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Village prepares to bury children

TENENEXPAN, MEXICO — TENENEXPAN, Mexico - More than 20 men wearing dirty jeans, cotton button-down shirts and wide-brimmed straw hats hunch over a ditch in the town cemetery, using small shovels to slowly remove the dirt.

In the searing afternoon heat, they are digging a deep, rectangular hole in the ground wide enough for three small caskets.

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There is no money to pay them for their work, and they do not expect to get paid. Intense labor is part of daily life in this small farming village.

"In moments of pain, we're all together," said Ninfa Lozano Lara, 65, great-aunt of the three children who were killed in Northwest Baltimore last week.

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Police have arrested a cousin and an uncle of the children but have uncovered no motive. Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, who was born in Mexico City, was decapitated. His cousins Lucero Solis Quezada, 9, and Ricardo Solis Quezada, 9, sister and brother born here in Tenenexpan, were nearly beheaded.

Their mothers - Noemi Quezada, 47, and her niece, Andrea Espejo Quezada, 34 - are from here. They took their children to Baltimore hoping to escape the poverty of this tiny village, where most children are either pregnant or working in the fields 15 hours a day by the time they're 16.

Now, as the town prepares to bury the children, villagers can't help but talk about why the women left, and whether they are willing to come back home.

"If you ask me, you couldn't pay them to stay over there now," said Lara. "They should come back to their family after a tragedy like this."

Family members say the tragedy wouldn't have happened if the children were living in Tenenexpan with dozens of relatives nearby to look after them.

The Quezada family, who have lived here for generations, now number about 300. They say their ancestors came from Spain. They all live in a cluster of houses up on a steep hill.

But no one blames the women for wanting to give their children a chance.

"Andrea was not someone who chased the American dream like the rest. Because of that, we thought she shouldn't go to the other side," Lara said. "But she insisted that she wanted something better for her children."

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Lara spoke as she unscrewed bottle tops from a case of local Sol beer and prepared a lunch of beef tacos to thank friends for digging the children's grave.

She made the corn tortillas and beans, and bought the beef for 45 cents a kilogram just down the street at a house that doubles as a butcher shop.

"We are poor up here," said Lara. "But we are dignified. If one person has beans, we all eat beans."

Tenenexpan, which is in the state of Veracruz, lies about a 45-minute drive from the resort city also called Veracruz. It is a village with hastily constructed homes of concrete and corrugated metal. They have running water, but bathrooms are generally apart from the homes, more like outhouses with chicken wire latches on the doors.

Rooms are separated with shower curtains. Some floors are concrete. Others have a thin layer of linoleum for decoration. The kitchens are stocked with old refrigerators and stoves that look like discards from wealthier people in the city.

No one owns a car, and trucks are driven for work in the fields, not for personal use. One paved road winds through the center of town; the other narrow, hard-packed dirt roads are shared with passing iguanas, roosters and scrawny stray dogs.

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Each afternoon, a blue pickup truck comes by selling bags of 25 sweet oranges for 5 cents.

There has never been a restaurant in Tenenexpan, but several people sell food through open windows in their houses. Beef tacos sell for the equivalent of 20 cents, and grapefruit-flavored sodas are 60 cents.

Noemi Quezada left for the United States with her husband, Ricardo, and their two children about eight years ago. Andrea Espejo Quezada, who had been living in Mexico City, went just five months ago and joined her Aunt Noemi in Baltimore.

"They wanted to make something of their lives," said Luz Maria Quezada, 37, Noemi Quezada's cousin. "There is little work and little money here. There, there is much work and much money."

Andrea had two children, Alexis, who was killed, and a 2-year-old girl, Monserat, who was not in the apartment at the time of the killings.

When each woman came to the United States, she went first to New York, then joined Ricardo Morales' brother Victor in Baltimore.

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"I don't know why they liked Baltimore," Lara said. "They were looking for a place that was not full of Mexicans. They were not looking for any problems."

Many relatives think Baltimore is in New York. They say the names of cities in English are confusing to them. "I hear the name of a city, and it doesn't stick with me," said Luz Maria Quezada. "I'm not exactly sure where she was living."

The women sent their three children from Baltimore to this village in March so they could connect with their birthplace for a few weeks. They traveled by plane, accompanied by an aunt who relatives believe must have some type of legal documents.

Relatives say they played with their cousins in the river and rode mules, fitting in as if they had never left.

If Lucero had grown up here, she likely would have given birth to several children and spent her days raising them, washing clothes in a big soapy tub and hand-making tortillas over a wood fire.

If Ricardo and Alexis had stayed, they would have been farmers, working on someone else's land, earning $50 a week tending cattle, cutting sugar cane and picking mangoes.

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Monthly expenses would be about $10 for electricity, $3 for water and $80 for food. All their clothing would come from the secondhand shop, often emblazoned with English phrases they don't understand, such as "When Mommy's not happy, nobody's happy."

If they were lucky, they'd have a 10-inch television for the seven local channels. They might even have a dial telephone, as a few villagers do. No one in the town has a cellular phone.

Their lives would be like that of Pasqual Quezada, 55, cousin of Noemi and Andrea. He wakes up at 5 a.m., pulls on jeans, work boots and a guayabera, a traditional button-down shirt.

He eats a breakfast of tortillas with beans and rides his mule several miles to work. He tends to cows and horses until about noon. He comes home for a lunch of beef strips, beans and tortillas, then heads back out until about 8 p.m.

Quezada owned three cows once, but he sold them last year for $1,400 to pay a coyote, or smuggler, to take him into the United States.

Hundreds of people from Tenenexpan travel illegally, hoping to stay for a few years and earn some money, then return to their families. Some end up staying there for good.

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"My father went to Los Angeles 10 years ago," said Gonzalo Baezavez Vasquez, 13. "I don't know where he works. We don't talk much."

Pasqual Quezada endures much ribbing from his family because he lasted only two months in El Paso, Texas.

Without a green card, Quezada got a job working at a McDonald's earning $5 an hour - but found the quick pace difficult. "I was making the hamburgers," he said. "I had to flip the meat, faster, faster, faster. Everything there is faster."

After a few weeks, he got a raise to $6 an hour and promotion to putting orders on trays. But the orders that appeared on a screen were in English, and he didn't speak a word. "It was a disaster," he said.

Quezada returned home, minus the $1,400 transit fee. "My wife called me back home," he joked in his own defense, as several of his cousins sitting nearby in the shade covered their faces in laughter.

"But seriously, I missed my wife. I missed it here," he said. "I don't have much here, but it's mine and I like my life. Here I have family.

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"When you go there, you don't know what will happen to you."


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