Anti-emigration strategy: Small Mexican towns try to create jobs at home

In rural Mexico, locals try to make a brighter prospect out of staying home.

This town in the central state of Guanajuato is so isolated that its 50-some families just got electricity a year ago. There's still no running water. Most of the men migrate north, to work in US factories or tobacco fields.

But Adriana Cortes, who waves to everyone she sees on the rough, half-hour drive up here, believes they can help curb migration here and in rural towns like it throughout the country. Her plan: create small cooperative enterprises to make communities self-sustaining.

In Tamaula, she is helping residents turn a small cheesemaking outfit into a factory and supporting efforts to build a job-training center to keep teenagers from leaving and lure the men back home.

Nearly 500,000 Mexicans head to the US each year, and an estimated 7 million now live there illegally. As US and Mexican lawmakers butt heads over control measures, small communities in Mexico are looking at their own strategies of plugging the labor drain.

"Our politicians are always talking about how migrants are treated in the US, but no one focuses on how they live in their own communities," says Ms. Cortes, the director of the not-for-profit Bajio Community Foundation. "Something is missing in our country. We need people to say, 'This is my country, this is my home, this is my land.' Tamaula can be a model."After studying accounting in college, Cortes says she began working with drug addicts and the handicapped. She eventually opened 12 organizations in the city of Irapuato.

Through her work, Cortes says she realized how many social problems were the result of migration, and how little government policies were doing to reverse the migratory trend that has widened so considerably in the past decade.

"Officials always think the answer is to bring a new factory in, but that doesn't work," she says, explaining that weekly commutes to low-paid factory jobs here makes international migration – with its promises of higher pay – more attractive. "As long as they don't see anything in their community, they will think of the US."

Migration affects towns across Mexico, but those hit hardest are in the central, agricultural states, such as Guanajuato.

Tamaula is one of a handful of communities that Cortes chose for her programs based on its demonstrated commitment to reducing its labor drain. Cortes has established programs here in alternative tourism and weaving factories that draw support from the education, business, and government sectors.

In the nearby town of El Gusano, where only 40 percent of the homes are occupied, Cortes's foundation helped a group of women who run a sewing cooperative buy land for a community enterprise. The new facility will include a place for them to work, a training center with computers, a shop to sell their products, a few rooms to rent to visitors, and a restaurant.

We want it to grow, so it generates employment, so our kids don't think so much of going to the US," says Mariana Garcia, one of the members of the group, which calls itself the "Embroiderers of El Gusano." The group also plans to begin business management classes at a local university.

Whether these communities will be successful in keeping their labor local remains unclear, but they are receiving the support of some local officials.

"I cannot say 'no' to a local community, especially to young people who want to help themselves," says the mayor of Irapuato, Mario Turrent Anton, who adds that migration is among his municipality's gravest problems. Family disintegration, he says, can lead to a host of other social issues such as depression and a spike in school dropouts.

"This is their land, and they should stay in their land; we could not do this work without people like Adriana," he says. Mr. Anton has promised Tamaula's residents that his administration will give them resources to help build a community training center to help teens gain practical job training and finish their high school degrees.

Already the improving prospects in Tamaula have acted as a magnet. Gloria Zambrano's husband, Jesus Villanueva, left two years ago to work in a chicken processing plant in Atlanta, but he plans to come home in December. First he will grow crops, she says, and then hopes to help find work at the cheese factory, where she works. "We never believed any of this was possible," says Ms. Zambrano.

Cortes always believed it was possible – and vital for Mexico's future growth.

"The day that we stop receiving remittances, what is the country going to do? We have social peace now because people are eating," says Cortes. "With the number of migrants leaving, this needs to be on the table as an urgent issue."

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