For a generation, the men of this town have headed north to the land of the mighty dollar, breaking U.S. immigration laws to dig swimming pools in Memphis and grind meat in Chicago.
In the United States, they were illegal aliens. Back home, they are new entrepreneurs using the billions of dollars earned “on the other side” to create a Mexican middle class.
The migrants “did something bad to do something good,” said Mexican economist Luis de la Calle.
Where remittances from El Norte were once mostly used to help hungry families back home simply survive, surveys now reveal that the longer a migrant stays up north, the more likely the cash transfers will be used to start new businesses or to pay for homes, farm equipment and school tuitions.
From Santa Maria del Refugio, a once rural, now almost suburban, community of 2,500 in central Mexico’s Guanajuato state, young men have gone to the United States seeking the social mobility they could not find at home.
Their money, and many of the workers themselves, have since returned, as the U.S. economy slowed in the global recession. For the first time in 40 years, net migration is effectively zero. About the same number of Mexicans left the United States last year as arrived. Migration experts expect the northward flow to pick up again as the U.S. economy improves. It is also possible that as Mexico provides more opportunity for upward mobility, some potential migrants will stay home.
In Santa Maria, dollars scrimped and saved in the United States have transformed a poor pueblo into a town of curbed sidewalks, Internet cafes and rows of two-story homes rising on a hillside where scrawny cattle once grazed.
“Look at this place — it’s practically a city now,” said Roberto Mandujano, 50, who moved back to his home town and opened a hardware store five years ago. “There was nothing here when I left.”
Mandujano is a member of a new demographic in Mexico, the anxious, tenacious, growing middle class who own homes and cars and take vacations. They see the United States more as a model than an exploiter.
Born into a family of 10 siblings, Mandujano set out from Santa Maria and crossed the Rio Grande at age 17. He found work on landscaping crews and highway projects, and eventually earned a plumber’s license. Now back home in Mexico, he runs half-marathons on the weekends and owns a well-stocked store (“my little Home Depot”) and a U.S. green card, traveling back to Texas whenever he wants.
“On an airplane,” he said with pride.
Development experts and economists here have struggled to measure the extent to which remittances, the money sent home by migrants, have fueled middle-class growth. The Mexican government is good at counting the dollars flowing into the country. Less understood is what recipients are doing with the money.
Some 12 million Mexicans — which represents 15 percent of Mexico’s labor force — reside legally and illegally in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Researchers say the longer that migrants work in the United States, the more their money drives upward mobility.
“We have found that in the first three to five years, the ultimate destination of the remittances is to help the families, but after seven years, the money is saved and then invested,” said Victor Corona, a professor at the University of Zacatecas and an expert in migration.
Still, the remittance system has exacted a toll: absent fathers, strained marriages, frayed families. Development officials say that Mexico’s reliance on remittances should be replaced by an economy that produces good jobs in Mexico — and that middle-class growth that relies on migration is ultimately a sign of weakness, not strength.
In Central American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, which are even more dependent on cash sent from the United States, remittances have also nurtured new businesses and an incipient middle class. But far more money goes to Mexico.
During the past decade, remittances sent by Mexicans from the United States have exploded, from $3.7 billion in 1995 to a peak of $25 billion in 2007.
According to the most recent social and economic data, a narrow majority of Mexicans are no longer poor but members of the middle class, marking a profound demographic shift in a country where 80 percent of the population was living in poverty in 1960.
The middle class in Mexico does not look like its counterpart in Europe or the United States. Its members make far less money. At the lower rungs, they are more vulnerable. They are less educated. Many lack formal employment, leaving them with no insurance, health care or pensions.
Persistent inequality in Mexico means that its emerging middle class remains closer to the country’s poor than to its affluent.