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Kentucky Ties Help Mexican Town, Courier-Journal, March 30, 2003

Posted by chad612 on May 27, 2009

One of the articles cited by Hector Tobar in Translation Nation, in full:


Second in the Una vida nueva: A new life series from the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), published March 30, 2003.

Kentucky ties help Mexican town
When Eddie Hill, a tobacco farmer from Lebanon, Ky., accepted an offer to visit some of his legally hired seasonal workers in their hometown of El Tamarindo, Mexico, he was shocked by the poverty. But he also witnessed improvements brought about by the wages Kentucky employers pay.

By Wayne Tompkins
The Courier-Journal

As tobacco farming has grown unprofitable in El Tamarindo, Mexico, some residents have found seasonal jobs in Kentucky. The money they send back home has improved the quality of life.
Eddie Hill, left, a farmer from Lebanon, Ky., accepted winnings from Jose Ignacio de la Cruz, right, one of his seasonal workers, after playing a roulette game when he visited El Tamarindo. Dionicio Mora, another employee, watched.
The people don’t have much money, but we are happy — we have our families.

— Andres Betancourt

EL TAMARINDO, Mexico — For five years, tobacco farmer Eddie Hill has hired a dozen men from this little town to work his family’s land in Lebanon, Ky.

They usually work four or five months as part of a U.S. government program and return home. But this winter, Hill wanted to know more about the men who work so hard for him.

Hill, an easygoing, bespectacled native Kentuckian with an ever-present University of Kentucky baseball cap, always had an open invitation to visit. In February, he accepted.

Passing through customs at the Guadalajara airport, Hill spotted the familiar faces of his crew chief, Andres Betancourt, and fellow worker Pedro Guzman. The men — two of the 20,000 Hispanic workers in the Kentucky tobacco industry — greeted Hill with a hug and escorted him to Betancourt’s pickup.

Their five-hour drive took them through Guadalajara’s exhaustchoked freeways, past a checkpoint where soldiers searched for drugs and other contraband, and onto the scenic mountain toll road heading to Tamarindo.

Tamarindo, in the state of Nayarit, is a village of 1,800 people and many close-knit, extended families. The paved main road into town quickly gives way to hard-packed, dusty streets. Despite descriptions of the town from his workers, Hill was shocked by what he saw.

”I didn’t think it would be this poor,” he said. ”I always heard that they didn’t have running water or that some people didn’t have tile or concrete floors but just a dirt floor.

”You hear these stories and you say, nah, this is the year 2003. The 21st century.”

The brick and tile houses are small, mostly built by residents. Many people have ovens and stoves, but electricity is erratic, often browning out. Women wash clothes in the river. There is no indoor plumbing, and most people have dogs, not as pets, but to eat garbage.

This is home to Hill’s workers. ”The people don’t have much money, but we are happy — we have our families,” Betancourt said.

He and the other men would prefer not to leave their homes, but work has dried up, crop prices have collapsed and industrial work is scarce. Money made in Kentucky buys a better life in Nayarit.

”It’s given us better housing,” Guzman said. ”We had a lot of people living in shacks, made out of plastic laminate and things like that.”

This is the reality for many agrarian Mexican towns. Farm prices have fallen so sharply — the locals blame globalization and inept and corrupt politicians — that many farmers have concluded it’s not worth it.

In 1993, there were 2,000 acres of tobacco raised in Tamarindo. Today, it’s closer to 150 acres, by local estimates.

Betancourt, a soft-spoken 27-year-old, said going north is the only option young people have. His brother Lupe, and two of his four sisters, Olga and Belen, now live year-round in Kentucky.

Their migration has contributed to Hispanics being the fastest-growing minority group in Kentucky, close to 130,000 by some estimates.

Still, Betancourt’s mother, like mothers everywhere, wishes all her children could be closer to home.

”Back in my generation, we made more than enough money for everybody to live here and everybody to live comfortably,” Petra Betancourt said through an interpreter. ”We made money from our crops.”

Hill hopes he can continue making money from his tobacco crop, as quotas drop and the U.S. tobacco industry remains under political siege.

”Am I going to have enough work . . . for them to make enough to take back home to their families?” Hill said. ”It’s got to be profitable, or I can’t do it.”

