Immigration, and Mexico's Town Without Men

EL EPAZOTE, Mexico, July 8, 2006 — -- The tiny fishing village of El Epazote is nestled in a sweeping valley, surrounded by the majestic Sierra Madre mountains in Central Mexico. It is a long and winding four-hour journey from Mexico City to a place where the story of illegal immigration is as clear as the mountain springs that flow through the alpine canyons.

The first thing you notice when you arrive in the little settlement is the lack of men.

At least 70 percent of El Epazote's men have left home to work in the United States. That has left the village with a population of mostly children and women -- the very young and the very old.

Maria and Amparo Fuentes spend their days gathering hay for their sheep. Amparo is almost 100 years old, leading ABC News to ask her why she works so hard.

"It's just the poverty," she said. "That's the way it goes for the poor in Mexico. We do what we have to do … to survive."

"Men usually do this work," she was told.

"Yes," she said, "but there are no men here. They're all working in the United States."

It is the women who do all the work in El Epazote. They earn the equivalent of $10 a day. In the United States, their husbands and fathers can make 10 times that much. The disparity has left the village with virtually no fathers, no male role models.

When ABC News gathered together a group of children from the town and asked how many had relatives in the United States, all of them raised their hands -- for fathers, brothers, uncles, even grandfathers all working in places like New York, Oklahoma, Utah and Florida.

There are signs of American influence everywhere. The town's welcome sign is both in Spanish and English. There are American cars and pickup trucks all over the village, TV sets and DVD players in many living rooms, satellite dishes on many rooftops.

The men from El Epazote send thousands of dollars back home every month -- enough to build new homes that now dot the landscape. It is money that buys new clothing for their children and puts food on their table.

Bernarda Carranza is a new mother of twins. Her husband is a landscaper in Kansas.

"I only wish that with time we can make enough so that he won't have to leave," she said. "I wish there were jobs here so that he could stay."

Another resident, Paula Carranza, said life is very difficult without the men of the village.

"It's really hard when my husband goes to the U.S.," she said. "I have to be both mother and father. It's very lonely."

In addition to helping their families, the remittances -- money sent home by the Mexican workers -- also helps pay for civic and religious projects. Most recently, it paid for a new cathedral for the Catholic church that now sits prominently in the center of the town. The cost, $160,000, was all paid for with money earned in the United States.

What would happen, however, if Washington passed a new immigration bill that would levy tougher sanctions against business owners who hire undocumented workers? And what about the increased surveillance -- some by the National Guard -- along the U.S.-Mexico border?

"Illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. is not going to stop," says Angel Berez.

He lives very near El Epazote, and said he has traveled thousands of miles to work in the U.S., crossing the border illegally at least 10 times.

"I think all the people of Mexico try to find, try to figure out … how to cross the border, no matter what."

Back on the village soccer field, even the 10-year-old boys of El Epazote agreed, saying they cannot wait until they are able to go work in the U.S.

"We would do it just to support our families," they all repeated.

Both leading candidates in the recent Mexican election promised jobs and a better life for the people of this country. But in this tiny village, no one is holding their breath.

The mostly young and female residents of El Epazote are just waiting for the next paycheck from the United States, and waiting for their husbands, their fathers, their sons to return home -- at least for a little while, until they have to leave again.

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