Mexican immigration differs from the waves of European and Asian immigrants that have come to America. It's now lasted more than sixty years and shows no sign of slowing. And unlike immigrants before them, Mexicans have moved to almost every region of the United States—from Alaska to Atlanta. Their arrival in the American South in huge numbers in the 1990s marked the largest influx of foreign-born workers to that region since slavery. Virtually every municipio—or county—in Mexico has sent people to the United States.
These stories are about the things Mexican immigrants seek in the United States.
I thought about this often while living in Mexico. Of course, immigrants were looking for work and the future for themselves and their kids that Mexico denied them.
But it was more complicated than that. For one thing, I noticed Mexican immigrants also sought to return home. Immigrants to the United States in other eras might have wanted to go home, too, but they faced arduous journeys. Mexicans' homeland is close, at peace; transportation is cheap and dollars buy a lot. Thus they send money home constantly and return often. Gardeners, drywall hangers, and factory workers spend lifetimes earning dollars in the United States while they build sparkling houses in their villages back home and dream of returning to them for good.
In time, I realized that this return home was partly why, in fact, Mexican immigration north hadn't stopped in sixty years. For one thing, immigrant wealth, on display in their home villages in the form of lavish houses and parties, has helped create conditions that keep people leaving. Though immigrants have changed Mexico with the ideas they bring back from the United States, their return and their remittances have also kept Mexico from changing deeply enough. The billions of dollars Mexican immigrants send home resemble oil revenues in that they save the country from disaster. But they also help Mexico's political class postpone the painful reforms that are needed if the two-thirds of the country bogged in poverty is to rise above.
I also saw that while immigrants sought to return home, they just as fervently sought to escape Mexico—or at least the official Mexico that the world knows. This Mexico finds many ways to strangle the poor's aspirations, and therein is the cause of the country's poverty. Even as immigrants return in hopes of an embrace, this Mexico has extorted them, insulted them, and despised them as national turncoats. If that's less true today, it's a change that has come a tad late for many immigrants.
I'd spent several years in Mexico, thinking and writing about immigration, when I heard a story—the story of Antonio's Gun. It took place a long time ago in Jaripo, a village I often visited in a hilly northern part of the state of Michoacán. Over the years, I pieced the story together talking with older townsfolk. In time, I came to see it as a parable for what immigrants seek most.
When I first arrived, Jaripo had long been an immigrant village, entirely dependent on dollars. But when the story took place in the late 1920s, Jaripo was a poor peasant village. Its plaza then was of dirt, not concrete, and its people lived in small adobe houses.
The story is about two men, Juan Muratalla and Antonio Carrillo.
Juan Muratalla, everyone agrees, was a twisted and merciless man. Before the Mexican Revolution of 1911, he was a member of the armed security force on a hacienda. The security officers protected the hacienda from bandits and controlled its peons. Muratalla was known to kill for no reason. One peon described him as an "evil dog."
After the Revolution, Muratalla settled in Jaripo, which had been part of the hacienda.
In time, he ingratiated himself with the town boss, or cacique, named don Juan, who owned a store on the plaza. Muratalla was one of the few people in town with a rifle. He kept it upright between his legs as he'd fall asleep, drunk, sitting in a chair on the plaza. He terrorized the villagers, as he'd done when they worked under him at the hacienda.
"He killed more than thirty people," says Jesús Díaz, a retired farmworker, sitting in Jaripo's plaza one night many decades after Muratalla had gone. "He'd kill for thirty pesos."
But don Juan's word was law. No one else had weapons or money, so villagers endured Juan Muratalla.
Eventually, don Juan's eye fell upon a girl from the village. This girl was the love of Jesús Carrillo, a poor ranchero. Jesús and his brother, Mauricio, were poor men. They had only one pistol between them, but they were known as men who didn't back down. Still, don Juan was used to getting what he wanted and gave Muratalla the job of ridding him of the Carrillo brothers.
One day, Muratalla heard Mauricio Carrillo would be coming through town. He climbed with his rifle into a tree in the plaza. As Mauricio walked across a street, Muratalla shot him in the chest.
By Mauricio's side that day was his son, Antonio. Antonio pleaded with his wounded father to give him his pistol to avenge the shooting. But Mauricio clutched the gun, fearing for his son's life. Antonio and townspeople carried Mauricio home. Mauricio gave his gun to his wife and bled to death.
Antonio begged his mother for his father's pistol. She hid it, fearing, as her husband had, that if Antonio used it, Muratalla would kill him, too.
So Antonio Carrillo left for the United States. He found work. With the dollars he earned, he bought a pistol.
One day Juan Muratalla received a card from the United States. On it, Antonio wrote that he was coming home to kill him. He ended with the words, "Mauricio Lives Again."
On the announced day, Muratalla and some gunmen rode to the train station. From the train, Antonio saw them and hid. The train left the station. Antonio was nowhere to be seen. Muratalla and his gunmen mounted their horses and returned to Jaripo, laughing that young Antonio was all talk.
A mile or two out of the station, the train slowed as it rounded a curve. Antonio Carrillo jumped off and walked over the hills and into Jaripo.
Juan Muratalla had been drinking at his usual spot outside a store on the plaza. His rifle was by his side. The day was sunny. He may have dozed off.
Suddenly, Antonio Carrillo appeared before him in the street.
"Defend yourself," he cried.
Juan Muratalla lunged for his rifle. Antonio pulled his pistol and fired. Some say he yelled, "Mauricio lives again," as he emptied his gun into Juan Muratalla.
Muratalla fell back. In his death grip his finger pulled the rifle's trigger, and a bullet went through the store's roof. He collapsed inside the store, his legs sprawling out the doorway.
Shops closed. Parents pulled their children indoors. Antonio walked home. The employees of the store shoved Muratalla's bloody corpse out of the shop and shut their doors, too.
Juan Muratalla lay there for a day, his rifle by his side. Only his sister, with a flickering gas lantern, stayed by his corpse that night. She buried him the next day with the help of some townspeople.
That gun was Antonio Carrillo's alternative to submission. He never returned to the United States. He'd found what he sought there.