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Navigating home for 'Navidad'

Opportunity may be here, but often family is there. So a holiday trip home to Mexico is worth the time and cost . . . and risk of not getting back.

Published December 25, 2005

PLANT CITY - In neat letters, Maria Martinez Sanchez writes her destination, Veracruz, on her baggage tags.

By Christmas morning, Sanchez will be home. She'll hold the three children she hasn't seen in a year. She'll fix up her house and spend gift money she couldn't have earned in Mexico.

"The most beautiful gift is going home," says Sanchez, 33.

She is among the scores of Mexican travelers heading home for the holidays on white passenger buses with names like Adame, El Expreso and Tornado. The buses pass each other on rural roads, departing daily from eastern Hillsborough County. They connect lives that are rooted on one side of the border to the job opportunities that abound on the other.

From Plant City, it takes about 24 hours to reach la frontera, the border.

Then it's home for the holidays.

* * *

Suitcases, duffle bags and boxed electronics clutter the dirt parking lot at El Expreso Bus Co., across from the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds in Plant City.

Maria de Jesus sees the idling bus has room for her family's suitcases. But a pair of ready-to-assemble kitchen islands - each weighing nearly 140 pounds - draws a worried look from the terminal manager.

"We are bringing these as gifts," says de Jesus, 45, who can afford generous presents for family in Mexico, thanks to a job packing shrimp in Dover. "They don't have these things."

Her family pays extra to transport the oversized boxes.

Even then, de Jesus says, the bus costs less than a plane ride home to central Mexico.

Ticket prices vary by destination. On El Expreso, a one-way trip to Mexico City costs about $240. To Monterrey, it's about $170.

Many passengers can expect a 36-hour journey - with transfers in Houston and at the border - before fanning out to towns across Mexico.

The bus can deliver Jose Luis Salas, who makes more installing drywall in Miami than he did as a teacher in Mexico, directly to his hometown. If he took a plane to the airport in Monterrey, he'd face a seven-hour drive into central Mexico.

The logistics still frustrate three children in Durang o who haven't seen their father in a year.

"Leave already, Papi," they begged over the phone.

Before boarding the bus home, he instructed his children to raise three fingers. They could lower one each day of his journey. When they see a fist, he'll be home.

And so will a Xbox, a Yamaha keyboard and a compact stereo system.

* * *

Mauricio Garcia takes the journey every year from Indiantown to central Mexico. The transportation method matters less than the family waiting at the final stop.

"My mom is too many years old," says Garcia, 40, who likes to celebrate Christmas with his mother, siblings and cousins. "With two weeks, I can see all the family, everyone."

The month of December sees brisk business at the Adame and El Expreso bus terminals, which operate regional hubs in Plant City with daily departures to Mexico.

Most days, El Expreso sends off one bus daily, half full with 25 passengers. The weekend before Christmas, El Expreso filled 11 buses in Plant City.

That's twice as many as last year, notes terminal manager Alma Carvajal, 28. She credits new buses with flat-screen TVs and a deal to book five trips and get one free.

El Expreso and Adame are modeled around the idiosyncrasies of U.S-Mexico travel.

"These buses are more for Latinos," said Martin Gonzalez 42, an Adame driver, comparing his company to the U.S. staple, Greyhound.

For starters, everyone speaks Spanish.

Tickets are sold at Hispanic stores from Brandon to Clearwater, where vans pick up passengers. Latin music plays from the speakers. For entertainment, drivers show Spanish-language cartoons or popular movies such as The Passion of the Christ.

* * *

It's easy to get homesick for Mexico at Christmas . But returning to this country is trickier for some travelers.

Four years ago, Jorge Lopez, 45, left southeastern Mexico looking for work. In Plant City, he discovered an industry called landscaping that paid by the hour.

He could talk on the phone to this wife and two children, now 9 and 11.

This Christmas, he couldn't ignore the call of home.

"Four years is so long," he says, waiting at the Adame terminal with five bags and a tennis racket case at his feet. "I hurt for the children."

He plans to return to Florida. He's not in the country legally, so he isn't sure how he will come back. Right now, details don't concern him.

He's thinking about kissing his wife and children.

[Last modified December 24, 2005, 23:43:13]

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