Emilia Melo still can’t believe that Jaime Solano is dead. The husband she hadn’t seen in 11 years died from Covid-19 this summer, alone, in a New York City hospital, 2,700 miles from home. When Jaime left his family in the town of Tlapa in the mountainous region of Guerrero in southern Mexico, he was only to be gone a short while. But the reasons he left Tlapa—bills to pay, children to support, and the dreams of guaranteeing a better life for his family—never disappeared. And so he stayed, over more than a decade, working low-wage jobs in kitchens and delivering food, waiting for the day he could return. Now, Emilia refuses to accept that her healthy husband, just 48 years old, is gone.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the United States, at least 2,500 Mexican migrants have died from the disease in this country. These deaths, a tragedy in their own right by any measure, has been compounded by the lasting effect of their loss for the families they leave behind. The deaths of those like Jaime, who come from some of Mexico’s poorest regions, has severed a vital economic lifeline for thousands of families. Many are now picking up the pieces of a life shattered by loss, and like Emilia and her four grown-up daughters, they are now contending not only with the pain of losing a husband and a father, but also with finding a new means of survival.
Migration is a way of life in Tlapa, the municipal seat of Guerrero’s mountain region. Those who can afford it or have relatives who can lend them the money, make the perilous journey to the United States. Tlapa’s main streets are lined with New York–style pizzerias, money exchange centers, and stores advertising “American merchandise” like Air Jordans and Adidas t-shirts funded by the money migrants send home. In this largely indigenous region, remittances build the two- or three-story cinder block houses, and the flow of cash keeps the local economy—in which opportunities for paid labor are few and wages are low—moving. While migrant labor is not sufficient to break cycles of poverty, it is a lifeline.
Mexican migrants have sent home a record amount of money in remittances this year, despite the global pandemic. The figures have surpassed experts’ expectations: From January to September, they broke a record at nearly $30 billion, a 10 percent increase from the same period last year. Remittances make up one of Mexico’s main sources of foreign-source income, surpassing that of oil exports and direct foreign investment in 2019. In 2017, there were about 12.8 million Mexican migrants in the US, according to a study by the BBVA foundation. Guerrero ranks within the ten top states fueling migration to the US, and almost half of all remittances sent to Mexico in 2018 were received by 7 states, including Guerrero. Despite expelling so many, the majority in the mountain region migrate internally within Mexico. Poverty is so stark in the mountains that most people can’t afford a smuggler for the journey north, especially as the cost has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the most recent government estimates, 70 percent of Guerrero’s population lives in poverty, 30 percent of them in extreme poverty. The gaps and deficiencies people in Guerrero live with tell their own striking story: 20 percent of households lack a toilet, 38 percent lack running water, 46 percent can’t access health services. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador calls migrants “living heroes” keeping regions like Guerrero afloat, and often thanks them for their help in developing Mexico, but like his predecessors, his government doesn’t publicly recognize its own failure in supporting the millions of families who see migration as their best option for survival.
For her family, making money has always been a kind of suffering, Emilia told us under the shade of a large guaje tree outside her house. Emilia lives with her five children and three grandchildren in an old two-bedroom house, while the two-floor cinder block structure she began building with Jaime’s remittances remains unfinished. Jaime worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the United States to cover his family’s basic expenses. While he was away, his daughters practically grew up without him. Emilia also spent a few years in New York and left their four daughters with their grandmother while she was away—she always dreamt of migrating but never imagined how difficult it would be. “Without an education you get paid very little,” she said reminiscing upon those years, which is why both she and Jaime wanted their kids to receive an education. When she got pregnant with her son, she decided it was time to return. Jaime was meant to come with her, but they didn’t have enough money for two tickets. The house was meant to be the reward of all these years of labor—“a house for everyone,” as Emilia calls it—but construction was put on hold for lack of funds, despite the loans both Emilia and Jaime had to take out to build it. The house was supposed to have a room at the front to set up a shop, but saving enough to finish construction, on Jaime’s salary, was impossible. He used to send between $200 and $300 every month to cover expenses for his children, two of whom are single moms with young children.
Earning a living in Tlapa isn’t easy either. Those who don’t make the trip across the northern border often migrate to the fields of northwest and central Mexico for arduous seasonal labor for $5 to $10 a day. That meager salary is still better than what Guerrero has to offer, as the traditional subsistence farming becomes increasingly out of reach. Emilia herself grew up in one of such fields in Sinaloa picking tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, and taking care of her siblings. Emilia was the oldest of thirteen children, and she was pulled out of school in the fifth grade before she could learn to read. She met Jaime at 18 in one of those trips to Sinaloa, and they married a year later.
Now that Jaime is gone, his family doesn’t think the long years away from his family were worth the cost. “He was breaking his back working day and night and for what?,” says Emilia in tears. “He is no longer here.” Her daughter Leticia sits next to her hugging a large portrait of Jaime. As the oldest, she is the one who remembers her father the most. “I would tell him, ‘Daddy, Daddy come back’, and he would answer each time that he would return in December,” says Leticia. When December came, Leticia and her siblings would let their father know it was time for him to meet his promise. Jaime would simply answer: “I said December but I didn’t say what year.”
