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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Daily Herald: Exodus from Mexico

Daily Herald: Exodus from Mexico
A modern-day ghost town
By Natasha Korecki
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2003


With the beautiful hills of Michoacan all around them, Mariana Camarillo and her daughter Lupita run water at Alberto Camarillo's home in Quiringuicharo, just a few miles down the road from where they live in Ecuandereo. Mariana keeps his house clean and safe while Alberto is in Rolling Meadows.
QUIRINGUICHARO, Mexico - Just miles away from other pueblos where dirt roads slop with mud after a rain, water drips into living rooms and bed sheets hang over open doorways, this tiny, seemingly scrubbed-clean town peeks out brightly.

In Quiringuicharo (key-ding-gwi-CHARO), two-story houses wear fresh coats of paint. But few cars move through the well-paved streets.

No chit-chat can be heard from the shops. No food vendors ply their trade.

The refurbished town square sits empty, no children run playfully down its walkways.

A cross atop a hill can be lighted, but no one has turned it on for months.

Quiringuicharo has a heartbeat, but it pulses 1,500 miles away - in and around several crowded Rolling Meadows apartment and condominium complexes.

About one-half to two-thirds of Quiringuicharo's 4,000 residents live in the United States.

Roughly half of them settled in Rolling Meadows.

Outside the Coachlight Apartments in Rolling Meadows, a soccer ball skips into the path of oncoming cars. Workers slant their bicycles against one another after arriving home from work. A vendor rings the bell on his cart of elotes, corn-on-the-cob slathered in mayonnaise, butter, grated cheese and sprinkled with chili powder and lime.

Of the 300 units in this complex, 70 percent are occupied by residents from Quiringuicharo, a recent survey showed.

Back near Quiringuicharo's red-brick central plaza, 46-year-old Irma Herrerra says the suburban complex is known by its Mexican name. "We call it the 'Ranchito Quiringuicharo.'"

She's never seen the suburb where her three brothers, her son, daughter and husband now live.

She chooses to stay in Quiringuicharo, a veritable ghost town.

"All of the houses are empty," she says. "They have all gone north."


• • •
In the 1960s, 187 immigrants lived in Rolling Meadows.

Today, there are more than 5,200 of them - 3,200 of whom are Mexican. Mexicans make up 15 percent of the city's residents, according to the 2000 census. The estimated 1,000 Quiringuicharo residents comprise 4 percent of the population.

They're representative of the 37 million U.S. Hispanics who make up the nation's largest minority group. Sixty-seven percent are Mexican. More than 1 million live in Illinois.
The town of Quiringuicharo, Michoacan, in Mexico is well represented by residents of Rolling Meadows. Despite the size of the town in Mexico, a large percentage of its residents have migrated to that particular suburb of Chicago.

Nearly 290,000 Mexican immigrants live in the suburbs, according to a Roosevelt University immigration study.

In Quiringuicharo, the population fluctuates as people travel back and forth.

Overall, it's on the decline.

In 1995, more than 4,000 lived there. In July, the tally was 2,006.

The Quringuicharo-Rolling Meadows connection is sometimes referred to as chain migration, when migrants from the same town create gateway communities for friends and relatives in the new country.

How this link happened between two small communities is somewhat of a mystery.

Some Quiringuicharo residents believe the first people left about 25 years ago and ended up in Rolling Meadows after not making a go of it in Chicago. Many refer to Rolling Meadows or anything near or around the area as "Chicago."

"Someone at some point made it to Rolling Meadows and said: 'This place has work, this place has affordable housing,' " says Rob Paral, a fellow with the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University. He co-authored the study of immigrants in the Chicago area.

The study showed that for the first time in history, immigrants are choosing the suburbs as a first stop rather than Chicago.

Since 1995, more than 1,000 of them moved directly into a dozen Northwest suburban neighborhoods in communities like Rolling Meadows, Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights, Wheeling and Hanover Park.

"We know in the last few decades, the majority of job creation has happened in the suburbs," Paral says. "Economic opportunity has grown faster than in the city."


• • •
It was family that brought Albert Camarillo to Rolling Meadows.

He remembers getting out of his car and running inside the Police Neighborhood Resource Center & Clinic located in the popular apartment complexes.

The no-questions-asked center was set up to help reduce crime and assist immigrants.

Workers there told Albert where to find his family.
Alberto Camarillo remains in his cramped apartment in Rolling Meadows because of the work opportunities he has in the United States. In Quiringuicharo, Michoacan, he has a spacious, two-story home, but nobody lives there.

Albert's uncle arrived in the 1960s, then his brother and parents in the 1980s.

Today, Albert is one of seven family members sharing a two-bedroom unit at the Williamsburg Apartments in Rolling Meadows. They share the $909 monthly rent.

He says goodnight to his parents and takes four short steps on dirt-encrusted carpeting, then enters his bedroom.

Inside, he sleeps in the same room with his wife, Viviana, and their sons, Orlando, 4, and Albert Jr., 2.

During the day, the whole family hangs out in the one-room living area downstairs. The kitchen table is too small for everyone to sit together for a meal.

In the morning, Albert quietly squeezes by his brother, Martin, who sleeps on the living room couch.

When he opens the front door to leave for work, Algonquin Road traffic noise roars in.

Back in Mexico, Albert owns his own home.

It rises two stories with three spacious bedrooms.

Stairs spiral up to the roof where he would sometimes sit in the mornings to look out at the town and the hills beyond.

Now it stands empty.

Quringuicharo sits an hour and a half from Michoacan's capital city of Morelia and about one hour from Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. Michoacán is an agricultural state from which 17 percent of Illinois Mexicans emigrate.

