Sweeter holiday for Mexican-Americans

Mexico's new president promises to heal the social stigma and harassment faced by Chicanos when they head home.

The annual holiday pilgrimage back to Mexico is always a festive event for the nation's expanding Mexican-American population. Border clogs are common, and airline seats, even at twice the price, are nearly impossible to find.

But this year, "going home" will be an even sweeter journey than normal.

"It's an atmosphere of rejoicing and hope, even a kind of release," says Matias Varela of San Mateo, Calif., who is packing his bags for a Dec. 15 departure.

Mr. Varela, like many Mexican-Americans, has been impressed by the internal policy changes promised by newly inaugurated President Vicente Fox. But he and others have been particularly touched by Mr. Fox's explicit embrace of Mexicans living abroad.

Earlier this month, in a gesture felt well beyond Mexico's border, Fox vowed that "the times are gone when Mexico viewed the immigrant and the immigrant's children with resentment. We want to change things."

That statement was swallowed like honey by Mexicans living in the United States, many of whom find the passage back to their country too often an experience of petty official harassment and, in some cases, social stigma.

"There is always some ambivalence toward Mexicans that are living in America," says Maria Blanco, counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Many Chicanos will tell you they feel slightly looked down upon in Mexico."

'Back in the family'

Fox's statement, though, is "like welcoming us back in the family," she adds.

Laura Lopez, corralling two children at the Mexican consulate here, is eagerly awaiting a holiday trip to be with her family in Mexico City. She says Fox has created an upbeat atmosphere within families on both sides of the border.

"I talked to my mother, and I can see they are happy. They feel something different," says Ms. Lopez.

Indeed, Lopez and her husband, Hector, plan to permanently relocate to Mexico, after living in the US for a decade. "We are very hopeful our children are now going to have better lives there," says Mr. Lopez, a San Francisco apartment manager.

Fox has made it clear he intends to be president of 118 million people, a number that includes the 100 million living in Mexico itself as well as those living in the US.

That embrace is both symbolic and tangible. Mexican-Americans returning for the holidays laden with gifts and cash are easy prey for customs officials, who sometimes demand bribes or simply confiscate gifts. Even beyond the border, returning Mexicans often find themselves making payments to traffic police for trumped-up violations.

Admiration and envy

Beyond harassment at the hands of officials, there can be social sanctions, too.

"Many people come here to the United States to make money, but go home to enjoy it," says Varela. But once there, he points out, there are always crosscurrents of admiration and envy. "Many at home see you as flaunting what you have," he notes.

Luis Arteaga, associate director of the Latino Issues Forum, says attitudes toward Mexican-Americans are complicated. There is admiration for those who take the economic risk of migrating to the US, but it's often tinged with resentment of their better life. "Doctors and dentists may make only $25,000 in Mexico, and when people return to the country making more but in lower-level jobs, it bothers some people," he says.

There are also simple issues of pride and patriotism.

"Mexico is an extremely patriotic country, and that is one reason many don't favor becoming US citizens," says Ms. Blanco.

Indeed, the rise of the Chicano political movement in the US during the 1960s and '70s was part of Mexican-Americans' search for power and identity, say political analysts. But it was also a means of defining themselves in relation to Mexico, they add.

Given the fact that many Mexican families are split by the border, the holiday trip home is more than a mere visit. For many, it is a high point of family bonding and a way to reacquaint children with their roots.

"I want to take my children back so they experience what it's like to be part of Mexican culture," says Varela.

The return migration is massive. Carlos Tello, Mexico's consul general in San Francisco, estimates that during the holiday peak there will be 2 million to 3 million border crossings daily.

Fox himself has promised to visit the border Dec. 15 to emphasize the importance his government attaches to the community of Mexicans living in the United States.

The Fox administration has established a new office that will focus on migrants and push programs that leverage the resources of Mexican-Americans toward economic development in Mexico.

Salvador Diaz, from Downey, Calif., is upbeat about his pending holiday visit to Mexico. But, like others, he keeps his optimism somewhat in check based on years of political disappointment.

"All we hope is that all the president says, he will do. You know how it is with politics."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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