FOR 11 months of the year, Trinidad Acevedo and his wife eat their tortillas and beans in solitude. The farmer frets about his bone-dry fields, while his wife, Eufrocina, tends to the memories of their five grown children in the United States. As in many of the poor highland towns of Michoac'an State, the desolate, dusty streets of Francisco Villa are disturbed only by older villagers and the occasional shouts of young children. The rest have headed north to the fields, factories, and fast-food restaurants of the US.
But this year, in a mass migration unprecedented in Mexican history, the native sons have returned.
Free to travel without fear for the first time since arriving in the US, hundreds of thousands of recently legalized immigrants are flooding back to their hometowns for the festive Christmas holidays.
Jorge Bustamante, an immigration expert at the College of the Northern Border, in Tijuana, estimates that 1.5 million Mexicans have returned this year - twice the number in 1987.
One by one, the Acevedos' offspring trickle into town, some for the first time in more than a decade.
Their second-oldest son, Filemon, a short-order cook in Los Angeles, flies in for the first time in 12 years. Their daughter, Gloria, a factory worker in Chicago, arrives with her husband in an Oldsmobile Cutlass with ``Land of Lincoln'' license plates, the first time she's been able to return with the car since moving to the US 16 years ago. Jorge, an unemployed college graduate in northern California, hops off the morning bus from Mexico City with his backpack.
``All year we're alone,'' says Trinidad, his weather-beaten face breaking into a broad smile as he surveys his reunited family. ``But now we are happy, indescribably happy. If we didn't have to sleep, we would stay awake all night just to be with them.''
For the flood of new migrants seeking relief from Mexico's relentless six-year economic crisis, the return to Mexico is often risky. Many undocumented workers were left out in the cold by the recently completed immigration law, because they hadn't worked long enough - or didn't have the necessary papers.
When the next growing season rolls around in February or March, these laborers will sneak across the border again and avoid the snares of the US Border Patrol.
But for the longtime migrants of mountainous Michoac'an State - some of whom first went to the US 20 years ago - the US immigration law has actually made them feel free to come home. Before the law helped them gain legal status in the US, some avoided the trip home, lest they be trapped permanently in Mexico. Now, proudly displaying their green cards, legalized immigrants whip across the border in their own American cars.
In this town of 3,000 people, where the horse is the principal mode of transport for 11 months of the year, there are more than two dozen cars and vans, with license plates from Illinois, Wisconsin, Oregon, and California.
Indeed, the flood of returning relatives has turned Francisco Villa into more than a back-slapping family reunion. It has become a convergence of Mexican and American cultures.
The Acevedo family, now spanning five generations, unites for a cacophonous morning meal around the table that Trinidad and Eufrocino once shared in silence.
The older generation, including Trinidad's 86-year-old mother, knows nothing but the rugged life of this traditional rural Mexican town. The youngest children, rattling off in English as easily as in Spanish, know little beyond the fast-paced life of modern American cities.
Trinidad, ever the family patriarch, instructs four American-born grandchildren on the basics of riding a horse, leading them gently around the churchyard. No matter that the children, who sport $50 high-top tennis shoes, are being led by a man who barely makes enough to live on. They show him due respect.
But even Trinidad has felt the benefit of what he calls ``green gold'' - the US dollar.
``We help my parents out during the year by sending $10 or $20 from time to time,'' says Filemon, filming the family scenes with a $900 video camera that would take his father two years of continuous toil to buy. ``With enough people pitching in, they get along all right.''
Trinidad, sporting an American-made denim jacket with wool lining, points to the brick house he built with money from his children: ``Life is hard with the children gone. But they help make it more comfortable.''
Migration has helped Francisco Villa continue to grow amid Mexico's current crisis.
The town is graced by a new school and several modern houses complete with radar dishes and painted brick walls. Filemon's younger brother, who had to stay and work in California this Christmas, recently built a two-story American-style brick house on the lot next to his father's home.
But for Trinidad and Eufrocina, as for most other people in Francisco Villa, nothing compares with the riches of a family reunion. For them, Christmas is a time of true abundance.