When we turned the corner on our short walk around San Juan Vallarta, Puebla, I was struck by a massive building that at first glance I thought was a church or some public building. But no, the imposing structure with walls twice my height was in fact a house constructed by money from the US. A sharp contrast to the house with dirt floors where I had been visiting a couple for the past several hours.
Making a house, such as the house I saw in Vallarta, is the principal dream in going to the US and the status symbol upon return. Among the people that I have met and in the towns that I have visited, most people make a clear distinction between those migrants who were able to construct a house from the dollars they earned and those who were not. In the latter category are failures, people who must have wasted their US money. They share with me their deep regret that they failed to make a house.
The house isn’t just for themselves but also for their parents. In fact, one migrant told of how his father was never able to construct a house on his limited wages as a manual laborer and how his mother one day on the verge of tears said that if anyone could make the house it would be him. When I interviewed him, he was deeply depressed from the death of his mother, the failure of the business that he tried to start, and his two deportations, but he clung to the fact that he had at least succeeded in making his house and that his mom was able to live in it for a few years before she passed away.
I have to admit that the obsession with making one’s own house is not yet one that I fully grasp. I can see it from the perspective of my boyfriend, who is an architect, and wants to design his own house because of the artistic challenge and potential of the process. But the migrants that I have talked to seem rather unconcerned with the details of the design. The idea of making one’s own house has something to do with the security, the patrimony, the legacy that comes with a tangible building.
Perhaps also it is that the difficulty of working long days in the US, the stress of US bills, and the constant threat of migration enforcement, makes people want to point to something tangible to say that it was worth it. So many of the houses stand empty, their owners still living in the US. Yet they are distant reminders that the challenge of migration is worth it and perhaps a representation of future hope.