eyes tear at the thought of losing one more.
When Javier admits his plans to go north again, his mother speaks to him sharply in Zapotec.
“She’s telling him to stay,” Erika says.
He didn’t listen to her. Javier now works two full-time jobs in el otro lado, gardener by day, dishwasher by night. He dreams of becoming a DJ.