In Mexico, sharing their wealth

SUN JOURNAL

Emigrants: Former residents of a village who found life more lucrative in the United States have formed a sewing company back home.

August 11, 1999|By SAM QUINONES | SAM QUINONES,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nineteen years ago Angel Calderon left his small isolated village of Timbinal, Mexico, atop a hill of arid red dirt because the only job available was raising parched livestock.

Like many of his friends from Timbinal, he went to Napa, Calif. There he became a cook and raised and educated a family.

He had been home many times since. But this summer, for the first time, he returned home as that most awe-inspiring of professionals in Mexico -- an "inversionista," an investor.

Calderon is one of 23 Napa residents from Timbinal who put up about $4,000 each to start a small sewing factory in this impoverished village. The factory is a concrete-and-brick warehouse with 32 sewing machines that employs 35 people. It began production in June.

"I never thought I'd be doing anything like this," said Calderon. "I thought I'd go [to the United States], work, get some money together and come back. But something happened."

`You see things differently'

What happened was a full-time job, a rising salary and the possibilities they opened up. In three years at a country club, he went from dishwasher to first cook.

"I went from $3.35 to $12.50 an hour, which was a lot for me," he said. "When you come back from the United States, you see things differently."

And that was likely why Calderon did not immediately turn down planners from the state of Guanajuato when they proposed the sewing factory two years ago.

Timbinal, a village of about 200 families, lies in the southern part of Guanajuato, about four hours north of Mexico City. Guanajuato is largely agricultural and that agriculture is often nearly bankrupt. So the state has lost hundreds of thousands of people like Calderon to jobs in the United States. Timbinal has about 150 of its people in Napa.

Factories like this one are a rare attempt by a Mexican state to channel and capitalize on the investment potential of those workers abroad, to see whether the emigrants can provide jobs that will keep others from leaving.

Mexicans in the United States send home close to $5 billion a year. Guanajuato, Mexico's third-largest migrant-sending state, receives about $800 million of that from its 1 million native sons and daughters in the United States.

Emigrant remittances feed families back in Mexico. They build houses and maintain plots of land. Thousands of towns and villages owe their infrastructure -- electricity, paved streets, drinking and wastewater systems -- almost entirely to the investment of millions of emigrants.

But rarely has anyone in Mexico tried to harness emigrants' economic power in an organized way. The Mexican government has never seen the humble busboy, gardener or farm worker in the United States as a potential investor who might be persuaded to put money into a business enterprise that creates jobs back home.

But that was exactly the idea behind Mi Comunidad, started by Guanajuato Gov. Vicente Fox.

Mi Comunidad urged emigrants to form partnerships, pool money and start sewing businesses in their villages. The state would train workers and managers.

Eight other Mi Comunidad sewing plants are operating in Guanajuato; their seed money came from emigrants in such places as La Habra, Calif.; Elgin, Ill.; Aurora, Ohio; and Atlanta. Another 10 factories are under construction.

Sewing factories like these are an easy first step into industrialization, one that many Mexican small towns and cities have taken recently. The country's sewing industry has expanded rapidly in the past few years. Major sewing centers have emerged in the states of Coahuila, Yucatan, Queretaro and Puebla. Guanajuato is hoping to get in on it, too, in part by kick starting its own emigrants' investment.

"We're in a competitive market," said Jose Carmen Munoz, director of Guanajuato's Centro Interuniversitario de Conocimiento (Interuniversity Knowledge Center), which trains people in such trades as sewing and welding.

"The government's responsibility is to support and facilitate the creation of these plants to get them on their feet," Munoz said. "Campesinos [peasants] might be able to do this alone but with a lot of difficulty."

Very few farming and ranching communities have made the switch to industry on their own, especially when going to the United States is such an easy and better-known alternative. Certainly, said Calderon, starting a sewing plant never occurred to him or his partners before the state suggested it.

"Here, if you ask a kid what he wants to do when he grows up, he'll say, `Go north.' He wouldn't say, `I want to be a textile manufacturer.' "

Calderon first asked the state for help in establishing a trade school near Timbinal. They said: Why not build a factory instead? Had that conversation not taken place, Timbinal probably would have gone on as a village that raised workers for the Napa Valley wine industry.

Those workers have been the reason Timbinal continues to exist.

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