Days of the Dead

It is the season of the Dead in Mexico. On the Dias de los Muertos (November 1-2), the people will remember their “difuntos” (dead) by building altars to honor their passing and travel out to the graveyards to clean up their tombs, bringing with them the cempaxeutl (marigold) flowers, a tub of turkey mole, the dead person’s favorite booze and cigarettes and, of course, lively music so that the “calacas” (the skeletons or “calaveras”) will rise up and dance.

This year, the party will be enlivened by 453 fresh “muertos” just arrived from the “Other Side” (the U.S.) 2005 has been an all-time record year for the number of reported Mexican and Central American migrant deaths along the 3000-kilometer border

The tally of migrant deaths is coldly calculated to fit into each fiscal year ­ the figures are used to justify and project budget requests for what used to be called the U.S. Border Patrol and is now the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) division of the Department of Homeland Security. Regardless of the name changes, the agency will always be the
“Migra” to millions of migrant workers.

From October 1st 2004 through September 30th 2005, 454 Mexican and Central American migrant workers died trying to get across the U.S. border, according to a just-released ICE count for the past fiscal year. How this figure is actually determined is a major mystery to Claudia Smith, director of the California Rural Legal Assistance advocacy program for migrant workers, who is convinced that many deaths simply escape the Migra’s attention. The fiscal ’04-’05 numbers are a significant increase over fiscal ’03-’04 when 383 migrants perished. In both years, 60% of the death toll was taken in the merciless Arizona desert west of Yuma where hundreds fry each summer under the watchful eye of the ICE. 22 migrants died in the first three weeks of July alone.

Since 1995, when the Border Patrol enhanced operations in San Diego (“Operation Gatekeeper”) and El Paso (“Operation Hold The Line”), the most popular crossings, it has been stated U.S. policy to up the risks of illegal immigration by driving the migrants to the most dangerous crossings along the border such as Arizona’s notorious “corridor of death.”

Many of this year’s crop of the freshly-dead were guided to their demise by the economic and trade policies of both the Mexican and U.S. governments, particularly in the agricultural sector where the dumping of U.S. corn and other produce in Mexico under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has forced upwards of 3,000,000 farm families off the land and into the migration stream, according to Agricultural Ministry stats. Since NAFTA was inked in 1992 (it kicked in 1994), nearly 5000 Mexican and Central American workers, many of them dislocated farmers, have lost their lives trying to get across this border to take a job no North American will work. On the bone parade, that’s more than died on 9/11.

The Dead die in the surf trying to swim into San Diego. They drowned in the All-America Canal just outside of Mexicali and in the big muddy river that Mexico calls the Rio Bravo and the U.S. the Rio Grande. The Dead die bitten by rattlesnakes trying to get through south Texas and battered by fast-moving cars on busy border freeways. The Dead suffocate to death in locked truck trailers and boxcars stuck on sidings. The Dead die in smash-ups after high-speed chases with the Migra or else are shot down when they try to run. The Dead are gunned down by Arizona ranchers who advertise “human safaris”. The Dead die beaten with baseball bats by border thieves or gangs of “polleros” (people smugglers) because they can’t pay their fee. They die frozen stiff as a log up in the Rumarosa Mountains buried under the snow,
But most of all, the Dead die down there in the scorching desert below to which the Migra has herded them in order to up “the risks of illegal immigration”. Sometimes all you find are bleached bones. Sometimes just torn clothes.

Many more of the migrants make it across the border than die in the passage and they spread out into every nook and cranny of the American Dream ­ 7,000,000 undocumented workers at last count. But just like their comrades who ate it on the border, they die up there too. Some, like six family members from Zacatecas murdered in Georgia this October for the remittance money they were about to send home, are victims of American violence. Some just had bad luck like the two young Tzeltal boys from Ocosingo in the Zapatista zone who came home this month to Chiapas in cardboard caskets from New Orleans where Katrina cut them down.

Up there, the Dead die in industrial accidents, from sleeping out in the cold, from heart attacks or just a broken heart for the country they’ve been forced to leave behind. Mexico’s 47 U.S. consulates processed 10,000 request4s last fiscal year to send the Dead back home.

Getting the Dead home to Mexico is a tricky business. Away from the border, family and friends pay the cost of the coffin and the transport. On the border, because the Dead there are so often unaccompanied, the consulates will supply a coffin (often made of cardboard) and the airfreight – but because both come out of meager budgets, the bureaucrats shop for the best bargains. Aeromexico, the low bidder, is the designated carrier to get the Dead home.

The designation seems one of life’s bitter ironies to Jorge Santibanez, director of the College of the Northern Border think tank in Tijuana. Aeromexico flies thousands of migrant workers into Hermosillo, Sonora each year, the jumping off point for the Arizona desert where so many of them will die.

Now Aeromexico has won a contract from Homeland Security to fly live indocumentados who have accepted voluntary departure free of charge from Tucson to Guadalajara and Mexico City. Santibanez’s mordant if modest proposal made with a Day of the Deadish twist: since the undocumented never have a lot of suitcases, how about letting them bring the coffins of their dead brothers and sisters on board as part of their luggage?

But for 400 or so defunct indocumentados, there will be no free flight home to celebrate los Dias de los Muertos with their relatives and “cuates” (friends.) Laid out in a muddy potter’s field behind the town cemetery in Holtville California, 120 miles east of San Diego and halfway to Yuma Arizona ­ the deadliest span along the dividing line – they comprise the largest congregation of unidentified dead on the border.

Buried beneath rough hewn markers and white wooden crosses donated by a local migrants coalition that read “No Olvidado” (“Not Forgotten”), the graves of the children perhaps decorated with a decaying stuffed animal, the souls of these Juan and Juana Does are suspended in exile. They have, in a sense, at last become permanent residents.

About a third of the 3500 migrant workers who have died during 10 years of Operation Gatekeeper have never been identified, reports Claudia Smith ­ many may be Central Americans who tend to carry no identification because they have to transit Mexico and it is better to blend in there. Smith, who thinks the Migra is fudging the figures, has long advocated link-ups between the 24 county coroners whose jurisdictions extend from San Diego California to Corpus Christi Texas on the Gulf to more accurately identify those who die in the crossing.

Smith’s persistence has paid off with the installation by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry of a database that will allow the consulates to more accurately match up DNA samples from family members with those who are missing in action on the border.

This Day of the Dead, as has become the ritual, parishioners from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Holtville and migrant advocates from San Diego will gather once again in the muddy bone yard where the unidentified migrants molder, with candles and food and song to remember the nameless and perhaps, despite the great distances between Holtville and home, as the party warms up, the calacas will get up and dance.

One more death on the border that may not get listed in the local obituaries this Day of the Dead: Immigration Reform, which died quietly this fall in Mexico City. Both Mexico City and Washington seem to have agreed there is little resonance on this issue in a U.S, Congress which is busily authorizing border walls and denying the undocumented a driver’s license. And there is even less down on a local level where the migrants are now denied hospital care in some states and barred from attending public universities and even being charged with trespassing just because they are in the U.S. Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo wants to shut down public libraries that have Spanish reading sections because the undocumented may be reading the books.

In such a malevolent atmosphere, immigration reform is not going to fly, admits Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, giving up a six year battle by the government of President Vicente Fox to reach an accord with Washington. “Immigration reform is dead” Derbez told reporters in the Mexican capitol last week, “at least until after 2008.” (Reported from California and Mexico City.)

JOHN ROSS will be on the road in California for the next month, teaching a seminar on rebel journalism at New College in San Francisco and lecturing about the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” in the upcoming Mexican presidential elections.



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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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