By daybreak their ranks stretched along 6th Street across from MacArthur Park, most everyone braving the dawn chill to reclaim a piece of a homeland they had abandoned more than a decade ago -- or knew only through the memories of parents and elders.
Wednesday was the final day for many Mexican immigrants in the United States and elsewhere to "recuperate" their Mexican nationality. The step allows the millions who have sworn allegiance to the United States and other foreign nations -- forfeiting their status as Mexican nationals -- to recover some of the privileges they once enjoyed as a birthright, including the right to Mexican passports, although not the right to vote in Mexican elections.
It also was the deadline for the children of the Mexican diaspora born in California or other foreign precincts to apply for Mexican nationality.
"Being Mexican is something to be proud of," said Oscar Ramos, 24, a born-in-the U.S.A. contractor who waited in line at the Mexican Consulate for eight hours with his brother, Alex, 19, and his mother, Teresa Ramos, who arrived as an immigrant 30 years ago.
Pride in an ancestral homeland was certainly a factor for many among the crowd of about 3,000 who waited to submit their paperwork. Although those eligible have had five years in which to reacquire Mexican nationality, many waited until the end, making Wednesday the busiest day so far, officials said.
"These people feel Mexican," said Martha Lara, the Mexican consul general, who presides over one of the country's busiest diplomatic missions. "For them this represents an act of respect, and love, for their home."
Despite the cutoff Wednesday, Lara expressed confidence that authorities in Mexico City would extend the deadline in coming weeks. That would open a new window for those seeking to restore their Mexican status.
Apart from the emotional benefits, recovering Mexican nationality offers many practical advantages. Those in line spoke of the relative ease of returning home with Mexican passports. Mexican law limits foreign ownership of land and businesses, a barrier that disappears for those with Mexican nationality. Nationals avoid taxes levied on non-Mexicans who inherit wealth.
"Everything is a lot easier down there if you're a Mexican," said Oscar Chairez, 43, a business owner from Commerce who was applying for his entire family -- his wife and three U.S.-born children.
Quite a few looked forward to the day when Mexicans living abroad could vote in Mexican elections -- an issue long debated in Mexico City.
Mexican authorities amended the country's Constitution in 1997 to allow "dual nationality." Until then, Mexicans who became citizens of another country automatically lost their Mexican nationality. But Mexican law still distinguishes between nationals residing abroad, who have many rights, and citizens, who also have the right to vote in Mexican elections.
Mexico City's extensive consulate network began accepting nationality paperwork in 1998. It was a historic act for a Mexican governing class that for years had reproached its immigrant legions for having abandoned la patria.
The expected flood of nationality seekers never came -- until recent days, when word of the impending deadline in the Spanish-language media drove many to make a belated trip to the imposing consular building across from MacArthur Park.
Lara attributed the delay to a natural tendency to wait until the last minute.
The surge led to daylong delays for some.
Those in line Wednesday represented a kind of snapshot of a now-settled Mexican immigrant community that began arriving in the 1970s, as the Mexican economy went into a spiral, its wealth in oil and other resources unable to support its burgeoning population. The movement north has only accelerated in the intervening years.
Many were middle-aged and well-dressed and had spent as much time in the United States as in Mexico. A substantial number initially arrived as illegal immigrants via the U.S.-Mexico border and later achieved lawful status in the United States through the amnesty program of the mid-1980s. Now, many were coming almost full circle, thinking about their children and even their eventual retirement.
"We still have property in Mexico, and I want my kids to be able to enjoy it if they wish," said Guadalupe Aguilera, 38, one of six brothers and sisters who arrived from Tijuana starting in the 1970s.
Pride in what they had accomplished in the United States was a common theme -- as was their affection for their adopted country, even as opposition in Mexico to the U.S. attack on Iraq has been strong.
"We have been able to accomplish things here we never would have been able to do back home," said Chairez, a burly man who sat with his wife and two of his three children in a shaded waiting area.
Applicants were required to bring Mexican birth certificates and U.S. passports or certificates of naturalization. U.S. natives carried their documents and those of their Mexican-born mothers or fathers.
Maria de Jesus Guzman, a 63-year-old domestic worker from Van Nuys, toted her paperwork in a grocery bag. She was getting older, she said, and looking forward to retirement in her native Guerrero, in western Mexico.
"This is a fine country to work in, but you are always pressured; you never make friends," Guzman said. "Mexico is different. There is time to enjoy life."