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U.S. immigration crackdown brings gangs, California cuisine to Yucatan

Wander into Cafe Rex in Oxkutzcab, Mexico, deep in the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula, and some odd things pop out on the menu. For one, there’s red curry and other Thai food. It might seem like a culinary aberration, but it isn’t.

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 (pronounced OHSH-kootz-CAHB), which lies a three-hour drive south of Merida, Yucatan’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.

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 soupcon of tolerance for gay lifestyles and in a surge in street gang activity and drug use.

The Hotel Clasico here 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-long 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 Yucatan 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, the 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, a 35-year-old butcher who spent 10 years working in kitchens in the Bay Area. Ruiz walks with a cane, the result of multiple compound fractures to his right leg when he fell off the border fence trying to cross into Nogales, Ariz.

Nearly all Oxkutzcab migrants flocking to San Francisco start out as dishwashers, then rise in kitchens. Some have become sous-chefs. They live in the shadows, vulnerable to immigration raids and deportation. Those who come back _ either voluntarily or forcibly _ 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, a 36-year-old 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 bechamel 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 Guemez Pineda, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of the Yucatan.

U.S. immigration officials have stepped up deportations. Three or four years ago, Yucatan might have received a few hundred deportees a year. Then 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 violent criminal bands elsewhere in Mexico. While a few have firearms and a handful of murders 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. Guemez 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.”

Hector Santos, 26, returned from San Francisco earlier this month after years working in a pizza parlor there. He denied rumors among neighbors that he’d been deported. He paused at a question about drug use.

“Why lie to you? I was into that, too,” Santos said.

Rising drug habits coincide with rising crime.

“There’s a lot of home robberies,” said Nestor Vazquez Baeza, a dentist. The robbers “sell to fences who come from outside Oxkutzcab.”

Other changes in the town are subtler.

“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.

The cost of sending a migrant via a coyote from the Yucatan to the United States is enormous for families here, averaging $6,000.

Families rack up crushing debts to finance the journeys, putting stress between relatives. Several pawnshops in town underscore the ways the families raise money. Many would-be migrants are caught and sent back, and families find themselves raising the money again.

“They mortgage their properties to try to cross again,” said Vazquez, the dentist. “When they don’t succeed, they lose their houses. This is how families fall apart.”

“The exorbitant debts of families are not talked about very much,” said Palomo, the lawyer. “It’s one thing to be broke. It’s another thing to be indebted.”

Family dramas can take odd twists. Simeon May Tack, a 54-year-old Mayan farmer, stopped a visitor and related how his nephew in San Francisco had stopped sending money to his sister each month. He pondered how one could rat out the nephew to immigration authorities and force his deportation back to Oxkutzcab.

“This is what she wants, that they return her son to her,” May Tack said.

Despite the high risks of traveling without papers to the United States, many want to take the gamble.

“Even though I’ve been deported three times, I still want to go back,” said Manuel Uc, a 31-year-old with 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.