RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Cinco de Mayo is usually cause for a big party in the border town of Calexico, California. But yesterday, whatever celebration they might've been planning was overshadowed by worry over the swine flu virus and the poor economy. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: It's still dark and you can hear the crickets chirping in downtown Calexico, two blocks from the Mexican border. Starting at 2:00 in the morning, every day thousands of farm workers cross the line to come to this corner where I'm standing looking for work. Now's the season for onions and corn. It's Cinco de Mayo, but instead of celebrating, Francisco Hernandez is here to work in the fields.
Mr. FRANCISCO HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: Hernandez says it's a normal workday and he's not worried because he's heard the swine flu epidemic is under control.
Another worker, Jesus Heronimo(ph), says there's more danger in the pesticides they come into contact with in the fields.
Mr. JESUS HERONIMO: (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: As he waits for a day job in the fields, 49-year-old Tony Martinez says swine flu is the least of his worries. He came back to Calexico from California's Central Valley because he couldn't find work there. But this town is suffering from 24 percent unemployment, perhaps the highest in the country.
Mr. TONY MARTINEZ: Employment's the top priority here. You know, look around. There's all these people that, you know, there's a bus that's going to take you out to a field and it only carries like maybe 40 persons and, you know, there's like 100 here trying to get on that same bus.
DEL BARCO: Many of these farm workers cross the border from Mexicali, Mexico, including Diane Baker, who's noticed a change.
Ms. DIANE BAKER: The Immigration, if they see you have a cough or you have runny nose - yeah, they're checking more.
DEL BARCO: At the border checkpoint, agents are sending travelers with obvious symptoms to the Centers for Disease Control to be tested at local clinics. Customs and Border Patrol Officer John Campos has noticed an interesting behavior from others entering the U.S.
Officer JOHN CAMPOS (Customs and Border Patrol): I have personally observed some people as soon as they cross the border they will take off their mask.
DEL BARCO: They think it's safer over here or something?
Officer CAMPOS: Guess so. They might think it's safe, yeah.
DEL BARCO: Even though a virus doesn't know any borders.
Officer CAMPOS: That is correct.
DEL BARCO: Past the border turnstiles in Mexicali, Mexico, almost everyone wears masks around their noses and mouths, just in case. Even at the Central Health Center, Dr. Luis Gonzalez Madrigal(ph) greets us to his closet-size office with a spray of disinfectant.
(Soundbite of spraying)
Dr. LUIS GONZALEZ MADRIGAL (Central Health Center): (Spanish spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
DEL BARCO: He chuckles nervously, almost embarrassed for the precaution. Madrigal heads up the border surveillance program, a cross-border collaboration with the CDC. For the past three years the program's tested people for infectious diseases and now the H1N1 virus.
Eleven-year-old Brian Setal(ph) came to the center worried because he's been coughing.
Mr. BRIAN SETAL: (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: They used a Q-tip to swab my nose and mouth, Brian explains while wearing a mask. He's relieved the test was negative so he can go back to school across the border in California like a lot of Mexican children in this region.
And back in Calexico, on the U.S. side, the biggest news is last week's miracle at Las Palmas Restaurant at the town's swap meet. The cook, Hilda Maciel, says she couldn't scrub off one stain on the grill. She looked closer and there it was, a likeness of Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Ms. HILDA MACIEL (Cook): (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: Since her discovery, the griddle is now on display with holy water and rosary beads.
Ms. MACIEL: (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: Maciel says she now prays to the Virgin for protection from the current virus and an economic miracle for the region.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, on the border in Calexico, California.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.