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Visiting Schoolchildren Get a Bittersweet Tour of L.A. : Vacations: The group from Mexico was left stranded after the guide was robbed, but a family eased their plight, and now they are safely home.


LA PUENTE — A group of Mexican schoolchildren who scraped to finance a trip to Disneyland and Hollywood had their dreams shattered when their money was stolen, leaving them stranded at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles with nothing to eat.

But the field trip of 39 students and 15 adults from Hermosillo, the capital of the border state of Sonora, ended with a renewed faith in their northern neighbors when a La Puente opened its doors to the group on Monday.

The children, most of them 9 to 11, sold raffle tickets to raise the money for the vacation and visited Universal Studios and Disneyland over the weekend before their trip turned sour.

Last Sunday, the group's guide, Ricardo Uribe, returned to the hotel at 9th and Figueroa streets and told the children and the accompanying adults that their money, about $2,500, and five passports had been stolen from him as he walked on Broadway.

Though their hotel bill was paid through Monday, the group found itself penniless and hungry, with no idea how to get home.

Then word of the children's woes reached Jenaro Garcia through a friend in Hermosillo, whose grandson was one of those stranded. Garcia is a native of Hermosillo who has lived in La Puente for 23 years.

Garcia, who was dismayed by their plight, jumped into action.

"What I did is to help the children and their parents while they were in need," Garcia, 50, said. "I had a one-ton van, and I carried 20 people in there, back and forth. We rented some movies to entertain them and bought 150 hot dogs."

Garcia's daughter-in-law and her mother threw in the use of their motor home for some of the children to sleep in, and started searching for food, he said.

Twenty children slept at the La Puente home Monday night, while the others stayed at the Los Angeles home of a man who volunteered when he heard about their predicament on KTNQ, a Spanish-language radio station.

Our Saviour Center in El Monte, which provides food to local residents in need,also offered some help Tuesday: about 10 grocery bags full of tuna, bread and juice.

"I felt so sorry for them," center Director Dorris Dann said. "They had worked all year to be able to come. Children who make that kind of effort should not find out that people are here to rip them off."

By Tuesday evening, Mexican consular officials in Los Angeles were sifting through the details and arranging for a bus ride home for the weary group. The consulate financed the trip, and the children, parents and teachers arrived safely in Hermosillo on Wednesday morning.

The children's odyssey had begun with a bad omen: Only 20 miles outside Hermosillo, their bus broke down. That was only the first disappointment.

Rather than the comfortable ride and all-expense-paid jaunt that parents and teachers say that Uribe, a Hermosillo resident, had promised, the group caught a bus to Tijuana and crossed the border on foot, then caught another bus to Los Angeles.

And before the theft, Uribe enraged group leaders by falling through on promises of two meals a day, plus a tour and big meal in Chinatown, said Rosa Maria Martin, a teacher at the elementary school that sponsored the trip. Martin also brought her 15-year-old son along.

The group used much of the money they carried with them for food, only to lose the rest while Uribe was safeguarding it, she said in a telephone interview from Mexico. Uribe could not be reached for comment.

"The little children, they suffered a lot. We couldn't even buy them a sandwich or a soda. We have very low salaries here," Martin said. "But we're very thankful for the people who helped us and to the consulate too. It was a marvelous thing."

Raul Lopez Lira, a Mexican consular official in Los Angeles, said the guide filed a police report stating he was robbed of $2,506 and five passports on Broadway.

The trip left many of the children--none of whom had ever been to Los Angeles--disenchanted. But Martin's son, Ramon Roberto Aristigue, offered a measured analysis.

"I wasn't used to seeing such a big city. It surprised me, but I liked it a lot," Aristigue said. "But there are things there that we don't have here, like a lot of homeless people. (In Hermosillo) it's safer."

Aristigue liked Disneyland and Universal Studios but said what he would really love is to catch a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.

The younger children, however, have been weaned off their love of Los Angeles for now, he said.

"When we arrived back here, one of the women asked, 'Who wants to go back to Los Angeles?' It was completely quiet. No one said anything," Aristigue said. "Me, I'd like to return, but with my mom and dad."

For the parents who had stayed behind in Mexico, the hours of uncertainty were excruciating.

"We had some very bitter moments here," said Maria del Carmen de Mendibil, whose 11-year-old son went on the trip. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, when the children were scheduled to return, a group of parents clustered around the school, growing increasingly anxious as the hours passed, she said.

"We were anguished," she said.

Although the star-studded thrills of Los Angeles may have eluded the group, those who stayed at Garcia's La Puente home took in a movie marathon.

"We rented 'Dances with Wolves' and 'The Bear,' 'Romancing the Stone,' 'Indiana Jones,' " Garcia recalled. "All were inspected by the teachers."

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