ASA BLANCA, Mexico — The quaint houses on Pancho Villa Street tell lies with their fresh coats of paint, rooftop satellite dishes and swing sets out back.
Almost no one lives here anymore.
The families — usually fathers first, followed years later by their wives and children — have been swept north by the desperate torrent that carries floods of immigrants to the United States, leaving widening swaths of central Mexico abandoned.
Most of the 3,300 people who left Casa Blanca in the last decade moved to Tulsa, Okla. Fewer than 2,500 remain in this desert village, which is nearly 250 miles northwest of Mexico City, and many of them speak of their home as a ghost town.
Only two families are left on Pancho Villa Street, a curvy dirt road that winds off the main square.
Everyone else has gone. The university-trained agronomist, who migrated to Tulsa 10 years ago, had built the pink house on the corner for his wife and three children. But on his annual visit home two years ago, the scholar-turned-bricklayer packed up and took his family north.
The woman who lived in the mint green house left to tend to her grandchildren. There are towels neatly hanging on a rack in her bathroom, and silk flowers on her dresser.
"The question we always ask is, `Will our community survive?' " said Gonzalo Llamas Bernal.
For generations, many farmers made temporary forays up north and sent money home. But now a shift in migration patterns has squeezed parts of this country's rural core to the verge of extinction. With a growing American law enforcement presence on the border, illegal crossings have become so difficult — and even deadly — that many migrants and their families choose to stay in the United States, rather than to risk a repeated crossing, migration experts say.
And if the trend continues, the kinetic links that migrants have maintained with their home communities may begin to burn out.
The exodus is hitting central Mexican states hard, ones like Jalisco, Zacatecas and Michoacán. That state reported that the number of migrants leaving for the United States has increased to some 50,000 people each year. About half of them move permanently to the United States, and more Michoacános currently live in California, Illinois and Texas than in their homeland.
About 30,000 people migrate north each year from Casa Blanca and other towns in the drought-plagued state of Zacatecas, where the phenomenon suffuses politics, music and childhood dreams.
A teacher in Casa Blanca said enrollment had declined from 500 students in 1989 to 100 students this school year. The students who do not move north with their parents often make the journey on their own once they finish sixth grade, he said.
A group of third graders at the school, named for the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, did not seem worried about the prospect of a Mexico abandoned by all its children.
Alfredo Navario, an 8-year-old with gelled-back hair, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Others will be born."
If the migrants were relocating to Mexican cities, rather than the United States, the abandonment of villages like Casa Blanca would seem little more than an inevitable progression because declining federal agricultural subsidies have made it hard for the farming industry to support large numbers of small growers. But migration is a multibillion- dollar venture for Mexico.
Immigrants send home an estimated $6.3 billion each year. That money — the nation's third largest source of income, behind oil and tourism — has not only provided relatives money for food, clothing and medicine. Migrants also pooled their money and filled in for strapped or corrupt local governments by supporting public works projects that ranged from paving streets and installing potable-water systems to refurbishing churches and furnishing classrooms with computers.
Rodolfo García Zamora, a migration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, estimated that Zacatecas received about $1 million in remittances each day, an amount that is greater than the money this state receives from the national government.
Migration experts worry that having entire families and villages transplanted north of the border could pose serious economic consequences because incentives to send money home could wane.
"Money from remittances contributes significantly to the political and economic stability of the state," Dr. García said. "And if the current trends continue, there could be deep recessions in Zacatecas and in much of north-central Mexico."
While he has been a vocal advocate for making the United States- Mexico border more open to the free flow of Mexican workers, President Vicente Fox, in office seven months, has also said that he aims to carry out projects that would help lift rural areas out of poverty to encourage more Mexicans to stay home. Last week, he inaugurated a micro-lending program aimed at supporting homespun businesses in the poorest regions of the country. And through a cabinet-level office devoted to the needs of Mexicans abroad, the Fox administration hopes to obtain investments from migrants in the United States for educational and economic projects.
So far, the effects of the trend have left deceiving mirages across states like Michoacán and Zacatecas. Villages flush with American dollars have many of the trappings of gentrification: adobe hovels have been transformed into two-story brick houses; crumbling churches, some dating to the 16th century, have been restored; new benches and brightly painted litter bins have been placed around town squares. But up close, the comfortable images give way to distress. The houses, the pews and the park benches are empty.
Of the 2,200 people who lived in the Michoacán village of Huacao 10 years ago, only 400 remain — nearly all of them are women, children too young to trek across the border, or elderly people who feel too weary. To them, the United States is a place called "over there." And when they talk about it, their voices drone with abandonment.
"My husband does not want to take us with him because most of our children are too young," said 33- year-old Consuelo Cortés, whose husband, parents and seven siblings have all left Huacao for California. "To keep myself from feeling sad, I devote a lot of time to taking care of the house. I grow a little bit of corn, and I take care of my pigs.
"That is my entertainment," she went on. "I spend time with my animals."
Ventura Vega, a 60-year-old grandfather, said all 11 of his children had moved their families to California. He said that after the children were born he supported them by migrating for six months every year to pick apples in Washington. It was the only way to keep the family fed, he said.
Nothing has changed for families since then.
"Everyone is leaving," he said. "Just look in all the houses and you see that there's no one. Once we had a group of musicians that performed in the plaza. Even they have gone. And now we are left with no music."
Migrants from these regions have traveled to the United States for so long that people talk about illegally crossing an international border as if it were a weekend getaway. News about the 14 immigrants who died from exposure in the Arizona desert in May stirred little public panic in Zacatecas because, people said, such tragedies happen rarely to migrants from this state.
Mario García, mayor of a Zacatecas migrant community called El Cargadero, said most people who go have reliable guides — their fathers, brothers, and uncles who are part of informal community "social networks" — and they take routes that have been tested by time.
"Sometimes our people get caught by the migra," Mayor García said, "but they just keep trying until they get across."
However, the mayor sounded a rare note of anger about the flight of all his constituents. The farmers who stay, he said, often have to import workers from states farther south because people in Zacatecas refuse to work for average Mexican wages. Small assembly plants in the state have been forced to close because they could not find workers who would accept $4-a-day wages.
"The people here can make more money by staying at home and waiting for a check from the United States, so many of them do not work," said Pedro Chávez, who runs a pig farm in the area. "At least they do not want to work in Mexico.
"People here have one thing in mind," he said with a scowl, "and that is to go to the United States."