The Road North: More Migrants Head North for the USA from Chiapas, Mexico's Southernmost and Most Impoverished State, Than from Anywhere Else in the Country. Trevor Bach Explores the Reasons Why and Examines the Impact That This Economic Exodus Is Having on Chiapanecan Society

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Three months ago, 15-year-old Romeo Diaz de la Cruz lost a friend. He died somewhere where in the Sonoran Desert, trying to walk into a new country and a new life.

'The water ran out,' says Diaz de la Cruz, his tone as normal as if he was reporting the score of last night's football match. When he thinks about what happened to his friend, he gets 'a little scared', he admits, but the shy teenager with gelled hair and traces of black fuzz on his upper lip is still planning to make the journey north himself--possibly as early as this year. 'I also want to go there,' he says, his soft voice suddenly filled with conviction. 'I think about it all day.'

WELL-WORN PATH

From Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost and most impoverished state, the path to the USA is well worn. Chiapanecans comprise three per cent of the country's population, yet in 2008, they made up 14.2 per cent of the 963,000 Mexican migrants crossing the land border into the USA--more than the figure from any other state--according to government estimates.

Hector Escobar Rosas, a sociology professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas in San Cristobal de las Casas who specialises in migration, says that the state's location along the Guatemalan border--a necessary transit point for Central and South Americans on their way north--is at least partly responsible for the exodus. 'They go from here because the route is already established,' he says. 'Along this corridor, all of the support is there--it makes it easier.'

But virtually every migrant's underlying motivation is, of course, economic. And it's Chiapas's widespread poverty that leaves residents desperate for work and easily swayed by the egregious gap between local wages and those across the border, some 2,500 kilometres to the north. According to Escobar Rosas, an average labourer in traditionally agricultural Chiapas earns 70 or 80 pesos (about US$6) a day. 'In the USA,' he says, 'they earn seven or eight dollars an hour.'

In recent years, the state's already fragile economy, which is based on agriculture and basic goods, has only been stressed further. As a consequence of globalisation and the government's free trade policies, local crop prices and workers' incomes--have fallen precipitously. 'It now costs less to buy a kilogram of corn than it costs to produce it,' Escobar Rosas says.

The result is a traditional community whose centuries-old way of life is abruptly rendered unsustainable--and a generation of young men left searching.

CULTURAL ISOLATION

Perhaps nowhere better embodies the trend than the predominantly indigenous town of San Juan Chamula. A community of 60,000 people nestled within the undulating Sierra Madre mountain range, its inhabitants are protective of its Tzotzil Maya heritage. Consequently, the surrounding rural municipalities have remained largely isolated from outside cultural influence--and outside income.

On a sunny late-summer afternoon, the town's large central plaza is filled with stalls selling produce and handicrafts. Diaz de la Cruz sits listlessly on a concrete step behind a vegetable vendor as he laments the town's discouraging economic reality. 'Here in San Juan Chamula, there are a lot of poor people. Here there's almost no chamba,' he says, using the vernacular Spanish slang for work.

Selling belts in a nearby town, the determined young man earns about 2,000 pesos a month, or just over US$150, but he isn't satisfied. As if to make the point, Diaz de la Cruz reaches for his wallet. He produces a wrinkled US$1 bill, unable to conceal a wide grin suddenly spreading over his thin face.

That's why he plans to follow his father and brother on the risky path across the desert--even though he has no idea where they are or how they're doing. 'Who knows?' he shrugs.

CRIME WAVE

Most Chiapanecan migrants plan to work in the USA for only a year or two, save money, and then return home. …