PHOENIX — As COVID-19 infections and deaths surged in Arizona ahead of the holidays, Angelica Cueto and her husband loaded their Suburban SUV with gifts and set out east, across New Mexico and then south, over the U.S. border to their final destination: Mexico.
The 54-year-old industrial electrician and U.S. permanent resident has lived in the U.S. for more than three decades, moving from job to job across the Southwest. But the years away have only intensified the pull of her homeland and the family who remain there, she said.
Cueto especially misses her elderly mother, who has a visa to visit the U.S. but is unable to travel because of her age.
For hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, the annual pilgrimage to Mexico in December to visit parents and family is a sacred ritual that even a global COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. border restrictions to stem the spread of the virus have been unable to stop.
Many paisanos have already traveled or are finalizing plans to make their trip home, altering holiday plans and taking new precautions, despite pleas from U.S. and Mexican officials that they stay home this year. Under current border restrictions, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are free to travel through land ports of entry.
Last month, more than 5 million Americans defied similar government recommendations to stay home and traveled through U.S. airports the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in the tradition of sharing a meal with family and friends. Health officials blame that travel increase for the December surge in coronavirus cases.
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For the extensive Mexican diaspora in the U.S., the draw of spending Christmas in Mexico is equally strong.
“This is the only time of year we get together, all my sisters,” Cueto said. “When I think of December, I think of making tamales, all the family together, our husbands spreading the masa on the corn husks, putting in the meat and my mother laughing — I miss that more than anything.”
But Cueto said she knows the holidays this year won’t be the same.
Her family has made some difficult decisions: Everyone who plans to have Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, dinner at her 84-year-old mother’s home must quarantine for a week. There will be no hugging or making tamales. The family instead has settled on a potluck dinner. Rather than gather at one long table, each household group will sit at a separate table.
“My mother needs us,” she said. “Every year you arrive and you find your mamá older and you realize that all her daughters went flying off but there she is. When you were little, your mother was with you, helping you. I know these are hard times but I won’t stop seeing my mother.
“We’ll keep our distance, but at least we’ll be together,” she said.
The potential for the virus to spread at these cherished annual gatherings also could have consequences for the communities back home in the U.S., according to Dr. Cecilia Rosales, co-chair for the Arizona-Mexico Commission’s binational Health Services Committee.
She made comparisons to Thanksgiving, when millions of people traveled to spend the holiday with relatives, making it easier for the virus to continue spreading.
“They had to isolate themselves, they could not work for two weeks because they got COVID,” Rosales said. “It’s the same thing. People go from here to there, and they will spread the virus. And when they come back, the same thing will happen. So it is a big concern for everyone on both sides of the border.”
‘A different sort of Christmas’
The annual return of Mexican Americans to Mexico is so ingrained that the Mexican government has a permanent program dedicated entirely to catering to them year-round: It’s called “Programa Paisano.”
Last year, Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which manages the program, reported that they assisted nearly 2 million people of Mexican descent that traveled home to cities and towns across the country during the winter holiday season.
This year, they expect that the number will be far less because of the pandemic, the agency told the USA TODAY Network. But indications on the ground point to a significant number of paisanos continuing with that yearly tradition, despite the recommendations to stay home.
Mexican immigration officials kicked off the Programa Paisano earlier this month at various ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, and deployed 460 volunteers to staff booths aimed at paisanos traveling south.
The agency urged travelers to check the local, state and federal COVID-19 guidelines at their destination, before traveling to Mexico. As in the U.S., decisions about business closures, curfews and restrictions on alcohol sales and gatherings in Mexico are a local matter and vary widely.
In years past, paisanos were most concerned about being robbed or kidnapped on their way back to Mexico. With license plates that give them away and their trucks packed to the brim with presents, they have often been a target for highway robbery, including by Mexican officials.
Last week, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador warned members of local, federal and highway police forces and the National Guard “to act with rectitude, honesty and support our paisanos, respect them.”
“We’re not going to tolerate any abuse,” he said, without mentioning the pandemic.
But Mexico also has been hit with a second wave of COVID-19, straining hospitals to the breaking point in Mexico’s northern border states, which have some of the highest infection rates in the country.
While the president largely has dismissed the severity of Mexico’s coronavirus problems, health and border experts in the U.S. and Mexico are concerned the massive flow of people in the middle of the pandemic could make an already troubling situation even worse, and lead to more infections on both sides of the border.
Health officials in Chihuahua state across the border from Texas, where Cueto was headed, warned against holiday travel and Christmas gatherings. COVID-19 has killed more than 115,000 people in Mexico, and border states have been hit especially hard.
“The best thing for Christmas 2020 is to spend it healthy,” said Dr. Leticia Ruiz, director of preventative medicine for Chihuahua state. “That means reducing mobility and increasing preventative measures and celebrating only with members of the same household.
“It’s been a difficult year,” she said. “We should stay home as much as possible and avoid traveling. Let’s have a different sort of Christmas, in which the gifts are life and health.”
Binational families and gatherings
U.S. citizens and legal residents essentially can travel unrestricted into Mexico, thanks in large part to exemptions carved into the policies that were announced in March in response to the pandemic.
The U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to restrict travel for “non-essential” reasons through their shared border, limiting crossings except for work, school and commerce.
In practice, the restrictions have mostly targeted Mexican visitors traveling north. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are largely exempt, according to Guadalupe Ramirez, the Tucson field director for Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, who oversees Arizona’s ports of entry.
“When you look at the travel restrictions, they really don’t restrict the movement of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents,” he said. “If they show up at our port of entry, we’re going to obviously let them in because they live in the U.S. regardless of why they traveled to Mexico.”
