Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Chicago Tribune.
When Gardenia Rangel arrived in her parents’ hometown in Mexico after driving with her family from Chicago for nearly three days, she was filled with nostalgia and gratitude.
She had done the same road trip with her father since she was a child every December, right before Christmas, and continued making the annual trip after she got married. In recent years, Rangel would drive to Mexico in a quasi-caravan with other families following her father’s lead.
This year, as the roads turned from pavement to dirt while arriving at her father’s beloved rancho in Guanajuato, Mexico, she felt his presence, but he was no longer making the trip.
Both of her parents died from COVID-19 complications in March; this was her first time in Mexico without them.
“Last year, we were following my dad. This year my parents are with us, protecting us,” Rangel said.
“I am grateful for the many trips we took, the many shows, concerts and festivals we attended together … and the countless happy memories created throughout the years,” she wrote from La Calera, a rural town near Celaya, Guanajuato.
Despite her grieving heart, the trip made her feel closer to her late parents, and she wants to continue the tradition of driving from Chicago to Mexico to raise her daughter with the same kind of love and family unity she was raised with.
The December road trip to Mexico is a tradition for many Mexican immigrant families in Chicago. Each year, thousands drive for more than 48 hours to different parts of Mexico to visit the hometowns they left in search of the American Dream, as many call it. Most make the trip to reunite with beloved family members they can only see through video calls the rest of the year.
“At least now we can make video calls and see them. Before, all we could do was hear their voice through the phone,” said Reynaldo Hernandez. He was waiting to depart for Oaxaca, Mexico, with his wife and 11-year-old son from the bus station of El Tornado in Brighton Park a few days before Christmas.
Hernandez said he could only afford to take his family to Mexico on the coach bus because plane tickets are very expensive during the holidays and driving is a heavy task. He and his wife held blankets and bags with some tortas — sandwiches — and other snacks for the 72-hour bus ride they’d share with at least 40 other people.
Though their vacation is only 10 days — minus the days on the road — “it’s all worth it when we get there and hug our family,” he said.
Hernandez and his wife, who work in the maintenance department at a nursing home in Michigan, saved up money all year to make sure they could take the trip since they couldn’t visit last year because of financial reasons and the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the family remains concerned about the virus, they felt it was important to pay a visit to their elderly parents and other family members, especially during the holidays.
“It’s almost as if they live all year waiting for us to visit, and even though they wish we could go see them every year, it is economically impossible,” Hernandez said.
Joining the Hernandez family, hundreds of other Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans waited in the crowded lobby of the bus company to embark on the dayslong trip. While some argued over overbooked buses and overweight luggage, others chatted and smiled with excitement.
Some carried boxes with gifts for their family: TVs, microwaves, pans and comforters.
Two sisters, Fatima and Tania Gaytan, boarded the bus en route to Durango, Mexico, to visit their parents and siblings. They were accompanied by Tania’s children, all born in the Chicago area but excited to visit their grandparents.
“I’m emotional and excited, ready to go home,” said 15-year-old Orlando Gaytan, a freshman at Downers Grove South High School. “Though I was born here, I feel more connected to Mexico thanks to my grandparents.”
He visits almost every year during winter break, and every time, his grandma welcomes him by making his favorite dish: pozole.
The hourslong trip on the bus doesn’t bother him, he said. While on the road, he chats with his mom and aunt, focuses on sightseeing and people-watching.
“It’s an inexplicable experience,” he said. “Even if I was only visiting for a couple of days, it’s all worth it, I learn so much from it.”
The bus isn’t very comfortable, Fatima said. Sometimes there’s a pungent smell coming from the built-in bathroom, and there’s no Wi-Fi. She worries for their safety when driving through the night in isolated areas. When they reach Mexico, she worries about kidnappers and criminals who she hears attempt to rob the “norteños” — people who travel to Mexico from the States.
But there’s also a sense of camaraderie among the travelers, who watch out for one another during the trip, Rangel said.
Whether it be on the bus or in a car, the travelers share the sacrifice of living apart from family and loved ones all year long, and making the costly trip.
“It’s the life of an immigrant,” Hernandez said.
While on the road trip back home, Rangel felt the same happiness that she felt when she was a child.
In Mexico, their families await the norteños with excitement, their favorite dish, banda music and hugs. There’s posadas for Christmas, and fiestas patronales — celebrations of a town’s saints. There are also quinceañeras, weddings, confirmations and with all the celebrations, many bailes — or dances. The quiet small towns are suddenly filled with laughter and music.
Though the pandemic paused the annual trips, many, like Rangel and Hernandez, resumed the journey this year.
Many stay in Mexico only during their children’s winter school break. Others spend months until they need to return to work in the States for the year and start saving money to return again.
When they depart, they leave a void in their hometowns and take with them a longing to return.