Women in Tlapa are traditionally caregivers, since this care labor still falls largely on them, and migration forces them to take up the role of providers typically reserved to men. Without migrants’ financial support, women in families like Emilia’s face grim prospects: The work available to women keeps them from caring for their children and performing household chores and, on top of that, it means long hours away and low pay. The loss of a male provider is a huge blow. Emilia’s family now gets by with her sporadic sale of Avon products and the $150 a month her daughter—the only one in the family to have graduated from college—is able to make with an administrative job at a supermarket.
“We need to create jobs otherwise we won’t be able to reverse this tendency of migration,” said Fabian Morales, the head of Guerrero’s Migrant and International Affairs. Morales migrated to Illinois back in 1970 when he was 15 years old. He is now 65, and has been back in Mexico working for the state government these last five years. Morales wanted to escape a life in the fields with low pay, so he left 50 years ago for the same reasons people migrate today. According to Morales, southern states in Mexico which are underdeveloped and with the highest rates of poverty, lack industries and strong investment from the federal government to spark growth. Guerrero’s geographic location doesn’t make it a prime spot for agriculture, but it is the country’s major producer of poppy seeds. The violence and organized crime groups that come with this crop, on top of economic need and lack of political will to develop the region, fuel migration.
Teodora Romano has five children in New York City. They followed, one by one, in the footsteps of their father, Jose Melgarejo, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York six years ago. Some left before Jose was killed, others later. But now it’s been so long that Teodora, who speaks the indigenous language nahuatl, doesn’t remember how old they are.
Teodora runs a small kitchen along one of the main roads that cut through the mountains. Remittances from Jose weren’t enough to pay for the children’s education, so they left young, she says while taking a break from serving hearty stews to a hungry crew of workers. Her two youngest live with her at home, and her five children in New York send her money occasionally.
“When my husband died, the world collapsed on me,” says Teodora, “I didn’t know how I would feed my children.” She didn’t work while her husband was alive, and when she suddenly had to, working in the fields was out of the question. Teodora had contracted polio when she was a child that left her with a limp and painful back problems. She began selling tacos and tamales outside schools and in the streets of Xalpatlahuac, her community in the mountains. She also mends clothes and is constantly searching for ways to earn enough to feed her children.
The dependency women have on men and the gender dynamics in the region are also a source of violence, says Neil Arias, a lawyer in Tlachinollan, a human rights organization in Tlapa. Arias has seen cases of domestic violence when men are the sole administrators of the household finances, particularly if women are illiterate. Women like Teodora and Emilia must also assess the risk of leaving their children unattended or sending their young daughters to work. Arias has also seen a rise in sexual abuse and drug addiction in young men in households where fathers migrated to the US and the mothers are out working. “The burden on women is immense,” she adds.
Teodora doesn’t blame her children for leaving. Xalpatlahuac can only offer enough for them to get by, and sometimes not even that. Jose left for New York in order to build a house for his family, and in that they succeeded. They built it in a few months, eating only corn drenched in salsa, she says, so that they could channel all the money into the house. Jose was away for 11 years, came home once, but the pull of higher pay, and the idea of building another house for their growing family, eventually sent him back to the United States. After the second trip, Jose never came back. He was 36 years old when he was hit by a car, 15 days after he arrived. Years later, Teodora still feels the pain of her husband’s passing and the loneliness that comes with his absence. She doesn’t think her children will return but she is hopeful that her two youngest will get a chance to study and access better opportunities. “He wanted them to be someone in life,” she said.
Migration is never easy, and the loss of a loved one and a provider so far away from home is a pain that time can never fully heal. But for those who can afford it, there are few other options. The pandemic has thrown Mexico into the worst economic crisis in a century, with GDP expected to contract up to 12 percent this year. The World Bank sees global extreme poverty rising in 2020 as a result of the pandemic with an additional 88 million to 115 million people joining the ranks of the extremely poor. But migration has become harder in recent years, and the dividends it pays are shrinking. According to Morales, of Guerrero’s Migrant and International Affairs, the American Dream doesn’t exist anymore: Wages are too low in the United States, the cost of living is too high, and the current immigration policies make it difficult for undocumented migrants to find formal employment. “There was a time when the US held great opportunities,” he said. Not anymore.
In Tlapa, Emilia and her daughters are thinking of what they can do to get by. One of her daughters, Veronica, likes to cook and began selling meals. Her youngest daughter, Alicia, is working in a store and is trying to go back to school to follow her father’s wishes. Her oldest daughter, Leticia, found a job in hotel housekeeping. While the women dream of starting their own businesses, they also toy with the American dream. Leticia and Veronica, both single moms, are considering migrating to the US and leaving their children behind. Emilia has considered it as well, but she knows it might be her turn to take care of her grandchildren.
For Emilia, the road ahead is still unclear, and grief is the one thing that defines her present moment. “Life no longer has meaning,” she said. “It’s very painful knowing I no longer have my husband.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that from January to September 2020, Mexican migrants had sent home more than $30 million in remittances; the correct number is more than $30 billion.