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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Today we begin a two-part series, focusing on the country that sends the most migrants to the United States: Mexico. Ever-increasing numbers of people from there have been making the long, perilous and often illegal journey north. Some places in Mexico have a long history of migration, but for others, it is relatively new. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently traveled to one such rural area about two and half hours from Mexico City to find out why more and more people have been leaving their communities.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

In the sharp early morning sun, the air of Malinalco is alive with the sound of crickets buzzing. This is a sleepy provincial capital with cobblestone streets surrounded by jagged cliffs. Before the Spanish conquest, it was a center of ritual activities for the Eagle and Jaguar warriors of the Aztec empire. Now its proximity to the Mexican capital means that weekenders from the city come here to relax. During the week, though, it's quiet and peaceful.

On the surface, Malinalco looks fairly prosperous, but there is something that is ravaging this community. Its people are leaving. Benito se Humancio(ph) is a senior officer with the municipal government, and gives what he says is a conservative estimate of the numbers.

Mr. BENITO SE HUMANCIO (Senior Officer, Municipal Government, Malinalco, Mexico): (Through translator) At least five to 10 percent of the population here goes to the United States. It's been increasing incrementally, but we can see that today it is much more than it ever used to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Salvador Hernandez is among those who've gone north. He's a stocky 20-year-old who stares at the floor shyly as he talks. He's been in the U.S. state of Georgia, working as a bricklayer for three years. He's just come back here. He sits wearing a Georgia baseball cap and new-looking clothes under the shade of a tree.

Mr. SALVADOR HERNANDEZ (Mexican Migrant): (Through translator) You miss your family when you're there. When you're here, you are with them together, but I am lonely there. Here, it is better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hernandez left school at 14 and started to work in the countryside, before deciding to follow his many relatives who were working in the U.S.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: (Through translator) One goes north for the work more than anything. There's always work there, in the fields or the restaurants, many things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He lives with four other migrants in a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S. He manages to send between $100 and $500 home a month. He says he works long hours, but he earns in the U.S. in an hour what he would here in a day, if there were steady work, which there isn't. His dream is to make enough money to come back and get married and build a house. In two weeks, he's going back across again.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: (Through translator) If luck is with you, you cross the border quickly. If not, you have to suffer a while. I'm not afraid. People have died crossing, but I guess it was their time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It didn't used to be like this here. While a few communities contributed braceros, Mexican workers brought over legally to the U.S. in the '40s to the '60s, most families around these parts had little experience with migration, but not anymore.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's market day in Malinalco. Cecelia Gonzalez(ph) is a young girl who works at a lunch counter. Her brother is in the U.S. and...

Ms. CECELIA GONZALEZ (Resident, Malinalco, Mexico): (Through translator) Some friends of mine have just left. Here it's the same story. Almost all the young girls and boys go over there to make money and to realize, according to them, their American dream. There isn't any work here. Everything is scarce and there's lack of money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She too is considering leaving. She sees that many of her friends and families come back with clothes and cars. Still, she thinks, maybe, immigration isn't so great for the country.

Ms. GONZALEZ: (Through translator) On the one hand, it's good, but on the other, it's bad, because Mexico is belonging more and more to the U.S. Everyone is heading over there. Mexico is emptying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The debate Gonzalez has with herself has not become part of a wider Mexican discussion here, though. Critics charge that the political class has yet to truly assess or consider the impact of migration. In the first presidential debate ahead of the July 2 elections, immigration was barely even mentioned.

Conversely, charge others, the U.S. is making decisions unilaterally without trying to include Mexico in the process. Gonzalez says that she feels both governments don't care. The poor are ignored in Mexico and exploited in the U.S. She says there are many reasons why young people are leaving her town. Poverty, because they see others going to the U.S. and doing well, because there is a demand for their work there and there is none here. She says it's becoming a way of life.

But go the rural areas, and there's also something else driving people off.

(Soundbite of water)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: During the hottest part of the day, a father and son terrace a plot of thick black earth about an hour away from the town of Malinalco. Water runs in rivulets down to the flat areas where, this season, rice will be planted. This is difficult work. The men wear cut-off pants and are barefoot. Their clothes are splattered in mud. Their bronzed faces are lacquered in sweat.

Like most of the people here, they are subsistence farmers. The father, Benancio Nieto(ph), is 77 years old and he believed that many of the camposinos' difficulties can be traced to the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. BENANCIO NIETO (Farmer, Malinalco, Mexico): (Through translator) NAFTA ended up offending all the campocinos. It ended up damaging us, not helping us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He sells his rice now for about two pesos eighty a kilo, about 25 cents, barely enough to make a living.

Mr. NIETO: (Through translator) That's why they're leaving to migrate. There are places now where they can't even feed themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking around the area, fields lie sallow and overgrown with weeds. Drought has also hit other areas in Mexico hard. His 19-year-old son says that no one from his generation wants to work the land anymore.

Similar situations are seeing people migrate from other farming areas, where going north was uncommon, places like Chiapas and Oaxaca states in the south. Speaking in a café in Mexico City, George Grayson from the College of William and Mary says that NAFTA has hurt the Mexican countryside.

Professor GEORGE GRAYSON (College of William and Mary): Now, campocinos are facing competition from Continental Grain and Cargill and other super-producers from the Midwest. For example, to produce a ton of corn takes about 18 man-days in Mexico. It takes two hours in the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: American agriculture is also heavily subsidized and it has expert distribution. The local farmers here say they simply cannot compete.

(Soundbite of tapping)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Malinalco in the main plaza, two men have come to town to make money busking for the weekend visitors. Glalio Gonzalez(ph) plays the trumpet.

Mr. GLALIO GONZALEZ (Trumpet Player): (Through translator) I came here to get what I need to survive. We're looking to make money for our families.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's one of the ironies in Mexico that even a town as poor as Malinalco attracts those who are even more needy.

(Soundbite of trumpet and drum)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For a small fee from someone else who's passing through, he plays a happy tune.

(Soundbite of trumpet and drum)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gonzalez has made his way to Malinalco from rural Oaxaca. Mexico is a country of people on the move.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Malinalco, Mexico.

(Soundbite of trumpet and drum)

YDSTIE: Tomorrow, we'll hear about how migration is affecting the most vulnerable in Mexico: children.

(Soundbite of trumpet and drum)

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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