A few years ago I was visiting a little town called El Bosque, up in the mountains of southern Mexico, about two hours north of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. I was traveling with the interfaith fair trade organization, Equal Exchange, and we were studying coffee farming and marketing crafts for churches in the states. While I was there, I met the families of two young people, Daniel Hernández and Jasmine Díaz-Pérez. They would have been about nineteen when I was there, and had just gotten engaged. Their parents were wonderful, hard working people, and their families had been growing corn and beans and coffee in that region for over a hundred years.
However, in 1989 that began to change. Before then prices for coffee beans had been set by an “International Coffee Agreement,” led by the US. We had created the agreement back in the sixties as a way of providing poor farmers in Latin America with just enough income to keep them from joining rebel movements like Fidel Castro’s in Cuba. But in 1989, Cuba was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US pulled out of the Agreement, allowing coffee prices to swing wildly on the open market. Within three years prices paid to poor farmers had fallen to a thirty-year low. According to World Bank numbers, over 600,000 people lost their jobs and homes in Central America and Mexico alone.
In addition, after 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, allowing the US to export cheap, subsidized corn into Mexico, their sales of corn also collapsed. Local prices fell from an average of $5 a bushel in 1995 to $1.80 in 2000, and it wiped out tens of thousands of farmers.
With each economic hit, the Mexican countryside emptied out more young people creating abandoned ghost towns in its swath.
Some of those farmers were from Daniel’s family, and the summer before we arrived, their conditions had gotten so bad that many decided they had to leave. The options weren’t good. They could join the rebels, migrate to the sweat shops, grow cocaine, or put together a delegation to make that terrifying journey north into the US to find work. Typically if a group managed to get in they’d rent a room together, take turns sleeping and working, eat as little as possible, and send money back home. One day’s work, picking vegetables in California, at below minimum wage, could feed a family of six in El Bosque for a week.
So, they chose six young men who would go north and try to get in. One problem was that Daniel was one of those, and he and Jasmine had just gotten engaged, and they couldn’t stand being apart. Maybe they could go together, they said, and both find jobs? Maybe they could afford a place of their own. Maybe they could finally get married… So the family relented and Jasmine was added to the group, and then they left.
They walked north along the spine of the westward side of the Sierra Madre Mountains, sometimes hitchhiking, but mainly walking for almost three weeks. Then, exhausted and nearly broke, they stopped at the town of Altar, Mexico, about sixty miles south of the border, where they hired a coyote. “Coyotes” are those often unscrupulous people who, for a fee, will smuggle people like cargo over the border. Whether the families succeed or fail, the coyote still gets paid. Typically, they don’t really care.
But he shouldn’t have. They were too weak, the journey had been too long, and the heat was too evil. After three days they collapsed and couldn’t travel any further. And about 100 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation the coyote abandoned them. Daniel and two of Jasmine’s uncles struggled on ahead to search for help. They turned themselves in to border guards and then led them back to the others.
When they got back they found everyone in critical condition, weak from heat and dehydration. Two recovered within a few days. Two more were placed in intensive care but recovered. But young Jasmine, Daniel’s fiancé, didn’t make it. They tried to resuscitate her at the hospital, but she was already gone. Daniel survived but no one knows where he is. They say he ran screaming from the hospital when he got the news, and there’s no word on what happened to him since. He never made it back home. He never contacted anyone about getting a job. He simply disappeared, in grief.