Quiringuicharo is just a speck on the map of the state of Michoacán in central Mexico, where the landscape rolls green and lush.

"It's prettier there. It's bigger. There's more space," says Albert, who hasn't been back for five years. "But I couldn't give my children what I can give them here. I cannot give my wife what I can give her here."

He prefers his life in Mexico, but he never could survive there, he says. Work was so scarce he would go weeks without making a peso. And wages have not kept up with those in the United States. For years, he traveled back and forth - illegally - making money in the north and using it to live in Mexico.

That travel has stopped now that he has a family.


• • •
On one hot afternoon, the sister he hasn't seen in five years, Mariana Camarillo, drives five minutes from her neighboring Mexican village to check on Albert's vacant house.

With her daughters Marta, 14, and Lupita, 12, she runs water in the faucets so too much time doesn't expire between uses.

She pauses in the living room to show off a large, black-framed family tree, with dated pictures of her parents, brothers and sisters.

She points to each person: Rolling Meadows, Rolling Meadows, Florida, Rolling Meadows, Mexico City.

Mariana is the only family member to never make a U.S. visit and the only one who still lives near her small town.

"I couldn't fix my papers," she says, shrugging.

She is among a contingent of Mexicans who refuses to face the risks of crossing illegally.

Even though her brother's house sits unused in her hometown five minutes away, she continues to struggle in Ecuandureo, in a house with a broken floor and leaky roof.

Her husband, Jose Luis Cortes, who works nights at a toll booth, won't move.

"When the man wants to stay, the woman goes where he is," he says.

Aside from annual visits from her parents, no one uses Albert's house, even though it's nicer than his place in the United States.

But it's only nicer because of the United States.


• • •
When he lived in Mexico, Albert laughed and bantered with friends as they sliced through corn in the fields.

Temperatures swelled in the summer and he'd wear layers of clothes to protect himself from the sun.

He earned $7 a day for eight hours of work, or $35 a week.

Here, he's a food runner at the Paddock Pub on the third floor Grandstand of Arlington Park.

He carries trays of hamburgers, Caesar salads, lemonade and Diet Coke to a room with large picture windows where horse race results blare overhead.
A Mexican boy stops to take in the view atop Alberto Camarillo's home in Quiringuicharo, Michoacan. The green mountains surrounding the town keep natives longing to go back, but it's usually only for the holidays. The majority of residents have migrated to the United States in search of better-paying jobs.

He earns $300 a week.

"Excuse me, señor?" a gray-haired man calls out to Albert. He sits next to a stylish woman with perfectly pedicured feet and a silver toe ring.

"We need our waiter." He's speaking loudly, one word at a time. "We want to order drinks."

Albert obediently nods and rushes off to get help.

In the kitchen, the banter is friendly.

They're all from "Quiringua," as the natives like to call it.

One of the men working a conveyor belt dishwasher is his uncle, Francisco Ramirez, a legal U.S. resident. Ramirez says he was one of the first to leave Quiringuicharo. In 1969, he came with his own brother, now deceased, to look for jobs and better wages.

Albert proudly points to the woman assembling an extravagant plate for box-seat ticket holders.

"She's my cousin."

Then to a woman neatly aligning chocolate chip cookies on a silver tray.

"She's my cousin, too."

There are 30 people walking in and out of the kitchen that sprawls over three rooms.

They swing in and out of the doors, wash dishes, prepare food, call out orders, head into walk-in coolers.

Most of them are from Quiringuicharo.


• • •
Walk the streets of Quiringuicharo and it is obvious who has made money up north.

It means a two-story house instead of a one-story. It means a personal phone instead of relying on a public one.

Twenty-five years ago, there was only one phone capable of making long-distance calls in Quiringuicharo.

When a call came for someone in town, the nearest person just stepped outside and yelled.

It still sits inside a tiny, unnamed storefront on the way to the office of the town president.

There still are people who ask store owner Benjamin Garcia to lift the metal bar to a closet-sized room. Inside, an ivory phone sits on a small ledge beside a brown wooden chair.

In Quiringuicharo's village hall, an old photo shows the town in 1976.
Just like the neighboring town of Quiringuicharo, the streets of Ecuandureo, Michoacan are largely vacant, lined with nice homes built by their owners who work in the United States.

The roads were nothing but dirt and when it rained, residents say, they would be up to their knees in mud. There were no two-story homes above the horizon.

"That was before anyone migrated to the United States," says 26-year-old Dario Ramirez.

To his Quiringuicharo friends and neighbors, Ramirez, who usually travels back and forth each year, is a shining example of what the world next door might bring.

In Quiringuicharo, he works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the fields and earns $10 for the day. In the Northwest suburbs, he worked as a chef 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and earned $90. Then he went to his second job.

When he returns to Mexico every year, he feels like a millionaire.

The money helps support his five sisters, mother and his wife, Celia, and the children they're planning.

He put a new wrought-iron gate around his mother's house and built himself a two-story home.

Inside, the green and black tile floor shines spotlessly. Ramirez offers tequila from a full wooden bar with an array of highball glasses set out on the counter.

The adobe house next door to him is crumbling, with a roof that's caved in, rendering half the house useless.

"You can see the before and after. Before the U.S.A.," Ramirez points to the older house.

Then, pointing to his own, "After the U.S.A."

Ramirez is well off in Quiringuicharo. Still, he longs for December, when the rest of the town's residents return to celebrate the holidays.

The streets liven and bustle with people.

At night, he and his friends will climb to the top of the hill and light up the cross.

That's when everyone around knows the people from up north have come home.

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