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Across a border and generations, it's about family

June 05, 2003|Bill Manson | Special to The Times

Tecate, Mexico — High in the hills above this border town, Lourdes Hernandez de Villalaz swings her parents' silver Jeep Cherokee through an arched entrance marked "El Rancho." Her mom and dad, Alicia and Amador Hernandez, crane their necks as they bump over the dirt road, passing modest vacation homes, trailers and stables. "That's it," Amador says two minutes later.

Lourdes pulls up beside a large white mobile home. Women and children pour out of its doorway. A crew-cut boy runs to his grandfather, Amador, and kisses him on both cheeks, then his grandmother, then Lourdes.

"The birthday boy!" says Amador, swinging him around. "Carlos Alfonso. Eight years old!"

About 40 relatives and friends have made the trip from both sides of the U.S. border on this recent Sunday for Carlos Alfonso Mondaca's cumpleanos, but such extended family gatherings happen at least once a month anyway. "Usually, we get together at our house on the San Diego side in Chula Vista," Amador says. "But some of the family can't cross over because they don't have papers."

The Hernandezes are typical of many families split by the border who gather regularly despite bureaucratic hassles and the pressures of U.S. life that threaten the role of the extended family. "This is very, very common," says Raymond Uzeta, president of the Chicano Federation of San Diego County, a service organization. "The border doesn't terminate family relationships."

Such bonds, however, do need nurturing, and it's clear that Amador and Alicia are the glue that cements the Hernandez clan. Amador stoops into the Jeep's tailgate and hauls out bowls of macaroni and cactus salad that Alicia has prepared. He carries them to the vacation trailer, which belongs to second daughter Dolores and her husband, Heriberto Mondaca. They live 45 miles away in Tijuana.

At 47, Lourdes may be the eldest of Amador and Alicia's six sons and daughters, but here in the small kitchen, Dolores rules. "The kids are having hamburgers and hot dogs," she says. "We'll have carne asada and barbecue chicken and frijoles after they eat."

"And tequila," says Amador with a wink. "Why not? I'm not driving anymore."

The party settles into its pattern: The women prepare the food, the men gather to talk under the shelter of the carport, and the kids and teens run around the garden with nary a shriek. Here, you realize, there's no disconnect between the generations. Mothers don't micromanage. Some of the older children head for the corral next door to play with the ponies and sheep. The younger ones take turns walking two black Labrador pups around on their front legs, like wheelbarrows.

"I think this family is exceptional," says Miguel Dessavre, a Tijuana neighbor whom Dolores invited. "They're so strongly rooted, enthusiastic about being together." But not untypical: Most Mexican families, he says, get together often.

Partly, it's because the rest of life can be, well, tough. "It's not easy to live in Mexico," says Dessavre, "even in Tijuana. You know the rhythm of the city: People throw you to the wolves and tell you to survive. So this kind of reunion gives you strength. People need their family, just to help them face the world."

Family is also vital to the Mexican immigrant experience, says USC sociology professor Gaspar Rivera-Salgado. "The largest proportion of Mexican immigrants comes from rural Mexico, where family structure is very important, not only for social reasons, but for survival," Rivera says. Trying to get through life in a new country reinforces it. "Where do you go when you get to the United States? To family."

But can family survive, once immigrants have settled down, say in Los Angeles? Absolutely, says Myrtelina Banegas-Haro. She's a Texas-born homemaker and part-time nurse's aide who lives in Monrovia with her husband, Ruben Haro, and 10-year-old daughter, Stephanie. "Speaking Spanish and keeping our Mexican culture alive was always important to our family," says Myrtelina, whose mother emigrated from Guadalajara four decades ago.

Most important for Myrtelina is keeping the larger sense of family alive. "Just about every Sunday, we get together."

Myrtelina has an Anglo brother-in-law whose family has get-togethers too, but she says they're not quite the same. "Ours have more to do with the family, and theirs are to celebrate something. Christmas, Easter, an anniversary. Ours don't have to be for a reason."

Her friends don't always understand. "They ask me what I'm doing Sunday. I say, 'Getting together with my family.' They're shocked. 'Every Sunday? Don't you get tired of seeing the same people?' We don't. We have a great time. Sometimes we play loteria, bingo in Spanish. Or Uno or Monopoly. Something to get us laughing."

Of course, the family doesn't always get on perfectly. And privacy can be a casualty. "You cannot keep a secret in a Latino family. Tell one person, and by the end of the next Sunday, everybody knows your business," she says.

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