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June 15, 2008
By Joeseph Schwartz
DURHAM — There wasn’t much time to say goodbye. As they sit in their Ford Explorer waiting for the bus to come by that will leave them a country apart for the next 10 months, Edith Santiago Dolores and Noe Sanchez Reyes don’t dwell on the reality of the situation. The wife and husband just hold hands.
But the truth is that after a year-and-a-half trying to make it in the United States, time has run out for Dolores. Unable to find work because her medical degree is not recognized here, she’s headed to Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, where a job offer in a pharmacy awaits. “Over here I would start from the bottom,” she says. “There I have the degree I need.”
The story is different for Reyes, who has found what he sought in the United States — a steady income working alongside his uncle at a local tire shop. He doesn’t want his wife to leave, but he knows he must stay. “It’s hard, but I have to because I need to work,” he says. “I have no choice.”
The bus schedule is uncertain at Don Becerra Tienda y Carnicera, so it comes as a surprise at 10:30 a.m. when 10 wheels originating from El Paso, Texas, kick up gravel and the driver steps out calling for passengers to board immediately.
Reyes helps Dolores with her luggage, just a small brown duffle bag and a suitcase with wheels. He holds the scruff of her neck and looks into her eyes. They share a single kiss on the lips, and then she climbs up the stairs to begin her three-day journey to the Southeast of the country and a chance for prosperity. “It’s going to be hard because it’s such a long trip,” she admitted earlier. “I’m not looking forward to it.” The three other passengers for this stop take their seats, and driver Juan Oliva peels out bound for the bus hub in Atlanta.
It’s a typical day in the Bull City for Autobuses Adame.
A ticket to ride
The goodbye seems even shorter because Dolores and Reyes purchased the bus ticket just a day earlier. Reyes had heard from friends that Dolores could find a way home at the tienda. About $300 was all it took, no identification needed.
Javier Becerra, the tienda’s owner and operator, has a separate counter specifically dedicated to money orders, bus tickets and plane reservations. He’s a jack of all trades who offers Mexicans a taste of home or a passage back to it. Inside his store, located at the corner of Roxboro Road and Club Boulevard, you’ll find links of chorizo, sliced meat from Mexico, multicolored marshmallows, Mango lollipops, Mexican all-purpose cleaning products like Suavitel and Fabuloso, Spanish music, piñatas, medicine and phone cards.
Though the store didn’t offer nearly as much before Becerra bought it seven years ago, the bus service by Adame has been constant.
“When I bought this store six years ago, the company had already been working here with the previous owner,” he says. “So we just changed the name of the store and continued to work with them. It would have been worse to try to change with another company, more paperwork. I just decided to work with, and so far it’s been good.”
For Becerra, the bus service isn’t a big moneymaker. He pockets 15 percent of the cost of a ticket for his trouble booking reservations with an agency, and then the passengers pay the remainder once they arrive in the Atlanta hub. But, as an immigrant who came to the United States 20 years ago in search of work in the fields, providing a service for those who are like him is worth more than the monetary profits.
“I serve the people in the community,” he said. “I sell bus tickets to people who have come to the U.S. in search for a better life and to look for jobs. I have had friends that have come here in search for jobs, but they haven’t found the opportunities they were expecting.”
In fact, the service is so much a part of local conversation that they don’t need to advertise inside the store or out of it. Most business comes from Spanish word of mouth.
Speed is the No. 1 attraction, especially for undocumented immigrants such as Dolores who lack driver’s licenses to travel by car or to pass through airport security.
“It’s the quickest and most effective way to go because I needed to leave today,” Dolores says. “The paperwork to fly on a plane would have taken forever.”
It also is cheaper. It costs $220 to reach Mexican soil, $275 to go to Mexico City, the most popular destination. Not only that, but it’s more direct than other carriers and is tailored to the Latino community.
“It is a service that caters to the Hispanic community,” Becerra says. “The bus drivers are all Hispanic and it is more direct than Greyhound, it heads directly to the border.”
“The bus here goes to Greensboro, then Atlanta and then straight toward the border. An American bus line like Greyhound makes many stops here and there. It does not have the same goal of getting to the border as quickly.”
Dolores has chosen to ride at one of the off-peak times. There usually aren’t many people getting picked up from Don Becerra between April and July, and this is one of the few days that the bus has stopped by. It used to check daily for passengers, but recently the driver only comes if a reservation has been booked in advance. Most of the traffic occurs between October and December as Mexicans seek to return home to avoid the winter months, when farm work is hard to find and when they can find warmer weather elsewhere.
