Workers into Heroes

RIO VERDE, Mexico — While living in the shadows inside the United States, Mexican immigrants stoke controversy from the Rio Grande to Washington.

But when they return home, they’re hailed as heroes. They’re seen as triumphant soldiers who have risked their lives in the war against poverty.

On Friday, this central Mexico town welcomed returning immigrants — legal or not while in the United States — with a special morning Mass, a parade and a concert at a dance hall.

The “Paisano Day” celebration is rare in most parts of the country, but as an estimated 1 million Mexicans return home for the holiday season, it’s likely that many of them will be questioned by countrymen who wonder how tough it is to sneak past the U.S. Border Patrol and find a job.

Locals, awed by the preening cowboys in white hats, crocodile skin boots and blaring stereos from newer model American trucks parading around the local plaza, know that even if they’re washing plates or hammering nails, they likely could make at least as much working an hour in the United States as they could in a day in Mexico.

And the $1 billion a month they send home is vital to Mexico’s economy.

Eddie Varon Levy, a former Mexican congressman, said his countrymen who headed north once were considered traitors, but that people now realize the money they earn in the United States is a lifeblood back home.

The dependency on immigrant-earned money is especially strong in the state of San Luis Potosi, which sends many immigrants to San Antonio.

And so, the gold chains around their necks, the fancy trucks they drove and the hand-tooled cowboy boots they wore were just some of the trophies returning immigrants used to serve notice: There’s money to be made in the United States.

“Some people say that when you’ve been up there, you come back full of yourself,” said Nicanor Rangel Bautista, 28, who wore a cowboy hat and a crocodile belt and whose hair fell to the middle of his back over a full-length black leather coat. “Not me, I am just the same.”

As soon as the immigrants hit town, they’re said to go on spending sprees, buying custom clothes for themselves or furniture, appliances and other items for their families. Weddings spike. Normally quiet streets are jammed. And business is good.

People waved and shouted as a line of 51 vehicles, driven by returning immigrants as part of a parade and car concert, made its way through the streets of this town of 88,000.

Among the notable absences was the boyfriend of parade queen Maria Luisa Sanchez, 19, who said her guy worked construction in San Antonio, but was unable to get home, perhaps because of the tightening of security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“God bless him, and I hope he keeps earning money so we can get married,” said Sanchez, who wore a crown and was perched atop the first truck in the parade.

Although most license plates were from Texas, others were from as far away as Nebraska, Virginia or Florida.

The upscale vehicles, which included a Hummer and dualie pickups, were sprinkled with holy water by a priest. They were decorated to salute Mexico and driven by men who could reel off success stories after leaving here without a peso to their names.

“I am not ashamed. I was poor and humble, but knew there was a better life with hard work,” said Francisco Morales, 38. “I have three homes, two for renting and one for me.”

Morales said he loved the welcome, but remembers the bad old days when returning immigrants were targeted by police or bandits or charged five times the normal price for a bottle of soda.

Soyd Perez de Rocha, who organized the seventh annual Paisano Day, said immigrants often leave desperate and nearly broken, but return swelled with pride.

“They are saying, ‘I am back, I have dollars and I can buy what I want,'” she said of the immigrants who walk the streets with a new swagger. “They have been gone for one or two years and with a party like this, they feel important.”

And they have fans.

Clad in hot pink stiletto heels and jeans, with a patch strategically torn from the rear, Saraid Avila, 20, was cruising for the man of her dreams.

“They are so handsome and the trucks are beautiful,” Avila said, seconds before she climbed aboard a friend’s scooter and gave chase to the parade.

Jose Ines Flores Martinez, of the music group Imperio Texano, which performed during the festivities, said he knew first hand that working in the United States was far from an easy road to a better life.

He said he’ll never forget the night he made his way across the Rio Grande’s powerful current near Piedras Negras as he clutched a plastic bag filled with his clothes. Things got worse as he ran out of drinking water and walked for three days.

“It is very difficult and you are playing with your life,” he said during a break. “(The United States) needs workers and we need jobs. I do not know why they can’t work something out.”