Home to Las Playitas

A maquila worker's 600-kilometer trek to the farming village where she was born

Las Playitas. Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Las Playitas looks like this: a basketball court with no hoops, a church and a few dirt streets on a grid, lined with adobe bungalows on shaded, spacious lots, most fronted with rose bushes in full bloom.

"Aqui." Carla points to a two-story adobe house in the middle of the block.
We stop the truck.
Carla jumps out, speed-walks across the street, goes around the side of the house, and ducks inside. "I don't know what her problem is," Hector says. "She told me nothing."

We stay by the truck. Carla's neighbors come out of their house and give us the once-over. Carla reappears.

There's no one home, and she looks relieved. We surmise Carla was frightened of how her parents would react to her sudden reappearance from the big city, too early not to have spent the night on the way, in the company of two gringos and Hector, who's wearing a fresh pair of Nikes, a Scottie Pippen jersey, a gold chain, and a pager that's 600 kilometers out of range.

Our hypothesis is confirmed with prejudice when Carla picks up a hose, deliberately ignores us for a couple of minutes while she wets down the dust in her front yard, then asks if we could please leave, and come back--in seven hours.

Cantina. Bacobampo, Sonora. Friday, 12:58 p.m.
A few kilometers east of Las Playitas is the slightly larger village of Bacobampo. It looks a lot like Las Playitas, except there are more houses, a cemetery, a primary school and a cantina with a brown-and-white stallion hitched to a rail outside. We stop to admire the horse.

Men pour out of the cantina, looking buzzed but friendly. One identifies himself as the owner of the horse and asks if we want to buy it. We say we don't, but he insists on a sales demonstration. He loosens the steed's tether, mounts up and performs some impressive moves. The horse canters like it's carrying a prince. The horse sidesteps nimbly down a steep incline. The horse ripples with power.

A very drunken man on a very old Schwinn skitters in front of us, slides sideways, and stops, BMX style. Six teeth are missing from the top row and he hasn't shaved in days. Staggering and bowlegged, he walks the bike forward a few steps, and extends his right hand. We shake.

"Joseph," he says. "Joseph."
Joseph tells us about himself in a freewheeling mixture of English and Spanish, but he's nearly incoherent. We get this much: Joseph used to live in Phoenix, on South Central Avenue. Exactly when, he's not sure, but it was a few years ago.

"Phoenix," he keeps saying. "I live in Phoenix, too."
After a few minutes, we get back in the truck. Joseph sticks his head through the passenger window and slurs, in English, "Please. Money for one beer." We hand him a 10 peso coin and he waves goodbye.

We start to pull away, then hear and feel the impact of Joseph crashing his bicycle into the back of the truck. We look behind us. Joseph is down and tangled, but getting up.

He's all right, and we're out of here.

Huatabampo, Sonora. Friday, 1:47 p.m.
One old man in a group of old men relaxing in the town square points us toward a white stone municipal building. Ten minutes, one secretary, and one preppie assistant later, the elected leader of Huatabampo and its outlands--including Bacobampo and Las Playitas--agrees to meet us.

We walk in, and Dr. Francisco Garcia Cancino gets up from behind his polished wood desk to shake hands. He looks to be in his mid-40s. His assistant handles the introductions, drags three high-backed chairs from a long conference table, and sits on a couch behind us. Cancino picks up the phone and summons his financial minister, who assumes a post aside the desk. Next to him, sitting in front of the window, is an old, burly man in a hand-embroidered, short-sleeved shirt. The local heavy. He gazes outside but listens in.

Cancino tells us the economy of this region is 80 percent agriculture, 20 percent fishing, and has been for many years. Sadly, unemployment in both industries is quite high.

How high? The finance minister thumbs through two black tomes of official statistics, trying to come up with a number. He continues to riffle through the pages for the remainder of the interview, and never finds what he's looking for.

The mayor says the situation is straightforward. The move to foreign-owned, industrial farming combined with cuts in government subsidies to peasant farmers has been a double whammy on the local economy. A lengthy drought is also limiting farmers to one crop a year, rather than two.

He says local people "go to the border because they're sure to find a job."
Most are from outlying areas, which are poorer than Huatabampo, Cancino says.

Many of those migrants return with upbeat reports.
"People come back well-dressed, and spread the word to others," he says.
Despite their appearance of prosperity, Navajoa and Ciudad Obregon don't have enough jobs to absorb the local demand. So the people, most of them young, head farther north.

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