Alone for Christmas: South Texans separated from Mexican relatives by drug violence, immigration statuses.
By Rhiannon Meyers
Corpus Christi Caller Times
This Christmas season, as 40 of Silvia Rodriguez's family members gather at her sister's house in Monterrey, she will stay 300 miles away, separated by drug violence.
While they eat turkey, smash piñatas and perhaps get a visit from a Santa Claus the family sometimes hires to pass out gifts to children, Rodriguez, the youngest of the nine siblings, won't be there.
Once again, the violence in Mexico will force Rodriguez to stay home with her husband and children in Corpus Christi. Frayed family ties, another casualty of the drug war, are an especially stark reality during the Christmas season.
"I'm very sad, very sad," she said. "Because with all my heart I want to go to Mexico."
For many with family across the border, December can be a lonely month.
Violence fueled by the drug cartels has spiraled out of control in recent years, making it increasingly difficult for South Texans to see their parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins and, in some cases, their own children in Mexico.
Though millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, the U.S. Department of State has cautioned that residents avoid nonessential travel to many areas, particularly border regions where carjackings and highway robberies are serious problems and have at times led to murders, according to the most recent travel warning issued in April. Most of the more than 30,000 people killed in narcotics-related violence are members of drug cartels, but innocent people also have been murdered, according to the state department.
Rodriguez, who lived in Mexico until she was 22 years old, used to visit four times a year when it was safe. Now her elderly mother begs her not to come.
"She said, 'I'm fine. Don't worry. But don't come. It's very dangerous,'" she said.
Some families have gone years without seeing relatives across the border, said Rev. Owen Ross, a Dallas church pastor whose 120-member Spanish-speaking congregation is made up mostly of immigrants and their children.
"There's a feeling of longing, of homesickness for those who have to go so many years without seeing their grandmothers or others when they were used to seeing them once or twice a year, or even more," he said.
In Corpus Christi, more than three dozen parishioners gathered Thursday for Spanish Mass at a small church on the Westside. Those who cannot see their blood relatives in Mexico have found in the small, cinder block church their second family, Deacon Manny Maldonado said.
The Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos Madre de la Iglesia parishioners bond with others who feel similarly isolated, Maldonado said.
The Catholic church has tried to ease the pain of familial separation by offering funeral Masses for church members' relatives who died in Mexico and embracing Mexican traditions, such as the celebration of posadas, a Christmas custom re-enacting Mary and Joseph's journey to find a place for Mary to give birth to Jesus.
On Thursday, more than three dozen parishioners emptied into chilly and darkened neighborhood streets after rosary, marching past houses fringed with Christmas lights and singing "Preparen el Camino del Señor," as they paid homage to the tradition many remembered from their childhood.
It's important to continue to celebrate those customs, such as posadas, so the children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants never forget their heritage, said María Alicía Valdez of Corpus Christi. That's particularly true now that the border has become a barrier between families.
"It's stopping the children from learning more from their roots and where they came from," she said. "They don't have access to go over there and see relatives and see how things are during Christmas like I did."
Valdez, who grew up in San Antonio, remembers spending Christmases at her grandmother's house in Monterrey when neighbors flung open their doors and children played outside.
When she visited three years ago, the colonia of her memories had been fundamentally altered, she said. Cars with foreign license plates were not allowed inside the neighborhood and she was encouraged to leave before dark, she said.
"It's very sad how everything has changed," she said.
Despite the violence, Ross believes many more would continue to risk visiting Mexico if they were able to gain legal status in the United States. Many illegal immigrants will not chance a trip across the border for fear that they would not be able to return, he said.
While Antonio Rodriguez Ramiro was able to get legal status, his son was not, meaning this is the first Christmas the two will spend apart in yet another example of how the border has become a barrier between families.
Ramiro initially came to the United States illegally but was granted amnesty in the 1980s and has since worked to secure the necessary papers to legalize his wife and six children, he said through a translator. He has been successful for all but his 20-year-old son, who was sent back to Jalisco in June.
Ramiro's sisters and father in Mexico have never been able to visit him in the United States because they don't have the necessary paperwork to do so. Now, his son is in the same position, trapped in Jalisco away from his parents and siblings.
Ramiro doesn't worry about his safety traveling to Mexico — "I'm a have-not," he said. But he must continue to work this season, so his wife and kids traveled to Jalisco, leaving Ramiro and his 18-year-old daughter at home by themselves for Christmas.
Without the cheery bustle of his wife and children, the house lacks its typical vibrancy, Ramiro said. The only signs of the season are a vase of silk poinsettias and a small, heavily laden Christmas tree propped atop a coffee table pushed against his living room wall.
"I'm very lonely," he said. "I feel sad. I get to the house and the house is empty and it doesn't feel comfy. Because nobody is there."
This Christmas, he said, doesn't feel like Christmas at all.