Seeking a better life

Like millions, Jorge Rodriguez came to America in search of prosperity he could not attain in Mexico

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— Jorge Rodriguez heard the river sweeping past. He heard his children screaming as the current pulled them under. He heard his wife call for help.

He pulled his children out and watched as his wife disappeared underwater forever. He couldn't save them all.

Rodriguez woke himself from the nightmare. He felt limp and helpless.

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Jorge Rodriguez and his daughter

It's time to go home, he thought.

For a year and a half, he worked two jobs, six days a week, in the kitchens of Steamboat Springs restaurants. Of the $2,500 he made each month, Rodriguez sent $2,000 home.

He lived in an apartment with five other men. He ate where he worked. He isn't a drinker, so he didn't waste money on beer. His biggest expense was the phone cards he bought to call his wife and children several times a week.

He never meant to stay so long, he said, but the opportunity to make money kept him another month, and then another.

During his time in Steamboat, Rodriguez sent home $38,000.

Mexicans working in the United States send home almost $15 billion a year, making them Mexico's second largest source of income after petroleum, according to the book "Wetback Nation" by Peter Laufer. Oil exports bring in about $16 billion annually, and tourism produces about $10 billion a year for the country.

Constant migration

Rodriguez is just a ripple in the ocean of people moving back and forth across the border between the United States and Mexico in search of better lives for themselves and their families.

They come for a variety of reasons -- everything from desperation to adventure. They risk their lives to cross a border that is heavily guarded, paying human smugglers, known as "coyotes," about $2,000 a person to get them across.

The number of Mexicans living in the United States is estimated at 12 million; the unofficial number living in Colorado is 503,000, said Juan Marcos Gutià ©rrez, Mexican consul general in Denver. As many as 280,000 of them are here legally.

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Jorge in a coffee shop near his home

Gutià ©rrez estimates there are at least 1,000 Mexicans working in Steamboat Springs and living in Routt or Moffat counties.

While Rodriguez was in Steamboat, he met people from Zacatecas, Jalisco and Chiapas, but he guessed that almost half the migrant workers here are from his hometown of Torreon, Mexico.

"The longer you stay, you get to know the other Mexicans and their stories," Rodriguez said through a translator. "And when a new one comes to town, you try to help them."

Life at home

Rodriguez told his story from the small concrete house in Torreon, that he shares with his wife, three children and mother-in-law. The walls are decorated with images of the Virgin Mary. Rodriguez is a soft-spoken man. As he talked about his time in Steamboat, he reached over and held his 3-year-old daughter's hand.

Now 31, Rodriguez was 29 when he crossed illegally from Mexico into the United States with his younger brother.

"I wasn't driven to go by money," Rodriguez said. "If my brother hadn't wanted to go, I may never have gone.

"But once I got there, I saw the opportunity."

Rodriguez likes his life in Mexico and always planned to return.

He works as a counselor for recovering drug addicts at a Christian clinic called Nueva Vida. He recovered from his own drug addiction at age 14 and spends every day at the clinic doing "his life's work."

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A shoe shiner in Torreon. Jorge Rodriguez says many of the Mexican workers in Northwest Colorado are from this industrial city of 550,000.

The pay is "symbolic," he said. He supplements his income as a taxi driver.

Torreon is in the northern Mexico state of Coahuila at the end of a long, straight-shot toll road through the desert.

Walk the streets of Torreon, population 550,000, and you could be in any industrial European city. A large, leafy plaza marks the center of the city. Old men pass the day in the shade, sitting on park benches and chatting to the 87-year-old shoe shiner who has worked in that same spot for decades. Women click by in high heels on their way to the office.

An academic perspective

Five hundred miles away, on the University of Texas at El Paso campus, Dr. Jon Amastae, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, tries to make sense for his students the Mexican economy and the migration northward. Amastae is a linguist by trade and spent most of his career working in Central and South America.

"Mexico is not, in fact, a truly poor country," Amastae said. "But it is a country of restricted opportunity. Many Mexicans are coming to the United States just to get a leg up. They make enough money to buy a house or a tractor and then go home."

For others, it is an act of desperation.

Several factors in the recent Mexican economy have led the country's work force to head north en masse searching for jobs.

In the past 10 years, Mexico has gone through what the United States experienced slowly during the past century -- the industrial revolution.

"Mexico changed some agriculture policies in the last 10 years to encourage modernization, which is code for mechanize and chemicalize," Amastae said. "They also changed the country's land policy so that lands that had been held in common could now be sold."

The result was a dramatic shift for people who had lived as subsistence farmers. For them, it was time to move to the urban areas to look for work or starve.

Mexico City and the cities along the border saw the greatest number of newcomers. Since 1990, the population of Juarez has doubled, Amastae said.

