LITTLE ROCK—Seven-year-old Erika Salazar didn’t want to let her grandfather go. She clung to him, and cried.
“I love you, Grandpa!” she yelled in Spanish in the moments before the van pulled away from the store parking lot.
Her grandfather, construction worker Florencio Salazar, 56, was traveling by van and then bus from Little Rock to a small town in central Mexico. His wife was waiting for him there—they hadn’t seen each other in the three years that he has been in the United States.
This month, many Mexican immigrants make a traditional journey home in time for Christmas. In the South, some choose to travel with numerous small bus companies that have sprung up as the region’s Hispanic population has grown. Customers can expect relatively low prices, service in Spanish and a long ride—in some cases more than 24 hours.
The bus company that Salazar used, Dallas-based Transportes Rangel, owns just two buses plus a few smaller vehicles and picks up most of its passengers in Nashville, Tenn., Little Rock and Dallas, owner Jose Luis Rangel said.
A one-way trip from Little Rock to the northern Mexican city of Monterrey costs $160—about half the cost of an airplane ticket purchased three weeks in advance. A trip to Guadalajara, a city in central Mexico, costs $200 and lasts 30 hours, he said. The buses carry a crew of two to three drivers for safety.
Rangel said that even in relatively isolated Little Rock, he faces stiff competition from other Mexican bus lines.
“Everywhere, everywhere!” he said. “Too many people doing this job every place.”
Rangel started his company in 1986 and began offering service in Little Rock 10 or 12 years ago. Another firm, Transportes Eclipse Corp., of Forest Park, Ga., started in Arkansas around 2002, receptionist Alma Sanchez said.
Transportes Eclipse picks up passengers two days a week in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. In the heavy winter travel season the company’s seven buses transport as many as 200 people on a Saturday, she said.
Most of the companies are unknown outside the Mexican community. Transportes Eclipse, for example, advertises only in Spanish.
Customers usually buy tickets at Hispanic-owned stores and restaurants, which also serve as pick-up points.
On a recent Monday, passengers and their families and friends waited for the noon departure at the Mercado San Jose, a grocery store and restaurant in southwest Little Rock. Some leaned on pickup trucks in the parking lot, their luggage in the truck bed.