Despite his concerns, Hill appreciated Tamarindo, where life is deliberate and methodical.

Every morning, hundreds of roosters crow incessantly, both nearby and in the distance. The town’s dogs, whose chorus of howls fill the early morning hours, shake the dust off their coats and start to wander. Women sweep dust outside their front doors. Rugged men with close-cropped hair, T-shirts and jeans, leaving for a day of work in a strong sun and dry heat, mount pickups and horses and head off down the streets.

”The pace is slow here,” said Jose Ignacio ”Nacho” de la Cruz, 32, who travels to Lebanon each spring for farm work. ”It’s really tranquil, and everybody knows everybody. I like the work and my bosses in Kentucky, but I feel alone there. I don’t have my family.”

De la Cruz typically arrives in Kentucky in May, takes a two-week break in early fall to visit his wife, Walquiria, and his children, Cetlale and Alonso, then returns to Kentucky to finish the season, which typically runs into December.

”When it starts getting real cold, we come back,” he said.

As the first few Tamarindans found jobs in Kentucky, their friends and relatives followed them. Today, the town has such a connection to Lebanon and Springfield that Kentucky license plates can be found on pickup trucks here, and both towns’ names are recognized instantly by residents.

”Out of all the places in the United States, they know Springfield and Lebanon. They don’t know New York. They know Kansas, California and Kentucky. Those are the three most popular places for them to go,” said Jesus ”Chuy” Gonzalez, 43, and a lifelong Tamarindo resident who works for Hill.

”Here, I work my ass off all day long and make $10. . . . Over there I can make $100 in a day.”

Betancourt said he is saddened that Hill won’t see his hometown at its best. A hurricane last fall struck the region. While Tamarindo avoided a direct hit, damage was extensive and is only slowly being repaired.

Some roofs were damaged and several streetlights remain broken, darkening much of ”el centro,” the town’s square, and putting on hold a Friday night ritual, where teenage girls gather to dance.

”The boys will come to dance with them and ask them out, then they’ll go to get something to eat or play video games,” he said, pointing out the restaurants and the arcade lining the square.


U.S. visa program means steady pay

The federal H-2A agriculture worker visa program allows Betancourt and his mates to work legally in the United States. Following federal guidelines, his crew members made $7.07 an hour last year, Hill said. This year’s guidelines call for them to make at least $7.20 an hour.

Government officials say there are about 2,700 H-2A workers in Kentucky. Overall, Hispanics make up 80 percent of the 25,000 workers in the tobacco industry work force, state agricultural officials say.

Hill estimated he has pumped more than $250,000 into Tamarindo’s economy in the past five years, a figure Hill said he’d never contemplated, but one that’s not lost on residents.

De la Cruz took Hill to his mother’s house to introduce him. ”Mi patron, Eddie,” de la Cruz said. She smiled and greeted him with a long hug.

De la Cruz said he lived with his mother before buying a house three years ago with money he earned in Kentucky.

”I’ve bought land and other things I didn’t have before,” he said.

Even with money from the north, there is still much to do before Tamarindo’s economy prospers.

De la Cruz thinks of his two young children and reflects that real change never can come to Tamarindo until educational opportunities improve.

”Because of economic reasons, they have to go to work before they can finish school, and because of that, they are stuck there,” he said. ”It’s a shame, because there are a lot of smart kids.”

Petra Betancourt said farming has been tough. ”We were making less and less profit off of our crops until we were only breaking even,” she said. ”It got to the point where we were actually having to pay to grow crops. That’s where it got to the point of being ridiculous.

”That’s when the decision started to be made that we need to find something else to do. People started moving to the United States.”

The money they send home, part of the $10 billion in remittances Mexicans working in the United States send home annually, has improved the quality of life in many ways.

Dionicio ”Nicho” Mora, who has worked with Hill for several years, proudly showed him the new dress shoes he bought at a Wal-Mart in Kentucky.

A handful of people now have residential phone service (which became available in Tamarindo only two years ago).

While there is no indoor plumbing and only a crude form of running water, most homes now sport ovens, stoves, refrigerators and television sets. Other homes have fresh coats of paint, a new room or a new roof. The elementary school is well-kept and comfortable. Pickups, more practical than sedans on the rough, rocky dirt streets, roam the town.

