Mexico is a country of contrasts, socially, economically and geographically.
TV news tends to be transient, so occupied by what’s now and what’s next that even while we’re rushing to file our latest three minute report – often half our mind is already on the next story.
That inevitably means that the young, working, or criminal are given precedence, those developing the latest technology, leading the latest revolution or committing the latest atrocity.
Perhaps that’s why winding our way through the cactus covered mountains to the Mixtec region in southern Mexico felt like such a welcome change.
Cameraman Gustavo Huerta and I were heading to meet an elderly population which has been frequently forgotten by their own society let alone the wider world.
The Mixtec is beautiful in a hardy, spiky kind of way. But the arid soil doesn’t give much to live on and the majority of the young and able stream out of the region to Mexican cities or the US rather than trying to scratch a living in the fields here.
It’s been that way for decades. And while the young leave, the children and the elderly are often left behind. The children are waiting their turn- for the old there is no such hope.
Many are left to eke out their lives in increasing poverty. That’s the recurring story in the village of Atenango where from a one room shack we picked up Guadalupe, an indefatigable 80-year-old who was to be our translator with the elders in the village who only spoke Mixtec.
She cheerfully interjected every utterance with colorful profanities, often offered up her own colourful interpretation in the midst of a translation, and probably wouldn’t make it as a UN translator – but it worked for us.
With Guadalupe sitting in the back, we rolled along the dirt road to stop by the gate of Francisca Rojas and her sister Juana, 88 and 94 years old respectively.
Sitting on small chairs on the bare earth outside Francisca’s house she told us – through Guadalupe – that her son had left fourteen years ago to escape the poverty in the village and the lack of work in the Mexican countryside.
In the city (she didn’t know which one) he sold things on the street and rarely made enough money for the trip home.
“I love my son very much but what can I do? He can’t be at my side because there’s no work for him here. I cry for my son because he suffers, he is poor”, she told us, the tears rolling down her weathered cheeks.
Without financial support and increasingly ill – she’s struggling.
“I think about it a lot because there’s no one who worries about us. We’re left in God’s hands. My sister is dying and there’s no relative to help us and I’m suffering.”
In Mexico family is everything – an extensive support network that can be relied on to care for you if you’re ill, need house repairs, or economic support, but most importantly the network provides a ready made and extensive social group.
It’s an all encompassing clan system uncommon in most Western nations – but in some areas with high migration – it’s under threat.
The majority of elders we spoke to in town all reflected on the loneliness of having their immediate family elsewhere. Even while many had one daughter or son who had stayed behind to help them, the sense of family disintegration was ever present.
Karen Rasmussen – a German American– set up a charity four years years ago in the Mixtec to care for elderly people – she says already they have more elders than they can deal with who have been left behind by migrating families.
“Many times people leave, don’t realise how time is progressing, how their mother and father are growing older, what their needs are and really have no way of checking on them many times because elders don’t have phones, don’t have skype and so elders are just left to their own devices, maybe with yearnings wanting to talk to their family members that have left but basically having to manage by themselves.”
Her charity ‘Nija’nu’ – which translates from the Mixtec language into something like ‘respect for our grandparents’ helps out with monthly food parcels, bedding, clothes and fixing up elderly people’s homes.
Nija’nu’s local care provider Karina also provides regular sessions in which elders meet, dance, play ball games and practice arts and crafts.
It’s a way for them keep their mobility – but the participants say that the most important thing that it’s given them is a community in which they can socialize and support each other.
I talked to Mikaela Camarillo as she put the finishing touches to the plasticine sculpture in her art class. Her four children have all left the Mixtec for the big city. She says before the morning sessions with the charity she and her sister rarely left their house.
“I feel happy because I’m doing something. I forget my problems – that my children aren’t here. I’m not alone.”
The Nija’ Nu staff say they’ve recently put benches out in front of their small house because elderly neighbours – many of whom before scarcely knew each other- now meet a couple of hours before each session just to sit and chat.
But it’s far from enough- the charity say they only have the resources to care for thirty or so elderly people, and there are many more in the Mixtec region who need support.
The level of family disintegration varies across different regions of high migration. Academics and locals from the Purepecha area in Michoacan told me that overall the family unit had been altered but survived and the remittances that come from relatives in the US have helped out immeasurably.
Those from the Zapotec area in Oaxaca shared similar experiences. But migration experts also agreed that the problem of elderly people left behind by migration is not confined to the Mixtec area and also occurs in other areas.
Given that Mexico’s population in general is growing older it promises to be a problem that only gets bigger with time, particularly in the countryside where the average age of small scale farmers is more than 60 years old.
But as we drove back across the cactus covered hills and out of the Mixtec the thoughts uppermost in our minds were of the elderly people we had met in the region, the warmth of their welcome and their good spirits.
Even while suffering increasingly bad health and poverty it was clear that they had found something to hang on to – the knowledge that together they are not alone.