© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Traveling Theater Enables Mexican Mothers To Visit Their Children In U.S.

Sebastian Medina-Tayac
Indigenous Migrant Family Support Center (CAFAMI) members rehearse the play for which they were granted visas to perform in the U.S. Doña Rosa, second from right, has been staying in Conn. with her son, whom she hasn't seen in 10 years."

Over 2,000 miles from New Haven, Connecticut, is a rural town called Tetlanohcan. And there, you’ll see ads on the street for package delivery to New Haven.

That’s because since the 1990s, thousands of Mexicans have moved from Tetlanohcan to New Haven so they can work and send cash home to their families – cash deposits known as “remittances.”

But many of the people sending those remittances don’t have papers. That means many are afraid to return to Mexico and see the family that they’re here to support.

Documentary filmmaker Sebi Medina-Tayac went to Tetlanohcan for his film, “Tlaxcala Dreams,” and wrote about the relationship between Tetlanohcan and New Haven in a series for the New Haven Independent. He worked with WSHU on an audio feature about how people in Tetlahnocan are affected by the strict immigration policies that make it difficult for rural Mexicans to get the visas they need to see their migrant loved ones.

Medina-Tayac: “I stayed with the Mendieta Cuapio family in 2015 and, more recently, a few weeks ago. The Mendieta Cuapio family doesn’t have running water. They have a well in front of their house, they raise pigs, they have this traditional lifestyle -- but they have Wi-Fi. And they have Netflix.

“When I was there I was speaking to the father of the family – his name’s Bernardo Mendieta. He was telling me that the reason he can continue to live this agricultural lifestyle is because the remittances of his children in the United States, specifically his sons in New Haven and Brooklyn, subsidize the farm.

“Because of trade agreements with the United States, it’s actually very expensive to live this lifestyle these days. Of course people prefer to live that way, it’s healthier, it’s really their culture. But in order to sustain the farm [Mendieta] depends on his family members taking these wage jobs – jobs that are very removed from this lifestyle.”

Mendieta has eight children, and five of those children have moved to the United States to New Haven and Brooklyn.

“I haven’t seen them since they left,” said Mendieta, to Medina-Tayac, in 2015. “They don’t think of returning because of the costs of crossing. The problem of not being able to return to the U.S., it’s why they’re so far away from us. And that’s how the family disintegrated.”

“I always thought my brother would be the one to come home,” Jackie Mendieta – Bernardo’s daughter – told Medina-Tayac. “But eventually I had to find a way to come see him in the United States.”

U.S. immigration rules make it hard for many rural Mexicans to get visas into the country. But some people in Tetlanohcan have found ways around an immigration system that makes it very difficult for rural Mexicans to get visas to see their undocumented relatives. Through art, they’re able to reunite with family in New Haven.

In the early 2000s mothers and sisters like Jackie Mendieta started a group called CAFAMI, along with Marco Castillo, an anthropologist at the University of Mexico City. Castillo calls Mexico a nation “of shattered families.”

It’s estimated that approximately 30 million Mexicans live in the United States, although the number may be higher as many are undocumented. “One in four Mexican families have a relative in the United States,” Castillo said, to Medina-Tayac. “So what we’re looking to do is find ways to break the cycle of forced migration and family separation.”

“Castillo helped convene the women, and their goal became to see their kids, after five years, 10 years, 15, 20 years. So what they did was they worked with a playwright from New York named Daniel Carlton and also this community activist, Marco Castillo, and they wrote a play,” says Medina-Tayac.

The play was first performed in 2008, then again in New Haven in 2015. “The play got the women three-month visas to come to the United States. They were there to present the play, but for many of the women their biggest most exciting moment is seeing their families,” says Medina-Tayac.

“It was this really sort of tearful tangle going on in the lobby of JFK airport. There was a lot of selfies going on, and it felt like the whole town back home was liking all of them. Because it was such a big moment for the whole community.

“The first three weeks are very busy with the play...then they mostly go to a normal life. After those three months are up and the visas expire, the pain of separation is re-enacted at the airport.

“I was witnessing one of the most devastating moments in these people’s lives,” he remembers. “And after the drive back I was really hit with a cynicism about the whole process. This is only three months -- what does three months matter in the context of 15 years?

“But I remembered something that one of the women, Dona Rosa, told me – which is 'I’m going back because I have to but I’m also going back because I want to, I have family there too.'”

There’s family on all sides and that's the message they bring with their play, “La Casa Rosa.”

It’s unknown when CAFAMI or “La Casa Rosa” will come back to New Haven, but the play has started a conversation in Mexico about creative ways people can cross the border. More groups have sprouted that use CAFAMI’s model, helping rural Mexicans use art to see their families.  

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, this community exists in two or three places at once. It’s that they’re not able to visit and move back and forth, that’s the problem,” says Medina-Tayac. “That’s why it’s so inspiring to see people in Mexico find various ways to defy that.”

Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.