As a migrant from Bangalore, India, who has relocated across continents more than once, I am always curious to learn why someone moves. As I have experienced and as scholars have pointed out, modern migration is caused by economic pull factors, such as opportunities to earn a better living than is possible at home, as well as push factors, including political and social instability and violence.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when the Trump administration enforced Title 42, a rarely used section of US Code 265 that gives Border Patrol agents the authority to expel and repatriate migrants seeking entry at the southern border, migrant returns to their homelands have accelerated. Many would-be migrants try again and again to gain entry. They and others, dejected, return home. But what about those who have gained entry, found work, and forged new lives in America? What compels them to go back of their own volition?
That’s a question I’ve been exploring since 2018. I have documented how migrants returning to Oaxaca, Mexico, have reintegrated into the place they once again call home. I learned that many factors tug such migrants back: family responsibilities, such as caring for aging parents or children who stayed behind in the care of other relatives; disillusionment with life in the United States; a lack of opportunities to live a full and meaningful life here; a desire to retire after years of backbreaking toil; and, in the case of the undocumented, the stress of living under the threat of being found out and deported.
One through line in all of the stories I heard: Returning migrants don’t just bring back money; they also bring back their authentic self, the person who left and who had to inhabit a different, often invisible identity in America. Once home, the poet, the chef, the musician, or the artisan comes back, too.
In the photographs that follow, I introduce you to four men I met in cities across Oaxaca state who shared their insights with me. May their stories help you regard all migrants more holistically, as human beings with dreams, passions, families, and unique gifts to share.
Fernando Alberto Mendez Cruz, a poet, writer, and entrepreneur. Photographed in Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca.
You will find 56-year-old Fernando selling his books in Oaxaca de Juarez’s zócalo, or city center. He is a writer, poet, publisher, marketing manager, and salesman. Over the course of a delightful hour-long conversation with Fernando, I was struck by his optimism and his desire to shape society by writing about the importance of loyalty, friendship, and living a good life.
Fernando spent four years in California and Arizona before returning to Oaxaca in 2017, prompted, he says, by a “lack of meaningful work.”
“Writing is my vocation,” he says. “And I was just wasting my time working in restaurants and doing others’ work. This is my work, to write, educate, and inspire people.” And then he read me a poem from his book “Un Tributo a Oaxaca” (“A Tribute to Oaxaca”).
Miguel Méndez Bautista, a chef. Photographed in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca.
Miguel is a chef who owns and runs a well-known seafood restaurant. He was born in Santa María del Tule and established his restaurant with earnings he saved while working in restaurants across the American West. “I bought my land that this restaurant is located on over a period of time and have built it over 15 years,” he says. He fell in love with cooking fresh seafood in America.
Joel Sanchez Luis, a saxophonist and entrepreneur. Photographed in Santa Cruz Papalutla, Oaxaca.
Joel, 54, was in San Diego for more than a decade before returning home. Relatives there helped him settle and warned him about the risks of being caught given his immigration status. “I was very conscious of being an undocumented worker,” he says. He kept his head down and worked long hours as a welder. San Diego “was very beautiful, but I worked very hard in the welding workshop,” he says. A musician who loves being in many bands at once, Joel says, “I was part of a band but worked most of the time.” Back home in Santa Cruz Papalutla, he runs a welding workshop that makes metal gates and doors. And he has far more time to play music and jam with friends.
Nemesio Hernandez, a weaver. Photographed in Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca.
Back home in Oaxaca, Nemesio, who is in his early 40s, works alongside his parents, who are master craftspeople. Their handwoven wool rugs are highly sought after and sold around the world. Theirs is a craft passed down through generations and closely held by the family.
Nemesio worked in restaurants across Southern California in the early aughts. He recalls his time in Azusa and other cities fondly, but like so many migrants I interviewed, he felt pulled to return home. “I came back to be with my family and help them,” he says, adding, “and also work to continue our family tradition of weaving.”
Sabith Khan is a photographer in Southern California.