Time after time, Pedro Santez has moved away from his native village of Coyutla to pursue a new career.
Each time, after spending years away, Santez returns home and finds that his four children are older and more of his neighbors are gone, seeking opportunity elsewhere. Santez tries to start a new life in his home town, but he always leaves again.
And the pattern repeats.
Coyutla is a small community tucked into the folds of green hillsides at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. Some of the last Totonac indigenous people call Coyutla home.
Despite Coyutla’s peaceful setting, locals rarely stay here. Coffee production in the fertile hillsides of the Sierra was once the lifeblood of Veracruz. But in the late 80′s, coffee prices suddenly plummeted and local farmers lost their way of life.
Some of the last Totonacs still try to eke out a living by raising crops. But most, like Santez, simply leave, seeking jobs in Mexico City or the U.S.
Santez’s life path is a familiar tale in a region of Mexico still trying to find its role in the global economy. But today several people in Coyutla are working to ensure that the next generation in Veracruz won’t have to leave. Just down the street from Coyutla’s town square sits the regional offices of a local farmer’s collective working to help Totonacs make a viable living through their traditional lifestyle.
“The Totonacs love and respect the earth,” said Martín Perez, a local who started the collective with his father forty years ago. “Their traditional farming methods don’t contaminate the earth and often comply with the new fair trade market’s standards. People in rural Veracruz only make 80-100 pesos [appx. $6-7 USD] a day, so we hoped that producing fair trade products through the collective for export abroad would become a sustainable way to combat poverty in the region.”
For the last two decades, honey production has been the collective’s largest source of income. Local bee keepers in Coyutla now sell fair trade certified honey to German importers.
Pedro Santez is one of the first Coyutla natives who chose to start producing honey as an alternative to seeking work elsewhere.
I caught up with Santez after traipsing down the washed-out dirt track that led to his house. A mother-daughter team of Jehovah’s Witnesses who I met along the way handed me a pamphlet entitled, ‘What Do You Want to Ask God?’ Although their religious practices still retain some elements of Totonac mythology, like may indigenous people in Mexico, most Totonacs identify as Catholic.
I found Santez working with his son in a small woodshop set up under the sheet metal roof of his front porch. I introduced myself and we started to chat.
Santez, the eldest of five children, first left Coyutla at age thirteen to seek work in Mexico City. He found a job in one of the abarrotes, small mom-and-pop groceries often no bigger than a large broom closet, which abound in Mexican small towns and cities.
“For ten years, I worked fifteen hours in the store, every day,” Santez said. “But I enjoyed the work and the cool mountain climate of Mexico City.”
Santez returned to Coyutla as a young man, married, and had a family. But to support his wife and children, he had to leave again, this time to the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We worked 28 days at sea on the oil rigs, and then had 14 days off on land,” Santez recalled. “It wasn’t ideal, but in time I was able to buy land here in Coyutla.”
After returning home from the oil rigs, Santez worked odd jobs and occasionally helped Martín Perez’s father with his bees. Recognizing the production of fair trade honey as a viable way to make a living in Coyutla, Santez later joined the collective and built 25 bee hives off his own.
“When I started as a bee keeper, almost twenty years ago now, my hives produced at least five, 50 gallon drums of honey each year,” Santez said. “But today, I’m lucky if we get two drums of honey a year. There’s been a lot of deforestation nearby,” he explained, “and the lack of vegetation and flowers has really decreased our bee’s production.
Perez says it has been hard to keep the collective afloat because of deforestation and the strict certification standards required by European importers.
“Other farmers put chemicals on their plants,” said Perez, “and if our bees come in contact with pesticides the honey is ruined. In recent years, our bees have also started gathering pollen from genetically modified crops, which also taints the honey.”
To combat the new environmental factors which limit honey production, Perez wants to create a new center where the beekeepers can work together, complete with automatic faucets that turn on with motion sensors so farmers don’t have to touch the nozzles with their hands, and other developments that will help locals to more easily comply with fair trade’s strict hygiene standards.
“But I still have no idea how we will get the funds for this project,” said Perez.
Pedro Santez is already preparing for the worst. Outside the concrete walls of his small home, he now works with son, José, making wooden bed frames. Beside a pile of wood shavings, sits a stack of newly-constructed honeycomb frames.
“In the winter, when the bees are less active, we walk up to the mountains and check on the hives every few weeks,” said Santez. “The rest of the time we make bed frames. A few guys come to buy the frames from us every so often. They resell them in the cities and I’m sure they make a lot more than we do,” he said, his face down turned with lament.
At home in the U.S., the fair trade labels on products in health food stores often conjures up images in my head of happy farmers smiling as they tend their organic crops together. But an afternoon at Santez’s house shatters this optimistic stereotype; ironically, working with the bees is what pushed Santez and his son to leave Coyutla once more in search of work, this time as undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“It was the smoke that we use to calm the bees down when we work in the hives,” said Santez. “I got sick of breathing it all the time, of feeling like it was damaging my lungs. Two of my brothers have been working in Oregon for years, so I decided to join them.”
Four years ago, Santez took a bus to Nogales, Mexico, on the Arizona border, and paid a coyote [people smuggler] $2,000 to transport him over the border. In Phoenix, the coyotes sandwiched him in the back of a truck with a group of Mexicans and Guatemalans and drove them to Oregon where Santez reunited with his brothers.
When Santez traveled to Oregon, José was already living and working there with his two uncles.
“My uncles come back to Mexico every few years to visit us and then pay coyotes with their savings to cross back into the U.S.,” said José. “During one of their visits to Mexico, they offered to bring me with them. I had just finished high school and was thinking of joining some friends who found factory work in the city of Reynosa on the Texas border. But their stories of violence on the border scared me, so going to Oregon seemed like the best option.”
In the U.S., Santez and José labored in construction and forestry work. After a year, Santez decided it was time to return home to Mexico. José decided to join him and the father and son came back home to continue their work making fair trade certified honey.
“It was difficult adapting to life in the U.S.,” said José. “I learned some English there, which helped, but I was ready to come back when my father decided to leave. Returning to Coyutla was another change in itself that I wasn’t prepared for,” he admitted. “I had many friends here, but now they’ve all left to find work elsewhere.”
José now has a wife and baby daughter. After experiencing the life of a migrant worker in the U.S., he wants to find a way to make a living in Coyutla, helping his father with the bed frames and honey bees.
“As for me, I won’t need to leave home again,” Santez said while sanding a plank in his woodshop, “because my children have all finished school and now they’re old enough to work.”
José is just starting his family and hopes to take his father’s place working in the farmer’s collective. But if deforestation and the presence of genetically modified crops continue to affect honey production, the Totonac traditions of working with the earth might not be enough to support José and his family in the modern world.
Levi Bridges is currently spending the year in Mexico City on a Fulbright grant in creative writing, beginning work on a book about the life experiences of Mexican migrant workers. He writes at www.bridgesandborders.com