Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Unofficial Sister Cities
(Ambi: churchbells, street sounds in background, fade through intro)
I’m sitting on a rooftop in Quinceo, Mexico, a town perched on an 8-thousand foot peak, jutting towards the clouds. In one glance, I can see most of the town. Across the road are several traditional Purepecha homes - one-room cabins built with planks of pine wood and shingled roofs.
But they’re dwarfed on every side by new, two-story giants. They’re built with concrete and brick, or what the locals call “materials,” …bought recently with money earned in Seattle.
One house under construction belongs to Hermillo Salmeron. He’s a likeable guy in his mid-40s with a slight beer belly. We walk though the unfinished second floor of his new house.
Hermillo: Here I’m going to put the kitchen, the stove, the chimney, and here like a table. So we can eat here. Then a balcony over here.
He pauses to greet a neighbor below, and switches to the town’s native language, Purepecha.
Hermillo: (short ambi…he says something in Purepecha.)
Hermillo grew up in Quinceo. And this house is where he wants to retire. But currently, he lives in Seattle. He’s only in town because he was deported 3 months ago. But he plans to go back soon. His life is there, and he’s proud to show me proof.
Hermillo: Here’s my JC Penny card. I have a credit of like 3-thousand dollars. This is from US Bank. I still have like 8-thousand dollars there. And this card here is one of my bosses. He’s a good guy. (trails off)
Hermillo’s wife, six children and several grandchildren are all in Seattle, too.
He’s one of the few men here who’s actually working on his own house. Most of these new houses belong to men still in the States. They send the construction money back to grandparents, wives and children left in Quinceo. Here, their relatives hire men from nearby towns to do the work.
Down the street, rows of these new houses, finished years ago, still sit vacant and unfurnished. They’re hollow reminders of the families and neighbors who’ve fled North. And in their absence, Quinceo feels like a partly inhabited ghost town.
But to Hermillo, the houses are a guarantee the families will come back…and the community will be whole again.
Hermillo: “No, No. All these houses here…they all belong to men who are in Seattle. That guy, and that guy... People here still do the same thing, the work the land. When I get back I’ll have to work the land, too. Grow some beans, wheat, oats...”
People here still farm the land like they have for generations. But now, with so many men gone, more women take on this responsibility. They do more of the planting and harvesting themselves, and hire men from nearby towns to help out.
(Ambi: sounds cooking, hands slapping tortillas)
We go downstairs for breakfast, where Hermillo’s mom kneels on a dirt floor, making tortillas.
We sit on tiny stools around the fire, and I ask Hermillo when he’ll finally come back, for good. His eyes look far away.
Hermillo: I want to die here, and if I happen to die over there, I want them to bring my body back here. A lot of people here have died there in the States, but they always send the bodies back, so they’re buried here.
That intense connection to home is characteristic of Purepecha migrants, according to anthropologist Robert Kemper.
Kemper: There’s a sense of community here that’s very strong, that’s historically grounded. So that people maintain ties to this community in a way that they might not do to another farming community, in say, Zacatecas.
Kemper teaches anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Texas. We meet at his home away from home, in the Purepecha town of Tzintzuntzan. He first came here as a graduate student more than 40 years ago, and still comes back every year to live and work with the same host family.
Over the years, Kemper’s watched how new houses and American dollars change the neighborhood dynamics… to one of more conspicuous consumption.
Kemper: People used to hide stuff, now people are quite content for others to know they’re quite successful. Now we have a competitive society replacing a cooperative society.
For the past four decades, Kemper has taken a census of the town’s population. Of the 800 or so homes here, he estimates well over half have someone living in the States.
Kemper: Initially migrants went to California and Chicago, predominantly. In the late 1980s, Washington State became a favored place. Not only did it attract virtually all the new migrants who were leaving, the young folks. It also took the ones out of Southern California, where the economy was suffering and those people went north where the economy was not suffering.
If we were to draw lines on a map, one would link Tzinztunzan and Tacoma. And another would connect Quinceo and Seattle. They’re like sister cities, across the border. And we could draw similar lines on the map for nearly all the surrounding Purepecha villages.
Over time, those lines become more permanent. Increased enforcement on the border makes it harder to travel back and forth. So migrants stay in the States longer, rather than risk another border crossing.
Families on both ends are adjusting to a new reality -- their community now exists in two places.
(transition here with some radio music)
And one way to stay connected when you can’t travel…is with technology.
Tape: Short Radio intro in Pur, Spanish, English.
This internet radio station is run by Pedro Vitoriano. We meet at his home studio, in a small town near Quinceo. He wears dark slacks and a dress shirt…and looks more urban than everything else around us.
Locals hear his station on FM. But Vitoriano uses the internet like a homing beacon, to reach fellow Purepecha, whether they tune in from Chicago or Seattle.
Vitoriano: We’re trying to create a virtual community. So anyone who wants to be a part of this community, still can, from anywhere. We’ll keep looking for more Purepecha out in the world. Some have left to get away, and sometime people try to forget their past. We want to be here for when they come back to look for their roots.”
Vitoriano worries the Purepecha’s traditional culture and language is fading in many communities here. But he thinks migrants are in a unique position to reverse that trend.
Vitoriano: What we’re slowly losing is the language. That’s what we need to work on more. It’s something we all need to do. The dream is that those, like those in Quinceo, with half of their people in the US…that we could organize ourselves, and that other half of the community could do something for their town.
(Ambi: cross-fade from radio to bus)
I ride a rickety old bus back to Quinceo, then walk up the hill toward town. After several days here, the streets are familiar but it takes me twice as long to get anywhere. Word has gotten around I’m from Seattle, and everyone stops to ask me questions. Do you know my aunt, uncle, sister or brother? Can you take this dried fish to my son? Is it hot in Seattle, like here? One woman even asks if I can take her 6-year-old daughter with me.
Back near Hermillo’s house, a wedding celebration is getting underway. Families gather in the street to drink and dance. More than once, the band pauses to send out greetings to family in Seattle.
(band mentions Seattle)
A woman in a fuchsia skirt and embroidered blouse holds a cell phone toward the stage.
I imagine the other end of that call, 3-thousand miles away. There, the other half of this wedding party is celebrating…in a place they’ve nicknamed ‘Little Quinceo’ in the suburbs of Seattle. In Quinceo, Mexico, I’m Liz Jones, KUOW News.Back