Sept/Oct 2020 KR OnlineNonfiction |

Border Funeral

Vida
“Cuando me muera, quiero que me entierren en Juárez junto con mis papás.” My abuelita spoke these words to my mom and me one December afternoon in 1993. We were sitting in the backyard of my mom’s home in El Paso: my abuelita beside the rose bushes she planted when she first arrived from Mexico to live with us, a few weeks before I was born; my mom in a lawn chair; and I, a contemplative eight-year-old, sprawled on the yellow grass reading a book. Most winter afternoons, we wheeled Abuelita to the backyard so she could feel the sun and breathe the crisp air. We sat outside until the sun began to sink behind the Franklin Mountains and the temperature dropped by forty degrees. That December day, the risk of frost had not yet passed in the Chihuahuan Desert, but my mom had removed the garbage bags protecting the rose bushes. We were delighted to find them in full bloom.

After a moment’s pause, in which we both looked in surprise at my abuelita, my mom replied, “If we bury you in Juárez, I won’t be able to take flowers to your grave very often.”

The cemetery in Juárez, where my abuelita’s parents and two of her sisters are buried, lies only ten miles from my mom’s home in El Paso. It would be a short drive, if the border between my mom’s home and the cemetery didn’t exist. Back then, the border was the river and a torn-up chain-link fence. George W. Bush’s steel border fence, accompanied by increased surveillance, wouldn’t begin to rise beside the river until 2007. Still, the process of crossing the border has always involved logistical preparations that have, at times, made us second-guess our impulse to cross: Can I budget enough time to sit in an hour-long line to reenter the US? Do I have a tankful of gas to burn through as I wait in line? Do I have change to pay the toll? To reach our relatives’ graves, we drive out of my mom’s neighborhood of tidy, stucco houses toward downtown El Paso. We cross the Santa Fe bridge arcing over the Rio Grande, maneuvering around concrete barriers. At the apex of the bridge, we look down at the concrete walls of a river nearly dry. Sometimes Mexican Immigration and Customs officials search our car, and we wait nervously as officers look under our seats, inside the trunk, and in my mom’s purse. We drive through the streets of Juárez, not afraid of what the nightly news shows us. We know better than to let the narrative of drug-related violence dictate our movements. Still, we are vigilant. We plan our outings during daylight hours and choose trafficked roads, even if they lengthen our travel time.

But these logistics didn’t seem to concern my abuelita as she planned her burial. “Las flores son para los vivos, no para los muertos,” she would reply over the next thirteen years each time my mom pressed her for a burial in El Paso. My mom would always dissolve into tears, but Abuelita remained resolute. Flowers are for the living, not for the dead.

Abuelita was eighty-three years old when she told us about her desire to be buried next to her family in Juárez. When she had turned seventy-eight, her rheumatoid arthritis had swelled her right leg and arm to twice their size. By the time she had reached eighty-one, she could no longer stand, even with the help of a walker. She couldn’t grasp a fork or lift her arm from her lap. The abuelita of my early youth who crushed red chiles and stirred a pot until the chile colorado became thick and auburn, who pulled baking trays from the oven filled with her enchiladas and chiles rellenos, who called my brothers and me to dinner and coaxed us to eat more, was becoming quiet and distant. Telenovelas and pills carried her through the evenings until she fell asleep. Throughout my adolescence I heard her cries of pain at night. My mom, exhausted after a full day of work, would run to her mother’s bedside to find that pain made Abuelita moan in her sleep. I became used to hearing the night cries, but my mom was the one who went to her; she spent a decade making sure that her mother remained asleep, if not free of pain.

My mom reminded us not to hurry past Abuelita when we returned home from school, but to give her a kiss and ask her how she felt. It was a small act we needed reminding of during our years of high school academics and socializing, when it was so easy to take family for granted.

On weekends, Abuelita would speak on the phone with her youngest brother, Beto, who lived in Juárez in the same house in which he, my abuelita, and their four siblings were born. We visited him every weekend. Abuelita had stopped traveling by car when even the smallest bumps on the road made her cry out in pain. Tío Beto, who had lived and worked in the US throughout his thirties, relinquished his visa in the 1970s—his way of telling the US that he was sick of their racism and he would no longer put up with it. Had he known his sister would one day become too weak to make the short trip across the border, I’m certain he would have subjected himself to the yearly interrogations by ICE officials to keep his visa active. During the last fifteen years of Abuelita’s life, when she was ill and he could not obtain permission to cross the border to see his sister, she and Tío Beto sustained themselves with the sound of each other’s voices.

