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Rising airfares thwart immigrants' plans to send children to native lands.

TAMPA — For the past seven years, Joann Jackson-Iribarren has spent her summers with relatives in Venezuela, driving up snow-capped mountains, shopping at malls in Caracas, swimming in gin-colored waters at the beach.

But this summer, Joann, 17, will have to make do with visits to cousins in Wesley Chapel, a trip to the Florida Aquarium and lunch at Channelside.

Skyrocketing prices for airline tickets this year have grounded a popular practice among Florida immigrants — the dispatch of the kids to spend summers with grandparents in their native country.

Parents bemoan the missed trips, which they consider a great way for their American-born children to connect with their extended relatives and cultural roots, become fully bilingual and broaden their horizons.

"It's important for our kids to keep in touch with their grandparents and cousins who still live in Venezuela," said Joann's mom, Irene Jackson, a marketing manager and now a U.S. citizen. "We have strong family values … and they just get so much attention and love there."

But after online ticket prices jumped from the usual $400 for a round-trip ticket to more than $700, Jackson and her husband told Joann and her 14-year-old sister they wouldn't be able to go this year.

"I was really sad," said Joann, who instead came from their Fort Lauderdale home to spend time with relatives in Wesley Chapel.

Joann said she'd grown close to her cousins and grandparents on both sides of the family in Venezuela. (The Jackson surname stems from distant British relatives on her father's side.) Her grandfather, a doctor, often took her to his clinic. He inspired her to study medicine, she said.

The trips not only perfected Joann's Spanish but exposed her to Venezuela's culture, its beauty and its hardships.

"Over here we're used to having everything on a silver plater, but over there you appreciate what you have," Joann said.

Tampa resident Maria Esther Carrillo anticipated this summer's ticket prices.

Last year was bad enough, and her two teenagers had to skip their annual visit to Colombia to see their grandparents. This year, the family was determined. Members agreed to forgo new clothes and to limit Christmas presents to one gift per person to afford the tickets, which have doubled to $600 each.

"My parents are getting older, they (the children) have to go this summer," said Carrillo, the founder of the Hispanic American Inter-Cultural Workshop, or TICH for its Spanish acronym. "The trip is like gold. The value is enormous."

TICH is a private school that teaches both North American and Latin American history, music and culture. It promotes the idea, backed by studies at the Harvard Immigration Project, that children who can navigate the worlds of their immigrant parents as well as their American friends have a greater chance of success.

For Carrillo, there's no substitute for the summer trips.

"It's one thing for them to hear about it, it's another thing for them to see it with their own eyes," she said.

Her two teenagers spend most of their time with relatives in Bogota, the capital, a metropolis that hosts large street festivals and museums.

Her son, Daniel, 14, who once refused to speak Spanish, likes to hike into the mountains with an uncle. He's also planning to take classes in wrestling and capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts and dance.

He loves being surrounded by a big family — and trying new things.

"I ate a cow's tongue," he said before his departure in late June. "I thought it was steak, and they were like, 'No, it's cow's tongue.' It was good. Everything's good over there."

His sister, Liliana, 16, the current leader of Hispanic Youth Voice, will meet him in late July, Carrillo said.

Other children of immigrants will have to sit this summer out.

Derek Lloyd said he took one look at airline ticket prices and thought, "Forget it."

The Land O'Lakes man usually sends his two sons, 15 and 17, to spend the summer with his brother in Trinidad. His brother would then fly with the boys and their cousins to other Caribbean islands and to nearby Venezuela.

"The kids were bummed," said Lloyd, president of the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay. "Not only do they get to enjoy other countries and cultures, it's a totally different summer experience for them."

Instead of airplane tickets, Lloyd said he'll be looking for a job for his oldest.

"He's maybe got one more week and he'll be working."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at [email protected] com or (813) 661-2441.

Rising airfares thwart immigrants' plans to send children to native lands. 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 5:51pm]
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