Administrative Purgatory: Repatriation of the Dead Along the Mexican Border
Midway on my life’s journey, I found myself en el desierto, lost. To tell you about this is hard—it was so desolate and dry. Now that I think of it the old fear stirs within me, and death seems welcome. But to write of the good that might be found there kept me walking. I’ll tell you things I saw, though I cannot recall how I entered, being so pregnant with sleep, that moment as I blundered off the true path. But when I stopped below a hill marking one end of the valley that shot through my heart con terror, I glanced up toward the mountain and saw its shoulders mantled in the planet that lights the road for all travelers. The terror eased that had churned in el rio de mi sangre throughout the night. As one washed ashore from a tempest who looks back at the abyss escaped, my spirit returned, yet still fleeing, to look upon el paso that had never left any alive who set foot upon it.
Then suddenly—la migra—near the steep place ahead: lithe, specked, deft of foot, blocking my path. Several times she made me go back down. It was first dawn, the sun climbing with its stars attending, as when el amor divino first fused those lights at the beginning of creation. All combined to fill my fear with the hope of the beast with festive skin. I saw el coyote, the mountain lion, crow. All hungered with such heaviness that my spirit turned to gloom, forcing me back down where the sun is lost. Descendí.
I am not Dante. My guide is not Virgil, but a coyote. I was not saved. I kept going down into America and my bones were picked. Though this was North, my journey went down. I call to no muse, no hue of oriental sapphire soothed my eyes, because I never “issued forth from the dead air” afflicting my eyes and breast.
I surfaced in the Rio Grande, limp, bloated, back turned skyward. I appeared zombie-like in Brownsville with a coyote, who took half the money from me on the promise that the other half would come in Houston. I ducked bullets. I starved. I swallowed and breathed fecal waters, died in the belly, ached out of the seawater again and tried again and made it as far as Harlingen. Boarded a trailer. They pressed us together in the dark. Sealed the lid. Cut the air Several hours later when the vehicle reached Victoria, they opened the doors, seventeen of us were dead. This was my fifth time dying. My heart boiled in 173 degrees of Fahrenheit.
They ask later, “Who were responsible for these deaths? Who let them die? Who killed their dreams?. . .Who was that little boy?” Their questions say that the dream is as far outside of us as it is inside of them. They do not see that I cross now to haunt myself. Sometimes it’s like a game and I’m the coyote. There is only so much we can do with our time in this story that has been written for us. They can’t see the real animal in me—only the human animal. Feet pouring out of gurneys in Victoria. But where do I turn to now, Mexico, mi sangre, mi divino? How do I cry out for you when I am always fleeing you?
“Not so long ago, borders were lines on a map hardly noticed on the actual ground. . .Now everywhere is a line and crossing these lines grows harder and the lines themselves leap magically upward and become walls and razor wire and bullets and cells, absolute.”
CHARLES BOWDEN, SOME OF THE DEAD ARE STILL BREATHING 10 (2009)
Burial rights—the family’s claims to the dead bodies of its loved ones—predate the common law. Hector’s body affords an early, stark example of this important tradition in western culture. Achilles, having vanquished the Trojan prince, parades Hector’s corpse along the outskirts of Troy for twelve days before Achilles’s mother Thetis, a deity, persuades him to return the body to Priam and the mourning city. Book XXIV of the Iliad thus underscores a tradition transcending positive Hellenic law. As scholar Brian Satterfield notes, the Homeric text places “the law of burial at the heart of the city”—it is “a mark of ‘civilization’ and humanity.”
I am Noah and Moses, among the several crossers who await a savior they do not know but have only heard about on the television or newsfeed. The sightless first circle keeps us. But I go further down. I am one of the lovers in the second circle. We are taken up by the wind, ravaged, left on the shore panting, groaning. We collide, knocking teeth, unstable and jerky in our limbs. Mexico is among us, our love for her is carnal. We cannot see her. We assume she is anyone of us. In a grasp for soft breast, another’s elbow lacerates our temple.
I press further down because I know I will not surface and boredom makes me curious. I fill the third circle with my hunger. I am fattened on the meat of my brothers. We chew each other’s fingers as we plot the devouring of landscapes, the rape of white women. I find here the wine is all hangover, yet I consume until my head rolls. “Justice of God! Who is it that heaps together so much peculiar torture and travail? How is it that we choose to sin and wither?” As I burrow deeper into these questions, I feel the many lives I have played and spent in these circles, defiling merely to conform with script. To follow this geography to the last latitudinal vestige requires not only hundreds of years of careful study, but a rebel tongue. It is like the parrot mocking the one who taught it speech.
