Home to Las Playitas

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

Most of Las Playitas, kids to senior citizens, sit around tables or stand in clusters, the bubbling noise of their conversation mingling with Mexican pop played on a stereo. Local police stand outside the fence, munching, drinking and conversing. A table near the house is laden with brightly wrapped presents and a white, three-tiered cake.

Seconds after we arrive, a gorgeous young woman in a magnificent white gown and pearl tiara, carrying a bouquet of roses--obviously the maiden of honor--comes up, embraces each of us in turn, with mutual kisses on both cheeks, then says, with impressive grace, "Thank you for coming to my quinceanera."

Her name is Isaura Lopez Torres. She has lived in Las Playitas all her life, and turned 15 two months ago.

Isaura goes to greet another guest. A woman hands us paper cups of beer and plates of barbacoa--spiced meat and vegetables that had been buried in the ground over charcoal for 24 hours. We take over an empty table in a corner beneath a tree. A photographer with a 35mm camera and flash shoots two rolls of Isaura standing behind the cake, receiving a line of guests, who each pose with her for a picture. A portly cop in uniform comes by our table with a bucket of warm cerveza and refills our cups with two quick scoops.

The celebration before us is a ritual as old as the oldest bones in the Bacobampo graveyard. A rite of passage marking the transition from child to young woman. But watching Isaura, in her elegant dress, on her night of honor, it's not difficult to envision her in a blue maquila smock, braiding wires with a vacant stare.

Rosalda leaves the quinceanera first, and 15 minutes later, the rest of us follow, so Carla and Brenda can get ready for the post-quinceanera dance on the basketball court.

As we near their house, a hulking figure in the yard begins to shuffle toward us in the dark, one bad leg scuffing the earth behind one good. Carla fires a quick warning to Hector.

"Oh shit, dude," he says. "She tell me that's her father, and he gets real mad sometimes."

Dad steps into the porch light. He's barefoot, wearing glasses, dusty jeans and a red, weathered work shirt.

"Gustavo," he says, slapping his chest. We introduce ourselves, then explain how we met Carla in the industrial park, and why we asked her to bring us to Las Playitas.

"It's good that you're here," Gustavo says when we're finished. "Please, come inside."

Carla sits on the arm of a long couch in the living room, and we fill the seats beside her. Gustavo goes to a fridge adorned with little NFL helmet stickers.

Gustavo cracks a can of Tecate and sits down in a chair. In the adjacent large communal bedroom, Brenda primps in front of a bureau mirror. The walls of the living room are decorated with a Disney Lion King poster in a wood frame, and two tapestries: one of Jesus, one of Mary. Screwed into a wall are shelves that contain a tiny, black-and-white television, a box radio, pink paper roses in a swan-shaped vase, a vintage Packard scale model and a menagerie of stuffed animals--five bears, one raccoon, and a rabbit, most of them wearing plastic sunglasses.

Gustavo is no stranger to the opportunities afforded by the border. When shrimp are in season, he buys 400 kilograms of big, blue prawns for 90 pesos a kilo if they're from the open sea, 30 pesos if they're from a shrimp bed. He usually buys half and half, then drives to Nogales and sells them for double the money.

Shrimp aren't in season. Wheat, watermelons, tomatoes and chiles are. And so, Gustavo says, he drives a John Deere combine in the wheat fields. That's what he did today for 12 hours, and that's what he'll do tomorrow, Saturday. The truck comes to pick him up at 6 a.m.

Gustavo reaches under a table and drags out a five-gallon plastic bucket of cleaned wheat, which Rosalda will use to bake bread. He paws a giant handful of the grain, then lets it slowly run through his fingers.

"The machine I drive holds four tons, and it only takes 35 minutes to fill it," he says. "Before the machines, 20 years ago, I worked in the fields, picking by hand. I used to work on one acre the whole day. Now, driving a thresher, I do 18."

Most of the fields now are owned by companies, not people he knows, and the companies can afford machines, more chemicals and better irrigation.

"A part of land that gave one ton in 1988 now gives five tons," he says. "But there are half as many jobs, and less people in our town. The people who knew how to drive a machine, or fix a machine, or really knew something about planting crops, they stayed. The rest left, and a lot of them were good people."

Where did they go?
Gustavo crushes his empty can.
"They went to Nogales, or they went to the other side. They just went away."

A wheat field outside Bacobampo. Saturday, 8:15 a.m.
Hector was right. We should have camped on the beach. Instead, we got a room in Huatabampo at the Hotel Sonora, which is perhaps the foulest hotel within 1,000 kilometers. The price was right--120 pesos ($14) for a room with three beds--but a fixed stench from the bathroom gave us all evil dreams.

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