Recent news reports of violence are discouraging travel to Mexico, and one school district that's seeing a decline in students leaving classes for trips to that country is El Monte.
At one time roughly eight years ago, about 3 percent of students in the El Monte City Schools District - where Latino students are the majority - would stop attending school during the winter holidays to travel to Mexico.
“We tended to see families leave right after Thanksgiving holiday and typically they would be back for the most part right after the Christmas break, right after New Year's,” said Oscar Marquez, El Monte City Schools director of student support services.
Mexico vacations for students are almost non-existent now, he said, in part due to the tough economy but also because of the drug-related violence that has erupted in many parts of Mexico.
Mexican immigrant parents picking up their kids outside Potrero Elementary School in El Monte gave similar reasons for why they won't be traveling to the country any time soon.
“Well, I’m a little worried about what they say, you know, whatever goes on over there,” said Maria Mendez as she picked up her grandchildren.
Maria Mendez last visited her hometown in Michoacan five years ago. When she was there, she said things were peaceful and she had fun. This year, she's heard about the rise in violence between drug cartels and vigilantes and is staying away.
The gravity of the violence in Mexico hit El Monte hard five years ago when Bobby Salcedo, a popular 33-year-old high school teacher and school board member, was shot and killed in northern Mexico.
“He was a young man who had a great future and made a great investment in this community," said Marquez. "And I really think the violence in Mexico hit us home the day that Bobby was killed.”
Marquez and Salcedo became close friends when they both taught at South El Monte High School. Marquez said many of his friends stopped vacationing in Mexico after Salcedo’s death.
School administrators said it's best for students' academic advancement if they minimize the number of days they miss school during the holidays.
But as students skip what used to be regular visits to Mexico, El Monte City Schools Superintendent Maribel Garcia suspects there's an adverse effect: she’s hearing fewer kids speak Spanish.
“The other thing, too, is that you know, we have parents that have a way of looking at the world based on their traditions and upbringing and they remind me of my parents," she said. "And that’s why they stand out, but ultimately I see that their kids don’t understand that world and don’t understand where their parents came from."
Garcia says she does see more traditional Mexican celebrations in El Monte, like Christmas posada parties and the serving of traditional holiday food.
But for some, the local celebrations are not enough to reconnect with their culture. So despite the tough economy and drug violence, they will make the holiday trek to Mexico.
At a downtown El Monte travel agency, Patricia Gonzalez was booking a trip to Mexico that she plans to take with her husband, daughter, mother and sister.
“I try not to take jewelry or anything else that stands out,” said Gonzalez.
She’ll fly into Guadalajara then take a bus to a small town nearby. She knows full well the dangers of traveling in Mexico, but she's undaunted.
“I’m not going to live in fear, because there’s a lot of violence here, too,” she says.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Salcedo and Marquez taught at El Monte High School. KPCC regrets the error.