Home to Las Playitas

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

"Sometimes, the maquiladora phenomenon is good, because young people are able to send their families money," he explains. "But sometimes, maquilas are bad because the young people forget their families."

The solution, the mayor concludes, is simple.
Bring the maquilas to Huatabampo.
"We want them to come here."

A bar on the beach. Huatabampito, Sonora. Friday, 4:35 p.m.
Two plump bellies ease toward one another, jiggling in time with the live music. Gently, they make contact, then begin to rub back and forth with increasing friction. The sea breeze carries approving hoots and applause from a group of Sinaloan middle-school teachers, egging on two of their more rotund colleagues.

The couple concludes the tummy kiss, backs off a few steps in opposite directions and starts over again, as the five-piece norteno band ups the tempo.

The teachers are on holiday in a charted school bus, parked on the beach nearby. Huatabampito is a fishing village and micro tourist spot 15 kilometers west of Huatabampo. Between dances, the teachers down cold, 40-ounce Tecate bombas and munch fresh grilled shrimp topped with garlic.

Lady fortuna delivered us Huatabampito as a gift. Before we left Cancino's office, the mayor's assistant took pictures of us taking pictures of the mayor. For the local paper, he said. Then, as he ushered us out, he gave directions to the sea. And now, what we're enjoying far more than cerveza and sunshine is a chance encounter with middle-class Mexicans, having a blast.

The teachers--there are about 50 of them ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s--can't be rich, but they obviously make enough to occasionally pool resources, rent a bus, hire a band, and drink, dance, eat and laugh together for a day.

Quietly, sitting in the back, we take solace from their revelry, exorcising the wicked memories of Nogales.

Nine days in Nogales is fatiguing, a swirl of wrenching images. A pack of children thrusting boxes of gum toward you from below, chanting AChicle, chicle! Two of their faces are horribly deformed, as if made of wax and melting. You wonder whether their pregnant mothers drank toxic water stored in steel drums cast off from maquilas. So you buy 10 packs of gum, as if that will make them less grotesque.

During nine days in Nogales--the real Nogales, not the tourist shopping district--you can walk past a ditch and see the stinking corpse of a big, gold dog. Black birds feast on its viscera. You cover your nose from the stench, and stop to think: On one side of the ditch is a squatter's hill--garbage and shacks and raw sewage--and on the other is a high-tech maquiladora, separated from the squalor by razor wire.

Nine days in Nogales sickens your spirit. Ninety minutes in Huatabampito revives it.

Hector's feeling the energy. A pair of bombas are singing to him, and he suggests we camp on the beach. We sympathize, but peel Hector and ourselves away and trudge through the sand.

Carla's seven hours are up.

The Sierra residence. Las Playitas. Friday, 7:03 p.m.
Carla's mom, Rosalda, is waiting for us outside with two Carlas, both wearing tight, acid-washed jeans, halter tops, and off-brand sneakers. We drive by and agree that Carla's in the white top. The one in green is her twin sister, Brenda. Brenda wears her hair longer and pulled back. Still, it's a close call.

Mom is a pear-figured middle-aged woman wearing violet stretch pants and a Power Rangers sweat shirt. She waves to us from across the street, smiling. This is good. Evidently, the circumstances have been explained to her satisfaction.

Rosalda has seven children. Four--one boy and three girls--have left home to work in the maquilas. Brenda's the only one who came back.

"I didn't like Nogales," Brenda says. "It has a bad heart. I decided to get out of there, because even though I made more money, it wasn't worth living in a place with a bad heart. Also, I missed my family."

Nogales turns some people to the dark side, Brenda says, pointing to indicate homes where at least one young member of the family has gone north. A lot of times, she says, they come back to visit with a new take on life: materialism.

"They show up, thinking they're bigger than everyone," she says. "They get off the bus, looking different, wearing Nikes, bragging. They say, 'Look, I buy like an American now.'"

Brenda has different aspirations. She listens regularly to a Navajoa radio station that broadcasts in the Yaqui Indian language. Brenda hopes someday to become fluent in the tongue and do social work with the Yaquis. For now, she does paperwork on a pig farm for 28 pesos ($3.30) a day.

The purple sky fades quickly to black, and a squadron of mosquitoes descends. "We must go," Rosalda declares. "They're waiting for us at the party."

Brenda charges off, and we follow to a celebration of some kind under way in the yard of a small adobe home with a bamboo roof.

The setting is magical. White and pink balloons form an arch over the entryway. Matching geometic patterns cut from construction paper and white lights hang from pendants overhead. More lights drape from the limbs of surrounding algodón trees.

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