In Mexico, 'People Do Really Want to Stay'

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 7, 2007

PEGUEROS, Mexico -- Even as his village emptied, Pedro Martin stayed behind. His schoolmates abandoned the scrub-covered hills of central Mexico for the land they called El Norte-- the North. They mopped floors in Fresno, poured concrete in Tempe and tended other people's children in Galveston, measuring their lives in dollars.

Martin worked at a poultry farm. His wages rose to 2,000 pesos per week, about $185. Meager by the standards of the north, it was enough to build a brick house with white tile floors. Enough to buy a car, and to stay in the village and watch his three boys grow, resisting the gravitational pull the United States exerts on much of rural Mexico.

"Up north, even though they pay more, you're not necessarily living as well," Martin said, as church bells echoed down lanes of pastel-painted houses. "You feel out of place. Here, you can walk around the whole town and it's comfortable. Life is easier."

But now, Martin worries that life in the central Mexican state of Jalisco is about to be shaken by globalization. Already much of Mexico's farm country has been overwhelmed by an influx of crops from the United States in the years following the North American Free Trade Agreement. Over the next two years, the final provisions of the trade pact kick in, opening Mexico to unlimited imports of poultry from its northern neighbor. Mexican farms will compete directly with an American agribusiness nurtured by subsidies on the corn that feeds the birds.

"If a lot of chicken comes in from the United States, we're not going to be able to maintain our farms," said Martin, 39. "What's going to happen? People are going to get fired. People are going to go north."

NAFTA, as the landmark trade agreement is known, was supposed to work the other way around. In the early 1990s, as politicians in the three countries of North America sold the pact, they promised it would spur enough development in Mexico to create millions of jobs, raise wages and diminish the lure of the north.

But since 1994, the year NAFTA took effect, Mexico's economy has grown sluggishly. Not enough jobs have materialized, while Mexico's working-age population has swelled. Meanwhile, the United States has been a magnet for Mexican laborers willing to take on low-paying, unpleasant work.

More than 6.2 million Mexicans now live in the United States illegally, according to Mexico's National Council of Population. Two-thirds arrived after NAFTA.

For Mexico, as for most developing countries, free trade was a gamble. It opened the world's most lucrative market, the United States, to wares produced in Mexico's factories, and to produce grown on Mexican soil. But it also lifted protections on Mexico's manufacturers and farmers, bringing an influx of products from the north.

As NAFTA's final provisions take effect next year, tying Mexico's fortunes more tightly to world markets, how will its economy adjust? And how will the latest wave of trade liberalization alter the calculations for millions of Mexicans wanting to stay home, but constantly feeling the tug of the north?

Baby Boom Fuels Emigration

The demographic wave that has carried unprecedented numbers of Mexicans to the United States is the consequence of a baby boom that began in Mexico four decades ago, when improvements in rural health care allowed more infants to survive.

From 1993 to 2006, as those born during the boom reached adulthood, Mexicans of working age swelled from 34 million to 44 million, according to Agustin Escobar, a sociologist at the Center for Higher Research in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara. Over the same period, Mexico's businesses added only 8 million jobs that pay decent wages and benefits, exacerbating a backlog of about 15 million Mexicans needing work, Escobar said.

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