Far and Near — Reflections on Friendship and Immigration in the Tech Era

By Elsa Mejía

Ed. Note: For The kNOw contributor Elsa Mejia, traveling to her parent’s home state of Oaxaca this past New Year’s Eve brought to mind the power of social media to help preserve friendships across distances and borders. But with more friends having moved north to the U.S. in search of economic opportunity comes the recognition that some distances can’t be covered by technology.

FRESNO, Calif. — We dug our toes deep in the soft, light brown sand at Zicatela beach, an international  destination for surfers and beach combers alike off Oaxaca’s southern coast. A light breeze kissed our cheeks as we sat under a bright white moon, watching the waves crash and considering all we wanted to achieve in the new year.

The three of us were together again for the holidays. All of our parents were born in Oaxaca — one of the poorest states in México. Perhaps we would have grown up together, had it not been for the lack of economic opportunities in the state we all fondly call home. Still, every other year we saw each other in December as my family — like many others who had migrated to the United States — made its way back to “el pueblo.”

Abrahan studies accounting at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca, and Fany is a law student at the National Autonomous University of México. Thanks to the explosion of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook we’ve been able to stay in regular touch, despite the distance.

Even at the cheapest rates — five cents a minute on Google Voice — talking can rack up costs pretty fast. So family and friends on either side of the border are constantly recommending cheaper platforms to communicate as they emerge. Applications such as Tango and Whatsapp for audio, text messaging, picture and video calling are extremely popular. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and Skype are also widely used. And identifying pueblos on these social networking sites helps people who have roots in the same place find each other.

It’s a far cry from what my parents experienced three decades ago, when they left Oaxaca to work in the crop fields of the Central Valley. Back then, they expected to go weeks — months even — without hearing their parents’ voices.

“We wrote letters,” my mother said. “And if it was a big emergency, like someone was very ill or passed away, they called us urging us to go back home. But telephones were very uncommon. They weren’t found in almost every house like they are today. Only those who were well off in México had them so they set up telephone booths which weren’t cheap to use.”

Still, every other year when mom and dad went back, people remembered them and greeted them as if they’d just seen each other the day before. It was almost as if time stopped in these small towns where people spend the evenings sitting outside their homes chatting, watching passers by and the sun set.

“Oh you’re back?” They’d often yell out at my parents with a smile as they watched my dad slowly driving into town. “Yeah, we’re back. Going to relax a little and then back to work.”

But staying in touch and maintaining friendships with people who still live in México today — even with all the communication tools available — is a choice we don’t all make. It can be difficult, for example, for some American-born children of Mexican nationals who don’t speak fluent Spanish, or worse yet, they talk mostly in Spanglish.

For those of us who do choose to learn more about our parents’ native land, it can instill a sense of pride and belonging — and it becomes easier to understand our families, their customs and traditions.

As I return to my parents’ hometowns I look at the houses and streets, the people and their way of life, and I wonder about how my own life would have been had mom and dad chosen to stay. I firmly believe my parents made the best possible decision given the circumstances, but I sympathize with those who feel they must leave home —and everything they love— to try and earn a better future in a new land, where hard work is often met with social and economic discrimination.

That night at Zicatela was our sixth together. We’d been looking forward to the trip since July, the last time we were together. Except back then it was seven of us who said we’d be staring at the sky looking for the brightest star come December. But just as my parents had been lured to “el norte,”others in our group heeded the same call promising a better tomorrow. So there we were, reduced to a trio, chatting away as notifications from friends in New York, Washington, California, México City and elsewhere flooded our devices throughout the night.

“Happy New Year! You all better be enjoying Oaxaca and drinking lots of Mezcal!” the voices in the audio recordings screamed. “You’ll see me in my pueblo again soon enough!”

Meanwhile, we watched young tourists from Germany, Argentina and Portugal run amok along the beach, liquor bottles in hand and setting off colored lanterns into the sky.

“One day we will all be here again though. Like in July. I know we will,” Fany said.

“Yeah, hopefully,” Abrahan said. “One day.”

Tim Haydock (he/him/his)
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Communication from Fresno Pacific University and a Master’s in Theology and Film from Fuller Theological Seminary, Tim returned to his hometown community in Fresno. He spent over 5 years teaching courses on media production and theory at Fresno State University and Fresno Pacific University and was the academic advisor for the Fresno Pacific University student newspaper.

Tim joined his passions for storytelling, education and social justice in January, 2014 when he started running The kNOw Youth Media in Fresno. In May of 2016, Tim became Director of YouthWire, where he led four youth media programs across the state. In the two years Tim was director, YouthWire printed over 200,000 newspapers distributed in dailies across the state, sent reporters to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, was featured in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Fresno Bee, KQED and The New York Times’ Race/Related newsletter, and led storytelling training for over 75 youth from at least 12 different communities in California.

Tim currently serves on the journalism advisory board for Fresno City College and was a New America CA 2017 Fellow, the first from the Central Valley.

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