For many families, holidays are the time to head home

Saturday, November 24, 2001

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For Yovani Dircas Leiva, Guatemala is home. But America is opportunity.

For many Hispanic immigrants such as Leiva, the holidays are a time of bittersweet travels.

Leiva, a Mayan Indian from Guatemala, works two full-time jobs, more than 80 hours a week managing fast food restaurants in Kansas City. Every month, he wires most of his salary -- about $3,000 -- home to his wife and two young children in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a town of about 12,000.

On Saturday, he will take a break from the work until January. Along with a cousin, he'll drive for five days through the United States, then Mexico, traveling with a wad of cash to pay off corrupt Mexican police along the way.

It will be Leiva's first trip home in 10 months.

"I miss them," he said of his family.

His 3-year-old daughter cries "Papa, Papa" during his daily phone calls home. His son is too young for a telephone conversation.

"He's a year and 2 months old and I don't hardly know him," Leiva said. "Always before I go back, I think, 'Should I go? Should I go?'"

He has lived more of his life in the United States than in Guatemala.

Some are hesitant

Leiva's journey is one many Hispanic immigrants make this time of year. Often seasonal jobs such as roofing and landscaping ebb with the onset of winter, making it easier for people to stop working.

And in Latin American countries the Christmas season places less importance on Santa Claus and more on family and Catholic traditions such as the nightly re-creations of Mary and Joseph's search for an inn.

Some local immigrants are hesitant to travel, fearful of planes and buses since the terrorist attacks, said Melinda K. Lewis, special projects director at El Centro, a social service agency based in Kansas City, Kan. The economic slowdown is having an effect too, she said.

But she doesn't believe the job losses will persuade many to stay in their home countries and not return in January.

"When you compare the wages to any place in Latin America, it still looks good here," Lewis said.

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