INDAPARAPEO, MEXICO — The lifeline being tossed to this small town of about 16,000 inhabitants in the rural state of Michoacán, with its low -paying brickmaking industry and thinning corn crops, is not easy to spot.
In a rare effort, a tightly knit group of Indaparapeo immigrants living in the US is sending money back to fuel a university scholarship program. Typically, migrants who cobble together remittances choose to build publicly viewable bridges, roads, or soccer parks. But with towns increasingly emptying because of migration, this project is investing in less-visible human capital, creating incentives to stop people from going to the US in the first place.
"We won't stop migration, but we figure that education is one way to offer people more choices," says Horacio Tovar, an engineer who helps run the program from here. As a teen, Mr. Tovar saw his family leave for the US, first his father and then his five brothers.
"I was studying here in Mexico and had good job offers after university," says Tovar. "I saw a future for myself in Mexico. Perhaps other young people here will feel the same."
In its third year, the Indaparapeo project currently sponsors 40 university students from the town, up from 25 in 2003. Each student receives a $150 monthly stipend until they complete their studies. Students are selected based on their grades, their income level - the average scholarship student's family depends on a monthly income of about $300 - and their willingness to participate in community services.
Scholarship funding comes from migrants living in both Chicago and northern California, where large groups of people from Indaparapeo and other parts of Michoacán have settled (the migrants estimate that at least 1,000 people from Indaparapeo live in or around Napa Valley, Calif.). Fundraisers, which range from dinner-dances to soccer tournaments, can draw up to 500 people. "We're now seeing the same crowds at our events," says Luis Tovar. "Most people who come have some connection to Michoacán."
The Mexican government helps give the program oomph through its Three for One initiative, which triples the migrants' contributions through matching grants. The government program, created by President Vicente Fox in 2002, typically allocates funds for municipal works related to infrastructure rather than education. But Luis Tovar, from Chicago, and his brother, Alejandro Tovar, an English teacher living in Indaparapeo and a founding member of the scholarship program, went to the municipal president's office in Indaparapeo with the scholarship plan in hand.
The $150 stipend may seem puny, but in a low-income town like Indaparapeo it can mean the tipping point for choosing higher education over working on a ranch or in a grocery store - or heading to the US.
Although tuition at Mexico's public universities is a token amount, thanks to government subsidies, the scholarship students consider the aid vital for covering extra costs such as textbooks, photocopying, and bus fare.
"For me, the aid makes the difference between having to work to pay for my books or study full-time," says Ignacio Rodríguez, an engineering student at the Technological Institute of Morelia, located in the state capital. He spoke quickly, on his way to a study group after attending the scholarship group's weekly meeting. The gatherings take the project's pulse and catch up on the group's various community activities, which range from literacy programs to outreach with alcoholics and drug addicts.
Mr. Rodríguez's mother sells sandwiches streetside in Indaparapeo; he is estranged from his father, who left to work in Illinois when he was a boy. The Rodríguezes' scant earnings made Ignacio eligible for the financial aid.
"A lot of my friends left for the US before finishing high school," says a clean-cut and confident Rodríguez. "That's typical here, but it's not how I want to go. If I ever head to the US, it'll be for a PhD."
It is estimated that about one-third of Indaparapeo's residents have moved to the US, according to Saul Mascareño, Indaparapeo's municipal secretary.
Judith Aguilar and her younger sister, Ivette, both scholarship students, appear more determined to stay in town. Ivette is studying education in Morelia and hopes to start up Indaparapeo's first preschool.
For now, the Aguilar sisters mostly survive on cash sent home by their father, Ignacio, who has labored in the US since 1981, with his work ranging from picking peaches in California's Central Valley to laundering hotel sheets in North Carolina.
Ignacio's wife, Bertaldid, who earns spare cash by sewing from home, is grateful for the immigrant-run scholarships. "Jobs are scarce here. There's brickmaking or the fields," she says.
Bertaldid and her daughters envision the family being united in nine years, once Ignacio retires and returns to Indaparapeo.
"We'll all be together," says Ivette. "I know I'll have work here," says Ivette. "Why would I leave Mexico?"
For this project to continue, deeds must go beyond words. On the US side, the program's organizers must keep fundraising alive. That means organizing dinners, dances, and raffles that bring in other migrants and their spare dollars.
Indaparapeo native Juan Carlos López who has migrated off and on to northern California since 1977, organized a raffle last August that raised $6,000. The prize: an '87 Corvette donated by another former resident of Indaparapeo who now runs a successful landscaping business in northern California. That event was followed by a soccer tournament in Napa Valley, home to thousands of Michoacán natives, and raised an additional $2,500 for the scholarship fund.
Education and immigration experts in Mexico point out that such philanthropic groups, while impressive and serving a valuable purpose, are no substitute for comprehensive programs - and that their sustainability isn't guaranteed.
"We can't forget that 1 of every 4 Mexicans living in the United States falls below the poverty line," says Rodolfo García Zamora, a migration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. "An enormous effort must be made to seek donations and keep up these programs."
Mr. López, who runs a midsized plastering business, agrees. "It's a lot of work organizing these events," he says. "But it's worth it when you see people turn up, willing to help out. It shows how much we miss our towns and the responsibility we feel to the people back home."
At least twice a week, López calls up Horacio Tovar's brother, Luis, who moved from Indaparapeo to Chicago more than 20 years ago. After years of factory work, Luis is now an established union official and coordinates the scholarship's fundraising activities in Chicago.
López signed on with the education initiative after hearing about it from the Tovar brothers, his longtime friends.
"I was in vet school in Michoacán and dropped out because I felt this need to make money in the States," says López, whose parents remain in Indaparapeo. "I didn't value my education then. But I know now that it would've made a difference to come to the US with a degree."
Perhaps with a college degree, says López, he may not have ever left Indaparapeo. And, even if he did end up leaving for the States, the degree would have made it possible for him to start his own veterinary business there, and face less discrimination.
"Titles count," he says. "They make you somebody."
He says he hopes to come back to live in Indaparapeo one day.
Programs such as the one in Indaparapeo may herald a paradigm shift. Amy Shannon of Enlaces América, a Chicago-based group that helps immigrant organizations build better communities in the US and in their countries of origin, says that for years, migrants have helped to fund the well their family lacked growing up or pave the road that runs through town.
But now, the emphasis seems to be on efforts that can transform society.
"Migrant groups in the US are now saying, 'OK, how can we bring long-term change to our community?' " says Shannon.
The Indaparapeo project may have a ripple effect. The group's leaders are advising other expatriate groups on how to launch similar programs.
Luis Mejía, the government official in charge of Michoacán's Three for One program, says that the government is prepared to support other migrant groups looking to launch similar scholarship projects. He adds that some federal officials are hinting that the Indaparapeo program could serve as a nationwide model for tapping a slice of the billions of dollars in remittances that Mexicans living in the US send back home to their families each year.