The restrictions have been extended every month and are set to expire in January, although further extensions are likely as the pandemic continues to rage on both sides of the border.
The Mexican government has continued to ignore calls from border residents and governors who have pleaded with them to implement restrictions on U.S. visitors, similar to the ones U.S. officials have in place on north-bound travelers from Mexico.
In response, several state and municipal governments on the Mexican side of the border have tried to make crossing more onerous by implementing “sanitary filters” in which drivers must stop to answer questions and sometimes have their temperature taken. The efforts have been short-lived.
For example, in Mexicali, across the border from Calexico, California, the municipal government set up southbound checkpoints manned by police officers, who are on the lookout for the use of face masks and that each vehicle has no more than four people.
But the checkpoints are functional only on key travel dates, during which the normally quick crossing times south into Mexico slows to a crawl, creating traffic bottlenecks on the Calexico side.
In border cities such as Juárez, Nogales or Mexicali, hundreds of thousands of residents hold dual nationality and cross the border daily; neither the Mexican nor the U.S. government has prohibited citizens from entering their country.
Even though the Mexican government has rolled out the welcome mat for paisanos, other government and health officials are urging families to stay put in the U.S. this year.
“We want to make people aware there is still a problem,” said Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de León, Mexican consul in El Paso. “They shouldn’t gather with more than 10 people. They should take the precautions everyone is recommending: the use of the face mask, the use of hand sanitizer, stay six feet apart. Our nationals who are going back should know that it’s not going to be a normal vacation for anyone.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Dr. Gaudelia Rangel, the director for Mexico’s division of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, which has been coordinating and sharing information about the pandemic with their counterparts in the United States.
She is based in Tijuana, Mexico’s largest border city, which shares the busiest border crossing in the world with San Diego.
Rangel urged families to avoid having parties or gatherings with over 10 people, the recommended guidelines in Mexico.
“It can be complicated,” she said. “Because we know that in Mexico there are families, especially when they have visitors from paisanos, that they will likely have gatherings at a home with over 10 people.”
A change of plans: ‘No trip to Mexico’
Some families in the U.S. are heeding warnings about traveling to Mexico.
Each year, Maria Mendez and her family travel from the Southern California desert to the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan to celebrate Christmas, and this year was going to be no different. They planned to celebrate as they always do, with her parents, seven siblings and all of their children. They would eat tamales and pozoleand hold a gift raffle, because, she said, “in Mexico you can’t give gifts to everyone, because there are so many people.”
They already had purchased their plane tickets. And because Mendez’s kids are studying virtually this year, the family planned to leave just before Thanksgiving and spend more than a month at Mendez’s family’s ranch outside the city of Jiquilpan.
They had to change their plans after Mendez contracted COVID-19. She tested positive for the virus on Nov. 17, and again on Dec. 1. She has remained isolated in her home, in the eastern Coachella Valley community of Mecca, for more than a month, as she waits to take a third test.
“I’m really sad,” she said, “because my siblings are there and I won’t get to see them.”
Mendez decorated her home with Santa figurines and lights outside. But inside, there are no gifts, she said, leaving her five children disappointed.
“They’re angry with me because I got sick,” she joked. “They say, ‘no trip to Mexico and no gifts in the house!’”
Beatriz Pinal from Tucson said she also normally visits her family in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi during this time of the year, taking advantage of the winter holiday break to take a bus or drive there and spend several weeks in Mexico.
This year, she’ll remain in Tucson, celebrating just with her daughters, including one who takes medication for blood clots. She said she did not want to risk exposing her by traveling across the border.
Pinal said was especially concerned about the risk of exposure to asymptomatic individuals, who do not show any symptoms of the infection but can pass it on to others.
“More than anything, we have to take care of ourselves because the pandemic is really strong in Mexico right now,” she said. “My family advised me to stay here and to take care of ourselves.”
A sacrifice for ‘the common good’
In Nogales and Juárez, the Mexican customs stations are lined with trucks and SUVs loaded with bags and boxes, gifts and other merchandise that paisanos are taking with them to their destinations in Mexico.
Once the holidays have ended, those travelers will head back to the United States. Because U.S. citizens and legal residents cannot be turned away, U.S. customs officials are preparing for a large swell in northbound traffic that could lead to bottlenecks and lengthy wait times to cross back into the country.
In recent months, when Customs and Border Protection periodically cracked down on non-essential traffic, wait times ballooned for up to eight hours or more at certain U.S.-Mexico border crossings.
In the El Paso border region, field director Hercor Mancha said CBP will monitor passenger traffic in the coming days and adjust staffing as needed. They warned paisanos who traveled to Mexico to be prepared and give themselves more time to return to the U.S.
For those who haven’t left yet, Mancha — who was born in the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas — urged people to consider whether it was worth exposing their loved ones to the virus.
“Growing up in a border community myself, I understand the importance of family and gathering during the holidays. However, the safety of our loved ones has to come into play,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone wants to feel responsible for spreading this illness to a beloved older or medically compromised member of their family,” he said. “Missing out on the large family gatherings, the food and festivities and all that will be a sacrifice, but it is one for the common good.”
Waiting for a mother’s embrace
Cueto made it home to a town near Chihuahua City, the Chihuahua state capital. Days after arriving she still hadn’t hugged her mother — the moment she longs for — but they had seen each other and spoke at a distance through a window. They showed their love in other ways.
“My mother knows I love chiles rellenos, so she had the señora who takes care of her make me a batch,” Cueto said.
Her mother wanted her to come inside, to embrace her, but Cueto reminded her they needed to wait out the quarantine period.
“Ya mero,” she told her mother. “Soon!”
Contributing: Rebecca Plevin and Omar Ornelas, The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.)