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Latino Immigrants Journey Home for Christmas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years ago, Jose Luis Espinoza left his small town in Jalisco, Mexico, with little more than his dream to make good in a country with a strange language. This week, Espinoza will return to his hometown aboard his 1983 Dodge station wagon.

“It’s going to be great; my parents are going to love it when I drive them around to visit friends,” predicted Espinoza, 25, his eyes growing wide with anticipation.

“And, hopefully, the girls will notice when I drive it to the Christmas dance,” he added with a shy smile.

After a year of hard work for an Oxnard construction company, Espinoza--like thousands of fellow Mexicans who earn a living in Ventura County--can hardly wait for his triumphant Christmas homecoming.

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“Nothing compares to your own land,” Espinoza said as he waited in line in front of Oxnard’s Mexican consulate for a permit to import his station wagon.

“You enjoy everything much more when you are among your people, especially during Christmas.”

Every year, thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Ventura County return to their homeland for the holidays. Many quit their jobs, leave school early or shut their shops to take part in the monthlong festivities, which begin with the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and last through the New Year.

“Business is slow because everybody is coming and going to Mexico,” said Jose Luis Melgoza, owner of Familia Melgoza restaurant in Oxnard. “So I shut down the restaurant and we all go to Ocotlan to rest for a couple of weeks.”

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This year, despite the recession, more people than ever are making the trip, according to travel agents and Mexican officials.

Mexican officials credit the increase in visitors to an aggressive public relations campaign promoting a relaxation of travel requirements called Programa Paisano or Peasant Program.

Airplane reservations to Mexico are booked solid--even though flight frequencies have increased by 25% compared to the same time last year, Rosa Gascoigne, owner of Aztec Travel service in Oxnard, said last week.

“This Christmas season is special for us,” said Gascoigne, who flew to Mexico City on Friday. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. People are willing to pay top prices to go back, even if they can’t afford it.”

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The Mexican consulate in Oxnard is flooded every day with hundreds of people applying for car importation permits and identification cards that they need to be allowed back into their country.

The yearly pilgrimage coincides with a slowdown in the county’s agriculture. About 3,000 of the county’s 20,000 agricultural workers are laid off during December and early January, county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said.

Many farm workers choose to go back and work on their family plots rather than stay here on welfare, he said.

“It’s warmer in Mexico, so they have crops year-round,” McPhail said.

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The seasonal exodus causes serious problems in the county’s schools, said Gilbert Cuevas, a counselor at Port Hueneme High School.

Four years ago, before the school started using aggressive techniques to reverse the trend, as many as 150 students left for Christmas and stayed away for a month or more, Cuevas said.

This year, despite the school’s efforts, 10 students have left without completing their courses, Cuevas said.

“The parents take them down for the fiestas and don’t realize how much harm they do to the kids,” he said.

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Others, such as farm worker Agustin Lara, 22, are willing to give up their jobs to stay in Mexico for as long as they can.

“Back home, I can have fun without attracting attention. Here, whenever I have a party, some neighbor complains,” said Lara, who returned to La Piedad, Mexico, last week. He said he will stay “until I run out of money.”

Like many of his compatriots, Lara said he especially cherishes the old, Catholic-inspired Christmas tradition of the posadas , or inns.

The nine-day posadas celebrate the plight of the Virgin Mary and Joseph as they tried to find shelter in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.

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Every night between Dec. 15 and 23 in any given Mexican city or town, neighbors get together and divide themselves into two groups. One group stands outside the house, carrying candles. The others stay inside and play the role of innkeepers.

The two groups sing religious songs to each other, the outsiders asking to come in, the insiders resisting at first and finally relenting. After being allowed in, the “guests” blow out their candles, ending the ritual. Then the singing and dancing begin.

“Our posadas are beautiful,” Lara said. “Back home, we do many things to honor Jesus during Christmas.”

In Mexican towns and villages, most families build miniature Nativity scenes, said Luis Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mexican consul. At midnight on Christmas Eve, tradition dictates that the family place the Baby Jesus in his cradle, completing the scene and giving birth to another Christmas.

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“In the big cities, the Christmas tree has been introduced and some of our native traditions are being lost,” Ramirez said. “But in the smaller towns, especially among the lower classes, the religious mystique remains strong.”

Perhaps the best-known Mexican Christmas tradition in the United States is the breaking of the pinata . The pinata ceremony, Ramirez said, also has a deep religious meaning.

“The pinata is made with papers of many colors, representing the temptations of the devil,” he said. “When the children strike the pinata , they are fighting the devil’s temptations. As a reward, the pinata explodes and the children are showered with sweets.”

As she stood in line near the Mexican Consulate’s front door on the second floor of the Oxnard transportation center, Liberia Rosales, 26, said she can’t wait to strike the pinata in her hometown of Tlascala, Mexico.

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“I miss everything,” she said with a deep sigh. “The pinata , the rosary at the church, the plaza, all the family, gossiping with friends.”

For Rosales, who lives in south Oxnard and cleans houses for a living, it will be her first trip back in 10 years.

The Mexican government hopes that she will have many more happy returns.

Three years ago, newly elected President Carlos Salinas de Gortari launched the paisano program with people such as Rosales in mind, Ramirez said.

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“Our government finally realized that there were 20 million Mexicans living in the U. S. who wanted to go back home for Christmas but didn’t have the right documents, were hassled at the border and had to put up with a lot of problems.”

The first step, Ramirez said, was to make sure Mexicans and Mexican-Americans felt welcome. Thousands of billboard signs went up in Mexican cities and beach resorts with the face of a smiling farm worker and the slogan: “Paisano--Solidarity for Your Return to Mexico.”

Across the border, Mexican officials advertised the program on Spanish-language radio and by distributing colorful brochures promising “Fair treatment, that is your right--our commitment is permanent.”

Another important goal of the program is to curb the practice by some Mexican law enforcement officials of soliciting bribes along the border and in tourist resorts, Ramirez said.

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“This is a problem that is very common in many Third World countries, and Mexico is not immune,” he said, lowering his voice.

To attack the problem, the Salinas government established for the first time a clear set of guidelines of what visitors can bring into Mexico, how much and for how long.

The paisano program brochures explain that each visitor can bring up to $300 in gifts at no charge and that licensed vehicles can stay in Mexico for up to six months, also at no charge.

This year, Mexican consulates have began processing car importation permits to avoid delays at the border, and the response has been nearly overwhelming.

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The Oxnard consulate averages 150 permits per day since it began issuing them Dec. 2. Another 150 people are being helped each day by Ramirez and his handful of staff workers with paperwork for their Christmas trips.

The line starts to form at 6 in the morning and, on most days, it snakes around the second-floor lobby, on to the stairway and down to the benches of the bus terminal.

By 9 o’clock, the scene usually is chaotic. A consulate official came out of the office the other day and pleaded: “If you are here to accompany someone doing business in the consulate, please return to the first floor. For security reasons, we can’t have so many people up here.”

Like a busy shopkeeper, Ramirez directed traffic in shirt sleeves from the entrance door.

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“This program has been a great success,” he said. “Every year, we keep perfecting it to make it easier for our visitors.”


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