Despite COVID-19 threat, Mexican Americans make annual holiday pilgrimage to Mexico: 'This is the only time of year we get together'

Lines of cars towards Mexico await the opportunity to cross the border between the United States and Mexico at the DeConcini port of entry in the two border towns of Ambos Nogales on December 17, 2020. Inspections by Mexican customs officials have lengthened crossing times as Mexicans have increased in attendance Americans travel to Mexico to vacation with relatives, although travel at the border is not strictly necessary.
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PHOENIX - As Arizona COVID-19 infections and deaths increased before the holidays, Angelica Cueto and her husband loaded their Suburban SUV with gifts and made their way east, through New Mexico, and then south, across the U.S. Border to their final destination: Mexico.
The 54-year-old industrial electrician and US resident has lived in the US for more than three decades, moving from job to job across the Southwest. But the years have only added to the appeal of her home and the families who stay there, she said.
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Cueto particularly misses her elderly mother, who has a US visa but cannot travel due to her age.
For hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, the annual pilgrimage to Mexico in December to visit parents and family is a sacred ritual that even a global COVID-19 pandemic and US border restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus couldn't stop.
Many paisanos have already traveled or are making plans to travel home, changing vacation plans, and taking new precautions, despite U.S. and Mexican officials asking to stay home this year. Under the current border restrictions, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can travel freely through land entry ports.
Last month, more than 5 million Americans defied similar government stay-at-home recommendations, traveling through US airports on Thanksgiving Week, a holiday that is based on the tradition of sharing a meal with family and friends. Health officials blame the increase in travel for the surge in coronavirus cases in December.
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For the extensive Mexican diaspora in the US, the attraction of spending Christmas in Mexico is just as great.
"This is the only time of the year that we meet, all of my sisters," said Cueto. "When I think of December, I think of making tamales, the whole family together, our husbands spreading the masa on the corn husks, putting the meat in it and my mother laughing - I miss that more than anything."
But Cueto said she knows the holidays won't be the same this year.
Her family has made some tough choices: anyone who wants to have dinner at their 84-year-old mother's house on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena must be quarantined for a week. There will be no hugging or tamales. The family decided to have a potluck dinner instead. Instead of gathering at a long table, each household group sits at a separate table.
"My mother needs us," she said. “Every year you arrive and you find your mother older and you realize that all of her daughters have flown away, but there she is. When you were little your mother was with you and helped you. I know these are tough times, but I won't stop seeing my mother.
"We'll keep our distance, but at least we'll be together," she said.
Lines of cars traveling south to Mexico will travel to downtown Nogales, Arizona on December 17, 2020. Thousands of Mexican Americans are expected to visit relatives in Mexico during the holiday season, despite health officials recommending staying home.
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According to Dr. Cecilia Rosales, co-chair of the Bi-National Health Services Committee of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, the potential for the virus to spread at these valued annual gatherings could also have ramifications for communities across the United States.
She made comparisons to Thanksgiving, when millions of people traveled to vacation with relatives, which made it easier for the virus to spread.
"They had to isolate themselves, they couldn't work for two weeks because they got COVID," Rosales said. "It doesn't matter. People go from here to there and spread the virus. And when they come back, the same thing will happen. So it's a big concern for everyone on both sides of the border."
"Another kind of Christmas"
The annual return of Mexican Americans to Mexico is so ingrained that the Mexican government has a permanent program focused entirely on providing for them all year round: it is called "Programa Paisano".
Last year, Mexico's National Migration Institute, which administers the program, reported that it has supported nearly 2 million people of Mexican descent who traveled home to cities across the country during the winter vacation.
This year they expect the number to be far lower due to the pandemic, the agency told the USA TODAY Network. However, the local evidence suggests that a significant number of paisanos continue this annual tradition, despite recommendations to stay at home.
Mexican immigration officials started the Programa Paisano earlier this month at various ports of entry along the US-Mexico border, dispatching 460 volunteers to workforce targeting paisanos traveling south.
Drivers of trucks and SUVs loaded with bags and boxes wait for Mexican customs officers to inspect their vehicles at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales, Mexico on December 17, 2020. Thousands of Mexican Americans are expected to travel south to Mexico on holidays, despite recommendations to stay home to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
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The agency urged travelers to review local, state, and federal COVID-19 guidelines in their destination before traveling to Mexico. As in the US, decisions about shop closings, curfews, and restrictions on alcohol sales and gatherings in Mexico are a local matter and vary widely.