Jose Ignacio ”Nacho” de la Cruz, 32, viewed the towns of Peñas, foreground, and El Tamarindo. ”I like the work and my bosses in Kentucky,” he said, ”but I feel alone there. I don’t have my family.”
Jose Isabel-Silas, left, showed Kentucky tobacco farmer Eddie Hill the two types of beans grown in the area. After Hill helped pick beans one morning, he said, ”I probably could do it. But I wouldn’t be there the next day.”
Erazmo Jauregui, left, and Sulaka Ibaria-Lopez rode around El Tamarindo’s plaza on a date one evening. Andres Betancourt hopes the old ways aren’t lost as the town modernizes.
Concepcion Fernandez took a bucket bath in her back yard in El Tamarindo. Residents typically fill a central reservoir in their yard each day to use as the water source.

But such conveniences have a tenuous hold. The electricity flows so unevenly that fans change speed on their own, television pictures may wobble, and lights flicker.

There is one clear television channel available, and a second with snowy reception. At each home, water comes from a central reservoir filled by a backyard hose. Bathing is done the old-fashioned way — a bucket of cold water over the head.

With no organized garbage collection, trash is burned. Because there are no public trash receptacles, litter is common. After a weekend night of partying in the centro, a man comes along the next morning to clean up.

Because there is no air conditioning, homes are made of brick, with tile or — in some cases — dirt floors. Carpet is not only expensive, but difficult to maintain in a dusty environment. Sweeping the dust out of a home is a morning ritual.

Resources are few, so little goes to waste and innovation often is astonishing. Many residents have made TV aerials from beer and soda cans, which they line up and mount on the roof antenna mast. Without affordable electronic media to advertise, trucks prowl the streets, their loudspeakers broadcasting items for sale.


Needs are addressed on a smaller scale

But the main communication lifeline is Lola Hernandez, the voice of Tamarindo.

Hernandez and a neighbor run the central telephone exchange with three phone lines into Tamarindo. Someone calling a resident from outside the town dials one of the numbers. Hernandez then gets on the loudspeaker and announces who has a phone call.

”She’s lived here so long that she knows where everybody lives,” Andres Betancourt said. ”She’ll turn the speaker toward the person’s house before she makes the announcement.”

For a fee of 10 pesos, slightly less than $1, Hernandez reads announcements about watermelons for sale or other business promotions.

Sometimes, she has found, you never know what someone will need to announce.

”A person might get locked out of the house” and need to find someone with the key, she said. Someone might report or turn in lost property.

Disposable income is something most of Tamarindo’s residents lack. The only businesses in the town are the small, cottage-industry ”tiendas” — stores that sell essentials like milk, sodas, cereal and canned goods.

Early in the evening, a steady stream of women and children files into Mericia Limon’s tienda, fashioned from a room of her house.

She said she has 40 regular customers and often sells on credit.

While the store provides a modest income, she says the responsibility is daunting during the months when her husband, Chuy Gonzalez, is working for Hill.

She’s resigned herself to not being able to leave when everyone else in the town is out partying. While many wives have visited their husbands in Kentucky, she said she can’t afford to keep the store closed that long.


Workers pay a price for what they gain

Chuy Gonzalez, reflecting the sentiments of many others in Tamarindo, said he would prefer to find well-paying work in his hometown. The money from the United States helps pay for his teenage daughter’s education at a Guadalajara preparatory school and allows his family to be one of the few with residential phone service (he pays about $5 a month for the line).

He freely allows his neighbors to use the phone.

”Neighbors share with one another,” he said.

Still, the material improvements in Tamarindo come at tremendous sacrifice by its families.

Gonzalez, a short, wiry man with a ferocious work ethic, said new arrivals to Kentucky confront culture shock, homesickness and sometimes racism.

”People are giving us mean looks and thinking we are going to rob them whenever we walk into a restaurant,” said Gonzalez, who possesses an H-2A visa. ”There’s a few (Hispanic) people out there who are dealing in drug trafficking and things like that who are ruining it for everybody else. That’s a major problem. We’re trying to be as legal and straitlaced as possible, and we’re getting a bad rap because of the bad guys. We’re paying taxes and doing our jobs.”

