The cowboys await their turn in the ring. Raul Borges, along with eight other men, will enter the rodeo of Tunkas on horseback. Raul rides a horse named Bandit. The horsemen accelerate into the hand-made arena, riding its circumference. They’ll attempt to lasso a bull weighing more than 1100 pounds.
Raul is popular among the Tunkaseños, probably because he is good at horseback riding, he works at the City Hall, and he has made a family at a young age. In public he pulls off a fine balance between reassuring confidence and swagger.
Raul fits right in at the rodeo, but next year he may not attend. He may emigrate to The United States, leaving behind his family, his people and his son. He would leave with the promise to return soon, the same promise his father made 17 years ago. Perhaps, like his father, his promise will go unfulfilled. Lourdes and son may be left waiting as he travels north for better opportunities.
Raul is part of a generation in Tunkas who grew up in the 90’s with the absence of one or both parents due to migration into the United States. "I did not grow up with my dad," Raul says. "He was always talking to me by phone ... it is not the same growing up alone instead of growing with your dad."
This family spends most of their time apart. Lourdes toils with the demands of motherhood as Raul makes the weekly migration to provide for her and his son. Their struggle exposes a rift between the couple, as both parents vie for a different future for the family. Raul wants to remain in Tunkas where he is a local boy, well known among the community; but Lourdes pictures a life in the city where opportunities for work and education are far better. Their conflict is compounded by Lourdes' fear that Raul will leave one day and never return, as Raul's father did years ago. Their uncertain future is a product of life in towns like Tunkas where a lack of opportunity forces families to make these difficult decisions and live a life separated from each other.
Raul is 21 years old. He is medium height, his skin as clear as his eyes. Two years ago he married Lourdes Barroso, who is now 17. The following year their son Raul Alejandro was born. They call him Raulito.
Tunkas means "the stone fence" in Mayan. This quiet town with its narrow streets has a population of nearly 3,500 and is just two hours from Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. By 2008 three quarters of the population of Tunkas had migrated for work, according to Dr. Pedro Lewin-Fischer, an expert in migration studies with the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
A great many of the houses in Tunkas are made of cement and stones, built with the remittance money sent home by migrants. They look like traditional Mayan buildings updated with modern materials. Almost all of the homes look alike, with family members swinging gently in hammocks, visible from the street through doors and windows propped wide open to cope with the hot muggy climate.
It is common to find small altars to saints and virgins in these homes, along with many photos of family members who have migrated and didn’t return.
Raul’s father, Raul Santiago, used to work on a ranch near Tunkas. Although it was relatively stable, he did not know if he could keep his job after the owner of the ranch died, so he moved to Los Angeles in 1999 looking for a new job. He promised he would come back to Tunkas soon. For the next 17 years, Raul Santiago never returned.
Raul Santiago’s wife, Doña Sonia, was left in charge of the house at the age of 25. With the money he earned and sent home, Raul Santiago could pay for Raul and Sonia’s school, food and clothes, and pay the electric and water bills. "I got used to being alone with them," Doña Sonia says, "I never had problems with them; they knew they had to study ... to go to school."
Raul grew up with his mother and sister and developed a strong personality coupled with sensitive feelings. As he grew older his relationship with his mother deteriorated and he began to push boundaries. This kind of tension, Dr. Lewin-Fischer says, is very common among the children of families separated by migration.
After high school Raul got a job at the city hall. He was 19 and began dating Lourdes, who was almost 15. In three months she was pregnant and they moved in together A year after they started dating they had a son, Raulito.
Raul’s father moved to Los Angeles in 1999 looking for a new job. He promised he would come back to Tunkas soon. For the next 17 years, Raul Santiago never returned.
Lourdes has dark skin and long hair. She has a deep voice, and still preserves traces of a young girl in her face. She’s a senior in high school with responsibility for a toddler. She is a woman who longs to migrate away from Tunkas, no matter where. "I have always dreamed of leaving this town,” Lourdes says. “I don’t want to stay in this place."
The three members of the Borges Barroso family lived in Lourdes’ parents’ house. Initially Raul worked all week at City Hall. He earned 100 pesos a day, about $6, so he quit and began looking for other options to support his family. "The money was not enough," Raul says, looking away. "I had to find work somewhere else."
“Somewhere else,” it turned out, is Playa del Carmen, a beach resort town four hours away in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Raul now works for a fire extinguisher company, which services the tourist industry. His workshop is in a small neighborhood. A black gate opens and reveals a spacious courtyard; the perimeter fence is made of blocks and is incomplete. The floor is dirt.
Multiple fire extinguishers lie on the floor. Some are ready to be delivered by the following day; others need to be repainted. The place smells of pungent chemicals and has no air conditioning. The tin roof makes it feel even hotter on this sunny day in Playa del Carmen.
