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Mexico draws immigrants at holidays

Cars in line at US/Mexico border

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KAI RYSSDAL: Hopefully everybody who's going home for the holidays has gotten there by now. That probably meant hours of waiting around airports or stuck in traffic jams. But for a lot of young Mexicans raised here, home has sort of a different meaning. They join their families and drive south to the villages in Mexico that their parents or grandparents are from. When they get there, the older generations are busy seeing relatives, and the younger folks are left to drive some more.

Melissa Giraud reports.


MELISSA GIRAUD: A night of cruising starts with the right soundtrack. This cruising duo has passed up the hip-hop CDs in their pile for a ranchera style currently popular in the American Midwest. They fast-forward for the perfect arrival song.

They pick a tune and then sit back in the van. It's got blinds, flashing lights and a driver's seat in permanent recline. The vehicle and the music signal that, after a 36-hour drive from Chicago, they've arrived with dollars in their pockets and the determination to spend them partying.

During the holidays, small towns like La Joya, Durango, are clogged with trucks and SUVs every afternoon and night. The license plates read Illinois, Colorado, Texas, California. Many trucks are new and most gleam. Cruisers wash their cars daily before making the slow, deliberate drive through narrow, dusty streets. They smile at the holiday traffic cops and salute them with open cans of beer.

Meanwhile, the locals are a little less joyous as they serve visitors from the States in the town's shops and restaurants. Are these cruisers here to share their bounty or to flaunt it?

Before the cruising hour, drivers check out each other's souped-up vehicles.

Lizandra Nevarez: Look at these huge rims.

Tony Orozco: Huge Navigator.

Nevarez: Huge Navigator. Avalanche.

Orozco: I don't really see this in Chicago. In Chicago you see the regular Navigators, but not fixed up like this.

NEVAREZ: Well you do, but considering the small population, there's a lot of it here.

Nineteen-year-old Lizandra Nevarez and 23-year-old Tony Orozco are among a large contingent from Chicago who drove down to spend the holidays here. Tony grew up in La Joya. And he remembers when the roads were not jammed.

OROZCO: All the cars, the new cars that you see, it's been a change in the last 10 years. Before, everyone was poor.

Nevarez: Walking.

Orozco: We didn't have much. Yeah, we walked.

GIRAUD: So how did you get to the next town?

OROZCO: There's a bus. We call it la burra -- the donkey. My mom used to go there all the time on the bus.

It turns out, the few trucks people in this town owned a decade ago were work vehicles, used to haul crops, fertilizer and farming equipment. Cruising changed that. It started out as a homecoming ritual when people who'd left for the states were able to save enough to buy trucks there and drive home for a visit and a victory lap.

So how do the Mexicans left behind in poor, rural villages feel about the holiday visitors raising dust in their American pickups and SUVs? Here's Durango native and historian Javier Guerrero.

Javier Guerrero [translation]: In the small towns, it's a party when everyone's visiting. There's not really any jealousy. It's more like they're coming back to share their success with us.

But are they sharing? Actually, the Pew Center for Hispanic Research says they do for the first five years. Five years later, they're a bit less generous. In fact, the longer these immigrants stay in the U.S., the less likely they are to send money. And their children are even less likely. In Mexico, the locals understand this.

Tony Orozco says that the second and third generation raised north of the border have a different relationship with the locals and are likely to be showoffs, or presumidos.

OROZCO: Presumido is basically a showoff. It's someone who comes back and is showing everyone how much money they have with the nice clothes and the glasses. They're driving around with their cars. They feel they're better than you.

However they feel about the locals, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans cruising these streets mostly come to vacation and to party cheaply. And while the townsfolk appreciate those dollars, they feel the distance between themselves and the young cruisers growing, long before they watch them drive away.

From Durango, Mexico, I'm Melissa Giraud for Marketplace.

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