 

Muerte
Juanita Soto was in her hometown of González, Tamaulipas, when she received news that her twenty-two-year-old son, Hector, had died in a car crash in Arkansas. Like millions before him, like my tíos and tías in the 1960s, Hector had left Mexico to work in the US.

When Hector died, his family bought “The Hispanic Package” at a local funeral home. For $2,300, plus $500 given by the Mexican consulate, the funeral home embalmed the body, arranged paperwork with the Mexican consulate, and flew Hector’s body to Tamaulipas. Six days after his death, his mother buried him in the family plot beside his abuelo.

In 2006, Mexican consulates across the US recorded 10,622 shipments of daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, cousins, and friends returning in death to Mexico. Their length of stay in the US varied widely—some had died after only a few hours in the US, some had lived there for decades—but their family’s insistence that their bodies return to Mexico never wavered.

Though the return to Mexico after death often costs more than the fee a coyote charges to lead people into the US, the price rarely deters families. “Nearly all migrant workers are sent to Mexico after they die,” said Salvador Calderón, manager of a funeral home in Guadalajara. He coordinates with funeral homes and Mexican consulates in the US to ship the deceased to their villages and families.

Return to their families is a common reason for the migrant’s journey back home in death. So, too, is the desire to return to ancestral land. “I took his coffin to where his spirit will return. It’s not going to return to Mexico City,” Castro told CNN, speaking about his father. “You have to put him in his village because that is where his vigor and spirit will return on November 2.” Día de los Muertos, an Indigenous celebration that sees the souls of the departed return to their families for one day, is so deeply tied to land and family that his father’s return to his hometown after death was non-negotiable to Castro. His father’s soul could not have returned on Día de los Muertos if his body had been buried anywhere else.

My abuelita was a mestiza woman who didn’t know the names and stories of her Indigenous ancestors—or if she did, she chose not to tell her daughter, son, and grandchildren. Born in 1913, three years after the official start of the Mexican Revolution, Abuelita grew up with parents who supported the fight of Indigenous and mestizx campesino, led in the state of Chihuahua by Pancho Villa, against the wealthy landowners of Spanish and French descent. When she and her siblings weren’t serving Pancho Villa’s troops their mother’s burritos de chile colorado in the family restaurant, my abuelita and her siblings played in the back rooms of their adobe house, away from the street-facing windows that a stray bullet might shatter. To supplement their diet, their parents took them to the local butcher to drink iron-rich cow’s blood.

Most historians name 1920 as the official end of the Mexican Revolution, but life remained hard for many Mexicans, including my family, in the decades after. After ten years of violent fighting, it seemed the rich had lost nothing and the poor had gained little. Abuelita, though, experienced a stroke of luck. As a young woman, she would walk eight blocks from her family home to the Santa Fe Bridge and cross into El Paso for secretarial classes at the Colegio Palmore, a philanthropic school founded by a wealthy Mexican couple to equip Mexican women with job skills. Abuelita’s older sister, Lola, had promised to pay tuition if Abuelita committed to finishing school. In the safety of a large house, less than a mile from the dirt roads where women and men had bled to death for a just and prosperous society that has never come to fruition, Abuelita learned to poise her fingers over a typewriter. She would type notes and letters dictated by her teacher until she became quick and accurate. Her skills earned her a job at Juárez’s customs office at the age of eighteen, where she helped manage the flow of goods between Mexico and the US. After the birth of a son by her boyfriend—a man whose identity Abuelita and her siblings kept secret—Abuelita fled the neighborhood gossips to work as a banker’s secretary in Chihuahua. There, she met my abuelito, one of the banker’s clients and a first-generation Mexican born to Spanish parents. He had green eyes, tailored suits, and wealth from his family’s cattle ranch and silver mines in the Sierra Madres worked by Rarámuri men for little or no pay.

I don’t know anything about my Indigenous ancestors, and I don’t know if my abuelita did either. But when she insisted on being buried beside her parents in Juárez, I wondered whether a knowing buried deep in her body made the return to her homeland inevitable.

 

Frontera
Five years after Abuelita’s death, I asked my mom what she thought Abuelita meant by “las flores son para los vivos, no para los muertos.”

“I guess she was trying to express that we should enjoy the time we have with her now, and also honor her death wishes,” my mom replied.

Fine lines etched my mom’s face; she was now in her seventies. Later, over dinner, she asked me to spread her ashes at the base of the Franklin Mountains, the shadow of which she has lived under since she arrived in El Paso as a young doctor. The thought of her death made my chest tighten. When I had collected myself, I argued with her. I don’t like the idea of my mom’s ashes scattered across the hard desert floor. “Where will I bring you flowers?” I asked her.

