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Year's Work Ends With Christmas Homecoming to Mexico


OXNARD — Eight years ago, Jose Luis Espinoza left his small town in Jalisco, Mexico, with little more than his dream to make good in a country with a strange language. This week, Espinoza will return to his hometown in his very own 1983 Dodge station wagon.

"It's going to be great; my parents are going to love it when I drive them around to visit friends," said Espinoza, 25, his eyes growing wide with anticipation.

"And, hopefully, the girls will notice when I drive it to the Christmas dance," he added with a shy smile.

After a year of hard work for an Oxnard construction company, Espinoza--like thousands of fellow Mexicans working in Ventura County--can hardly wait for his triumphant Christmas homecoming.

"Nothing compares to your own land," Espinoza said as he waited in line in front of the Mexican Consulate in Oxnard for a permit to import his station wagon. "You enjoy everything much more when you are among your people, especially during Christmas."

Every year, thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Ventura County and across the Southland return to Mexico for the holidays. Many quit their jobs, leave school early or shut down their shops for the monthlong festivities, which begin with the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and last through the New Year.

"Business is slow because everybody is coming and going to Mexico," said Jose Luis Melgoza, owner of Familia Melgoza restaurant in Oxnard. "So I shut down the restaurant and we all go to Ocotlan to rest for a couple of weeks."

This year, despite the recession, more people than ever are making the trip, according to travel agents and Mexican officials.

The officials credit the increase to an aggressive public relations program promoting relaxed travel requirements, Programa Paisano , or Countryman Program.

Airplane reservations are booked solid--even though there are 25% more flights now than this time last year, said Rosa Gascoigne, owner of Aztec Travel service in Oxnard.

"This Christmas season is special for us," Gascoigne said. "It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor. People are willing to pay top prices to go back, even if they can't afford it."

The yearly pilgrimage coincides with a slowdown in agriculture here. About 3,000 of the county's 20,000 agricultural workers are laid off over December and early January, said county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail.

Many farm workers choose to go back and work on family plots rather than stay here on welfare, he said. "It's warmer in Mexico, so they have crops year-round," McPhail said.

The seasonal exodus creates serious problems in the county's school system, said Gilbert Cuevas, a counselor at Port Hueneme High School.

Four years ago, before the school started using aggressive techniques to stop the trend, as many as 150 students left for Christmas and stayed away for a month or more, Cuevas said.

This year, 10 students so far have left without completing their courses, Cuevas said. "The parents take them down for the fiestas and don't realize how much harm they do to the kids," he said.

Others, like farm worker Agustin Lara, 22, are willing to give up their jobs to stay in Mexico for as long as they can. "Back home, I can have fun without attracting attention. Here, whenever I have a party, some neighbor complains," Lara said. He returned last week to La Piedad, where he will stay "until I run out of money."

Like many compatriots, Lara said he especially cherishes the old Catholic-inspired Christmas tradition of the posadas , or inns. The nine-day posadas celebrate the plight of the Virgin Mary and Joseph as they tried to find shelter in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.

Every night between Dec. 15 and Dec. 23, neighbors divide themselves into two groups. One group stands outside the house, carrying candles. The other stays inside and plays the innkeepers.

They sing religious songs, the outsiders ask to come in, the insiders resist at first and finally relent. After being let in, the "guests" blow out their candles, ending the ritual. Then the singing and dancing starts.

Perhaps the best-known Mexican Christmas tradition in the United States is the breaking of a pinata . The pinata ceremony has a deep religious meaning, said Luis Ramirez, Mexican consul in Oxnard.

The pinata 's many colors represent "the temptations of the devil," he said. "When the children strike the pinata , they are fighting the devil's temptations. As a reward, the pinata explodes and the children are showered with sweets."

As she stood in line near the Mexican Consulate's front door, Liberia Rosales, 26, said she can't wait to strike the pinata in her hometown of Tlascala.

"I miss everything," she said with a deep sigh. "The pinata, the Rosary at the church, the plaza, all the family, gossiping with friends."

For Rosales, who lives in south Oxnard and cleans houses for a living, it will be her first trip back in 10 years.

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