Machinez is a small town, or pueblo about 15 minutes by car outside of Zacatecas. The residents we know there call it their “rancho”. The rancho has no governance, no police department, no real services. This somewhat organized series of houses, farms, lots and makeshift streets is home to about 250 families. There is a school and a couple of tiendas selling the basics of beer, refrescos and food staples. Most residents raise some portion of their own food, be it meat, produce or both. There is a soccer field and a park of sorts with a few old children’s slides and swings. There is a river crossing through town. The river was fairly dry on the day of our visit, but in rainy season is a force to be reckoned with. The river is a major source of water as we saw tinacos and water trucks being filled from the river. Most homes have electricity and some plumbing (but not much).
So, from this brief description, you may be asking why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject. Well, the point of this post has nothing to do with Machinez per se, but about how we came to visit there this day.
The story that unfolds in Machinez occurs throughout Mexico time and time again. It is a story of hard work and resolve to improve one’s life and one’s family’s life. It is a story of the proverbial analysis of risk/reward. And yes, for us, it is a story or reconnecting with friends we have not seen in years.
The friends we came to visit are like many other Mexicans. They are recent returnees from the United States having braved the perilous border crossing to get to a city where a friend or a cousin says they can get work. The hope of that work is promise to the families of the ranchos. You see, it is with the money earned in the States that the ranchos are able to survive. We spent considerable time at two houses on this day – the house of Alvaro and the house of Eduardo. Both of these young men started as dishwashers in Kansas City. Both showed great potential, the willingness to learn English and the desire to get ahead. Eventually they both became cooks during the busy lunch rush. They routinely put out between 100 and 200 lunches of extremely high standard meals under the guidance of a C.I.A. trained chef. They became leaders in the kitchen as they continued to absorb the culture of the workplace and of the States.
The plight of the illegal immigrant is widely publicized and debated. This blog is not about that debate. Is grounded in the facts – like them or not, these are the facts.
As Alvaro and Eduardo continued to work hard and grow as cooks, they hit a ceiling of sorts. They were illegal. They were forever limited in their employment opportunities. And, they were lonely. Eduardo and Alvaro were both single and aside from a few cousins in town, void of social opportunities. Living in the shadows of Kansas City, they hesitated to venture out. A broken turn signal can domino into a bus ride to Tijuana and the loss of everything. Also, going out cost money and was seen as frivolous spending. Like many others, to relieve the loneliness and boredom they took a second job. A second job fills the time, provides additional social interaction and keeps the money coming in. This after all is the goal. We can fall in love with these guys all we want, but our love is not going to keep them around. They are on a mission. Years ago, the goal was to make a life and then bring everyone else up to share in the new life. This has changed dramatically due to the legal/political climate. Now, the goal is to make enough money to build the house back home, buy the car, put the sister through college, pay for dad’s eye surgery, whatever. Rare is the visitor who finds a way to stay permanently (marriage, sponsorship, etc.).
And so it goes in Machinez. The houses that Alvaro and Eduardo have built are some of the finest in town. Big and strong, nicely appointed, two levels high with incredible vistas, they are symbols of a success found by taking off for five to ten years and working really really hard towards a goal. Each has surrounding land with crops and a few livestock. Each is connected to or very close to family homes, also very nice. Their efforts provided economic stimulus for the rancho. The jobs provided were local jobs. The supplies were purchased from locals and money went back into the community. Alvaro has since married. He has a beautiful baby girl and another on the way. Eduardo is still single—but working on it. As they tour us through their homes, they proudly show pictures of their family and point out which cousin or in-law is still in the States. These family members, they tell me, are making the same sacrifice they did in the name of getting ahead. They are missed by many, especially the older family members who realize that they may not live long enough to see their son or daughter’s return. Yet, they understand the reality of the situation.
Alvaro and Eduardo’s lives are quite simple. They work, they celebrate life. They enjoy beautiful weather and scenery. They listen to music everyday (often played by the family band). They share everything with their friends and family in town. This includes their homes and their SUV’s (brought down from the States). They don’t have cell phones, Internet or cable TV. They drink some beer, dance to banda music and retire for the evening. They have little or no crime in their clean community. They don’t have a mortgage or credit cards. They can and do live on very little. If they weren’t under 40, they would sound like they are living the life pursued by retiring gringos.
But they are not retiring gringos. These young men are starting families; they have financial responsibilities and need to work. No problem, right? They are well trained in the kitchen. They cook better than many chefs and restaurateurs that I know. They are certified in serv-safe, understand cross utilization, understand wine basics, can lead a team, can work with vendors, and speak two languages. But you see a great cook in the States, even one that has worked for ten years at an exclusive upper-end dining establishment is nobody in Mexico. To get the attention of a kitchen manager they need to have a degree from a vocational school specializing in culinary arts. They need to have diplomas from Mexico and they have none. There is an outside chance that they can find a friend of a friend in the food industry to introduce them to someone, but it a chance not worth waiting for. Instead, my two friends are gas station attendants. They receive a minor minimum salary and cash tips. They work various shifts, but all are long –both days and nights. Their jobs are dead end to say the least. They work along a busy highway and risk getting robbed or worse. They spell of gasoline and other chemicals when they return home. Like many workplaces in Mexico there are poor sanitary and safety conditions.
What does the future hold for my two friends? I really don’t know. They will not return to the States unless there is a major shift in politics that offers some sort of path to legalization. They would love to cook again and have a job with some potential. Being technically uneducated and from a “rancho”, their options are very limited. There houses will survive almost anything thrown at them and they will always be able to work enough to keep food on the table and the lights on. With any luck they will have children who are able to go one step further, finish school and get a job with some promise. Until then, the beautiful sunset on the western horizon of Machinez will usher in another session with the local band. The moms and daughters will dance with each other and the few men not in the band. As night falls, they will turn in with the adventures in the States a distant memory until the next time a certain gringo comes to town for a visit. And don’t worry, he will.