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Children of undocumented Mexicans retrace parents' steps in reverse

© AFP | US-born Eleny Ramirez embraces her grandmother Atanacia Carvete during a family reunion for 18 US-born Mexican children in their parents' homeland in Puebla, Mexico

TEOPANTLÁN (MEXICO) (AFP) - 

They know the skyscrapers of Manhattan better than this small village in rural Mexico, but these 18 children are here to meet their extended families and learn about the world their parents left behind.

Born in the United States, they have made the trip without their parents, who remain undocumented immigrants and -- unlike their US citizen children -- cannot travel back to Mexico for fear of being detained and deported by American border authorities.

But the children wanted to meet their grandparents and other relatives for the first time back in their parents' native Teopantlan, a remote village of modest brick houses tucked into the hills of central Mexico.

"My little niece, the four-year-old, keeps talking to me in English. But I don't speak a word of it," said 57-year-old Maria with a smile after meeting her four nieces.

The trip was organized by charitable organizations, which got the parents' permission to take their children out of the country.

After a long and winding trip from the Mexico City airport, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) away, the kids got out of their mini-bus in Teopantlan's central square.

Beneath a canopy of colorful balloons, excited Mexican-American children met their equally excited Mexican relatives, who were waiting for them with flowers and gifts.

"I had seen pictures of them, but it's nothing like seeing them in real life," said a beaming Mauro Ramirez, 60.

"I'm so emotional I want to cry," he told AFP.

After the initial embraces, though, the communication problems set in for many.

Some of the older villagers only spoke the indigenous Nahuatl language, while some of the children only spoke English.

The lapsed years also suddenly made themselves painfully apparent.

One grandfather wearing a giant sombrero brought his 15-year-old grandson -- a nearly grown adult -- a giant children's stuffed animal. They proceeded to sit down together, side by side, in silence.

- 'Mexican there, American here' -

Teopantlan, a corn- and sugar cane-farming community, has long been a village of emigrants.

"Around 40 percent of our young people emigrate, because there are no jobs here," said the mayor, Esteban Ramirez Rosales.

He estimates about 2,000 villagers have left over the years, mainly for New York, where they have their own enclave in the borough of Queens.

This is the first time anyone has organized a reunion.

"It's a symbolic event reuniting families in their native community, rather than in the United States," said Francisco Romero, one of the organizers.

"It gives families an alternative in the current climate of irrational immigration policy in both the United States and Mexico," he said.

The children's parents joined in as best they could from afar.

"Sometimes the kids don't believe us when we tell them about where we come from. They don't realize all they have," one mother told AFP from New York by telephone.

The woman, who asked not to be named because of her migration status, had sent her three daughters on the trip.

One group of young New Yorkers were thrilled to see their first live turkey, which their grandmother wanted to teach them to feed.

"I'd like to teach them how to weave and wash clothes by hand, too," said the 60-year-old woman, Tanassia.

"It's so quiet here. You don't even hear any cars. I'd like to come with my parents next time," said 14-year-old Vanessa.

She neatly summed up the difficulties of growing up in a family that straddles the border.

"I feel Mexican there and American here."

- Overcoming the distance -

Vanessa said US President Donald Trump's arrival in the White House had made her very anxious for parents and other undocumented immigrants -- there are more than 11 million in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

She now dreams of helping get papers for her mother and father, a restaurant worker.

Like the other children on the trip, the teenage Beyonce fan is learning the region's traditional dance, the "danza de las moras" (blackberry dance).

They performed it for their families -- their way of showing they are carrying on the local culture.

"This dance binds us together, despite the distance," said Mauro Ramirez.

© 2018 AFP