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NEWSDAY: Long Island residents on a mission of understanding in Mexico

February 20th, 2010

Thousands of miles away from their hometowns, 15 Long Islanders found themselves in the tiny Mexican farming village of San Juan Sosola. What they found was startling.
The village's population had dwindled - cut in half with only about 100 people remaining.

Only three children attend the village's preschool; five, the elementary school.
Soccer was no longer a favorite pastime because there weren't enough young people to have teams.

As in other communities across Latin America, the march northward had consumed dozens of families in San Juan Sosola, a community inhabited by indigenous Mexicans, known as Mixtec's.

"In a way, the community is dying," said Sandra Dunn, the immigration program officer at the Hagedorn Foundation, a Port Washington-based organization that provided the grant to fund the delegation, "because there aren't enough people there to continue it. It seems like no family has been without a loss."

The grant was given to the Washington, D.C.-based Witness for Peace, an organization that sponsors educational delegations to Latin America.

Reason for migrating

The delegation of 15 Long Islanders chosen from all walks of life spent a week in and around Oaxaca, Mexico, last month to get a better understanding of what has compelled millions of people to risk their lives and migrate to the United States. They had come to find out why - and to spread that knowledge back home, in a region where immigrants have not always been welcome. On Long Island, Riverhead has a growing population of several hundred Mixteca families from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The reason for migrating, the delegation learned, was surprising: It was about survival, not the American dream. The rural economy - which revolves around corn - had been undercut by global economic policies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to presentations from local groups and residents. Migration, members were told, was necessary just to have food to eat.

Deborah Little, a sociology professor at Adelphi University, described a village filled with elderly residents. The village had received money for community development and built a beautiful basketball court, she said. "But they only play one-on-one," she said. "They don't have anyone to play basketball."

"The important thing for people to know is that the mythology is to go to America and live the American dream," she said. "But everyone we met was hoping to go for a short time, make some money and return home. They were coming [to the United States] because there was no work."

The delegation also went to a migration shelter in Oaxaca, where migrants from all over Central America stay briefly to rest as they continue their journey toward the border.

Sergio Argueta, founder and head of Struggling To Reunite Our New Generation, a gang-prevention nonprofit in Hempstead, said he met a grandmother traveling with her 10-year-old grandson because her other children had been killed in El Salvador, victims of gang violence. A young man from Guatemala said he had already been robbed and assaulted multiple times on his journey, and yet he was still determined to get to the United States. "He said, 'I'd rather die trying to get there than live seeing my family unable to eat,' " Argueta said.

Understanding global economics

Darlene Troge, who is the director of workplace policy and compliance for the Town of Southampton, said she was struck by the extreme poverty.

"When I came back, people said, 'Why don't they just go buy the inexpensive corn?' " she said. "They don't even have enough money to buy feed to grow corn."

Christine Finn, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Patchogue-Medford school system, said to understand the role of global economics in the migration equation was eye-opening. "The poverty is there, and I think everybody knows that. But to learn more about NAFTA and the corn policies, that's not something I knew about," she said.

Finn and the other members of the delegation are plotting ways to spread the information they got to the rest of Long Island.

Most said they came away with one important message from the villagers in San Juan Sosola: "Sometimes, people here aren't as welcoming to the immigrants that come here," Finn said. "That was the only thing that they asked of us before we left - that we remembered their hospitality and that we would do the same for the people that come here."