TONATICO, Mexico — At this time of year, Mexican traditions are on colorful display in this little town lined with cobblestone streets. Every night for weeks, candlelit processions honoring the local patron saint set the colonial plaza aglow. Fireworks erupt over the church bell tower as mariachis serenade the faithful.
It is the American-ness of Tonatico that reveals itself more gradually.
You see it in the man crossing the plaza wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jersey. You hear it in the voice of the deported student still struggling with Spanish. The tablets the waiters use to take orders at Restaurante Rebeca were purchased at a Best Buy in Illinois; the refrigerated loading bays at the guava exporting factory comply with U.S. biohazard regulations. One of the elementary schools that was named after the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata recently became Escuela Primaria Henry Ford.
For decades, the defining aspiration in this town tucked in the hills two hours southwest of Mexico City has been to leave for the United States, particularly for Waukegan, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago. About 6,000 people from Tonatico live in Waukegan, about half as many people as remain in their home town.
President Trump has pledged to build a border wall, deport millions of illegal immigrants and change the terms of trade with Mexico. His presidency, however, threatens to disrupt far more than that. The deeper relations between Mexico and the United States are the bonds of lives, the invisible exchange of culture between 30 million people of Mexican descent in America and their home towns. The growing fear among Mexicans in Waukegan about Trump’s policies is felt just as keenly here, 2,100 miles away.
“When Donald Trump won, I was, like, is this serious?” said Saray Rea, a 20-year-old student whose family moved back to Tonatico from Waukegan last year. Her father got laid off when a new owner at his company did not want to employ “illegals,” she said, and her mother could not pay for the mouth surgery she needed without medical insurance. These days, her friends in Illinois post ugly things about immigrants on Facebook.
“The U.S. is my home country. I thought people were different,” she said. “And when he won, it really broke my heart.”
Waukegan is a Rust Belt city with a defunct marine motor industry, contaminated Superfund sites and a polluting coal plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mexican immigrants have been moving there for decades and they consider themselves a revitalizing force, people who open small businesses and work hard. Many of their relatives in Mexico live off the money they send home.
Tonaticans run a quinceañera dress shop, a hardware store, a bakery, an auto shop, a travel agency and at least six restaurants with names such as Antojitos Tonatico, El Sol de Tonatico, and Ostioneria Briza Azul. While the Mexicans are aware of the anger that some Americans have about jobs lost to immigrants, they say they contribute positively to the local economy.
Two of the Acosta brothers run the Briza Azul: Mauricio is the chef; his younger brother Leo is the owner. Growing up in Tonatico, Leo used to notice the Mexicans back from Waukegan, with their nice tennis shoes, bicycles and cars.
“As young people we’d look at them, and like everybody, I decided to come,” he said.
The business opened 11 years ago: seafood with a taste of Tonatico. Murals of octopus and lobster decorate the walls next to scenes of Tonatico and its famous thermal springs. They serve langostina “a la Doña Ana,” after their mother’s recipe, in a chile de arbol and peanut sauce. Their dishwasher, their waiters, their customers are all from Tonatico. All but one of the nine Acosta siblings live in the United States.
The brothers now worry that Trump’s threat of tariffs will make their ingredients — avocados from Michoacán, shrimp from Yucatán, chilies from central Mexico — more expensive. A crackdown on undocumented labor could reduce their workforce.
A new sense of menace has invaded Mexican lives in Waukegan. At Leo’s daughter’s high school, “Whites Only” was recently scrawled on a bathroom stall door. At the courthouse where Leo’s niece works, a white woman told her that she should separate the Latinos and African Americans from the files she was alphabetizing. “Because Trump won,” the woman said, according to Leticia Rivera, Leo’s wife.
Marychel Figueroa, a 19-year-old sophomore at Marquette University who was in Tonatico for Christmas break visiting her grandparents, mentioned that some students avoid sitting next to her because her family is Mexican, even though she was born and raised in the United States. During a documentary about immigrants in one of her criminology classes, a student turned around and told her, “This is why we need more walls,” she recalled.
At Target near campus, where Figueroa works, she has noticed that Latinos are buying fewer expensive items — furniture, beds — out of fear of the future.
“People are actually starting to take the initiative of selling their things and moving out and going back to their homeland,” she said.
On inauguration morning, Marco Salcedo, the 47-year-old owner of Marco Salon in Waukegan, changed his Facebook profile to a black background.
“My country is in mourning today,” he wrote.
Because of Trump’s victory, Salcedo has considered moving back to Mexico, a country he barely knows anymore. He left Tonatico at age 16 to join his aunt, and became a U.S. citizen.
“I’m not sure about the future now,” he said. “People are afraid.”
“Did you bring your glasses?” Ricardo Acosta asked his small team gathered on the road next to the cornfield in Tonatico. “Your gloves?”
His son — a slender, shy young man also named Ricardo — wrapped a red handkerchief around his face and pulled a blue cap down to his protective goggles. He started helping in the fields when he was 12. Now, at 19, he works six days a week for $9 a day.
The job this morning was to feed dried corn stalks into a thresher and then bag the mulch, which would be used as fertilizer for tomatoes. The men trudged out to the acre-sized plot. They fired up the tractor and slid armfuls of stalks into the whining chipper. Within minutes, corn dust coated the younger Ricardo’s goggles and every exposed part of his face. He coughed as he filled the sacks.
The available work around Tonatico tends to be of this variety — manual labor in the fields. Most of the crops produced here — tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, onions, peppers, limes and guava — are consumed domestically, but some companies are expanding into exports.
One of them is a company called Frutos con Sabor a México (“Fruit with the Flavor of Mexico”). Its cinder-block warehouse — with its high-tech produce-sorting machinery from the Netherlands, refrigerated loading bays and wire ventilation screens to keep out vermin — has been designed with the U.S. market in mind. The company sells to Walmart and other supermarkets, said Cesar Samudio, a company manager.
“Difficult times might be coming,” Samudio said, referring to a possible trade war with the United States.
For many youths of this town, the allure of the United States is as strong as ever. In December, 19-year-old Ricardo Acosta mailed his uncle, Alfredo Acosta, an application to work with him at a landscaping company in Waukegan. (The family is not related to the restauranteurs.) The company, which employs about 300 people, the majority Mexican, arranges for temporary work visas for some of its staff. Ricardo has not received an answer.
Trump pledged to “buy American and hire American” during his inaugural address. His administration has warned that it would revise the temporary worker programs.
“They say that Trump is not going to give any more visas. And the company where I work is nervous,” said Alfredo Acosta, who has lived in the United States for 18 years and obtained legal residency last year.
One evening, Ricardo rode his motorcycle up the winding road to the hill with the towering cross that overlooks Tonatico. He liked to come alone at dusk and watch the darkness settle and the lights twinkle on across the town. He opened a can of beer and thought about his future in silence.
Ricardo’s father once lived in Waukegan, working in landscaping. After less than a year, he returned to Tonatico, following a woman. The father knew the fields were fickle. The pay was meager. But to him, the vertigo of undocumented life felt too unsettling.
“As an illegal, it’s very difficult. You are always thinking the migra will catch you,” he said.
Ricardo wants to see for himself, to make his way in America like so many before him. From the hilltop, the brightest lights came from the church and the bullring. But he was looking north, past the town, to the dark mountains separating him from a country that each day feels more out of reach.
Lydersen reported from Waukegan. Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.