NOGALES, Ariz. – Eric Salguero and his cousins are on their annual international road trek for the Christmas holiday.
It’s the same for thousands of Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals in the United States – paisanos, or countrymen, making a traditional migration southward, for whom there’s no place like grandma’s in Mexico for the holidays.
The exodus normally peaks on the weekend before Christmas, and it was playing out again this week in Arizona and elsewhere in the West, despite tough economic times.
In the border city of Nogales, pickups, SUVs and sedans filled with folks and packed with packages to the windowtops were a common sight. So were pieces of luggage or carriers taped on rooftops and more gift goodies packed onto steel grates attached to rear bumpers. Many of the vehicles bore California license plates.
“This weekend coming will be the heaviest weekend in the return of Mexicans who will spend the holidays in Mexico,” said Oscar de la Torre, Mexican consul in Douglas, the sister city to Agua Prieta, Mexico, in far southeastern Arizona.
De la Torre said his staff estimated that the ports of Agua Prieta and Naco, Son., would see at least a 10 percent increase of southbound holiday visitors this year. The two ports had around 85,000 vehicles cross through into Mexico and return at the end of the last holiday season, and 100,000 vehicles are expected to make the round trip this season.
“Culturally, Mexicans display great solidarity,” he said. “When an economic crisis is increasing, Mexicans believe they have to be with their family to comfort them – and looking for prosperity for next year,” he said.
He added, “Like Santa Claus, they arrive with gifts.”
Indeed, despite the hard times, people such as Salguero and his cousins were driving 30 to 40 hours, sometimes even more, to reach their relatives. They made a brief gas and pit stop Thursday en route from Los Angeles to their grandparents’ home in tiny Zipimeo in the state of Michoacan, a 30- to 32-hour trip.
“We usually do it every Christmas,” said Salguero, a 23-year-old education student at California State University, Fullerton and an elementary school teaching assistant. The drive through Nogales is safer than heading south through San Diego and then through Tijuana, he said.
“The economy was a concern, and some other family issues,” Salguero said, but they weren’t enough to keep the cousins in California. They refused to accept the idea of missing a trip to see their grandparents and other relatives, he said.
“When you drive through the Mexican towns, it’s a little bit chaotic,” Salguero said, noting that traffic can be very heavy and the roads are more basic than what’s found at home,
Gustavo Martinez, 16, of Fresno, Calif., was among five family members traveling to see relatives in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, a trip he’s been making since he was about 7.
The gifts they were transporting this year were pretty much confined to clothes, he said. The trip itself, he said, “is always boring,” but Martinez said he was excited and looking forward to seeing his father’s parents.
Fernando Barragan, a 42-year-old process server from Victorville, Calif., was on a 40-hour drive-through with his wife and children, ages 18, 11 and 7, that began at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. The drive is tough, he said, “but there are people waiting for me” – and for the clothing and toys in his SUV.
Barragan was headed to Uruapan, Michoacan, for the first time in five years and it was the first trip for his whole family together.
The economic downturn put the squeeze on his family in terms of making the trip and their resources are limited.
“We’ve been saving for years to make the trip,” Barragan said.
In Nogales, U.S. Customs and Border Protection port supervisor Edith Serrano said there was a lot of traffic heading into Mexico.
“I thought they wouldn’t head south in tough economic times, but they are,” Serrano said.