Groups honor unidentified dead on holiday

By ELIZA BARCLAY, UPI Correspondent

MEXICO CITY, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- As Mexico swaths itself Monday and Tuesday in the colorful and delectable traditions of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, activists at the border are using the holiday to call attention to the unidentified dead migrants whose relatives remain unable to mourn.

The Tijuana-based Coalition in Defense of the Migrant along with the San Diego office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation began Friday in Holtsville, Calif., decorating the tombs of the 350 unidentified migrants who died trying to cross into the United States. On Monday, by putting up an altar on the border fence by Tijuana dedicated to the unknown dead, they continued their efforts to call attention to what they said was the U.S. and Mexican governments' inaction in identifying those who are still unknown.


The altar was designed by students at Southwestern College participating in the Border Arts Workshop and is a mock skeleton underneath an arch of marigolds with the inscription in Spanish, "the unidentified their governments forgotten."


According to Claudia Smith with CRLAF, one-third of all the migrants who die every year crossing the border go unidentified. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have promised to work to reduce the number of deaths as the number has increased to more than 3,000 since 1994. This year, the United States went as far as to implement a voluntary repatriation program during the summer for migrants apprehended at the border and who preferred to return home on a flight paid for by the U.S. government. But after the program concluded at the end of September, the Coalition in Defense of the Migrant said U.S. authorities hailed its success without fully evaluating its pitfalls.

Besides their critiques of the governments' efforts to curb the deaths, the border human rights groups are also concerned with the governments' failure to provide information to relatives whose families may be among the unidentified dead.

Smith would like to see the creation of a centralized data bank of information from the 24 coroners along the border, and a DNA test for those whose bones are the only remnants.

"They have ignored us on these issues, but they are beginning to take steps to address them," Smith told United Press International in a telephone interview. "To say that these corpses were abandoned would be putting it mildly; they were essentially left in unidentified paupers graves, the largest one being in Holtsville."


Smith said she had been preparing to file a petition with the Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the premise that families have the right to a proper burial while the Mexican state maintains a monopoly over the post-mortem information.

The border groups' rituals commemorated the day on somber note, less typical for one of Mexico's most vibrant holidays.

The tradition of Day of the Dead has its roots in different indigenous Aztec, Mayan and Roman Catholic takes on acknowledging the dead and their brief rendezvous with the living world. Catholics celebrate All Saints Day on Monday and All Souls Day on Nov. 2, and some experts say the Day of the Dead was moved up from other parts of the year to these days to combine the disparate cultural traditions on a single day.

A distinctly Mexican approach to death, Day of the Dead is a jovial, festive holiday not marked by the color black and tears, but by taking advantage of the opportunity to consider those on the other side of life.

The renowned Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz once wrote the Mexican embraces death and, "...chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love."


With rugged mountain communities and sophisticated urbanites in Mexico City alike honoring the dead by erecting altars embellished with marigolds, skeleton artisan crafts, candles, photographs of deceased loved ones, and candy skulls, known as calaveras. In some communities, families will bring the favorite food of loved ones and stay up all night in the cemetery by their graves, waiting for a visit and the chance to exchange a few words.

Though it is called Day of the Dead, the traditions are extended over two days, with the first day designated for dead children, and the second for adults.

Smith hopes the U.S. and Mexican governments will be reminded this year of the families who cannot pass Day of the Dead communing with their loved ones as their fate still remains unknown.

"It is really sad; these families come to the border looking for their missing relatives, but they don't know where they tried to cross and they don't know how to ask," Smith said. "We hope that the government will also provide outreach at the state level so that the families can inquire with the right authorities."

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