In recent years, paisanos have been most concerned about being robbed or kidnapped on their way back to Mexico. With license plates giving them away and their trucks filled to the brim with gifts, they have often been targets for highway robberies, including by Mexican officials.
Last week, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador warned members of the local, federal and highway police, as well as the National Guard, "to act with righteousness, honesty and support our paisanos, to respect them".
"We will not tolerate abuse," he said, without mentioning the pandemic.
However, Mexico has also been hit by a second wave of COVID-19 that has hit hospitals to the point of breaking in Mexico's northern border states, which have some of the highest infection rates in the country.
While the president has largely dismissed the severity of the coronavirus problems in Mexico, health and border professionals in the US and Mexico are concerned that the massive influx of people in the middle of the pandemic could make an already worrying situation worse and lead to more infections both sides of the border.
Health officials in Chihuahua state, across the Texas border, where Cueto was traveling, warned against vacation trips and Christmas gatherings. COVID-19 has killed more than 115,000 people in Mexico, and border states have been particularly hard hit.
"The best thing for Christmas 2020 is to spend it healthy," said Dr. Leticia Ruiz, director of preventive medicine for Chihuahua state. “That means reducing mobility and increasing prevention measures and only celebrating with members of the same household.
"It's been a difficult year," she said. “We should stay at home as much as possible and avoid traveling. Let's have a different kind of Christmas where the gifts are life and health. "
Binational families and assemblies
U.S. citizens and lawful residents have essentially unlimited travel to Mexico, in large part due to exemptions added to the guidelines announced in March in response to the pandemic.
The US government and the Mexican government agreed to restrict travel for "non-essential" reasons across their common border and limit transitions other than work, school and trade.
In practice, the restrictions have mainly been aimed at Mexican visitors traveling north. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are largely exempt, according to Guadalupe Ramirez, the Tucson field director for the Field and Border Protection Department for field operations overseeing Arizona ports of entry.
"If you look at the travel restrictions, they don't really restrict the movement of US citizens and legal permanent residents," he said. "When they show up at our port of entry, we will obviously let them in because they live in the US, regardless of why they came to Mexico."
The restrictions have been extended every month and are expected to expire in January, although further extensions are likely as the pandemic continues to rage on both sides of the border.
A municipal police officer in the Mexican border town of Mexicali is manning a "sanitary filter" for US citizens arriving in Mexico on December 18, 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the border communities of Imperial County in Mexico, the US and Baja California, Mexico.
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The Mexican government has continued to ignore calls from border residents and governors asking them to put restrictions on US visitors, much like US officials have done on travelers heading north from Mexico.
In response, several state and local governments on the Mexican side of the border have tried to make crossing more difficult by introducing "sanitary filters" that require drivers to stop to answer questions and sometimes have their temperature taken. The effort was short-lived.
For example, in Mexicali, across the border with Calexico, California, the city government set up checkpoints to the south that were manned by police officers looking for face masks and with no more than four people per vehicle.
However, the checkpoints are only functional on important travel dates. During this time, the normally fast crossing times south to Mexico slow down and there are traffic bottlenecks on the Calexico side.
In border towns like Juárez, Nogales or Mexicali, hundreds of thousands of residents have dual citizenship and cross the border every day. Neither the Mexican nor the US government has banned citizens from entering their country.
Operativo Paisano de Invierno 2020 ❄️
El INM #Tamaulipas, El Gobierno de la Entidad, Coepris, Guardia Nacional, Sedena and Aduanas acompañaron a la Caravana Paisano que ingresó #hoy por #NuevoLaredo en el Operativo # Invierno2020❄️Los connacionales ?? son atendidos y se toman en cuenta medidas sanitarias para cuidar su salud?
Posted by Programa Paisano on Thursday 17th Dec 2020
Although the Mexican government rolled out the welcome mat for paisanos, other government and health officials are urging families to stay in the US this year.
"We want to make people aware that there is still a problem," said Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, Mexican consul in El Paso. "You shouldn't meet with more than 10 people. You should take the precautions that everyone recommends: using the face mask, using a hand sanitizer, should keep a distance of two meters. Our nationals who are returning should know that it won't be a normal vacation for anyone. "
This is an assessment by Dr. Gaudelia Rangel, the director of the Mexican division of the US-Mexico Border Health Commission, who coordinated and shared information about the pandemic with her colleagues in the US.
She lives in Tijuana, Mexico's largest border town, which shares the world's busiest border crossing with San Diego.
