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Swine flu has many L.A. immigrants reconsidering Mexico travel plans

April 28, 2009|Hector Becerra

If his future weren't on the line, Cal State Fullerton student Carlos Reyes says, he wouldn't be flying to Mexico. Not with swine flu loose and having killed nearly 150 people there.

Nothing short of becoming a legal resident -- and eventually, an American citizen -- could compel him to go right now. On Monday, Reyes went to the campus health center and asked if there were any shots he could take to protect himself. There aren't. So tonight, Reyes, 27, will step onto a plane at LAX armed with surgical masks, sanitizers and two boxes of hand wipes that his even more anxious parents bought for him.

"I don't want to get infected with that," Reyes said. "I'm very concerned, to be honest with you. Tomorrow I'm going to take a few immunization shots. Even though they don't work for what's going on there, better stay on the safe side."

As cases of swine flu and the number of deaths have swelled in Mexico -- and begun to appear in other countries -- Southern California's vast Latino immigrant community has been increasingly on edge and questioning whether traveling there is a good idea. The U.S. government recommended that people not go to Mexico unless it is necessary.

The disease has been found in a milder form in several U.S. states including California and New York, but has been most concentrated -- and deadly -- in Mexico, particularly in the capital, where many L.A. residents came from and have family.

"I wouldn't even go there as a joke," Bertha Dominguez, a native of Mexico City, said as she took a break from shopping in Huntington Park. "I would maybe go if an emergency presented itself. Maybe."

Dominguez said the epidemic was just the latest reason not to return her home country, on top of a flagging economy and a gruesome drug war.

"Here, poor or rich, they'll take care of you if you get sick," she said. "I'd rather get sick here."

At El Mercado, a bazaar and indoor swap meet in Boyle Heights, Peruvian immigrant Armando Parodi, 50, said he canceled a trip this weekend to the state of Tlaxcala in Mexico, where swine flu has been reported. He had planned to go to a fair where vendors sell baby Jesus figures -- like the ones clad in papal and Aztec outfits he peddles here -- but changed his mind because of the swine flu.

"If this thing gets really bad and they close the border, you're stuck over there," said Parodi, who travels to Mexico once a month. "I don't have the variety of [baby Jesus] figures I want, but why take a chance and get sick? There's no way to protect yourself for sure against something like this."

But Fernando Martinez, 26, owner of Antojitos Chilangos Mexican restaurant in Highland Park, said he wouldn't hesitate to travel to his native Mexico City, or elsewhere in Mexico. "If someone gave me the money, I'd go there right now," he said. "There's nothing to worry about as long as you stay away from places you're not supposed to be at."

Reyes, the college student, said his flight would take him to Guadalajara, where he would meet with a cousin who would fly with him to Ciudad Juarez, where his legal resident interview would take place.

"This is my future. Otherwise, I swear I wouldn't be going."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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