As men go north, wives get forgotten

High in the misty mountains northeast of Mexico City, Virginia Bocato de la Pila embroiders flowers onto blouses to support her three daughters. At age 26, she is trying to stitch her life back together since her husband left.

In this town of about 3,300, where homes lack running water and many people suffer from malnutrition, poverty has pushed many men to seek work across the border in the United States. Some have succeeded, finding jobs in North Carolina and Nebraska, and send money back to their families for refrigerators, school supplies, and new houses of gray concrete.

However, many men leave and are never heard from again.

For all the problems that immigration causes for those who pull up stakes and for the countries that receive them, the bigger burden sometimes lies with those who stay behind.

San Pablito is emblematic. It now has some 70 madres solteras, or single moms like Mrs. Bocato de la Pila, struggling to care for their children because their husbands abandoned them for a better life in the US. Six years ago, her husband left to be a house painter in Durham, N.C. She says he never sent anything home to support her or their two daughters. Lucia Aparicio Espiritu's husband also left for North Carolina around the same time. She hasn't heard from him since, despite his promise to send money for his son. Mrs. Aparicio later found out her husband met another woman and has two other sons.

"Men promise to send money, but they slowly stop," says the Rev. Javier Galindo Castro, a priest in the nearby town of Pahuatlán. "I know one mother in San Pablito who received $100 after 15 days. Then another two months passed before she received more money. Then nothing."

Life is particularly harsh for the single moms left behind, adds Professor Olga Lazcano, who directs the Regional Development Center at the University of the Americas, Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. Many have large families, are illiterate, and work on labor-intensive crafts. "These are women who fight day-to-day so their children can have an alternative way of life," Professor Lazcano says.

Without legal resources, tracking down men across the border is nearly impossible, so the abandoned women are trying another solution: economic independence. A few years ago, they organized to send their crafts to the US for sale. They pooled their resources to buy supplies, produced crafts in bulk, and sent them across the border with an American contact. But they recently had to disband the group, and now they sell their wares on their own.

To support her children, Bocato de la Pila started to sew - a skill she taught herself at age 10 after dropping out of school. She usually sells one embroidered blouse a month for 400 pesos, or about $35. Sometimes she earns about $1.80 a day pounding bark into paper sold to tourists - barely enough to cover food and school supplies for her oldest daughter, but better than nothing.

Bocato de la Pila's one-room, tin-roofed concrete shack houses her, her daughters, her parents, and a younger sister. Meals consist of tortillas, beans, and bread dipped in milk.

The house has no kitchen, no phone, and no bathroom. At the foot of one of two beds fashioned from wood planks and concrete blocks sit the family's only luxuries: a stereo and a 12-inch color TV that beams them movies, cartoons, and telenovelas, or Mexican soap operas.

Bocato de la Pila's husband, Alberto Cienega Zacatenco, recently returned to San Pablito - but to live with another woman. Bocato de la Pila saw him while she was walking with his daughters, but he never spoke to them. "The girls miss him, but he told me he did not want them," she says.

Mr. Cienega lives in the hills above San Pablito, where he brought back a 14-inch TV and enough money to set up house with his second wife. Church and Mexican law do not allow more than one marriage at a time. Cienega and Bocato de la Pila were married in a church; he says he and his second wife had a civil ceremony. He and his second wife have an infant son and she is pregnant.

Cienega refuses to help Bocato de la Pila because, he claims, she had a child by another man. Cienega plans to return to Durham this year. Work is scarce in San Pablito, but a job as a house painter is easy to find in Durham, he says.

Bocato de la Pila says she dreams about working in the US. But unlike her husband, who said he paid a smuggler about $1,300 to cross the Arizona desert, she would have to pay twice - for herself and for her children.

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