The small workshop contrasts with the huge hotels a few miles away. Raul sits in the middle of the place, on a small wooden bench. He looks tired. Earlier, at dawn, he had traveled four hours in a shared taxi van from Tunkas to get to work. Raul seems different now from the man riding Bandit in the rodeo a couple of days earlier. In his hometown Raul is an important and recognized man. In Playa del Carmen he is only an employee, just another in the stream of migrant laborers that built and service the tourist infrastructure of the Riviera Maya.
"I never imagined going to Playa," Raul says. "But when my baby was born I saw how expensive he is.”
In his hometown Raul is an important and recognized man. In Playa del Carmen he is only an employee, just another in the stream of migrant laborers that built and service the tourist infrastructure of the Riviera Maya.
Tourism wealth is evident in Play del Carmen. A large shopping mall features international luxury brands. In some ways the local economy benefits from it. Employees like Raul are drawn to the higher wages. "The most we can pay you here [in Tunkas] is 100 pesos per day (about $6),” he says. “There [in Playa del Carmen] you can get more than 500 or 600.”
Raul gets up at 6 a.m. every day in Playa del Carmen. He gets ready for work, goes to the office and receives instructions for the day. At night he sleeps alone in a room the company lends him. "I feel alone,” he says. “I don’t know anyone here, in the city, I can not go out ... I eat alone, I can’t see my family."
To get to work, Raul travels every Sunday at 1 a.m. from Tunkas to Playa del Carmen. He has no other alternatives. "How could people make money in a small town? Run a store? Ranching?” he asks. “In a small town there’s no more options.”
Migrants like Raul have transformed the economy of his small home town. The money sent by “those who are gone,” as the people of Tunkas call migrants, has improved the living conditions there. For example, with the contributions of migrants, the city government bought a van for medical transportation. Some migrants outside of Tunkas support entire families within Tunkas through cash remittances.
Raul's father, Raul Santiago, lives in Utah. While his wife and children were waiting for his return, he married another woman. He visited Tunkas in 2014, the first time after 17 years of absence. He reconnected with his children during those two weeks he spent in Mexico. Raul Santiago offered his son a means to get documents to legally enter the United States. Raul only had to make a decision.
Raul’s father offered his son a means to get documents to legally enter the United States. Raul only had to make a decision.
There were two problems.
First, Raul loves life in Tunkas. He has a deep connection with the town and with Bandit, his horse. "He’s like a person,” he says. Sometimes you can talk to him; he pays attention to you..” He values the freedom and respect he has earned at home. "Here nobody bothers you,” he says. “You can go out whenever you want without problems. The people here only go to the ranches, the parties, the cenotes (ground water sinkholes popular with swimmers.)
Second, Raul understands that even if his father can help him get the documents, it could take many years before his son, Raulito, could legally join him across the border.
Lourdes is sitting in her living room taking care of Raulito. She watches TV while her son sleeps. On the wall there’s a picture of her parents' wedding. Her father also migrated to the United States but returned after a couple of years. The living room door is open to the bedroom where the couple sleeps with their son, the three of them together in one hammock when Raul is in town. On the walls are images of horses. A ceiling fan keeps spinning above Raulito’s head. If the fan stops, he may wake up. He cannot stand the heat of Tunkas.
Lourdes understands why Raul has to go to Playa del Carmen every week. "It’s a better life there,” she says. “There is a better job so he can give us money so we can have the things I've always dreamed of."
Next month Raul will travel to the U.S. border. There he will wait the papers his father promised him. Lourdes will stay in Tunkas. "I tell Raul, ‘When you return your son won’t recognize you. Your dad did it the same way’” She pauses. “I think he is going to go and he won’t come back."
Lourdes’ concern doesn’t seem to affect Raul. Raul says Raulito will stay with his mother and grandmothers. Also, his child will not be alone. He will grow up with his cousin, Noheli, by his side. "I want him to have someone to grow up with, so he will not be alone," Raul says. "I'm happy, because the two of them will grow up like my sister and I."
At the end of his last work day of the week in Playa del Carmen, Raul returns immediately to Tunkas. He usually arrives between 9 and 10 p.m., like many of his migrant neighbors who also return on weekends to see their families.
Raul spends all Saturday and Sunday working his second job in City Hall. Time with his family is brief. In the evenings he watches television and takes a walk with his family. Raulito barely recognizes him, Lourdes says.
"Some families decide to be together. Others have to be separated to improve,” Lourdes says.
Raulito has spent much of his first year separated from his father. Raul feels sad that he has to leave his son so often. "From one day to another you don’t see him” he says, “or don’t know how he’s doing or what he’s doing.”
If and when Raul goes to the United States, a long time will pass before he can see his son, Lourdes and Bandit. It’s a common dilemma for many migrant families in Tunkas. Raul, himself the son of a migrant, feels conflicted, but Lourdes, young, ambitious and desperate for change seems certain. "Some families decide to be together. Others have to be separated to improve,” she says. “We have decided to sacrifice being together. We decided to move forward."