JOAQUIN AMARO, Mexico - Decades ago, before massive waves of young men fled north, Pedro Avila Salamanca helped his father harvest corn and fatten pigs. He learned to write his name in a one-room schoolhouse. Sometimes he rode to town on a donkey.
It's all a distant memory now. Everywhere abandoned houses are crumbling. The towns are shrinking. And Avila, 89, who wears donated clothes and lives on the meager checks his daughters send from the United States, can't remember the last time he ate meat. "What would I buy it with?" he asked.
Avila is a part of the immigration debate that neither Mexican political leaders nor cheap-labor advocates in the United States like to talk about: Heavy migration has all but emptied much of the Mexican countryside.
Money sent back to Mexico from those working in the United States reached a record high last year, $20 billion, making remittances from migrants Mexico's second largest source of income, surpassed only by oil exports.
But the export of human labor has been devastating here. It's left the land dotted with near-ghost towns inhabited by the very old and the very young, their lives dependent on whatever money their relatives send home.
If there were economic development here, there would be few people of working age to reap its benefits.
"For the governing class, immigrants become the solution. They leave. They reduce the political and social pressure ... they even reduce the costs of public works projects," said Rodolfo Garcia Zamora, an economist and immigration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, the government-operated university in this state. "They can only hope that everybody leaves and sends home collective remittances."
In five states, including Zacatecas, remittances from abroad now equal 100 percent or more of the salaries generated locally. In the state of Michoacan, money sent home from the United States is 182 percent of in-state incomes.
No corner of Mexico has been left untouched by emigration. In 31 percent of Mexico's municipalities, population is shrinking steadily because of migration to the United States, according to figures provided by Garcia Zamora.
In Zacatecas, known for silver mines and dry, mountainous terrain, the data are even more stark: 45 of the 58 municipalities are shrinking. The state's population of 1.5 million would double if all its emigrants and their offspring returned home from the United States.
The population drain is no secret in tiny Joaquin Amaro, just up the road from the tiny "rancho" where Avila Salamanca was born in 1916. There are nine times more people from this town living in Cicero, Ill., than in Joaquin Amaro itself.
Florentino Rodriguez, 75, is back here after spending most of his working years - from 1951 to 1994 - in the United States. Today, nine of his 10 living children live there. His wife recently died.
Tears rolled down Rodriguez's face when he was asked to describe life in his shrinking hometown.
"It's hard. I'm all alone," he said. "The men go to the United States and they stay. Only the old ones are left behind."
Across the border, meanwhile, the exodus has sparked a fierce debate in the U.S. Congress and beyond. Many business and farm interests say entire industries would collapse without immigrant labor. Conservative activists favor deportation and a wall on the border. Liberal groups want to put immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship.
If anything binds them together, it's the conviction that something needs to change. The number of illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last six years, to 12 million from 8.4 million in 2000, according to a report released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center. More than half the unauthorized population comes from Mexico.
As Congress debates enhanced border security and guest-worker proposals, experts and many immigrants themselves say that the only way to keep people in Mexico is to create good jobs here.
That was behind a proposal put before Congress in 2004 to create a North American Investment Fund that would have sent $20 billion in American and Canadian development aid to Mexico to start projects there. The proposal went nowhere.
"If we don't start now with a bold program, illegal migration will only get worse," one of the proposal's proponents, Robert Pastor, who served on Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff, wrote recently in The Miami Herald.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who sponsored the 2004 bill, said it may be a long time before Congress is willing to take that step.
"We've got a lot of education to do," Cornyn said. "I don't think the American people support the idea of just taking their tax money and giving it to somebody else just because we want to help them out."
Mexico's own efforts at development have been less than impressive. None of the 16 states with the highest rates of migration has made economic development a major priority, according to Garcia Zamora, the economist in Zacatecas.
Critics say state and federal leaders encourage their citizens to go to the United States illegally.
One immigrant in Zacatecas said an official offered counsel on how to scam the U.S. system.
Narce Cardona Lopez, 28, said she was shocked when she went to the Zacatecas immigrant assistance office recently for advice on how to take her 2-year-old daughter, Maria Jaramillo, who was born in the United States, back to Oakland, Calif., for treatment of a hip condition.
She said the agency director told her to do like others before her have done: Hire a "coyote," or smuggler, sign up her U.S.-born kids for welfare in California and have somebody send the money here.
"I said, `That's lying to the government and I could get in a lot of trouble. I don't want to lose my children and I don't want to get in trouble with the government,'" Cardona said.
The director, Fernando Robledo, said he doesn't remember Cardona's visit and angrily denied telling her to hire a smuggler or to lie to the U.S. government.
The Mexican government has been criticized for its efforts to help illegal immigrants. A little over a year ago, the Foreign Affairs Ministry published a 32-page booklet, modeled after a popular comic book, titled "Guide for the Mexican Immigrant." While counseling against an illegal crossing, it gives advice on when to cross the desert, how to dress for a swim across the river and what to do when lost: "Guide yourself with light poles, train tracks or dirt roads," it said.
Early this year, the independent, federal Human Rights Commission published maps showing illegal immigrants how to find water and highways when crossing the desert into the United States. After an uproar, plans to distribute the maps were shelved.
In Joaquin Amaro, people don't need maps. The young men know their way and the old people can't leave anymore. Their contact with the modern world usually comes at the end of a telephone line, at $1 a minute, from a bank of telephones set up in a trailer in the town square.
Many here don't have running water, much less reliable sewer service. A sign above the toilet in the only open restaurant in town said, "No. 1 only. If you go No. 2 you will have to clean it up."
The working-age people nearly all seem to be waiting to leave. Alvino Arroyo, 31, a Denver mechanic married to an American, is here only until his U.S. resident's permit is granted. Esther Murillo, 29, a Chicago housewife with four siblings also living in the United States, tells the same story. Her husband, Otto, 31, an industrial engineer, is a Chicago native whose parents left Zacatecas before he was born. He's keeping her company.
Forget reliable mail service. Up the road, Pedro Avila Salamanca, the 89-year-old man living off what his daughters send him, picks up his sporadic checks at the home of the one person in his village set up to receive mail.
His teeth are falling out now, so he can't eat much. His diet consists of tortillas - 70 cents for a bit more than two pounds - and beans. He said there are three people older than he is in the village - aged 92, 94 and 95. Most of his contemporaries are dead.
But "there is no reason to be sad."
"I'm in my native land," he said. "I'm poor but I'm happy."