David Mendieta leans over the JFK Airport railing, holding his baby boy and glancing often at the arrivals board with heavy eyelids.
Mendieta, a 25-year-old contractor, has been here since dawn, waiting to pick up his mother at the terminal and bring her to his new home in the New Haven area. His son bats a “Welcome Home” balloon. Tired families trickle into the lobby, all waiting for their mothers to arrive from Mexico. The hours drag by and they pace and chatter nervously as natural light spills through the large windows, reflecting off of sterile marble tiles. They should have been here by now.
Are they lost? Stuck in customs?
Finally, Mendieta’s mother, Doña Rosa Romero, speed-walks through the hallway, her eyes scanning the crowd. When she sees Mendieta, she drops her aged suitcase and runs to him. They embrace for the first time in a decade.
When they break apart, Mendieta introduces Doña Rosa to her grandson and her daughter-in-law. The four of them huddle together as a family for the first time. All around them, the throng of reunited families grows, smiling through happy tears. They pose for photos soon to hit Facebook, accumulating “likes” from relatives back home in San Francisco Tetlanohcan, Tlaxcala, Mexico, and its sister city, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Mendieta left their town at 15, compelled by economic necessity. He followed the perilous migrant trail north to New Haven, a path well-trodden by many other men and women from Tlaxcala. Sources estimate that 1,500 people from San Francisco Tetlanohcan — population 10,000 — live in New Haven, the main destination for the town’s ambitious migrants. And of the many displaced Tlaxcalan towns recreated in New Haven, Tetlanohcan is the largest and most organized — they brought her festivals, food, and traditions to the Elm City.
Most are undocumented migrants and thus cannot visit home in Mexico for fear of not being able to make it back across the tightening and increasingly dangerous border. Their mothers back in Mexico, self-sustaining farmers (campesinas) with little to no income other than remittances, cannot obtain visas to visit their relatives. Yet Doña Rosa and 22 other women devised a way to reach New Haven. They are traveling across Connecticut and New York to perform their play, “La Casa Rosa” (The Pink House) at universities and theaters that vouched for them during the unpredictable process of securing a visa.
Only as actresses — not as mothers — could they access three-month visas that allow them visit their children and family members, who pay for their travel. They conceived “La Casa Rosa” in collaboration with Daniel Carlton, a New York-based playwright, who came to Tetlanohcan in 2009. Since then, the women have toured La Casa Rosa in the U.S. twice before, in 2010 and 2012, rehearsing for each tour at the Indigenous Migrant Family Support Center (CAFAMI) in Tetlanohcan.
Marco Castillo, a cultural anthropologist, worked with other academics, young people and women in the community to found CAFAMI in 2007. Castillo had arrived in Tetlanohcan in 2001 and saw how globalization was affecting the town, simultaneously eroding local, indigenous lifestyles and leading to large-scale migration to the U.S. CAFAMI fights those forces. Now coordinated by lifelong Tetlanohcan resident Monica Lima, CAFAMI offers legal assistance, Nahuatl and English language classes, and workshops on human rights, specifically those of women and migrants. CAFAMI helps people understand (and then work around, as with La Casa Rosa) transnational forces that affect the town. Since departing the town for Mexico City, Castillo has reproduced this model to help other rural and indigenous communities across Mexico harness their creativity and “cultural capital…to find holes in the border” and visit loved ones.
“La Casa Rosa” portrays family separation and migration from Tlaxcala to the U.S. Although people have for decades left Tetlanohcan to find work, they used to stay in Mexico, moving to nearby cities like Puebla or Mexico City. Only in the past two decades have people started moving to the U.S. despite American immigration policies that, especially after 9/11, restricted movement back to Mexico. Stories like those of Mendieta and Dona Rosa make up the backbone of the La Casa Rosa, confronting viewers with the issues of remittances, consumer culture, cultural loss, and above all, family separation.
“Half my heart is there, and half my heart is here,” said Doña Gloria Rodriguez, one of the actresses.
Now, on stages across the Northeast, the women essentially play themselves.
