Perspectives Online

Mexican architectural nuances, such as an arch at the end of a plaza (above left) or an intricate metal gate in a village (right), were among sights offering cultural and historical lessons to the Latino Outreach Team.
Photo by Jean-Marie Luginbuhl

Faced with an unprecedented boom in potential clients due to continuing waves of immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America, North Carolina Cooperative Extension is gearing up to better serve Latino and other underserved clients. A recent fact-finding mission to Mexico has provided some valuable perspective and insight for the effort.

A range of Extension Latino-related programs is already under way in several counties and at N.C. State University and North Carolina A&T State University. However, Extension's North Carolina Latino Outreach Team (NC LOT) has recommended that Latino community programs should receive statewide priority, with a more coordinated and expanded approach. Dr. Jon Ort, associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service director, charged NC LOT members to create a plan of action.

Much of the information in that plan draws upon what an NC LOT group saw and learned in Mexico during a weeklong fact-finding visit in March.

At Centeotl, a private community development center in Zimatlan de Alvarez, a representative (above) describes the organization's programs in sustainable agriculture, alternative income-generation, environmental protection and youth social development.
Photo by Kevin Starr
The 25-member NC LOT task force included Extension administrators, county directors, agents, campus and field specialists, program coordinators, associates and assistants, and Latino Initiative coordinators from the co-sponsoring UNC Center for International Understanding (CIU).

Dr. Paul Mueller, crop science professor in the College and NC LOT member, stated a few of CIU's goals for the visit in a spring report to the College's International Programs Advisory Committee. Since 80 percent of North Carolina's Latino immigrant community is from Mexico, he said, the group went to better understand the Mexicans, the forces that drive them to come here, how migration affects their home communities and the ways the group thinks that the rush to immigration could be mitigated.

Extension agents who are already addressing the needs of immigrants know that 600,000 immigrant Latinos now live here. By 2020, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, people of Mexican origin will make up half the growth in the U.S. labor force.

In Oaxaca (below) NC LOT visited people affected by emigration from Mexico.
Photo credit Jean-Marie Luginbuhl
Some of NC LOT's questions could have been answered before the visit to Mexico. For instance, why the latest immigrant wave? An April story in the Washington Post offers this take on the causes: NAFTA didn't fulfill its promise and many of the U.S./Mexican border maquiladoras - foreign-owned factories - envisioned as worker magnets and owner profit-makers shut down after favorable tax incentives ran out. Then a devalued peso and a simultaneous population explosion propelled young Mexicans to agriculture, construction, meatpacking and service industry jobs in the U.S.'s then-booming economy.

But some questions could be answered only by the kind of investigation conducted on the trip.

For one thing, the immigrants' stories are personal, notes Julia Storm, agromedicine information specialist in the College's Environmental and Molecular Toxicology Department. "I saw the faces of the people we had met," she writes in her journal, "dark from their mestizo (mixed Indian and European) heritage, lined from age and hard work, pained from the uncertainty of loved ones long in the U.S. or set to leave the next day, proud of their communities and families and of all that Mexico is and could be, passionate about Mexicans helping Mexicans rise from poverty and opening doors to the full expression of women in Mexican society.

"I knew that I had experienced something - learning, cultural understanding - an amazing transformation in one short, jam-packed week that could not have been gleaned from books, or conversations on this side of the border, or from casual, vacation travel, without my own version of 'crossing over.' "

"Crossing over" is a term migrants use when referring to their northward journey.

Following is an account of the team's Mexico experience.

In lively, phantasmagoric Mexico City (2000 census population: 8.6 million) and more-sedate Oaxaca (2003 estimated population: 526,000), and in villages developed to varying degrees, NC LOT visited people affected by the emigration from Mexico. The team met with professionals and working-class people (la gente) in programs similar to Extension's, working to alleviate the problems that created the conditions that encourage migration.

In the Juan Diego de Chalco Community Center's compound north of Mexico City, passing along miles of graffiti-laden walls lining the colonia (neighborhood) of Chalco, the Extension visitors see rusting steel structure-reinforcing bars stabbing the sky from scores of unfinished concrete block buildings, with shredded glass imbedded in the enclosing walls and dogs roaming the flat rooftops.

Team member Dr. Wanda Sykes studies her Spanish (Top); the team visited a student organic garden at Centeotl (Bottom).
Photo by Kevin Starr
In Mexico, where loans are hard enough to procure for average folks, erstwhile villagers, many of whom are now squatters, have a hard time financing home improvements. They build their homes as the money becomes available, often using remittances from family members in the United States. When they start what eventually will become two-story, multi-roomed homes, they run the reinforcing bars needed because of earthquakes -up beyond the structure's roof so it is already tied in when they add more rooms. The dogs and imbedded glass shards are a kind of security system.

The Mexican middle and upper classes are mostly composed of people of mixed Mexican-European heritage, while the lower classes - who live mostly in the city slums and in thousands of outlying rural villages - are Indian.

The Extension group later would see stark contrasts between the living standards of barrio (slum) dwellers (and also between those of the indigenous villagers, with their simply dressed people) and the cosmopolitan, natty chilangos - as Mexico City residents call themselves.

The Juan Diego Center, which the group toured, was a wonder, a living monument to industriousness and well-planned social action. More than 2,500 people take advantage of the center's numerous low-cost and free programs: day care, inexpensive dentists and doctors, library, newspaper reading room, photocopying service and CD-burning. Numerous other educational services include a computer center and an Internet cafe; psychological and career consulting; a cafeteria; an auditorium for sports, weddings and such; and several public playgrounds. This establishment, originally funded with 70 percent donations and 30 percent service fees, now operates on a 20 percent donation, 80 percent service-fee basis. Its enterprises provide training and jobs, as well as generating the revenue for the center to be self-sustaining.

