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Mexican town puts on a holiday show for migrants

Many return from L.A. and Chicago to visit relatives, get in touch with their roots and enjoy the local mescal.

December 23, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

JALPA, MEXICO — O come, all ye Chicagoans and Angelenos, to this town in the hills of Zacatecas, where guava fruit drops from the trees and the fields turn goldenrod in winter.

Local delicacies await you, including "gilded" beef taquitos and coconut milk spiked with gin, drunk straight from the shell. Bullfights, wrestling matches, concerts and Masses will be celebrated in your honor.

When I arrived in Jalpa as the representative of a California newspaper owned in part by a Chicagoan, I was given the deluxe treatment. Cups of the locally produced mescal were placed before me. I ate dinner on the mayor's desk. People with cameras kept grabbing me to pose for pictures.

They even hustled me to a stage and asked me to make a few remarks to 500 or so people.

I began in Spanish, but then said something in English, because I'd heard the language spoken often during my visit: "Are there any Dodger fans out there?" There were a few cheers -- but just as many jeers (probably from Cubs fans).

Los Angeles and Chicago hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Jalpa: Thousands of jalpenses have migrated to those cities, and other places in the United States. And every December, thousands of sons, daughters and grandchildren of Jalpa head south from California and Illinois for a few days or weeks of holiday celebrations with family and friends back in central Mexico.

In December, English becomes the second language of Jalpa. You can hear it spoken in the central plaza of this town of about 20,000 people, by people like Ruby Rodriguez, a 24-year-old gas company employee from Whittier.

"We come here and everybody wants to feed us," said Rodriguez, whose family is from La Villita, just outside Jalpa. She came to Zacatecas this month with half a dozen friends, all born in California and all children of Zacatecas migrants. They've been coming to Jalpa for the holidays for as long as they can remember.

"We would all go to Las Posadas together when we were little," she said, referring to a series of traditional Christmas processions. "When we were 10, we'd run after each other and throw firecrackers. Then when we were 15 we all started drinking."

In part to accommodate the thousands of returning migrants, Jalpa's civic leaders schedule the annual feria, or fair, for December. It is an elaborate, 14-day mix of the sacred and the profane that includes much prayer, the crowning of a queen, a rodeo and a lucha libre wrestling extravaganza.

For Jalpa's civic leaders, organizing a good party for the migrants is the least they can do -- over the years, the migrants have sent home millions of dollars to their families and communities. They have helped build roads, and funded scholarships.

"There isn't a family in Jalpa that doesn't have at least one relative living over there," said Esteban Hernandez, a special-education teacher who organized this year's fair. "The economy of our beloved Jalpa is built on the strength of our relatives abroad."

Jalpa now has new industries, including a mescal distillery whose product Hernandez insisted I try (very smooth, in my entirely inexpert opinion).

Migrant dollars made possible the opening in 2000 of the town's first university -- a campus extension of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. Under a program known as "Three for One," the municipal, state and federal governments all kick in matching funds for every dollar sent home by Zacatecas migrant "clubs" in the U.S.

There are Jalpa clubs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas. Sergio Calvillo, a 42-year-old construction worker, is a member of a Jalpa club based in the South Side of Chicago that has funded the electrification of a neighborhood here.

Calvillo left Zacatecas in 1982 as a 17-year-old seeking an "adventure" in the United States. Now a permanent U.S. resident, he returns to Jalpa at least twice a year to tend to his family's local investments, including cattle and horses. "You can take the boy out of the rancho, but you can't take the rancho out of the boy," he said.

Jose Alfredo Bueno Martinez, Jalpa's mayor, believes the town's population nearly doubles during the holidays.

"During these weeks, the amount of trash we pick up, the city's water consumption, and the amount of gasoline sold all increase by about 100%," he said.

The distant progeny of Jalpa come to enjoy life at a rural pace. They walk around the town's central plaza, with its small, Beaux Arts-style rotunda. People-watching is the main activity. And many U.S. cellphones don't work.

"Here, you get away from the drama of the big city, from the text messaging and all that," said Adrian Garcia, a 19-year-old employee of the La Puente city clerk's office who drove down with friends from California -- 28 hours, nonstop.

At the plaza, they watch girls giggle at the visiting boys. Long-distance romances might begin at a family gathering, over the scent of grilled beef.

Rodriguez, the young woman from Whittier, recently married another California native with roots in Jalpa, 30-year-old Henry Rodriguez of Carson. Together they visit her 93-year-old grandfather and listen to stories handed down through the generations about the Mexican Revolution and the time Pancho Villa's army came to Jalpa.

"The biggest fear we have is that when we come back, things will be different and people we love will be gone," Rodriguez said. "Every time we leave, we cry."

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