After the dramatic reunion at JFK, the women gather by the escalator to discuss their trip. Ruth Hernandez, a Chicana Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, organized this year’s tour. She’s been involved since she saw the play during CAFAMI’s 2010 trip, which led her to write her doctoral dissertation on Tetlanohcan. She and Monica, the coordinator in Mexico for CAFAMI, hand out sheets at the airport witha packed two-week schedule for “La Casa Rosa.”
When they leave the airport, the women will settle into the homes their sons and daughters have made for themselves in this distant enclave. Over the next three months, the CAFAMI women will cook with ingredients brought from Mexico in their heavy suitcases and care for grandchildren while their sons and daughters work. They’ll see that life in the U.S. is different from the American Dream that lured their children across the border. They’ll realize that as the struggling campesina of Tetlanohcan looks wistfully North, the tired migrante looks wistfully South — both dreaming of places that don’t quite exist.
CAFAMI’s transnational efforts allow occasional family reunions, closing the distance between Tetlanohcan and New Haven. But there are no clear solutions for the pain of separation, and the families’ time together is fleeting.
Actresses of “La Casa Rosa”
The women of CAFAMI traveled through the U.S. with the jovial bounce of tourists on vacation — after their New York City performance, they shoved onto a train in the Bronx, insisting to visit Times Square. They performed at the University of Connecticut, Lehman College, Connecticut College and New Haven’s Bregamos, a Latino community theater in Fair Haven built from a repurposed warehouse. The mismatched chairs are fills with excited family members and young children sprint around, weaving through the growing forest of legs. Ruth flutters through the audience clutching a lipstick-stained coffee cup, greeting people.
The lights dim and the chatter subsides. The play, like every Sunday in Tetlanohcan, opens with a somber Catholic mass. It moves to an argument between two sisters over the virtues and ills of economic development in the town, as compared to traditional farming lifestyles. Then the chorus of campesinas files onto the stage. They work in the fields, hacking with wooden machetes at an invisible harvest. Under the hot lights of the stage, they wipe real sweat from their brows. An abridged excerpt from the scene follows:
A YOUNG WOMAN (turning to her mother): Mom, I’m going to the United States. I’m going North.
MOTHER (angry): The answer is no. We’ve already talked about this.
YOUNG WOMAN: Mom, please. I do have to go.
MOTHER: We don’t need the money.
YOUNG WOMAN: Yes, we do
MOTHER: We’ll find it another way
YOUNG WOMAN: But my decision isn’t only for the money. I want to go work, and live.
MOTHER (getting closer to her daughter): And what we do here isn’t working and living?
YOUNG WOMAN: I need to see the world.
MOTHER: I need you! How could you do this to me? Don’t you love me? Why can’t you be happy here?
YOUNG WOMAN: Don’t you love me? Don’t you want me to be happy? ... Mom, I need more.
MOTHER: More than your culture? Your stories?
YOUNG WOMAN This culture is dying. (puts campesina pouch around her mother) I’m sorry, this is your struggle, not mine.
CHORUS OF CAMPESINAS: The day my family member left, I was very sad and I cried a lot…I told her how much I loved her, how much I’d miss her her, how much I hoped she’d come back. The day my family member left, I asked the Virgin of Guadalupe and God to protect her… I worried for her.
In the audience, Mendieta’s chin quivered. Other migrants in the audience wept openly while watching the women reenact one of the hardest days of their lives. The play progresses through a transnational family drama, questioning the economic forces pulling migrants North, as well as the traditional lives they lead back home. At the climax of the play, the women in the town organize and fight for revolutionary migrant justice.
Their happy ending occurred after the curtain dropped, as the women stepped down off the stage into their family members’ arms. The families were exuberant as they danced, chatted, and drank. A local band played popular Mexican cumbia music and Coronas flowed out of the open bar. Quite the cast party.