Along the center's street facade, which runs about a city block, are its tortilleria and farmacia, offering anything from kilos of fresh, low-cost tortillas to botellas of low-cost aspirin.

"We get a lot of support from the community," says Ildefonso Covarrubias Medina, the center's administrator. "We're helping with the gang problems because we're helping in the education area, which is the most important way to get people out of poverty. Once we get them in a program, we can tell them about our other programs. To get them here, we offer internships in various specialty areas, which works very well in this community. We don't like for these people to have to go the U.S. to work. It's hard for them, but we try to keep them here.

"We work with the ones who show they want to advance. We offer them the tools, but they have to do the work themselves," he says.

The next morning, as the vistors' bus tries to make it through world-class traffic to teeming Mexico City's ancient central area, the Zocalo, it is blocked by thousands of fiesta-goers celebrating the birthday of Benito Juarez, Mexico's Abraham Lincoln. They're mixed with demonstrators here for the Fourth World Water Conference: 11,000 water experts from 130 nations, gathered in this arid land where indigenous people fight encroaching municipalities for the last few precious drops of potable liquid. Mexico is the world's second-largest consumer of bottled water, after the U.S.

Two days later, team members are in less-crowded, but bustling Oaxaca. They sit atop their three-story hotel's flat roof, a nippy dawn breaking over Santa Isabela Cathedral's Moorish domes to the east and the dozen or so other tiled church domes below. Coughs abound as the gabachos (foreigners) continue to adjust to the high altitude, the Mexican dust and smoke and the constant urban smell of noxious exhaust fumes.

The flat roofs around them are dotted with living areas, potted palms and other plants and with molded plastic cisterns that store water so residents can have a temporary supply when the earthquakes come - helping themselves, not depending on the government to supply anything in an emergency.

This self-help ethic is obvious as well in the villages the group visits.

The following day, at the Zapotec Indian pueblito of Santa Ana Zegache (3,500 population), south of Oaxaca, the team sees a group of about 30 women, many with children in tow and most with men now in the U.S. These villagers meet in a dirt courtyard to contribute to their cooperative, a micro-financing and human development project spearheaded by an arm of a non-government organization (NGO) called Centeotl.

What would help them most?

English classes for those who go north, they say. And empathy for their sons and husbands who have taken the migrant trail. Be sure the workers know their rights, so the patrons (bosses) can't take advantage of them, they plead. "He is my husband, he has pride, please treat him well," a woman asks of Fran Senters, 4-H program assistant in Lincoln County.

The faces of the Santa Ana Zegache village women and families - whose men have taken the migrant trail - will remain etched in the visitors' memories.
Photo courtesy NC LOT
Centeotl, named for the Aztec corn god, is based in the slightly less-rural Zimatlan de Alvarez, (8,500 population), where the Extension group hears the NGO's representatives present their work in sustainable agriculture, alternative income-generation, environmental protection and social development directed toward indigenous children and youth and much more. With assistance from the Kellogg Foundation and others, the organization, with more than 1,700 clients, has expanded its client outreach more than 85 percent since its 1990 founding.

After an on-the-grounds lunch of foods grown on Centeotl projects, including amaranth, a nutritious Aztec-era grain that can be produced in culturally and environmentally sustainable ways, the team tours an amaranth processing site.

The next day, they visit the Zapotec Indian village of Santa Ana del Valle (population 2,140) east of Oaxaca. After officials relate the village's history, Dr. Wanda Sykes, Extension's Southeast District director and coordinator for the NC LOT effort, and Dr. Nolo Martinez - former Extension specialist, now assistant director at UNC-Greensboro's Center for New North Carolinians - respond and present gifts.

The officials say they once farmed productive fields on the barren up-mountain slopes behind the village. But as younger and middle-aged men migrated north, nobody was left to tend them. The lack of water makes farming even harder. According to the nonprofit Migrant Policy Information Web site, of 54 Santa Ana households surveyed in 2004, 34 included emigrant families.

Most striking here is the incredibly close sense of solidarity and responsibility, expressed through community service and other mutually undertaken commitments. Everybody has to quit whatever else they do and spend one year in community service. If they have emigrated, they must pay someone to do their service for them.

For instance, in the airy but warm primeria (elementary) school, where students attend classes 11 months a year and migration's effects have whittled the number of students down to 20 per grade, the principal said that the PTA head directs a cadre of community volunteers who do janitorial work and other chores before and after classes. But for the students to attend any higher grades, they have to find some way to get to the secondaria (grades seven through nine) school five miles away.

What did they need in Santa Ana del Valle? Much the same things they did everywhere: small businesses; lessons on how to sell over the Internet, especially their hand-woven, environmentally sound textiles; credit card billing procedures. And English teachers.

NC LOT's first-hand encounters provided a frame of reference, a background of understanding for the plans that the team would prepare for future Extension Latino-population work.

After returning from the visit, Dr. Jean-Marie Luginbuhl, associate professor of meat goats and forage systems in the College's Animal Sciences Department, recalled the bus rides to field sites and other aspects of the visit. "The naked truth and reality is that we have a lot of work to do now, as ambassadors of the Latino Initiative," he said.

Sue Counts, NC LOT member and Extension director in Watauga County, agreed. "We are all aware that people of Mexican origin will make up half the growth in the U.S. labor force by 2020," she said. "So Extension needs to develop ways to serve the unique needs of the community and at the same time be multicultural and integrative in our approach."