Many of these sister community relationships date back to the Bracero Program, a U.S. government program from the World War II era, in which Mexican laborers were given a chance to work in the U.S. while homegrown labor was off fighting in Europe or the Pacific. The program lasted until the early ’60s. Many Mexican participants put down roots in the U.S., later serving as helpers for family members and townsfolk who wanted to come to the U.S.
“Once you get a few people that have settled in an area and know the lay of the land, they serve as a hub for other people coming in,” says Dr. Pérez. “Some of them have been able to acquire linguistic skills. Where that doesn’t exist, they still understand transportation, they understand where jobs are, they know where healthcare is, they know where housing is, which landlords will allow them to come in with limited documentation, that kind of thing.”
In the past few decades, Miguel says, more and more Oaxacans have gone to Las Vegas, where they plant flowers and ferns around the big casinos in the morning, then tear out those same plants around midnight, when truckloads of new plants come and the daily cycle of dressing one of the hottest and driest cities in the world in a coat of tropical plants starts all over again.
But if you live in the town of El Trapiche, the people you know, the people you grew up with, they go to Crown Heights.
El Trapiche is a dirt-road farming town just off a sharp bend of highway about 40 miles south of Oaxaca City, which is, itself, about 1400 miles straight south of San Antonio Texas, or about 400 miles southeast of Mexico City.
I’ve never been there, but on Google Maps and Google Earth, El Trapiche compares to Oaxaca City, a city of about 250,000, in the way that Bonsall might compare to San Diego.
Before he first came to the U.S., Miguel was at one time a 12-year-old bull-riding champion from El Trapiche, winning prizes at rodeos all over the area. More than 20 years later, he recalls the bull-riding fondly, but, with three children, he says he would never get on a bull now.
When my brother arrives at L&L, we are able to get into a deeper discussion. I ask Miguel why members of his tandas don’t just go to a bank and start saving that way.
He doesn’t have much of an answer to this. In fact, the question seems, at first, to make little impression on him. In his view, it’s not that the Mexicans — and a few Guatemalans — who are in his tandas are afraid of the bank or unwilling to pay bank fees. They stay out of banks simply because banks are not something they are familiar with. They do not feel confident about walking into a bank, filling out a lot of paperwork that means nothing to them, and handing over their money to people they do not know and whose motives they cannot guess.
In the part of the world they come from, he tells me, loans are made by local patróns, rich men who loan money because they can make a tidy profit by making lots of small loans to their neighbors. And they know they can find you if you don’t make your payments.
“They act like it’s a favor to you,” Miguel says about these local patróns, “but they charge a lot of money.”
Are they like mafiosi, I ask him, searching for a word in my limited Spanish vocabulary, “bandidos”?
“No,” he says, kind of taken aback, they are just “patrones.”
So, without any inclination to walk into a bank, and with an already well-established habit of private financial dealings, many immigrants just naturally bank with Miguel, or with one of the many, many people who play a role like Miguel’s in immigrant communities (and even in some well-established Mexican-American communities) all around the U.S.
This kind of banking has a formal name among the IMF and World Bank types, it’s called ROSCAS: rotating savings and credit associations.
Academics have been studying such associations since the 1950s. The Global Development Research Center says they “can be seen in almost every society around the world, and have been in existence for a considerable period of time. They are flexible and adapt themselves easily to rural and urban peculiarities as well as existing community patterns of grouping/organizing. This flexibility is one reason for their worldwide popularity.”
Despite their informality and flexibility, or maybe because of it, rotating savings and credit associations are powerful little engines of economic activity, ingenious, really, in that they allow for people who either do not want to or cannot access established banking to make and get loans, to build up savings, to help out neighbors who may be facing an emergency, to keep community and family ties intact amidst a foreign culture, and even to maintain ties between members of a community like El Trapiche, who have come to the U.S., and those who have stayed or returned home.
Carlos Vélez-Ibañez wrote the book on these U.S.-based Mexican associations: An Impossible Living in a Transborder World. Part of his thesis is that the entire southwest of the North American continent is becoming one big, integrated economic region; the associations help facilitate the flow of goods and services within the region. They help Mexican nationals, who tend to be poorer and have less access to power, to function efficiently and effectively within this transnational economic reality.
His book is filled with academic jargon, and some Americans might categorize his thinking as the kind of squishy academic denial about border reality that has led to the lawlessness we now see along practically its full length.
For example, Vélez-Ibañez often puts the word “citizenship” in quotes, as if to suggest that the concept is less than real, a figment of the right-wing imagination, perhaps.
His research offers fascinating insights into a profound financial and social reality that, while it is literally right next to them, many Americans are oblivious to. Vélez-Ibañez suggests that this obliviousness to the financial ingenuity of Mexicans in America is part of a broad denial of the personhood and creativity of the Mexicans in our midst. But it could also be simply that linguistic barriers do not allow Mexicans in the U.S. to chat about these things with Americans.