There isn’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.
After a year and a half trying to make it in the United States, time has run out for Dolores. She was unable to find work because her medical degree is not recognized here, so 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 in Spanish. “There I have the degree I need.”
The story is different for Reyes, who has found what he sought in the United Statesa 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, also in Spanish. “I have no choice.”
The bus schedule is uncertain at Don Becerra Tienda y Carnicería, a small grocery at Club Drive and South Roxboro Street in Durham, 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 southeastern Mexico 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 outbound for the bus hub in Atlanta.
It’s a typical day in the Bull City for Autobuses Adame.
The goodbye seems even shorter because Dolores and Reyes purchased the bus ticket just a day earlier. Reyes 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, you’ll find links of chorizo, sliced meat from Mexico, multi-colored 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 Adame bus service has been constant.
The bus service isn’t a big moneymaker. Becerra pockets 15 percent of the cost of a ticket for his trouble booking reservations with an agency, and the passengers pay the remainder once they arrive at 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 profits.
“I serve the people in the community,” he said in Spanish “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 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.”
The bus is also cheaper. It costs $220 to reach Mexican soil, $275 to go to Mexico City, the most popular destination. The route is more direct than other carriers, and with Hispanic bus drivers, the service is tailored to the Latino community.
“The bus goes to Greensboro, then Atlanta and then straight toward the border. An American bus line like Greyhound makes many stops here and there.” Becerra says. “It does not have the same goal of getting to the border as quickly.”
Dolores has chosen to ride at an off-peak time. There usually aren’t many people getting picked up from Don Becerra between April and July, and this is one of the few days the bus has stopped by. It used to check daily for passengers, but recently the driver only comes if an advance reservation has been booked. Most of the traffic occurs between October and December as Mexicans return home to avoid the winter months, when farm work is scarce.
“They spend a lot of time 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.”
Adame is one of five bus companies that offers 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 started driving immigrants to Monterrey in a station wagon. In 1985, the operation transformed 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. It was one of the few carriers allowed to cross the border because company leaders were shrewd enough to secure a 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, 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, or customs, agents who check documents. For that small fee, the agents often allow busses to pass through without searching luggage, which can take between three and four hours.
The money was needed on a trip in March, where only one of 42 passengers had documentation showing they were allowed to be in the U.S. The others had been here illegally for between three months and seven years but still could return to their homeland.
The rules aren’t as strict as those on the return trip to the U.S., where noncitizens must have a valid visa to cross. (In 2009, passports will be required.)
Adame buses are more luxurious than you might imagine. They have plush seats that recline and offer legroom. The one that picked up Reyes was part of a new fleet. But the trip is tedious and treacherous.
Adame places a premium on moving as fast as possible. The bus stops only occasionally to get gas. Those are the only opportunities to use the bathroom or to buy something to eat during a trek that takes between 40 and 60 hours, depending on the destination.
While Dolores was prepared for that, Reyes is more worried about robbers who prey on buses at the border. Thieves know the buses are loaded with luggage and that the weary travelers make for easy targets. 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.
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. Riders are separated from loved ones or have not achieved their dreams. Many who’ve traveled speak of their failures. Others say the United States isn’t what they envisioned: It’s too difficult of an adjustment and too expensive with the unexpected costs of living 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 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 Veracruz. 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 R. Schwartz is a student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a former editor at the Daily Tar Heel. School of Journalism and Mass Communication photojournalism student Selket Guzman contributed reporting and translation for this article.