US & Canada

Dreaming of San Francisco in the Yucatan

Fernando Buenfil Góngora owns the Hotel Clásico in Oxkutzcab, Mexico. He built the hotel with 15 years worth of remittance money he earned working in San Francisco. Image copyright Monica Ortiz Uribe
Image caption Fernando Buenfil Gongora built a hotel in the Yucatan on the wages he made in San Francisco

Many from the Mexican town of Oxkutzcab go to San Francisco, California, to work and bring money back to their families - but returning home is not easy after years in the US.

The Yucatan Peninsula juts into the Caribbean like a defiant fist and, 3,000 miles (4,830km) away, the San Francisco Bay area looks like a miniature version of it.

The two may be separated by distance, but they depend on each other. The Yucatan needs the work and San Francisco needs the workers.

The decades-long relationship has developed into something of a love affair, which returning migrants find hard to forget.

But for the migrants' relatives who have stayed behind, the benefits of immigration have begun to lose their lustre.

'Part of my life'

In the city of Oxkutzcab, in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, many locals associate Fernando Buenfil Gongora with the ultimate immigrant success story.

He owns the Hotel Clasico, built with 15 years' worth of money earned by working as a busboy and bartender at an upscale Asian restaurant in San Francisco.

"I have the Golden Gate Bridge and I have another cable car here," Buenfil said, pointing to murals inside his 11-room hotel, which is like a shrine to San Francisco. The top floor is painted canary yellow and features rooms with bay windows.

Today, the hotel keeps most of his family employed.

Buenfil said he's OK financially. "I can survive," he said. "I'm not making much, like in San Francisco, but I'm happy to be here with my family."

But Buenfil confesses leaving San Francisco was like swearing off a mistress. He misses the city.

Image copyright AP

So much so, that he's cut off all contact with his friends there. He fears being pulled back.

"I feel like part of my life is in San Francisco," he said. "I feel like if I go there I'm going to stay. So I don't want to leave my family."

Family is what ultimately yanks many Yucatecos back to Mexico. For Buenfil, it was his dying father. Now he's married with an infant daughter.

Traces of San Francisco are everywhere in Oxkutzcab. A few restaurants serve Asian dishes like Pad Thai and chicken dumplings in addition to cheeseburgers and tacos.

The San Francisco Giants logo is displayed on cab windows, baseball hats and tattoos.

Oxkutzcab is far from the mega tourist destinations of Cancun, which attract millions of Americans annually - 70% of locals live in moderate to extreme poverty.

But the consistent flow of dollars from relatives in the US has nurtured a modest middle class.

They drive newer model trucks and carry smartphones and it's common to see two-story, American-style homes built next to traditional adobe huts.

Restless to return

As a teenager, Juan Carlos Chable would wake at 03:00 in the morning to unload crates of pineapple destined for the downtown market in Oxkutzcab. He made the equivalent of $26 (£17) a week, not enough to take his future wife out to a nice dinner. When they married, they moved in with his parents.

"I couldn't make it," he said. "I was barely making enough to feed us."

So he went north. Chable spent two years in San Francisco kneading pizza dough and washing dishes.

Image copyright Monica Ortiz Uribe
Image caption A faraway fan of the San Francisco Giants shows his love for the team on his motorcycle cab in Oxkutzcab

He saved up enough to move back to Oxkutzcab and build a spacious four-room home with a patio and a fancy wrought iron gate. He now has two kids and owns a motorcycle taxi. On a good week he'll make the equivalent of $120.

But lately he's felt restless.

"I want to go back to San Francisco," he said. "I have hospital bills to pay off and I struggle with the day-to-day expenses."

Chable keeps his savings in three yoghurt containers atop his refrigerator. All three are empty, save for one US dollar. Chable wants to earn more and open his own car wash.

But those who stay behind, mostly women and children, are less convinced that immigration is the solution to their money troubles.

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Media captionWhy some deported Mexicans may not be returning "home"

Next door, Chable's mother, Sofia, rinsed a chicken before lunch, wearing a tattered Mayan embroidered dress.

Her sink was a large plastic bowl, her faucet a lawn hose and her stove a pile of firewood. She scoffed at her son's desire to leave again.

"He's crazy," she said. "He has his house and a motor taxi for work. What is he missing? He's got everything he needs."

Chable's wife is also against his leaving. Now that their children are in school, she's offered to get a job. But Chable won't allow it.

"Here it reflects badly on a man if his wife is working," he said. "You'll be ridiculed for failing to provide for your family."

Image copyright Monica Ortiz Uribe
Image caption Sofia Cocom does not want her son to go back to San Francisco - "He's got everything he needs," she says

In a nearby neighbourhood, María Juvencia Chan, 30, swatted flies off chunks of raw pork.

She has never hesitated at the thought of work. Chan and her husband run a small butcher shop and food stand.

She also makes her own soaps to sell. With their earnings, they've raised two children, built a home and drive a 2005 Jetta. Neither has migrated to the US for work. Chan takes pride in this.

"It's difficult no matter where you go," she said. "But if you apply yourself and work hard you can make it in Mexico."

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organisation that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Reporter Mely Arellano contributed to the reporting.