In 2012, I visited the commons at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México on the eve of Día de los Muertos. I was living in Mexico City for the year, working as an English assistant at an international school as I tried to figure out whether I wanted to go to graduate school, and whether I even wanted to return to the United States. A desire to live in Mexico—not on the border—kept me in the country for four years.

The commons were lined with thousands of Día de los Muertos altars; they were small cloths laid on the ground, illuminated by votive candles and covered with photographs, flowers, and objects that had been well-loved by the person to whom the altar was dedicated. Standing on the commons at nightfall, amid the glow of candles, I was moved by this public display of grief and love.

I imagined the commons filled with spirits I couldn’t see. The spirits return on the eve of Día de los Muertos and spend the following day with their live family, who enjoy food and music at the altar. Looking across the commons at the collection of altars, I felt that memory is both collective and personal. The fact that the collection was placed in the largest public university in Mexico, the site of student movements that have impacted the world beyond Mexico, seemed to ask me to remember that we live and die together, that the story of one is a part of all.

I moved down the commons, pausing before each altar to acknowledge those individuals who once lived and who were still loved. Around me, families moved slowly. Children held their parents’ hands; couples walked with their arms around each other. The elderly walked with the assistance of their child’s arm.

 

In 2019, it has become more difficult for Mexican migrants to be returned to their families after death. After the border fence began construction in 2007, more migrants began crossing the expansive Sonoran desert, where temperatures reach 120 degrees. Thousands perish in the desert. When their bodies are found—if their bodies are found—they are often unidentifiable by sight alone. Forensic anthropologists attempt to use personal objects, often scattered on the desert floor nearby, to identify people. But migrants often travel without IDs, either because they are prohibited by coyotes or to avoid being prosecuted of illegal entry into the US under their real names. When they can, forensic anthropologists utilize fingerprint analysis and dental or DNA comparisons. They look for distinct tattoos, birthmarks, or details in clothing that family members might recognize.

Family members who remain in Mexico begin to worry when weeks have passed and they have not heard from their loved ones. Some begin calling morgues near the border in an attempt to locate them. More and more often, the morgues can’t help relatives locate the bodies of their missing family members.

 

If flowers are for the living, then why do we leave them at graves?

Cempasúchil—marigolds, or “flower of the dead”—were sacred to the Aztecs. They brewed the petals for tea and ate the flowers to heal illnesses. In love with the flowers’ beauty, the Aztec people cultivated them to grow as tall as three feet and offered bouquets to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, guardian of the bones of the dead. The flowers’ strong aroma was believed to guide souls to their families on earth during Mictecacihuatl’s festival and, after a night together, back to their graves. After the Spanish Conquest, Mictecacihuatl’s festival, which took place during the summer harvest, was moved to coincide with the Catholic All Saints’ Day. Over time, Día de los Muertos in Mexico became known as an emblem of our mestizaje, or mixed heritage.

My abuelita’s story has taught me to question romanticized notions of mestizaje. I believe my abuelito offered security, and my abuelita gave her silence—about her ancestry, about the father of her first son—in exchange. Silence around Indigenous heritage is common in Mexico, while extolling our European customs is too common. It is my understanding of erasure and racism in Mexico that makes me suspicious of Día de los Muertos as a popular celebration.

Until the 1980s, Día de los Muertos was celebrated mostly by Indigenous peoples in rural areas of central and southern Mexico. As Indigenous people migrated to cities in both Mexico and the US in search of work, Día de los Muertos began to gain popularity among mestizx, people of mixed race who make up most of the country’s population. After UNESCO added Día de los Muertos to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, the celebration gained international popularity and helped Mexico solidify a unique brand for the global stage. But Indigenous peoples in northern Mexico have distinct harvest celebrations and rituals for their dead. Making Día de los Muertos a marker of national identity seems to ignore the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures that live in the country. It also grants permission to every Mexican, no matter their heritage, no matter their positionality, to appropriate a tradition that originates with specific Indigenous cultures.

Perhaps my criticism is cynical and harsh. Many of us throughout Mexico hold the history of our Indigenous, African, Asian, and European ancestors in our bodies, and Día de los Muertos is the only way we know to honor our Indigenous and mestizx ancestors, to remember our connection to the land. Still, I’m certain that many people, on both sides of the border, appropriate Día de los Muertos as a way to brand themselves as Mexican, an identifier that today brings to mind papel picado in vivid colors and faces painted as La Catrina. I see altars on Pinterest and Instagram; I see Día de los Muertos decorations for sale at Walmart in both the US and Mexico. I distrust the politics behind “mestizaje” and the idea of a unified Mexican identity, which centers male and European identity. I suspect the cost of national appropriation of Día de los Muertos is the commercialization and degradation of a tradition sacred to Indigenous cultures who fight to stay alive.