Hispanic immigrants are far more likely to be victims of crime than criminals themselves, according to Kentucky law enforcement officials and immigrant advocate groups. About five years ago, Gonzalez said he was stabbed in the abdomen in a Springfield bar while trying to break up a fight. Andres Betancourt carried him out and drove him to a hospital.


Loneliness shadows workers in Kentucky

While in Kentucky, Gonzalez and 11 other men from Tamarindo spend their months in a dormitory on Hill’s farm. There are beds, showers, a washing machine and a full kitchen. Though they are working alongside friends and relatives, loneliness is a constant companion.

”I work like crazy to get rid of that loneliness, that homesickness,” Gonzalez said. ”We work as hard as we can to keep that off of their minds, to keep from getting bored. When we get bored, we start thinking about home.”

He keeps his mind on work and how much money he is making, which could be $100, $110 a day.

”The good thing is that $70 of that is going to help my family out. That gives me the motivation to keep on going,” he said. Sitting on his tractor in Tamarindo, Gonzalez noted that he had just made the equivalent of $10 for 10 hours of work.

Gonzalez failed and succeeded many times trying to enter the United States before getting an H-2A visa. He and Mora said they crossed at least six times illegally. They had to pay smugglers, or ”coyotes,” as much as $2,500 a person.

”We had to make the money. We had to do it,” Gonzalez said. U.S. immigration officials would keep crossers they arrested in custody for about six hours before sending them back over the border.

”They’d make you sign something and they would get your name and that’s it. You sign basically that you won’t come back,” Gonzalez said. ”Now they take your photo and thumbprints and everything else. They check you pretty well.”

Mora said the secret to Tamarindans strong work ethic is in their upbringing.

”There’s no other work more difficult than farm work, and all of our lives we have been brought up to work hard. We see our fathers working hard,” he said. In the United States, ”If you don’t work, the government still gives you money. In Mexico, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

The work ethic is renewed with each generation.

At harvest time, nearly every morning before sunrise, a group of young men picks beans by hand in fields just outside Tamarindo. By 9 a.m., drenched with sweat, their backs aching, they knock off for the day, just before the midday heat takes control.

”That’s beans,” Andres Betancourt explained. ”This is our life, because we eat very much beans.”

On one morning of his visit, Hill helped pick the beans. The labor involved was an eye-opener, he said.

”I probably could do it. But I wouldn’t be there the next day,” Hill said.

Betancourt estimates the average Tamarindo family has to bring in the equivalent of $50 a week to eat. That’s one reason many Mexican families are having fewer children, maybe two or three as opposed to five or six, he said.


Smaller families mean different expectations

Demographic studies show that fertility rates in Mexico have dropped dramatically, from seven during the 1960s to 2.5 today, a figure that’s below the worldwide rate.

The move to smaller families is reshaping Mexico’s face.

There are fewer children to support parents in their old age, although those going north are better able financially to care for them. Still, with an eye toward demographic trends, Mexican President Vicente Fox’s administration has talked with President Bush about Mexican workers in the United States receiving some form of Social Security benefits to augment Mexico’s system. That idea has been widely criticized as too costly.

Mexican families traditionally work together closely, making them so self-sufficient that in small towns like Tamarindo, a city government would be superfluous. There is no mayor. The town is administered as part of regional co-op of surrounding towns. The farmers meet once a month to discuss agriculture issues.

Betancourt estimated 240 of Tamarindo’s 450 families own farmland, mostly small plots of four to 12 acres. The largest plot is about 30 acres, he said.

Betancourt hopes the town can modernize but maintain its culture and traditions. In any case, neither Tamarindo’s increasingly binational flavor nor the interdependence of U.S. jobs and Mexican labor is likely to change anytime soon.

Though he has diabetes and turns 51 next week, Mora plans to continue the trips north and the long, backbreaking days cutting and stripping tobacco in the Kentucky heat, leaving his wife, Gloria, behind in Mexico.

He wants to build a couple more additions onto his house, to go with the new refrigerator, stove and home improvements his U.S. earnings have provided his family.

Hill said Mora is welcome to return as long as he’s able to.

”He doesn’t cut like Andres and Nacho — they’re about 20 years younger — but he cuts his share,” Hill said.

Asked what he’ll do when he is no longer able to work, Mora talked about his three children, all building careers of their own, and he spoke of Tamarindo’s strong families.

He smiled.

”My kids will take care of me.”

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