Framework

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Isaias Garcia, 57, wipes the sleep from his face early in the morning at his home in Santa Ana del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Garcia, who labored for decades for himself and his family in Torrance, had to return home to Santa Ana del Valle to do his three-year community service under the system of local governance known as usos y costumbres.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Hipolito Gutieres Martinez, 12, left, and Roberto Carlos, 15, play drums from the top of the Santa Ana del Valle Chuch to announce the beginning of the Santa Ana del Valle annual festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Isaias Garcia, 57, in white hat, processes with members of his community to celebrate the Santa Ana del Valle annual festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Two young women wear baskets of flowers that launch fireworks during the annual Santa Ana del Valle festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

A woman herds her goats in Santa Ana Del Valle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Esefana Garcia, 74, takes in the view of life in Santa Ana Del Valle from the front of her home in the early morning. Garcia, who has lived in the town all her life, gave birth to 22 children. She has outlived all but eight of them. She is widowed and lives alone.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Adalberta Bautista, 79, foreground, celebrates a Mass in honor of a grandchild's birthday and graduation.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Isaias Garcia, 57, second from left, works at the local City Hall with fellow councilmen, along with the vice president, second from right, and president, right, of Santa Ana del Valle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Elisa Garcia, 15, in purple dress, walks down a dirt road with her escorts toward her grandparent's home to celebrate her quinceanera in Santa Ana Del Valle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Friends and relatives participate in the "quinceanera" ceremony for Elisa Garcia, 15, in the town of Santa Ana Del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, in early August, 2012. Garcia, an American who lives in Los Angeles, came to her grandparents town to celebrate her 15th birthday, also known in Spanish as a "quinceanera."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Elisa, an American who lives in Los Angeles, came to her grandparent's town to celebrate her quinceanera.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Angelica Morales, wife of Isaias Garcia, does the laundry in the family's home in Santa Ana del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, in early August, 2012. Garcia, who labored for decades for himself and his family in Torrance, California, had to return home to Santa Ana del Valle to do his 3 year community service under the system of local governance known as usos y costumbres.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Zapotec women prepare "atole," a traditional Mexican hot beverage, thickened with masa and flavored with cinnamon and brown sugar in the town of Santa Ana Del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, in early August, 2012. The drink was made along with other traditional Oaxacan dishes to celebrate a birthday and a graduation.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Isaias Garcia, 57, and his wife, Angelica Morales, work their field of young corn in Santa Ana del Valle. Under local tradition, he would have lost his land if he hadn't returned from the U.S. to take a civic job without pay.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Isaias Garcia, 57, and his wife, Angelica Morales, take a break from working their field of young corn in Santa Ana del Valle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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Bonds of tradition are a financial bind for Oaxacan migrants

Isaias Garcia had labored for decades to raise a family in Torrance when, in 2009, the Zapotec Indian faced a life-changing decision.

The authorities of his family village of Santa Ana del Valle in the state of Oaxaca had called him home to serve without pay as a councilman for three years. If he refused, they could confiscate his property — a house and nine acres — under a centuries-old system of local Indian governance known as usos y costumbres (uses and customs).

Garcia came to America illegally, and he knew that going home would be tantamount to permanent deportation; border security and drug cartel violence had made returning to the United States more dangerous and costly. Nor could he afford to pay someone in Santa Ana to do the job for him.

Under usos y costumbres, a system recognized in Mexican law, Indian towns choose municipal workers — mayors, councilmen, policemen and sanitation workers — in open assemblies. The system is practiced by 418 Indian municipios, similar to counties but much smaller, across Oaxaca.

In most villages, each man before he turns 60 must perform at least 15 years of work — each job can last between one and three years — or pay someone to take his place.

California has close to 300,000 Oaxacan Indian migrants, and more than half of them live in Southern California. Virtually all are from villages run by usos y costumbres; many are in the same bind as Garcia.

Read the full story by Sam Quinones

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