The American Dream
As the women of CAFAMI travel the Northeast, their neighbors in Tetlanohcan continue to arrive to the U.S. seeking the American Dream. One of them is Daniel. (His surname is omitted to protect his identity from immigration authorities). On a Brooklyn bus after work, Daniel slowly peels off the Band-Aid around his index finger, wincing. His thick fingers, once accustomed to his family farm and office jobs, are now covered in burns from dishwashing detergent and cuts from kitchen work. It’s harder on his hands than the campo, he says, slouching back into his seat. He’s been living on a cot in his older sister Fabiola’s cramped Brooklyn apartment since he arrived in the U.S. two months ago, working in the basement of a Jewish cafe. He spends his days off with family in the enclave of Tetlanohcan migrants in Brooklyn, and he often takes the train up to New Haven to visit his brothers.
Daniel’s arrival in the United States was unusual. Back in Mexico, he had a secure government office job in the state capitol. He leveraged his political resources to secure a three-month visa. That’s all he needed, for now. It got him to New York to see his sister and brothers again, after over a decade, and it got him a job. Crossing the border on foot through the Sonora Desert grows increasingly dangerous, so migrants like Daniel use any and every means they can to get to the U.S. in the comfort of an airplane.
But there are few comforts after that. In the city that never sleeps, his nine-to-five became a nine-to-ten, 11, or 12. “I come in with the light of the sun, and leave with the light of the moon,” he says. “Well, sometimes you can’t even see the moon here.” Mexicans, he said, make everything in the U.S. run, like a machine.
When he gets back to the apartment, he absently stares at a telenovela on his sister’s gigantic TV, sipping a beer between yawns. If all goes according to plan, Daniel will come up with a way to bring his pregnant wife, Ana, and toddler-age son, Axel, to the U.S.
“It’s really hard to make a life here. Why am I shouldering this?” he wonders. “The only thing that comes to mind is my family, the face of my son, and my daughter on the way. I have to keep the struggle going.” With the money he saves, he will be able to bring his family on a plane, instead of on foot like his pioneering siblings before him. He’ll go back to Mexico in July to get everything ready, and he will try to move to New Haven with them in September. He hopes to save enough money to start a restaurant back in Mexico and eventually pursue elected office to address the root causes of migration, principally economic mismanagement and corruption. He stares up at the ceiling and closes his eyes. He has his dreams, but everything is uncertain — many Tlaxcaltecas in the U.S., like Daniel, come with a two-year plan.
Oscar Romero’s two-year plan is on year 25. He’s from a neighboring town, San Pedro Muñoztla, and one of few from the region with papers. He came with his older sister, CAFAMI’s Doña Rosa, to the U.S. in 1990 in search of work. They first moved to New York City, but they quickly left for New Haven after a friend told them that there were more jobs, lower costs, and fewer crowds at the other end of a Metro North line. Since age 17, Oscar has lived in the Elm City. Doña Rosa stayed for ten years, but she returned to Tlaxcala in 2000. She missed her parents and 13-year-old son, Mendieta, who she would lose again within two years when he moved north.
Many of the migrants are concentrated in New Haven’s multiethnic Fair Haven neighborhood, where the Dominican hair salon shares a wall with the Tlaxcalan bakery. A procession of West Coast-style low riders bounce down the street on nice days, and reggaeton thumps out of a modified Honda Civic every five minutes. The neighborhood’s focal point is C-Town, a Latino supermarket with an ever-expanding inventory of imported ingredients as new migrants from different regions settle into the barrio, craving the flavors of home.
Sunday mass at Santa Rosa de Lima attracts vendors selling coconut ice cream, seasoned corn on the cob, and churros, and parishioners organize jubilant festivals for the patronal saints of their hometowns. Not one rivals the carnival for Saint Francis on Oct. 4, held at Criscuolo Park at the southern extremity of Fair Haven. The Tetlanohcan-New Haven carnival committee prepares year round for the celebration, which involves elaborate indigenous regalia shipped from the town, a dance using colorful whips, bouncing headdresses, and a river of mole.
