Urban renewal, Mexican-style Status: Whole villages in central Mexico are filled with houses being built with money sent back by townspeople working in the United States. Most homes are seldom used but serve as status symbols for their owners.

Sun Journal

March 05, 1998|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TOTOLAN, Mexico -- In this stone-broke village in the state of Michoacan, where horses and donkeys meander rocky streets and the morning cock's crow rings everywhere, Refugio Sanchez is testament to what is probably the most sweeping privately financed urban renewal project on the North American continent.

Not that it seems that grandiose at this level.

Sanchez is building a duplex for two of his single sons, Gerardo and Hugo. It is made of brick and concrete, with arching entrances and wrought-iron gates. By Totolan standards, where until recently most homes were built with adobe -- bricks of mud mixed with grass -- it is a virtual palace.

Sanchez's sons live in Glendale, Calif., along with three of their siblings, where they work as carpet installers. The kids send money home. Sanchez builds their houses for them. The idea is that someday they will return here to live on their dollars.

In Totolan, Sanchez is a one-man home-building concern. About one-fifth of the villagers -- 100 or so people -- live in Glendale. Totolan is dotted with other homes he has built or is building -- all financed by emigrant dollars. He's building a dance hall for one Glendale resident.

"Dios y Norte," he says. "God and the North. Here there isn't anything else."

Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of new homes such as these have cropped up in recent decades in otherwise impoverished Mexican towns and villages like Totolan. From the richest to the poorest, they are financed by emigrants in the United States.

The Mexican government estimates that these emigrants send home about $4.5 billion a year. That money is the basis of existence for many villages. And a good portion of it ends up invested in new houses, as emigrants take advantage of cheap Mexican labor and materials.

"A lot of people want to have their little home as a piece of security. Others use it as an investment," says Alberto Novoa, owner of a hardware and home furnishings store in Jiquilpan, a town a few miles from Totolan.

Last year, the state of Guanajuato -- with an estimated 1 million emigres in the United States -- began a program to market homes to Mexicans living in Chicago and Dallas.

"It's very obvious if you go to the communities [from which] people have emigrated in large numbers," says Jose Hernandez, director of Attention to Guanajuatan Communities Abroad, a state agency. "If you see there's a new house and you investigate, you find that it's usually built by an emigrant."

Even the most modest of these homes mark a formidable leap forward in quality of life -- from adobe to brick walls, from hard-packed dirt floors to tile, from outhouses to flush toilets. Many homes have plush furniture, winding staircases, satellite dishes, circular driveways, sliding-glass windows, arched doorways.

"It's the most common thing we see in these villages," says Gustavo Lopez Castro, an emigration studies professor at the Colegio de Michoacan in the city of Zamora. "The first investment is in the house in the village. They have to demonstrate that they've had success [in the United States.]"

Despite the enormous amounts of time and money invested, thousands of these houses lie empty 10 to 11 months of the year. Sanchez's single sons, for example, will occupy their duplex only a couple of weeks a year.

Hernandez says one Guanajuatan town with ancient Indian roots, Nuevo Chupicuaro, was founded by people who emigrated to California in the 1930s after the government flooded the original Chupicuaro for a reservoir. Years later they returned and began building.

"Now you see these spectacular houses, California-style, worth maybe $200,000, I'd guess," says Hernandez. "You know how often they use them? Two days, three days a year."

Many villages are ghost towns much of the year. The houses stand like archaeological artifacts -- proof that immigrants have been there, a sign of their intended return.

Such is the village of Ocampo, Guanajuato, where Ricardo Alba is building his house. Alba owns a warehouse in Dallas. Like most natives of the village, he and his family spend only a couple of weeks a year in Ocampo.

But his house has a billiard room and a curving driveway. Over the muddy corral where Alba's father once raised horses and fighting roosters, Alba and his brothers have planted emerald-green grass and put a fountain with a statue and timer-controlled lights.

"I asked my mom, 'When we're done with it, what are we going to do with it?' " says Alba.

Americans like to believe that the immigrant's dream is to come to the United States, make a new life, assimilate and become a citizen. These houses are standing proof that, for immigrants seeking economic advancement, the real American dream is to earn money and go home to show friends and family that they, too, made it in the United States.

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