Seattle-area residents return to Mexican hometown to celebrate cultural roots.
CUAUTLA, Mexico — Fireworks shoot out from the limbs of a four-person-tall spinning wheel and explode. Seven different uniform-clad bands belt out music within 50 feet of each other. Neon lights line carnival games. Stands sell fried bananas, tacos and shots of tequila.
It’s 2 a.m. in the little town of Cuautla, Mexico, and everyone is dancing.
The Santo Santiago festival held in July attracts Seattle-area attendees who own restaurant chains such as Azteca, Tacos Guaymas, Las Margaritas, Mazatlan, Torero’s and Ricardo’s. Of the roughly 5,000 guests cycling in and out over 10 days, more than half drove or flew down from the states, and most of them are from Washington.
Cuautla at a glance
Population: 2,171 (2010)
47.5 percent of total pop. facing “multidimensional poverty” (defined as those with incomes less than the “line of well-being” (living wage) that also suffer from at least one “social deprivation”: access to health services, access to social security, education, housing or basic living needs)
Education levels: 35 percent of adult population defined as having little education beyond eighth grade
Employment: Commercial, 34 percent; agriculture, 30 percent; industry, 22 percent, professionals, tech, administration, 14 percent
Ag products: Corn, chickpeas and oats
Standard of living: 48 percent live in poverty; 37 percent of households receive remittances; 11 percent of households with emigrants in the U.S. between 2005-2010
Public services: Potable water: 86 percent of households; electricity: 90 percent of households
Fifty years ago, though, there were no lavish SUVs with Washington-state license plates lining the cobblestone roads in Cuautla, a municipality within the state of Jalisco about 100 miles east of Puerto Vallarta. But, in the early 1970s, the Cuautlan schoolteacher Luz “Lucy Lopez” Lara moved to Seattle and opened the Mexican restaurant Guadalajara in downtown Seattle, pioneering Cuautla’s path from sowing corn seeds to raking in U.S. dollars.
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One by one, Cuautlans came to work for her. They began washing dishes, busing and waiting tables. Some eventually opened their own restaurants. Gradually, the town of agricultural workers and adobe casitas turned into entrepreneurs and multimillion-dollar, California-style homes.
Cuautlans can’t say for sure why Lucy Lopez chose to move from San Francisco to Seattle with her Spanish husband, says Torero’s Mexican Restaurant owner Ted Rodriguez. Still, they regard her as the pioneer.
When it’s not festival time, residents say, less than 2,000 people reside in Cuautla, a fraction of its 3,460 census-estimated residents in 1970.
“There’s nothing here,” said Laura Rodriguez, who co-owns Ricardo’s Restaurant in Factoria with her husband, Ricardo. She is sitting at a shiny mahogany dining table in their Cuautla home while contractors buzz around, working on a bar and an expansive, airy terrace.
U.S. residents continue to invest money in their Cuautlan houses because it will always be home, too, Laura Rodriguez said.
Cuautla’s connection with Washington led in 2001 to its status as a sister city with Renton. In part, Renton residents like Cuautlan Ted Rodriguez helped pave the way to the measure through extensive community involvement. Likewise, Jalisco was dubbed Washington’s sister state.
Anabel “Cuca” Sahagun de García, who opened and formerly owned four Seattle-area Burrito Loco locations alongside her husband, Alex Garcia, says the transformation of small-town residents into cooks and managers is a natural one.
“People here have always been hardworking and honest,” she said, sitting at the tiny cafe she now operates in Cuautla.
When she arrived to Seattle in 1995, Sahagun de Garcia says, she craved traditional food that tasted like home, such as pork tacos, cow tongue and juicy Mexican sandwiches. She joined her brother, Salvador Sahagun, in opening a taqueria.
Salvador Sahagun had arrived in 1992, opening the first Tacos Guaymas. The authentic, counter-style taco joints became a success with nine locations in the Seattle area.
Meanwhile, 2,700 miles away, the restaurant owners’ impact seems to be burgeoning just as quickly.
“The Cuautla you know today is completely different from the Cuautla that used to be,” town president Luis Alberto Robles Peña said while eating at a family-style table among dozens of festival attendees.
Buckets of dollars built a plaza, a $1 million bullfighting ring, paved streets. Before, Robles Peña says, there was no school for children after age 14 or 15. Now there’s a 1980s-constructed high school and a program that offers university scholarships.
The Mexican government has taken note of the town’s affluence. For every dollar the Cuautlans invest in a project, the state and federal government contribute three times the amount in a program called “Three to One,” Sahagun García said.
While members of the community praise the entrepreneurs for bringing money to their formerly rural life, complications arise, Robles Peña said.
Houses are sold in millions of U.S. dollars. An Americano coffee costs $2. Medical visits are twice as expensive as in nearby Morelia. Meanwhile, within the community, Robles Peña said, a person of the laboring class, such as a vendor or farmer, makes about 200 pesos a day, or $12.
An inevitable divide, he said, has developed between the thousands who migrated and those who stayed.
“We’ve lost a little of the relation,” he admitted. “They’ve brought a different ideology; they’ve brought different traditions. But we’re working to maintain unity.”
With American-born children taking over their parents’ restaurants, many say they don’t anticipate the family businesses will slow down anytime soon.
The future of Cuautla, though, remains less certain.
“That’s the question on everyone’s minds,” Sahagun said.
Increasingly, fewer former residents return to visit as families in the states grow. Ten years ago, about double the number of American residents showed up at the festival, Robles Peña says.
Some of the American-born children, he said, can’t speak Spanish. “They don’t want to. They were born and grew up with two cultures, but the one in which you live dominates. It’s normal.”
Sahagun de García and her husband sold their four Seattle-area Burrito Loco locations, with plans to spend most of their time in Cuautla.
Sahagun de García says her little American-born granddaughters are learning Spanish, love visiting and running free. “The youngest one told me, ‘I want to live my whole life here,’ ” she said. “If you bring (the children), and you teach them and they experience life here — they love it.”