The marigold is one of the few elements that has remained unchanged since the Aztecs honored Cempasúchil with bouquets that carried a scent too strong for the dead to resist. I lay flowers at my abuelita’s grave because I want us both to smell their scent. I want to remember that the line between life and death is one we’re meant to cross.

 

Cruzando
When every member of the family had thrown their handfuls of sand into Abuelita’s grave, Tío Beto walked toward the resting place of the sister he had not seen in fifteen years. He walked slowly, his stoop bending him toward the ground. At the edge of the grave, he unclenched his fistful of sand. Fine grains dropped onto Abuelita’s casket.

By choosing to be laid beside her parents and sisters in Juárez, Abuelita had refused to join my abuelito, whose wealthy family rest in a stone crypt in Chihuahua City. She gave up claim to my abuelito’s crypt to lie in hard desert land, the sun heating her gravestone until it burns to my touch. My abuelos’ life together was unhappy, filled with my abuelito’s infidelity and cruelty toward my abuelita’s son. It was easy for her to leave my abuelito when I was about to be born and my mom was distraught because she had only three weeks of maternity leave. Abuelita crossed the border in her old age to feed me milk in a bottle and lay me on a blanket to nap in the morning sun. Throughout the years Abuelita lived with us in El Paso, the final ones of her life, she only ever expressed a longing for the lilac bush in her front yard, the pecan orchard whose saplings she planted, and the teal-and-orange kitchen she designed.

The undertaker waited nearby, shovel in hand. He would fill in the grave after we returned to my mom’s house.

Tears streamed under the rim of Tío Beto’s sunglasses, but he didn’t bother to wipe them away. My cousins’ small children ran to the edge of the grave, their parents chasing them and grasping their collars to keep them from falling inside. After the children gleefully tossed in their fistfuls of dirt, the adults pulled them a safe distance from the grave, putting their index fingers to their lips and glaring at the giggling children. The oldest one sat on a patch of yellow grass, and the rest followed her cue.

Tío Beto remained by the grave, looking down at his sister’s casket covered in a thin layer of dirt. Finally, he turned and took his place among us.

We began to make our way toward the parked cars. My mom and I would drive Tío Beto back to his house, where he lived by himself. All who could cross the border would gather at my mom’s house.

“Do you want us to come to your place for lunch?” my mom asked him.

“No, gracias, prefiero estar solo.”

 

My family couldn’t be together to mark the tenth year of my abuelita’s death. I live in Minneapolis with my husband and children, and my mom and brothers live in El Paso. Our work schedules and the cost of plane tickets for my growing family make our reunions fewer with each passing year. My mom rarely visits my abuelita’s grave. The wait times at the border have become longer as officials turn away Central Americans seeking asylum and check and double-check the documents, vehicles, and bodies of those permitted to cross. Sometimes my mom considers exhuming my abuelita’s body and burying her in El Paso—a move that would allow my mom to visit her mother every week.

For the first time, I made an altar for my abuelita on Día de los Muertos. I was not raised with Día de los Muertos; my mom says the tradition hadn’t yet reached Chihuahua when she was a child, or even when I was small. I asked my mom whether Abuelita would have liked an altar made in her honor. My mom said she thought so.

In making an altar for my abuelita, I feel I am honoring a history that our family has suppressed, even as I feel I am borrowing a tradition I don’t deserve. I want to connect my family across the many generations that have lived and died in this desert, but I’m uncertain if that’s a border I can cross.

Despite my misgivings, I laid a blue cloth, my abuelita’s favorite color, on my dining room buffet. I moved a framed photograph—she smiles before a cake with burning candles on her eighty-sixth birthday, and I stand beside her—from my writing desk to the altar. I placed Hershey’s kisses before her photo. She called them “campanitas” and always kept a few in her pockets to be distributed to well-behaved grandchildren. On the evening of November 1, I brought out more Hershey’s kisses and ate a few with my husband and children. I told them stories about my abuelita as chocolate melted on our tongues.

My life so far has taken me away from the desert of my birth. I have walked across a city that was once a lake; I have shoveled snow reaching my knees. There is a reason my family left our Mexican city for el otro lado. There is a reason, too, that we return. I do not know if I will stay where I am, but I know I will return to the desert after I am dead.

Victoria Blanco’s debut book of nonfiction, Out of the Sierra, will be published by Coffee House Press. She is an MFA graduate of the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three children.