Fifty percent of the residents of Zapotitlan Palmas, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, leave for the United States each year. Mexican journalist and former Nation intern Chantal Flores and Haitian-American filmmaker Stefani Saintonge have teamed up to produce a documentary film, La Tierra de los Adioses (The Land of Goodbyes) about why residents keep leaving and what it means for the people – especially youth – they leave behind. They produced “La Bolsa” (“The Bag”), the short below, being made public here for the first time, from the footage they’ve shot so far. I interviewed Flores and Saintonge in New York, where they’ll be showing “La Bolsa” and raising money ahead of their November 6 deadline to win Kickstarter funding to finish the film. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Why did you choose to explore the bags? Saintonge: It’s an intricate, traditional craft, and it’s beautiful–but at the same time women feel trapped, having to make these bags because they don’t have any jobs in the town. So it’s either that or migrate. They depend on their husbands who are in the US, but when that doesn’t cut it, they have to make these bags. There’s no employment, and they’re stuck laboring over these crafts, which are really beautiful, but they have to do it. It’s not just an art. And they work so hard, doing two a day.
How did you come to the topic of emigration? What does it mean for this town? Flores: When I came back to Mexico, almost all the people I talked to were immigrants, had been in the US, or had relatives in the US. I ended up in Zapatilan Palmas, teaching a writing workshop, and heard from these kids who are in constant contact with immigration. We wanted to make this video that would focus on kids in a town whose whole lifestyle is defined by the US – people leave for the US, success is related to the US. There are people there who have never been to Mexico City, but have been to LA, New York, Chicago, and they know everything about the US.
Even though these kids haven’t left yet, they will eventually leave. We won’t prevent them from coming to the US, but we want to give them more opportunities. Emigration shouldn’t be the next step, it should be an option. And in this town, and in many Mexican towns, emigration is your responsibility if you want to do something with your life. And that is very sad. People tell you that they want to come to the US to become someone. It’s sad, because they are already human beings.
How does it affect the town’s culture? Flores: When I interviewed Mexican kids about America, I expected them to say, “Oh, it’s awesome I want to go there.” But they said “It sucks. You just work long hours, and you just go from your house to your workplace, and that’s it.” Hearing those answers changed my perspective on the kids. I used to just see them as people who were dreaming of coming to the US. But they don’t really want to come to the US. They want to stay in their town. They want to help their town to progress, they want to be with their families. Yet because of the economic situation and the lack of opportunities, they are forced into thinking that they need to come to the US, and that’s the best thing that could happen to them.
Kids feel abandoned by parents that emigrate to America. They don’t see them for years. Many of my students were teenagers who couldn’t remember what their father looked like. Or their father was coming back after 10 years, and then the whole family dynamic was changing–the kids were suddenly with someone who has power over them, and they didn’t know how to deal with that.
When you are walking around the town you just see women, old people, and children, that’s it. The fathers are in the US. In many cases, women know their husbands have started families in the US too, but they don’t talk about that. They need the money and they need to accept their husband back. Women in this town go through loneliness and abandonment, and they don’t have the emotional support they need, or the resources to give their kids the emotional support they need.
Before this film, Chantal created a website where she posted writing from her students. How would government policies change if the voices of these students played a bigger part? Flores: These kids have so many ideas. They would ask the Mexican government for jobs, because they don’t want their parents to leave. And they want basic stuff like soccer balls and training to know how to play sports and make art. I did a mural contest with five of my kids where they were supposed to choose an issue and then show what they would like the Mexican Government to do about it. And they asked me if they could focus on the American government instead. They surprised me. They were like, “We just want them to respect our parents and provide them with better working conditions.”
Is the discussion of immigration in this town different from the national immigration debate in Mexico? Flores: Right now the immigration debate in Mexico is focused on what we as a society have to do to keep our people here, rather than what do we need to demand from the US government. The Mexican President just said that the US needs to treat immigrants better, which is super hypocritical, because Oaxaca is the main route for people from Central America to come to the US border, and you see in Oaxaca how Mexican citizens are treating people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvado: like they are a lower class below poor people in Mexico. So we have important issues to focus on on both sides of the border. And the drug war is making everything harder.
Last month I had a meeting with the town’s mothers and asked them what they need. Someone asked me to develop a project to prevent emigration. I was like, “I cannot develop a program to prevent emigration when we have no jobs and the economy is like this.” Immigration is such a natural thing. People are always moving. She said, “Why are you saying that you cannot do that?” And I said, “Because we need jobs.” She’s like, “OK, so what do we need to do so we have jobs here and they don’t leave?”
Saintonge: One of the students we interviewed wants to go to college, he wants to be a teacher. But he’s given up. He’s fifteen years old and he’s like, “I’ll probably just work in a factory on the border.” So he’s not going to migrate to the US, but he’s migrating out of Zapotitlán, because he says his parents can’t afford it, and he has to support them. How has migration played out in your lives?
Saintonge: I’m the child of immigrants. My parents came during a time when the policies here were a lot more welcoming. And now I see what immigrants are going through in this country and it shocks me. I think about what my life would have been if my parents had come with a climate like this–or if they hadn’t been able to come.
Flores: I left Mexico when I was 18 to go study at the University in Toronto. It was hard to go through that process of being in a different culture, having an accent, speaking a different language. Suddenly, I was being categorized by classmates as someone who is Latin, or Spanish, or from the third world. It was kind of hard to suddenly to see myself, and my home, through all these stereotypes. After I graduated, it was really hard to get a job in Toronto. Not only because of the the economic crisis, but also because employers would say, “You’re a Mexican. I have a Canadian, why would I hire you?” I worked at a bagel shop with all these illegal immigrants from Mexico. My boyfriend at that time, he was undocumented too, and he had been in Toronto for almost five years. It was hard to see how he couldn’t go back even to see his family.
That was something that was very easy for me to identify with the kids, that feeling of missing something or someone every day. You don’t realize, but it’s so exhausting. And as a kid it’s devastating to live out this constant emptiness–that you are missing someone in your life, and their support. I saw kids that don’t have the energy to study or focus on things, because they are always missing something. I was missing my family when I was in Toronto, and I got so tired of it that the easiest thing was to try to forget about them, because you cannot be crying every day missing them. But in not thinking about them, you neglect a part of yourself. Going back home to Mexico and knowing that I don’t have the opportunities I want and deserve there is really frustrating.