"There were jobs for these people, but not enough to absorb everyone. The overflow ended up in Arkansas, South Carolina and Steamboat Springs," he said. "The stereotype is true. We're all connected. If you change a land policy in Mexico, you may well see the repercussions in Steamboat."

Free trade agreement

In January 1994, the United States, Mexico and Canada opened their borders to the free flow of manufactured products between the three countries through the North American Free Trade Agreement, forming the world's largest free trade zone.

Enabled by NAFTA, manufacturing jobs in the United States started heading south of the border.

It sounds like a riddle and, in many ways, it is: "Why are jobs going south and people coming north?"

Known as "maquiladoras," there are more than 1,800 U.S.-owned manufacturing and assembly plants in northern Mexico, producing products for the United States, according to an online Public Broadcasting Service story about Juarez, Mexico.

Mexican labor is inexpensive and, thanks to NAFTA, taxes and custom fees are almost nonexistent. Most of these maquiladora are within a short drive of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ten years after NAFTA was signed, the average wage at the maquiladora was about $4.02 per day, according to the book "Wetback Nation." By comparison, a gallon of milk in Tijuana costs about $3.

Heading north

In October 2003, Rodriguez and his brother took a bus from Torreon to Juarez.

"I'd never left the country before," he said. "I was nervous." The Mexican government was running a series of ads on television about the dangers of crossing the border illegally.

"They said if you were caught, you could be beaten. You could drown. You could die in the desert," he said. "In Texas, they might kill you. I was terrified."

In Juarez, Rodriguez and his brother paid a coyote $1,800 each to get them across the border. A cousin used the same coyote years earlier to get to Steamboat and arranged the meeting.

It took four attempts before they made it across. The first time they were caught by the migra (the name many Mexicans use for the Border Patrol), Rodriguez spent an hour in jail and was escorted across the bridge back to Mexico. The second time, he ate breakfast in jail before being taken back.

"The migra said, Õ ËSee you tomorrow.' It wasn't anything like the commercial," he said.

Rodriguez finally made it across at Las Palomas, Mexico, three miles from Columbus, N.M. The river rose only to his knees.

Once across, he walked for no more than half a mile before a truck picked him up.

The coyote told him to crawl into a compartment under the truck seat, where he laid for the next seven hours, stacked like logs with five other people.

The next time he saw light was in Phoenix.

"That was the split-up point," he said. "Everyone went to different destinations. I drove to Denver to meet my cousin."

In Denver, like many other migrants who come to Colorado, Rodriguez purchased a $100 fake green card and was given a fake Social Security number.

Through his cousin, he found a job at a restaurant and quickly slipped into the growing Mexican community in Steamboat Springs.

Rodriguez's brother only stayed in Steamboat for eight months. He missed his family and went home.

Rodriguez stayed. He had never made so much money in his life.

He was able to save enough money in a year and a half of working two restaurant jobs to buy a new car that he plans to use as a taxi. Owning a car will allow him to work for himself in Mexico. The rest of the money will go toward fixing up his house.

"I had a good experience in Steamboat, but I want to raise my kids here in Mexico," he said. "There are good educational opportunities in the United States, but culturally we are very different. I don't want my children to be superficial."

Going home

When Rodriguez's bus arrived in Torreon, he was shocked by how many people were waiting to meet him. His wife had organized a surprise party -- neighbors, people from his church, people from Nueva Vida and his three children, ages 3, 5 and 6.

"The kids were so excited that he was coming home," his wife, Rosario Rodriguez, said through a translator. "We didn't realize at first how much of an impact it was having on them that he was gone.

There was a Father's Day celebration at little Jorge's school. They were singing a song about fathers, and he started crying.

"Once he found out his dad was coming home, he started asking every day, Õ ËHow many days until he comes home?'"

On his three-day bus ride home, Rodriguez thought about his children. The hardest part of the reunion, he thought, was going to be his relationship with his son. Jorge Jr. was angry when he left. When they spoke on the phone, the boy would ask, "When are you coming home?" and hand the phone back to his mother.

But when he walked into the door of his house, his son showered him with hugs and kisses. The difficulty came with his youngest daughter, Berenice Rodriguez. She was 1 year old when he left. She didn't remember him. She shied away from his hugs and his conversation. She didn't know who he was.

"She didn't want to talk to him," Rosario said. "The whole family helped her figure out that he was a good guy. We phased her back into the idea that he was her father."

Even as Rodriguez was returning home to his family, there was someone waiting at the bus station in Torreon to take the journey to a kitchen in Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen or Durango.

As long as there is a tourism-based economy, there will be people coming north to take jobs as housekeepers, dishwashers and cooks.

"The tourist industry is highly dependent on low-wage labor," Amastae said. "Where is it going to come from?"

To contact Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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