Oscar was one of the first members of New Haven’s now-prominent Tlaxcalteca community. He applied his skills in flooring and carpeting and built a small contracting business, hiring a few Tlaxcalteca employees. “There’s no work [in Tlaxcala]. The pay is bad and there’s lots of competition,” he said, explaining his choice to stay. In a more lenient decade of immigration policy, Oscar obtained legal status when he married. With that, he could return home a few times every year to see family, reconnect with the community, and monitor his investments.
In 2008, when the economy crashed, his New Haven business tanked, and he had to lay off his employees. Now he works independently; his latest job is flooring the city’s Kensington Square apartments. He works on worn kneepads in the gutted building, meticulously measuring, cutting, and pasting linoleum. “Here you can find a job, but you never stop working. The country is nice, but there is so much stress. There’s always debts, always bills to pay, but one gets used to it. I do like it here,” he said, nodding.
The trend seems to be that the construction jobs early migrants found in New Haven in the 1990s, often with higher wages and benefits, slowly gave way to service jobs, notorious for underpaying and exploiting immigrant workers. Oscar’s brother, Juan, is currently in a lawsuit with his employer, who withheld pay and refused to pay overtime for two years.
Another of the first generation of migrants from Tetlanohcan, Benjamin Cuapio, was a member of New Haven’s activist group Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA). Like Juan, Cuapio fought his labor abuse case with the help of ULA director John Lugo. In 1996, Cuapio other migrant workers, desperate for employment, had been hired to strip asbestos out of what is now the Liberty Building downtown, without any physical or respiratory protection. He snuck a camera into his worksite and documented the deplorable, and illegal, conditions. The ensuing 1997 lawsuit highlighted the plight of undocumented Mexican workers in New Haven for the first time. Over the next decade, Cuapio continued to fight for migrant workers’ rights in New Haven. Due in no small part to his work with Lugo and ULA, New Haven became a sanctuary city with some of the most pro-immigrant policies in the country, further incentivizing many undocumented migrants to stay in the city. Cuapio has retired from fighting to settle back into his quiet, bare concrete house at the top of a hill overlooking the Tlaxcala valley. Below him, constellations of electric lights twinkled from houses.
Cuapio has remained committed to la lucha, “the struggle,” by donating a piece of his land to CAFAMI for their community center, which he helps upkeep. There, Doña Rosa and the others rehearsed their play and prepared herbal products and hand-sewn textiles to present and sell to U.S. audiences.
Back At JFK
In his cousin’s cramped kitchen, Daniel sits by his aunt, Doña Silver, who is staying in Brooklyn with her daughter after the tour with CAFAMI. She prepares dough for gorditas, thick and saucy tortillas, enjoying her remaining weeks with her daughter. She laments not being able to use the corn from their family plot for the dough — she has to settle for bleached white Maseca (dry dough), found in Latino supermarkets across the U.S. That’s the only domestic ingredient, though. She brought chiles and other dry vegetables from Mexico to make the orange salsa with which she doused the chubby oval gorditas. (It’s likely what held them up so long at customs at the airport, but it was certainly worth it.) Her two children here in New York will miss her cooking when she leaves, since work often prevents them from preparing time-intensive traditional dishes. But in the three months she’s been here, her two children back home miss her cooking, too.
Back in JFK on April 17, the migrant families say goodbye to their mothers. Not a single person interviewed in that airport had slept the night before — they stayed awake packing, talking, and bracing themselves for this moment. This time, there are more tears than the reunion in February.
Although the CAFAMI trips alleviate some of the longing over the course of a few surreal and hectic months, the women’s inevitable departure for home reopens a wound that has yet to scar over. No one knows how long they will go without seeing their mothers again. “This is sad. But it was an amazing time, you wouldn’t even believe it,” Doña Rosa says. “If I didn’t have anyone back home waiting for me, believe me, I would stay.”
Mendieta hugs his son close to his chest as his mother walks away, looking over her shoulder, eyes strained. In the Mexico City airport, her husband and children eagerly await her return. They’ve never been without her for so long, and they miss her.
A version of this story appeared in the New Journal on April 23, 2016.