01 November 2014

Dia de los Muertos

Today is Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that is a fusion of the Aztec celebration of Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Dead, and the Catholic All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day. 

Typically, it is a time to honor and celebrate the lives of those who have died.  People build altars for their loved ones, strewn with photos, sweets, and, traditionally, marigolds to help the dead see their way to the next phase.  Sometimes, they build altars for those they have never known.

On the north side of the border, activists have altars for the unknown migrants who lose their lives trying to cross from Mexico to the United States, an arduous trek across deserts and rivers, complicated by crooked coyotes and traffickers.

Often they die alone, unidentified and thus mostly unmourned. Sometimes they just disappear, only to reappear as a small heap of anonymous dry bones, gnawed by animals and bleached white by the sun. 

In Tijuana, shelters for those who have been deported contain no altars. “We don't have the money to put up art like that,” says a worker there.

He is young, rail thin, with sharp cheekbones. He speaks both English and Spanish with an American accent. “We need it for food.”

These places for the deported are run on a tiny budget, with little to no help from the Mexican government, relying almost completely on donations. They are mostly in raucous and rundown Zona Norte, just meters from the high wall that runs all along Baja's northern border.

When people with no social networks are deported, their choices are limited. Many end up digging holes to sleep in along a dry riverbed at the international border, using runoff to wash themselves and their clothes.

Shelters work as alternatives and become waystations, where people with no other resources can shower and do laundry.

They all have stories about their lives in the United States, stories of loss and love, jobs they had and opportunities they wanted, but always ending the same way, when they are dropped off alone in Tijuana.

Many are injured. “I lost my eye when a cop beat me up,” Miguel says. He looks up from his mattress with his one good eye; his other eye is white with scar tissue in its socket.

“They took all my clothes, so I have been wearing these filthy things for weeks.” He doesn't say which country the cop was in, or why they took his clothes. “I'm going back soon,” he says. “Back to the other side.”
Arturo is on a mattress next to Miguel's. He says he came from Mexico City to look for work, and kept going north when he hit the border.  He doesn't say when or how he was deported.  

Arturo can't talk for long. His eyes are glassy and feverish. His belly is swollen. There are livid bruises on his abdomen where a bloody bandage covers a deep incision, and he pants when he tries to sit up. "Liver surgery,” says a third man. “He drank too much.” 

“I didn't drink too much,” protests Arturo weakly. “Those bottles were full of water, I told you.” The other man shakes his head. Arturo seems to stop caring and rolls over on his side.  "Please give me something for the pain," he says. "I hurt." But nobody has anything to give him.

One man comes in with a single marigold, which they put on the countertop: their one concession to Day of the Dead. There are few decorations in this building. It's not intended to be a place that feels like home.

All of them will be gone from here soon, one way or another.


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