My good friend Alma and I didn't meet until college although we were born a few months apart at the same hospital – maybe even in the same hospital bed – in the border city of Laredo, Texas. Her family moved to Freeport, near Houston, when she was four months old and I grew up in a speck of a town not far from Laredo. Every year, Alma's family , like so many other families, has faithfully made the trek down to their hometown in Mexico to spend the holidays with familia. A few weeks ago while we were doing a back-and-forth email to each other, Alma sent me this newspaper story about Ciudad Mier, a town close to the Texas-Mexico border where the fearful residents have fled en masse because of the violence and murders of the rivaling drug cartels. Her message said, "This town is between our house/town and the border. No signs of a Zetas and Gulf Cartel truce in the near future, most unfortunately for the hoards of people who go back home for the holidays."
For the first time, Alma and her parents and siblings are staying in Texas for the holidays. She said some of her extended family is still going, but they're leaving their cars at the border and taking the bus down. One of her aunts who lives in Mexico closed her tiendita because she couldn't pay the drug groups' extortion fees. She says she wishes the cartels would get on some boats and fight it out in the Gulf of Mexico and leave everyone else out of it.
I am heartbroken about the situation. I know how much these holiday trips to Mexico mean to Alma, and I asked if she wouldn't mind sharing her thoughts on the situation and what these sojourns were like as a kid. This is her take:
We were never certain whether Santa would leave our toys at our U.S. house or the Mexico house, but we knew we were getting something. I remember my grandmother telling me on a car ride to Monterrey that Santa lived in the mountains. Somehow, I never questioned it and the whole North Pole thing. Guessed he had a second house in Mexico like we did.
My family’s house is in General Treviño, population 1,400, and my dad’s hometown is Agualeguas, which is the next town over. It’s mostly ranchers and not very industrialized. Our “claim to fame” is that former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari has hometown roots there. He actually visited Agualeguas with President Bush Sr. and Barbara. One of my cousins played in the kids’ band that performed for them. And that’s the story of how the town got landing strip.
As we grew up, we formed friendships with the other children of family friends. Some lived “alla en el norte” – Chicago, Detroit, even Wisconsin and Washington. Others lived as close as Houston, but yet we’d spend more time together in Mexico than stateside.
Turning 15 meant we could now go to the bailes with our friends. All the big names in norteño music came to town during los dias de fiesta. On nights when there wasn’t a baile, or wedding or quinceañera – which was almost every night since everyone was back in town – we’d drive around the main drag with the girls in whichever car one of our parents let us borrow. We’d hit the taco stands at 1 a.m. and gossip until 2 a.m. as we sat on the banqueta in front of my second-cousins’ grandmother’s house, which was on the main drag – la calle principal –in Treviño. We’d chismear the night away shivering, until we called “uncle” and went to bed. Or her grandmother would tell us to be quiet because we were waking up the neighborhood with loud laughter.
On Christmas Eve the entire town smelled of tamales. The chimneys were all lit – just about every house has one in the kitchen, from when houses were first built and they were used to cook – so the smell of mesquite filled the air. Christmas Eve was when we had the family gatherings and parties. My aunt used to have a huge party every year with a huge bonfire in her huge yard.
For the last two weeks in December, the local carnicerias would drive up and down the streets around 7 a.m., with the windows rolled down and a megaphone sticking out the side, announcing the daily specials. First come, first served for the carne seca, chicarrones, barbacoa, murcilla, chorizo, etc. All freshly made, ready to be scooped up.
Sometimes it was the town government that announced special events, like a big baile for Noche Buena o el Fin del Año, or a posada. And if the 7 a.m. “commercials” didn’t wake you, then the neighbors’ roosters did, because at least one house on every single block has chickens and a rooster in their backyard.
As kids, I remember my parents and siblings and I would plop into the car to go see the family. Family meant scores of great-aunts, great-uncles, first and second cousins, you name it. It was a full day affair, sometimes two days. We went from house to house, rancho to rancho.
Hay que ir a ver los viejitos, my parents would say. Seemed like a nuisance back then, because children were meant to be seen not heard. So we just sat around and watched the adults talk. Unless we were at a rancho and could go scare up the chickens.
As we became teenagers, we realized that a lot of gossip was had during these adult conversations. So not being heard wasn’t so bad anymore because you got quality chisme in exchange for it. Loss of innocence, I guess, knowing who was having affairs, who was sick, who was contesting a late relative’s will, who was not speaking because of a fight over property lines ...
Now, I appreciate those days and I miss them because a lot of the viejitos are no longer with us. And over the years the number of houses on the “must visit’ list has grown smaller and smaller. Most of the cousins my age have also moved to el norte or to Monterrey for work, and seeing them isn’t guaranteed. In a sense, I wish we could go back to those days that seemed so boring, if only to see them all again.
Now, the viejitos that are left feel a greater sense of loneliness with a greatly reduced number of relatives coming to see them. Today, the standard answer to “when are you coming?” so far has been “veremos, ojala puedamos ir.”
The other day I had lunch with two of my “Mexico” friends – the ones who live in Houston but we spend more time together in Mexico than here. Neither is going this year either. We sat there commiserating over the true loss of innocence of the town, because we’re not sure if our kids will ever be able to romp around town the way we did as kids and teenagers. We always assumed the slow pace of life would be around for our kids to enjoy as well. Always assumed we’d be able to trust in our neighbors and leave our doors unlocked at night as we waited for the kids to come home. We hold out hope that maybe one day it’ll be like the old days again.