Tlaxcala Dreams of New Haven

David Mendieta leans over the railing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, holding his baby boy and glancing often at the arrivals board with heavy eyelids. A 25-year-old contractor, Mendieta woke up his wife and son before dawn for the two-hour drive from their house in West Haven to pick up his mother at the terminal. His son bats a “Welcome Home” balloon. Tired families trickle into the lobby, all waiting for their mothers to arrive from Mexico. Anxiety mounts as 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, his mother, Doña Rosa Romero, speed-walks through the hallway, her eyes scanning the crowd. When she sees David, she drops her aged suitcase to run and hug him tight. Today, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, they embrace for the first time in a decade. When they break apart, Mendieta introduces Romero 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, and its sister city, New Haven, Connecticut.

David 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; an estimated fifteen percent of Tetlanohcan lives in New Haven. Most are undocumented migrants and 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, as self-sustaining farmers (campesinas) with little to no income, cannot obtain visas to visit their relatives.

Yet Romero and twenty-two other women devised a way come to New Haven despite the distance, cruel policies, and fear. 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. 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 America twice, 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 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 United States. 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 leaving 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 United States. Although people have left Tetlanohcan to find work for decades, 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 United States despite American immigration policies that, especially after September 11, restricted movement back to Mexico. Stories like those of Mendieta and Romero 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.

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Indigenous Migrant Family Support Center (CAFAMI) members rehearse their play, La Casa Rosa, at Lehman College in the Bronx. It’s the last stop on their tour through the northeast, for which they were granted visas to visit. Doña Rosa, second from right, has been staying in West Haven with her son who she hasn’t seen in ten years.

After the dramatic reunion at JFK, the women gather by the escalator to discuss their trip. Ruth Hernandez, a Chicana doctoral 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 with La Casa Rosa‘s packed two-week schedule.

After performing the play, the women will stay with their children in the United States for two more months. They’ll 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 and migrants work to maintain their distinct culture, 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.

As the women of CAFAMI travel the Northeast, their neighbors in Tetlanohcan like Daniel Mendieta (no relation to David) continue to arrive to the U.S., seeking the American Dream. On a Brooklyn bus after work, Mendieta slowly peels off the Band-Aid around his index finger, wincing. His thick fingers, once accustomed to 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 United States 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.

Mendieta’s arrival in the United States was unusual. Back in Mexico, he had a secure government office job in the state capital. He leveraged connections in the local government to obtain a visa to study U.S. governance. Since his arrival, though, Daniel’s experience has been typical. When he moved to the U.S., his nine-to-five became a nine-to-ten, eleven, or even twelve. “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 United States run, like a machine.

Only as actresses—not as mothers—could they access three-month visas that allow them to visit their children and family members.

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 bring his pregnant wife, Ana, and toddler-age son, Axel, to the United States.

“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 change policy for the better. He stares up at the ceiling and closes his eyes. He has his dreams, but everything is uncertain—many Tlaxcaltecas in the United States, like Daniel, come with a two-year plan.

Oscar Romero’s two-year plan is on year twenty-five. He came with his older sister, 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. Dona Rosa stayed for ten years, but she returned to Tlaxcala in 2000. She missed her parents and 13-year-old son David, who she would lose again within two years when he moved north.

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. 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.

But the life he has built here still feels fragile. In 2008, when the economy crashed, his 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 his 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.

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 Oscar’s brother Juan, Cuapio fought a labor abuse case with the help of ULA director John Jairo Lugo. Cuapio snuck a camera into his worksite after he and other migrant workers, desperate for employment, had been hired to strip asbestos out of a building downtown without any physical or respiratory protection. He documented the deplorable, and illegal, conditions and levied charges against his employer. 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, encouraging many undocumented migrants to live in the city limits. 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 twinkle 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, Romero and the others rehearsed and prepared herbal products and hand-sewn textiles to present and sell to U.S. audiences. They carve out time for La Casa Rosa from their constant work in their fields, their businesses, and their houses.

The women of CAFAMI traveled through the United States with the jovial bounce of tourists on vacation—after their New York City performance, they shoved onto a train in the Bronx, insisting on visiting Times Square. They visited 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 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. A condensed version of the play follows:

A YOUNG WOMAN (turning to her mother): Mom, I’m going to the United States.
MOTHER (horrified): The answer is no. You don’t have to go.
YOUNG WOMAN: Mom, please, I do have to go. 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: But this is the world, too.
YOUNG WOMAN: Maybe for you.
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: I need more.
MOTHER: More than your culture, your history? Don’t you feel a responsibility to preserve your tradition?
YOUNG WOMAN: It’s boring, and it makes me sad. I’m sorry; this is your fight, not mine.
CHORUS OF CAMPESINAS: The day my family member left, I was very sad and I cried a lot. The day my family member left, I told her how much I loved her, how much I missed 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. The day my family member left, 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. After the play, 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.

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 United States. That seems to be the only domestic ingredient. She brought chiles and other dry vegetables from Mexico to make the orange salsa with which she doused the chubby oval gorditas. 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 at 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. The script of “the day my family member left” is reversed as sons and daughters watch their mothers shuffle through security to catch their flight back to Mexico. This time, there are more tears than at 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. 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.

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