12/20/04 — Christmas in a foreign land

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Christmas in a foreign land

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on December 20, 2004 1:58 PM

Some folks can't go home for Christmas, because they might not be able to get back.

Maria Guadalupe Montiel, president of AMEXCAN Duplin, went to Mexico for the holidays several years ago. Her family couldn't drive across the border because the title of the car they were driving was in her brother's name. They showed the authorities a notarized letter granting them permission to drive it, but that wasn't good enough.

"We hopped a bus," she said. "Good thing we knew someone in Texas, or we'd have been in trouble. You can't just leave your car at the border. We'd have had to turn around and come back."

It's expensive, too, said Maria Elena Romero, a bilingual maternity outreach worker with the Duplin Health Department. Many of her clients know if they go back, they will have to stay.

They are decorating here, and those from each country decorate in a different way.

For example, the Guatemalans pick a corner in the living room and cover the wall with wrapping paper, have a tree, a nativity scene, a village and a lot of lights. Some have music.

In Mexico, they concentrate on the nativity scene and re-enact the visit of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. They go from house to house asking for shelter. They even have a donkey. The townspeople walking through the neighborhood with Joseph and Mary sing as they go from house to house. The neighbor who has agreed to take them in says no at first, then changes his mind. They serve special food that is served only during the holiday season.

Each country has its own traditional foods. Tamales are different in each country. Sometimes, there is a piñata filled with fruits and nuts, not as much candy as in the U.S.

Here, it's hard to do that, said Ms. Romero. People live too far apart from each other and work hours that make it hard to schedule the event, called a Posada. There is no Santa Claus in Mexico. The presents come from the Wise Men, and they come on Jan. 6, not Dec. 25.

On the night of Jan. 5, the children write a letter to the three wise men and put it into their shoe and leave it by the door or by the Christmas tree. In the morning, the letter is gone, and a present is in its place.

Mrs. Romero said her mother explained to her daughter that Santa and the wise men know each other, and they take turns. Santa comes to the United States, and the wise men go to Mexico, said the grandmother.

That was two years ago. Yesi is seven now. She is being raised with both cultures. The Romeros are adopting some qualities of other cultures while keeping their own.

Only in America can you find people from so many cultural backgrounds, said Ms. Montiel.

"In Mexico, we had a few Americans," she said, "But they were only tourists."

She said Christmas in Mexico is not centered as intently on gifts as it is in the States. It's more about family there, she said.

When she was small, she doesn't remember exchanging gifts with anybody.

"It's very rare to see Santa Claus in Mexico," said Ms. Montiel. "Only rich people have Santa."

Ms. Montiel and Ms. Romero women came to the States the first time in the same year -- 1989.

Ms. Romero was 11 years old. It was a white Christmas. and her family had never seen snow before. The man her father worked for gave the children gifts. That is when her little sister started believing in Santa.

They don't know anybody who is planning to go home for the holiday.

Gaspar Gonzales, diversity coordinator with the Eastpointe office in Kenansville, said most people who go across the border into Mexico, if they're legal, can show the proper identification to get back in.

For those who are here illegally, the problem is getting back, he said. Crossing the desert on the border is treacherous, he said. Border patrols sometimes find the bodies of people who didn't carry enough water. Vigilantes have been known to shoot people. He said more than 200 people have died in the desert over the past two months.

"Illegals keep trying to come," he said. "One man told me he came across hiding in a milk truck. Remember, this is the land of milk and honey."

A lot of people think the streets are paved with gold in the U.S., he said. Some go home laden with presents and money they have saved over the years. They buy their relatives meals. The relatives don't see what they have had to go through back in the United States, he said.

He said 23 percent of the population in Duplin County is Hispanic. That's about 25,000 people.

The northern side of Duplin and the southern end of Wayne County have large Hispanic populatons, mainly Mexican. Those in the southern part of Duplin are mostly from Central America. Those who come from the northern part of Guatemala and the southern part of Mexico are of Mayan descent.

About 12,000 people in Wayne County are Hispanic.