OXKUTZCAB, Mexico — Wander into Cafe Rex in Oxkutzcab, Mexico, deep in the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula, and some odd things pop out on the menu. For one, there’s red curry and other Thai food.
Across town at the Limba Restaurant, the menu carries an assortment of dishes from Thailand, created by a chef who spent a decade in kitchens in San Francisco, where Asian food is prevalent.
“I was chief cook in three Thai restaurants,” said Eduardo Dzib Vargas, listing venues on Potrero Hill, the Embarcadero district and Ghirardelli Square. Back in his hometown, he’s broadened the menu at Limba beyond Thai. “I modified it because there are five or six restaurants with Thai food.”
Like towns across southern Mexico and Central America, migration has changed the face of Oxkutzcab (OHSH-kootz-CAHB), which is a three-hour drive south of Mérida, Yucatán’s state capital. The ethnic Mayan town has sent thousands of migrants to the San Francisco Bay Area, most of them to work in the food-service industry.
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Some of them have come back — or been deported by U.S. authorities — and brought a little of San Francisco with them. It’s not just their cosmopolitan cooking talent. You see it in the scatterings of larger two-story homes paid for with U.S. restaurant wages. You also see it in the way men do housework, in a bit of tolerance for gay lifestyles and in a surge in street-gang activity and drug use.
The Hotel Clasico has Victorian-style bay windows copied from architecture in San Francisco, and its walls bear murals of cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Harder to see are the scars that migration has left on families: huge debts to pay for coyotes — people smugglers — and families torn apart by years of separation. And there are physical injuries: Migrants crippled or maimed during the illicit journey to the United States hobble with canes or roll about in wheelchairs.
The great migrant wave from the state of Yucatán to the United States occurred later than in other parts of Mexico and Central America.
“Between 2000 and 2005, the migration to the U.S. shot up between 400 and 500 percent,” said Angel Basto Blanco, deputy director of migrant affairs at Indemaya, a state-run agency that assists native Maya.
Some 70,000 Yucatecans reside in the Bay Area, Basto said, with smaller concentrations in and around Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. Many speak mainly Mayan, and only passable Spanish.
The migration has brought a patina of prosperity to towns such as this one and has affected matters ranging from crime and drug use to the way husbands treat wives.
“The place has changed, some for the better, some for the worse,” said Gilmer Ruiz, 35, a butcher who spent 10 years working in kitchens in the Bay Area. Ruiz walks with a cane, the result of multiple compound leg fractures when he fell off the border fence trying to cross into Nogales, Ariz.
Nearly all Oxkutzcab migrants flocking to San Francisco start as dishwashers and then rise through the kitchen ranks. Some have become sous-chefs. They live in the shadows, vulnerable to immigration raids and deportation. Those who come back — voluntarily or not — have mismatched skills. While Oxkutzcab is a thriving agricultural center, few of its corn and citrus farmers can afford to eat Peking duck, Thai food or veal scaloppine, or even have a taste for it.
Roger Burgos, 36, a former sous-chef, developed his cooking chops at Kuleto’s restaurant, a Northern Italian eatery near San Francisco’s Union Square. He worked in other restaurants, too, and can easily banter about how to make béchamel sauce.
Today, he buys and sells cattle, barely making ends meet.
Graffiti-strewn walls give testament to the street gangs that plague the town. About a dozen gangs have emerged.
“Most of the gang members are migrants who’ve been deported for assaults,” said Miguel Güémez Pineda, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of the Yucatán.
U.S. immigration officials have stepped up deportations. Three or four years ago, Yucatán might have received a few hundred deportees a year. It soared past 500 in 2012 and hit 1,112 in 2013, a pace that’s stayed steady this year.
The gangs aren’t like the many elsewhere in Mexico. While a few have guns, and some homicides have been reported in the past year, the gangs are largely about control of neighborhoods.
“They fight among themselves for turf. They throw rocks and occasionally use guns,” Basto said, but “they don’t extort.”
Returning migrants bring habits of drug use. Güémez Pineda said surveys of Yucatecan migrants in California found that at least half used marijuana, cocaine or synthetic drugs.
“When they admit using drugs, their justification is that it’s because their work is backbreaking,” he said. “It allows them to manage a double shift. That is what they say.”
Rising drug habits coincide with rising crime.
“There’s a lot of home robberies,” said Nestor Vazquez Baeza, a dentist.
Other changes in the town are more subtle.
“Before, a man would never pick up a broom and sweep the house,” said Ruiz, who added that he and other returning migrants had grown used to doing housework while living abroad, often without their wives.
“When you return, you don’t litter. You watch how authorities treat citizens,” said Edgar Palomo, a lawyer who works with migrants.
Despite the high risks of traveling without papers to the United States, many still want to take the gamble.
“Even though I’ve been deported three times, I still want to go back,” said Manuel Uc, 31, who has tattoos all over his torso, neck and scalp. A founder of the local Los Canarios gang, Uc said he was no longer interested in gang life and wanted to return to San Francisco, where he’d mastered the cuisine at a Peruvian restaurant.
“Things I learned in the United States, I’m not able to use here,” he said.