They Migrated from Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up. Orchids Brought Them Home.

MAPASTEPEC, MEXICO — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Candelaria Salas Gómez, an orchid rescuer, poses for a portrait in her kitchen in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

For years, Santa Rita residents have been leaving to seek their futures elsewhere. However, in 2020, when the poverty rate reached 70.9% of the people in Mapastepec, according to official data, 25 people returned and began to reverse the trend. Together, they founded this orchid conservation project near El Triunfo rainforest. Those hands that years ago packed grapes in the United States, served customers in the Riviera Maya, or studied organic agriculture in a university today care for orchids and preserve the rainforest.

According to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, between 2015 and 2020, more than 160,000 people migrated out of Chiapas, where Santa Rita is located, moving to other states for work, education or economic stability. Add to this more than 17,000 people who left Chiapas to live in other countries as of 2020, according to the most recent data available.

Wilfrido Velázquez López, 30, president of the ecotourism group’s board of directors, returned to Santa Rita after 10 years working in Cancún, in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo. He came back to be close to his passions: orchids, the abounding nature of El Triunfo rainforest, and his community, which he had abandoned to pursue professional development opportunities.

Velázquez López explains that during the past three years, the project has grown strong enough to be a viable source of income and allow tourists to interact with nature.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

The Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group in Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico, has recovered approximately 7,600 plants, like these orchids.

“When families visit us, they enjoy the orchids, scenery, nature and community. They visit our homes and wander around our yards, which is where the orchids are set up to recover,” says Velázquez López, adjusting the hat he wears to shield himself from the sun.

Margarita Vázquez Pérez had migrated to the U.S. to seek a better life but returned to join the orchid rescuers.

“When I migrated from Santa Rita, I went with my husband and two daughters, who were young girls then, and we went north [to the U.S.]. We did all types of work there, sometimes three shifts a day. It got to the point where I didn’t see my husband or daughters. They were very difficult times,” Vázquez Pérez says.

Abel Aguilar Morales, an enthusiastic 39-year-old promoter of caring for orchids, says he inherited his love for these flowers and his community from his parents, pioneers in Santa Rita’s rainforest recovery.

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Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Margarita Vázquez Pérez, who returned from the U.S. to her community to care for orchids, poses for a portrait at her home in Santa Rita Las Flores.

“We have more than 40 species of orchids and 1,103 plants in the various greenhouses. Each plant has a record, including the species and the location and date it was found,” Aguilar Morales says. “We are helping the orchids to recover so they can then be reintroduced into the lower areas of the rainforest. We’ve already reintroduced 7,680 plants” since the project started.

Biologist Alexser Vázquez, director of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, says orchid rescue and care are key to the reserve’s conservation.

“These types of projects support nature conservation and foster environmental awareness among the communities and the tourists. In Santa Rita, rather than giving thought to altering or intervening in the rainforest to use the land for cattle ranching or farming, people think to care for it and preserve it,” he says.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Corazón de Jesús Álvarez, left, and Aradiel Álvarez Ortiz pose in separate portraits at their home in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Aradiel Álvarez Ortiz, the project’s secretary, has always encouraged his children, Corazón de Jesús Álvarez and Everardo Álvarez, to explore and learn about other places. But at the same time, he has instilled in them a passion for nature and orchid conservation close to home.

“Everardo already migrated, saw other places, and left to prepare for his university studies. Now that he’s back, he is applying everything he learned to the project,” Álvarez Ortiz says, as his children remove withered leaves and clean roots and bulbs. They’re all counting down the months until these flowers recover enough to be moved back to the rainforest.

Tourists’ visits aren’t the only source of income for the flower rescuers. They also sell food and handicrafts, including earrings, charms and necklaces featuring orchid petals.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

The Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group offers tours to Las Flores River and Golondrinas Canyon in El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve.

“We have a very good job because we’re earning a living by taking care of the environment, of the orchids, by guiding tourists through our community,” says Marcos Aguilar Pérez. A member of the ecotourism group, he spent eight months working in factories in Tijuana, a Mexico-U.S. border city, but came back because he “missed everything” about Santa Rita.

To those who care for the orchids, this work is long-term, and they call on other migrants to return to Santa Rita. They see the orchids as the perfect excuse to return home, a means to provide jobs to those who have left.

“In the high season, we can get up to 10 or 15 groups daily, with an average of 10 people per group. There are moments when there aren’t enough feet on the ground to assist everyone, but we always get the job done,” Aguilar Pérez says with a smile. “Anybody is welcome to join the project. The only requirement is love for the orchids, nature and the community.”

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