GUANAJUATO, Mexico — This colonial city, with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets, has long beckoned Mexican immigrants alongside their children during vacations, including spring break.
On a recent evening, some surrounded Miguel Diaz, who sells corn on the cob, near the famed Callejon del Beso, the alley of the kiss. They listened closely as he repeated the story: Legend has it that couples who kiss on the third step will enjoy fifteen years of bliss. Happy, hopeful couples take turns lining up for selfies here.
“We have missed our paisanos so much,” said Diaz, pointing to the tourist countrymen, many of them migrants visiting from North Texas. They’re a growing presence following their long absence during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Christmas, Valentines, Holy Week, and for just about any holiday, even el spring break, we’re happy when our paisanos visit,” he said.
While a vast majority of Americans who travel south of the border make a beeline for Mexico’s pristine beaches during spring break, many Mexican paisanos visit their homeland, bringing along their American-born children, reveling in so-called heritage tourism.
Such tourism is promoted by governments all over the world, particularly by Mexico via Mexican consulates, including the one in Dallas. But for Mexicans, this is about reconnecting with the past but also the present. They visit relatives and friends as they work to keep their cultural and language ties to the motherland intact.
Still, even as fears of COVID-19 subside, concerns loom about violence in regions at the heart of the nation’s heritage tourism.
Guanajuato, home to a major oil refinery, is along with the surrounding states considered among the most important industrial areas of the country. But in recent years it has also become one of the most violent in Mexico due to ongoing disputes between warring organized criminal groups.
Headlines from the vast central region of Mexico are disturbing: North of Guanajuato in the state of Zacatecas, families routinely flee violence. There, a seventh reporter was recently murdered. In nearby Michoacan, 16 people were shot dead during a wake. And here in Guanajuato — a prosperous area — a family of six was gunned down.
“I do not have my crystal ball, but to go to Mexico to visit families in small towns of Zacatecas, Michoacán or Guanajuato is not necessarily an attractive paradise to take my kids for spring break,” said Jesus Velasco, a Mexican-born academic who teaches government studies at Tarleton State University. “Mexicans living in the U.S. feel vulnerable, afraid, so much that many of us prefer not to cross over.”
A spokesman for the Guanajuato state governor’s office acknowledges the violence, but says “significant improvements are being made.”
Many immigrants say the journey is perilous, but blood ties are stronger than fears. Some take extraordinary security measures to keep their traditions alive. They organize special caravans via social media.
During Christmas, Holy Week and other holidays, Ruben Ramirez and other North Texas residents coordinate as many as 120 trucks, vans and cars to head south to Mexico, believing there is safety in numbers.
Ramirez, 70, a welder, who installs wrought iron bars in North Dallas, said he’s long felt a responsibility to pass on his language and culture to his own children.
“The love for Mexico is so huge that we literally risk our lives to come back, as much as we can, whenever we can,” he said. “That’s the only way to explain what we do, because no matter the time away from Mexico, the time we have lived in this country, Mexico is still home.”
“Yes, there are many problems there, particularly security ones, but it’s still the place of our birth,” he said.
Some take buses home. Transportes San Miguel offers daily bus service to Mexico’s Central region, including to San Luis Potosi, San Luis de la Paz and San Miguel de Allende. The bus service offers youngsters $20 discounts during March to coincide with spring break. A regular one-way ticket is $135.
Others, especially those in North Texas, now fly over territories they deem too dangerous to drive through. There are dozens of daily flights from Dallas to Mexico.
Tereso Ortiz is the longtime head of Casa Guanajuato in Dallas. More than 350,000 Guanajuatenses live and work in North Texas, making them the largest group of Mexicans in the region. And more Guanajuatenses live in North Texas than anywhere in the United States.
“Some 15 years ago, everyone wanted to drive back for the holidays, or spring break, whenever they chose,” Ortiz said. “That’s not the case anymore. And we can’t allow this to stop us from continuing our traditions because this is the best way to remain connected to our history. Yes, insecurity has threatened our visits, more and more, but we remain loyal as shown by annual visits and remittances.”
Mexico’s central bank said remittances — the money migrants abroad send home to their relatives — grew by 27.1% in 2021 to total about $51.6 billion for the year.
The security issue is an increasing threat to Mexico’s tourism industry. Tourism is a top source of income for the country, with the nation expected to take in about $35 billion in revenue in 2022. Mexico is also projected to be one of the world’s top destinations, said Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco Marqués. “Mexico needs you” is a slogan for a campaign to draw in tourists.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador constantly urges people from all over the world, particularly Mexicans living abroad, to visit Mexico, “get to know Mexico.” But, replies Socorro Perales, a community organizer in Dallas, “I’ve listened to Lopez Obrador and I say to myself, ‘We’ve loved to do that except we’re scared. Help us.’”
Perales’ two brother-in-laws were once shaken down for money by members of an organized crime gang in the state of Tamaulipas, neighboring Texas and a crucial crossing point for travelers on Interstate 1-35. It’s one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico, swarming with criminals.
Since 2008, Perales, a native of Zacatecas, and her husband, originally from Guanajuato, carefully plan every minute detail of their trips into Mexico.
“Visiting Mexico is an overwhelming feeling and you don’t feel complete until you go back, and you walk those streets, you smell the food, the air. Until you let yourself be embraced by this culture, this beautiful, powerful culture,” she said, noting the smell of corn-on-the-cob or the sight of jacaranda trees with stunning purple blooms. “Everything just envelopes you. Those who say they won’t come back to Mexico are not being honest with themselves because even though there are risks, there is also a deep longing.”
Their travel plans range from carefully charting what border crossing point to take, to how much cash to carry, where to fill up with gas and, perhaps more importantly, when it is best to travel.
“Nighttime is the worst, when you’re most vulnerable,” she said.
“Every decision we make is carefully mapped out beforehand,” said Perales, who in the past has been part of caravans of travelers. “There can be no room for error.”
The alternative — not visiting her home near San Miguel de Allende — is unacceptable, added Perales, who recently planned a return to Mexico by plane.
The journey for her parents — her father is 89 and mom is 86 — is especially dangerous. They fly into the state of Aguascalientes and then travel by private car to their community in Zacatecas, where armed conflicts are ongoing.
Claudia Torrescano, 55, has been traveling to Mexico for 32 years, ever since she arrived in the U.S. She traveled three or four times a year with her parents, and later with her own family, their car packed with gifts and, on their return, packed with goodies from home. The six-member family would visit her hometown in San Luis Potosi, and then go to nearby San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato — Mexico’s crown jewels — to instill heritage pride in their American-born children.
“We were always looking forward to spring break to go back home and be with family, and driving made more sense. More economical. More fun. It was a family road trip,” said Torrescano, who works in family community engagement for the Dallas Independent School District. “But guess what? We’re not going to do that anymore.”
The family made the decision not to drive after her relatives in Mexico begged: “‘Please don’t take that road. Don’t drive at this time. Don’t drive at night time,’” said Torrescano. “It was just so much that we decided, you know this is too much. This is too much risk. … It’s a sad, very sad decision that we made as a family and for the family.”
So this year, Torrescano will do the once unthinkable: She and some members of her family planned to fly into Mexico City, a sprawling, urban behemoth that they once deemed too dangerous to navigate. They’ll “walk around La Condesa and Roma neighborhoods and then, we’ll fly off to Cancun. And that’s really heartbreaking because, for the first time, we’re not going to be able to see our family: cousins, aunts, uncles. And we won’t visit the cemetery to bring flowers to my mom and my dad.
“And even worse, we don’t know when we’ll make our next road trip to our hometown.”
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