Impact of Flu Outbreak Resonates With Mexican Enclave in Md.

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Turn onto a quiet side street called Edmonston Road in the Prince George's County town of Riverdale Park and you could almost be in Mexico.

Shopkeepers have festooned the slightly shabby brick bungalows lining the street with exuberant signs painted in the red, green and white of Mexico's flag. The Discocentro Mexicano offers cowboy boots from northern Mexico alongside racks of CDs by Mexican bands. At the San Jose Grocery, three-foot statues of Catholic saints are stacked above the produce aisle.

And perhaps nowhere in the Washington region has the impact of the swine flu originating in Mexico reverberated with greater force this week than along this half-mile stretch.

At Comunicar Travel and Tax Services, in a small house painted electric blue and decorated with posters of airplanes, requests from Mexican immigrants seeking to book summer trips home have nearly ceased over the past several days. Instead, the agency's two travel consultants have been fielding calls from clients who already bought tickets and want to postpone their flights without incurring fees.

"This is the time of year when we sell families their summer travel packages," said the agency's manager, Ruddy Hernandez, standing with a worried look in the empty office one recent morning. "If this continues much longer it will be a big problem."

Branching out to other customers is not an easy option, Hernandez said. Although many of the region's estimated 47,000 Mexican immigrants are scattered among other, larger immigrant communities, Riverdale Park has emerged over the past two decades as a rare Mexican enclave. So almost all of Comunicar's clients are Mexican immigrants.

At least one business does appear to be booming along Edmonston Road: the sale of phone cards to Mexicans anxious to check on relatives back home.

"Aha, aha. ¿Y como esta la niña?" -- "And how's the little girl?" -- Fernando Andrades, 25, a welder on a lunch break, shouted tensely into his cellphone on a recent afternoon. He was standing in the parking lot of Discocentro, where he'd just bought a $25 phone card so he could call his brother in Mexico's Tabasco state.

Andrades's expression relaxed. "My brother says his daughter is fine," he said, flipping the phone shut.

But the sense of relief came at a price. "Normally I spend about $50 to call my relatives twice a week," said Andrades as he walked into the Sirenita Mexican Restaurant next door. "Now I'm spending $100 a week to call them daily."

Still, compared with Jesus Joel, 40, one of the prep cooks at the restaurant, Andrades seemed almost neglectful of his family: Joel said he was calling his wife and three children in Mexico City about four times a day. "It's so hard to be away from them at a time like this," said Joel as he chopped beef for a fajita.

Although Joel's family remains healthy, he said there were other reasons for concern. "My son works at a bank, and they've closed it, so he's missing a lot of work, and my daughters are missing their classes at school," he said. "Also, they tell me that there's been a run on the shops, so there's a shortage of everything -- vegetables, medicine and worst of all, face masks. Just imagine. My wife hasn't been able to find face masks!"

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