Rangel urged families to avoid parties or gatherings of more than 10 people, the recommended guidelines in Mexico.
"It can be complicated," she said. "Because we know there are families in Mexico, especially if they have visitors from Paisanos, they will likely have meetings in a house of over 10 people."
A change in plans: "No trip to Mexico"
Some families in the United States heed warnings about traveling to Mexico.
Every year Maria Mendez and her family travel from the southern California desert to the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan to celebrate Christmas, and this year it would be no different. As always, they wanted to celebrate with their parents, seven siblings and all their children. They ate tamales and pozole and held a raffle for gifts because she said, "You can't give gifts to everyone in Mexico because there are so many people."
They had already bought their plane tickets. And because Mendez's kids are doing hands-on learning this year, the family planned to leave just before Thanksgiving and spend more than a month at the Mendez's family's ranch outside of Jiquilpan town.
Maria Mendez was forced to suspend her annual family visit plans in her home country of Mexico after signing COVID-19. She is photographed outside her home in Mecca when she was quarantined in December.
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They had to change their plans after Mendez signed COVID-19. She tested positive for the virus on November 17th and again on December 1st. She has been isolated at her home in the eastern Coachella Valley community of Mecca for more than a month while awaiting a third test.
"I'm really sad," she said, "because my siblings are there and I can't see them."
Mendez decorated her house with Christmas figures and lights outside. But there are no presents inside, she said, leaving her five children disappointed.
"You are mad at me for getting sick," she joked. "They say," No trip to Mexico and no gifts in the house! "
Beatriz Pinal, from Tucson, said that this time of year she also usually visits her family in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and uses the winter holidays to take or drive a bus and spend several weeks in Mexico.
Maria Mendez was forced to suspend her annual family visit plans in her home country of Mexico after signing COVID-19. She is photographed outside her home in Mecca when she was quarantined in December.
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This year she will be staying in Tucson and partying only with her daughters, including one who is on blood clot medication. She said she didn't want to risk exposing them by traveling across the border.
Pinal said he was particularly concerned about the risk of exposure to asymptomatic people who do not show symptoms of the infection but can pass them on to others.
"Above all, we need to take care of ourselves because the pandemic in Mexico is very severe right now," she said. "My family advised me to stay here and take care of ourselves."
A sacrifice for the common good
In Nogales and Juarez, Mexican customs posts are lined with trucks and SUVs laden with bags and boxes, gifts, and other merchandise that paisanos take to their destinations in Mexico.
Once the vacation is over, these travelers will return to the United States. With U.S. citizens and lawful residents unable to be turned away, U.S. Customs officials are preparing for a sharp surge in traffic northbound, which can lead to bottlenecks and long waits to return to the country.
In recent months, when Customs and Border Protection regularly cracked down on non-essential traffic, waiting times at certain border crossings between the United States and Mexico have increased to eight hours or more.
The Mexican border town of Mexicali is setting up a "sanitation filter" for US citizens arriving to Mexico on December 18, 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the border communities of Imperial County in the US and Baja California, Mexico.
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In the El Paso border region, Field Director Hercor Mancha said CBP will monitor passenger traffic in the coming days and adjust staff as needed. They warned paisanos who were traveling to Mexico to prepare and give themselves more time to return to the US.
For those who have not yet left, Mancha, who was born in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, urged people to consider whether it is worth exposing their loved ones to the virus.
“I grew up in a border community myself and understand the importance of family and gathering during the holidays. However, the safety of our loved ones needs to come into play, ”he said.
"I don't think anyone would want to feel responsible for passing this disease on to a loved elderly or medically vulnerable family member," he said. "Miss the big family get-togethers, the food and the celebrations and anything that will be a sacrifice, but it's one for the common good."
Waiting for a mother to hug
Cueto was home to a town near Chihuahua City, the capital of the state of Chihuahua. Days after her arrival, she still hadn't hugged her mother - the moment she longs for - but they had seen each other and talked through a window some distance away. They showed their love in a different way.
"My mother knows I love chilirellenos so she let the señora who takes care of her make me a game," said Cueto.
Her mother wanted her to come in to hug her, but Cueto reminded her that they had to wait for the quarantine time.
"Ya mero," she said to her mother. "Soon!"
Contributors: Rebecca Plevin and Omar Ornelas, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California)
Got news or ideas for stories about the US-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at rafael.carranza@arizonarepublic.com or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.
This article originally appeared in the Republic of Arizona: For Mexican Americans, COVID-19 won't stop vacation travel to Mexico

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