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MIGRANTS FIND LIFE HARD IN MEXICAN HUB

Margarita Juan Luciano thought an abandoned, roofless house would make a better home for her family than the sidewalk where she sells colorful dolls to tourists. That was before the wall fell down.

Luciano, an Otomi Indian, is among 250,000 Indians from around Mexico living on the streets of the congested capital, trying to make enough money to feed themselves and their families. Economic turmoil brought on by a devaluation of the peso in December has made things worse.Three other Otomis living as squatters in the condemned building were injured July 23 when a wall tumbled down. Officials declared the dangerous building unfit for habitation.

Now Luciano and members of 25 other Otomi families from the town of Santiago Mezquititlan, in the central state of Queretaro, are living in a gymnasium while the National Indigenous Institute works to find them permanent shelter.

"This group is one of 400 Otomi groups in the same situation," said social worker Carlos Garcia. "The demand is so great that there just isn't enough."

Experts say the number seems to be growing with more poor peasants hit hard by Mexico's economic crisis deciding to leave behind their tiny rural villages and try their luck in the big city.

"There are definitely more people living on the streets of Mexico City since the devaluation," said Gary Gordon, a University of Chicago doctoral student studying street vendors.

"With the women selling crafts on the street, and the men washing windshields or working as construction hands, they can scrape together enough for food but not to pay rent," Gordon said.

The crisis has strained a government struggling to provide basic services to a growing number of impoverished citizens.

"We have a home (in Santiago Mezquititlan), and some land to grow corn, but there's no work there - we can't even earn enough to buy salt," Luciano said.

The 40-year-old mother of eight sews by hand and sells Indian dolls of cloth and yarn to passersby in capital's touristy Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone. She's lucky to sell two dolls a day for the equivalent of about $5.

For Indian migrants like Luciano, communication is often a problem; many Mexican Indians speak Spanish as a second language.

Cultural shock is common for people who leave behind small communities with dirt roads for the capital and its noisy, dangerous thoroughfares.

Assimilation is difficult, if not impossible. There are 56 different ethnic groups in Mexico, all with their own language and customs.