Though roundtrip ticket sales are few and far between, Becerra does have repeat business. Some workers spend six months in each country at time, traveling back and forth where paychecks are present.
“They spend a lot of time on living on the bus,” he says. “For the most part they think about going back to Mexico, because it is so difficult to come back to the U.S.”
The bussing business
Adame is one of five different bus companies that offer trips from North Carolina to Mexico, but it is the oldest. It began in 1977 as a shadow of what it is today, when Esteban Adame starting driving immigrants to Monterey in a station wagon. In 1985, the operation moved from an unorganized taxi service to a company, Autobuses Adame Ltd. with the motto of “uniting families in Mexico and the United States.”
By the early 1990s it had its first stable of busses. Adame enjoyed early success because of local contacts. They were one of the few carriers allowed to cross the border because company leaders were shrewd enough to secure charter and temporary authority in Mexico under the auspices of a Mexican-based subsidiary, El Fasian. Today Adame, who still serves as president of the Houston-based company bearing his name, has a fleet of more than 50, and there are 190 people on the payroll.
There have to be that many to help operate a service that spans so many miles. Once riders arrive at the central hub in Houston, they can head to any of more than 60 places in Mexico.
Oliva, the driver, has been behind the wheel of an Adame bus for 12 years now, and though he lives in Houston he said the demand for workers to return home keeps him “always driving.”
“It’s really tiring,” he says.
The trickiest part of the finances comes when Oliva reaches the border. There they take up a collection, $10 apiece, to help pass through the Aduana, agents who check documents. For that small fee, the agents often will allow busses to pass through without searching luggage, which can take between three and four hours.
The money was needed in a trip in March, where only one of 42 passengers had documentation showing they were allowed to be in the U.S. They had been here illegally for between three months and seven years.
Luckily for them, people are allowed to return to their homeland no matter if they had immigrated illegally or not, said Bryan Griffth, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies.
It’s not as strict at the return trip, where you must have a Visa to cross.
“Generally you hear more about smugglers moving people in,” he said.
At home on the bus, caught between worlds
Adame buses are more luxurious than you probably might imagine. They have plush seats that recline and offer legroom. The one that picked up Reyes was part of a brand new fleet. But, make no mistake about it, the trip is tedious and treacherous.
Adame places a premium on moving as fast as possible. The bus stops only occasionally, when gas is needed. Those are the only opportunities to use the bathroom or to get something to eat during a trek that takes between 40 and 60 hours, depending on the exact destination.
While Dolores was prepared for that, Reyes is more worried about robbers who pray on busses at the border. They know they are loaded up with luggage and that the weary travelers make for easy prey. Knowing that, Dolores has packed only a few essential items, partly to ease the burden of the trip. “It’s going to be difficult enough traveling alone; I can’t carry a bunch of stuff,” she says.
It’s unlikely anything will go wrong, but the danger exists. More certain, however, is the daunting toll of sitting in the same seat for days. Once the bus reaches Atlanta, it will be packed to the gills. Becerra has heard about it from his customers.
“Sometimes they tell me they have a rough time, bad luck; the bus can break down,” he says. “This is truer for those not coming back. They usually have more luggage, and many travel with children, up to two kids sharing one seat or on their mother’s lap.”
Along with the physical pain comes emotional strife, either separation from loved ones or from their dreams. Many who’ve traveled speak of their failures. Others say the United States just isn’t what they envisioned, too expensive and too difficult of an adjustment, often speaking of the hidden costs of life here.
“Over there (Mexico) you work hard all day, but you come back and you don’t have to pay rent,” Becerra said, noting that many families own the land on which they live. “You have cell phone bills, utilities and other expenses that are not common.”
He defines the feeling as being “caught between two worlds.”
“The bus trip back is an emotional as well as physical demanding,” Becerra says. “It is a very heavy trip; people on the bus know that this would probably be their last moment in the U.S. … Expectations come to an end.”
Reyna Gomez, who took the bus in March, knows those emotions. She crossed the border three years ago, full of optimism buoyed by tales of opportunity. She came to meet up with her husband and to get fertility treatments in hopes of starting a family.
Instead, after moving between Georgia, Virginia and finally Greensboro, she grew desolate, unable to drive and stuck in an apartment. America wasn’t what she had been promised, and she decided to return to Vera Cruz. Her husband didn’t want to leave his work behind.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” she said. “I had such great dreams and hopes to start a family here.”
Joseph Schwartz is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a former Daily Tar Heel editor. School of Journalism and Mass Communication photojournalism student Selket Guzman contributed reporting to this article.