I came to Sayula because I was told that my father, a certain Salvador Diaz Diaz, had lived there. … He always lived aching for Sayula, to go back there; but he never went back. Now I am coming in his place (a wink to Juan Rulfo).
It is 17 years since the last time I visited my father´s hometown. On a Saturday morning, the streets around the central square were bustling with activity. The town is in the midst of an economic bonanza brought about by an agribusiness boom. Instead of corn fields, alfalfa or sugar cane, the incredibly beautiful valley is now full of greenhouses growing berries, virtually all exported to the United States. The last time I visited in 1999 the town was a dying. While the town was prosperous in colonial times, since 19th century it became a regional commercial hub along the rail line connecting Guadalajara to the Pacific. The military zone protecting the region always fascinated me as a child, since to me it was the most palpable presence of the Mexican Revolution, together with a picture that my grandmother kept in her room, showing her as the bridesmaid in the wedding of the zone commander, the powerful brother of a Mexican post-revolutionary president. The town was profoundly conservative and catholic. The PRI used to commit electoral fraud against the extreme right wing party, the PDM, not the (more moderate in this context) PAN. Nowadays it has been governed by a series of PRD administrations, some less successful than others.
In the 1990s a toll highway was built to Colima, bypassing the town. I remember conversations with my uncles telling me how local residents tried, unsuccessfully, to lobby the state government to change the highway plan, so that there would be exit that never materialized. I have no scientific evidence, but I always thought that the expansion of the road infrastructure during those years, that reduced our travel time in our family trips from Mexico City, from 12 hours to 8 (now including a leisurely lunch stop in Guadalajara, instead of the eternal boredom and unbearable heat on the road), removed opportunities from towns throughout Mexico left behind by the new connectivity to world markets.
I used to think there was really nothing the town could produce in the post economic reform and NAFTA environment. It was not strategically located close to the border. Charming as it is, with a legendary ghost and a Franciscan convent, it had no particular touristic attractions. The town did not have a particularly skilled labor force, or a tradition of producing specific products of excellence, except perhaps for a craftsman making knives and some regional sweet caramel. In that last visit, almost two decades ago, the only businesses I remember in the central square, the square I used to roam with my brother during the summer, had been replaced by money exchange shops.
The lifeline of the town had become the remittances sent by migrants from the United States to their mothers, wives and children. A substantial share of the migrants sending money were legally in the US, since families in this Mexican region have been sending migrants for decades. The town has always been connected to the US through migration and trade (both legal and illegal). I really thought, back then, that the town would lose half of its population, like the neighboring town of San Gabriel in the highlands, the ghost town Juan Rulfo escaped as a young man. My grandmother died soon after that visit 17 years ago. I moved to the United States that same year. So I stopped having a reason to go visit my father´s hometown, since all my close family was no longer in Sayula, but in Mexico City.
It turns out the town benefited from the promises that NAFTA was precisely supposed to unleash, in creating an industry of high value added, relative skill, with some degree of capital intensity revitalizing the agricultural advantages México has. This town is not simply exporting cheap labor, either in the form of migrants or goods that can only be produced by exploiting low wages. I had forgotten that one of the first lessons I had learned in my international trade class: that Ricardian trade theory implies there is no such thing as a place without a comparative advantage. But it takes some time for adaptation, a dose of local ingenuity, and new ideas that may yield to the unexpected specialization in berries I encountered. The town is also engaged in trading some other goods, although that is somewhat murky, because it has become an important logistics depot for the drug trade.
In my visit I learned so much from conversations with the almost one dozen cousins I had not seen for many years. All of them are middle class, around a decade younger than me. None of them followed anything resembling an academic career, but our conversations were intelligent, well informed and intense. They work in a diverse set of activities including sales, catering, bus dispatching, importing machines from China, and fashion design. Several of them are computer scientists. There is even a musician and an artist. All of them work incredibly hard, but have been unable to see the befits of the rapid social mobility of our parents. After all, when our parents started their careers, the country was growing at 6 percent. During our adult lifetimes it has grown at less than 2 percent, with recurrent economic crises. Our parents went to university to become engineers (the men) and normalista teachers (the women). My cousins told me they see no future in Mexico. They want to migrate to Canada or the United States.
They told me about what has happened with the town, as it has become a “plaza” of a drug traffic organization. The neighboring town of San Gabriel, I was told by a policeman in Guadalajara a few days before my visit, has become off limits, because it is apparently the residence of a drug lord. The mayor often asks the military garrison next to Sayula for help in preventing greater penetration of the drug organizations. The army sends some armed men to go around the town, now and then, to make their presence felt. Once in a while they stop young men in motorcycles, who are lookouts for the drug organizations, going around the town. The first thing they do, when they detain one of these unemployed kids who see little future outside of organized crime, is to seize their cell phones. The soldiers try to get some information about the criminal network the young men are working for. The town does not have an escalation of drug related violence, but gang activity and drug consumption are visible. My cousins had a long discussion about the pros and cons of carrying a gun in such environment.
NAFTA and Mexico have been at the center of the presidential election in the US. But I must say both candidates have exhibited a very superficial understanding of México. Of course that Trump’s insults and lies are much worse than the lukewarm support of Hillary for free trade with Mexico. But I believe few Americans really understand the complexity and nuance of the processes unfolding in the country. A solution to the challenges of violence and drug trafficking is not yet in sight. But there is no question that the future of Mexico depends on enhancing and deepening ties to the US, not severing them with walls or trade tariffs. Concerns in the US regarding migration, investment flows, displacement of factories or illicit trade will best be addressed by learning more about Mexico, rather than accepting what we think we know from soundbites and stereotypes.
Sayula, by the way, has some beautiful luxury hotels and SPAs, that have sprung up in the past few years, together with the agribusiness boom. Some adventurous Americans are already discovering them. If you visit, you might meet some of my relatives, enjoying their warm hospitality. You would learn why Mexico is such a beautiful country. You would come back with a new understanding of why the neighbor to the South matters for the US. And perhaps you will help my cousins stay in the country they love and are working so hard, every day, to make a better place.