AYOQUEZCO, Oaxaca state, Mexico – Eva Vazquez Garcia, 48, looked me straight in the eye when I asked her to tell me how it feels when the people in her village – often men and boys – leave.
"I cry for them," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I cry when they disappear."
I didn't understand her tears. Why does it matter that her townspeople leave? It's not like they are her family. I wouldn't cry if my neighbor moved someplace else.
"I feel impotent when they leave. I saw them when they were born. I went to school with them, grew up with them," she says.
With her answer, I understood. The day before, I had been to the ancient ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban. In the U.S., we don't quite realize that in the valley of Oaxaca is another cradle of civilization. Eva's ancestors, the Zapotecs, have been here for 10,000 years. So when a member of the community leaves, it is as if a part of you dies. "Worse," she says, "sometimes you never hear from them again." Did they make it to the U.S.? Did they die in the desert or by a bullet on the streets of Phoenix?
Violeta Cruz is 29 and sassy, with tight jeans, wedge heels and a fearlessness born from a desire to never have to leave her homeland.
She didn't cry when she thought of the ones who have left. She threw her long hair over her shoulder and said coquettishly, "I just worry I am never going to find a husband!"
I met Eva and Violeta at the small-business collective MENA – Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal de Ayoquezco. The name means "Women Bottlers of Nopal (cactus leaves) from Ayoquezco."
The women created the collective in an attempt to make 10-year-old boys stop talking about going to El Norte.
Violeta is committed to fighting against the pull from the U.S. "I want to create a reason to stay," she says. Then she talks about "romperte la madre," which translates, literally, to "break your mother." It means going through the most difficult moment in your life physically or emotionally. So if you are going to go through hard times up north – romperte la madre en El Norte – says Violeta, just stay on your land and go through the rough times there.
After the men left, the women decided to create the collective because some of the men never sent money back. They decided to grow organic cactus – one of the ancient crops from the land, and one of the healthiest foods you can eat – and bottle it. Same thing with organic, toasted cacao for dark chocolate and original, years-old recipes of homemade mole, a traditional sauce that includes chocolate and chiles and spices.
The women of MENA export to the U.S. (to the Oaxacans who live in California or New Jersey, and to foodies who want the secret taste of this part of the world). In Mexico, MENA sells to Costco and to the Mexican restaurant chain TOKS (which is like Denny's). Discerning, fast-food-consuming, middle-class, Mexicans want the mole and nopal because it is all organic and made by hand.
MENA has been at it for 10 years and has plaques on the wall from Hillary Clinton, the Kellogg Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has certified MENA organic (not an easy thing to get).
So if you really want to have an impact on immigration and make Eva and Violeta happy, buy molé from Ayoquezco. And know that for every Mexicano you see in your neighborhood, someone back home is crying for him or her.
Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning broadcast journalist. She hosts the Emmy Award-winning "Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One" on PBS, and is the anchor and managing editor of her own NPR show, "Latino USA." Contact her at email@example.com.
(c) 2011 by Maria Hinojosa
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.