My greed for your greed sends me to the fourth circle. I inhabit the throne of sacked kingdoms, spin bloodstained coins over my knuckles. I lust for the past, bigger armies to support this wealth that was fornicated out of us, pierced out of us, and pulled from us like a slot machine. Since it is night and I cannot see, I mistake my brother for you, and I slay him. Or maybe I know now, but it is his turn, and I will feel the bullet tomorrow.
Onto Dis, over blood waters whose source is obfuscated, held from us, but known deeply. The boatman kicks us out, sails away and winks. Abandonado. I have to pick the lock to the lower circles. Sometimes, the dread spirits cower from me. I choose the shade of the scrub oak. Its thorns tear at my calves. I bleed into the sand. The angry wives of the fifth circle tear at dead wood with their talons. I gaze at them with the love of the Sonora and gladly turn to stone.
In the U.S. we still hold our death rites sacrosanct. Consider not only the legislation, but also the passionate controversy, stirred by protesting Westboro Baptist church members at the funerals of dead soldiers. Similarly, in Mexico, “[t]he desire to be buried back home in Mexico is ingrained in the national psyche.” Mexican folk tradition has immortalized this sentiment in a popular ballad, “Lindo y Querido,” in which singer Jorge Negrete pleads, “If I die far from you (Mexico), tell them I’m sleeping, to bring me here.”
Despite these legacies, thousands of bodies near the border dividing the United States and Mexico remain in a kind of administrative purgatory. The costs of identifying the dead border-crossers who have succumbed to the Sonora, the Rio Grande, and violence create a backlog of bones and paperwork.
Some die from violence, shot by Border Patrol agents, vigilantes or thieves. Others are killed in accidents: stumbling in rugged terrain, falling over the wall, or struck by vehicles. Many others perish of dehydration and exposure—conditions made worse by the recent sabotage of water stations set out by Border Angeles and other humanitarian groups.
I look for sepulchers. All are taken. I present to the keepers my Catholic texts, my grandmother’s rosary, the nights spent as shivering before Christ as the poison of wanting too much withdrew. I look for a place to be buried, but there is only wind and sun, and crows. They retrieve me to Salem, they march me to the beat of a Yankee drum, out of Illinois, Missouri, to the tune of tar and feather. I reach for the ground, they hoist me to the sun by the neck. I reach for the sky and they bind me down by the stocks. At times, in my blindness I grasp at the executioner and say, “Who were your ancestors?” When he responds, I say, “These men were enemies to me; they fiercely opposed me and my forebears, and my party—so twice I scattered them.” My head rolls in the sand, or roasts, or splits upon either small, targeted impact, or large thudding. In any death, I kiss the feet of my executioner. I watch myself kissing the feet of my executioner on a live stream. Exhausting this circle, I descend the vast, ancient cliff, closer to my black heart, further away de mi matria.
Others follow the law of the river, dying in the polluted waters of the Rio Grande, swept unknown into the Gulf of Mexico. Several problems confront the American Border Patrol and other agencies charged with identifying immigrants’ bodies and transporting them back to their families in Mexico. First, and oftentimes most thwarting, nature aggressively obscures the identity of recovered remains. As researchers note, “[t]he discovery of these deaths can be especially difficult because a body lying in an open area in the Southwest may be dismembered by wildlife within a few days of death.” In some California counties, medical examiners will only file a death certificate if they find, at minimum, the skeletal remains of human extremities; others will file a certificate only if “a body part that is essential to life” has been recovered—“such as a skull or spinal column.” The floodwaters of the Rio Grande and the Tijuana Rivers sometimes entirely consume these passengers.
Compelled by love of my native land, I crossed the threshold where a dreadful form of justice lives. From there a plain whose soil reviles all plants—desolate, flat and rounded by the woeful wood. From this wood ran a tributary of merlot-colored blood. It flowed along a stone bed and undulated with hell’s errant pulse. In a place I am not allowed this stream feeds Lethe, and soothes its bathers on their way to la virgin.
Here, it boils. The wrath of our sodomite dreams drives its cells to collision. I am at once the bugger, the child-molester, shaken baby with virgin’s blood in my eye veins. I am the rending of the umbilical connecting Durango and my mother. I share wine with Cain. We listlessly address the epidemic of man love and our hate grows like cancer. Suicidio. We drench the hot stone with our blood and semen and unite in death within death to reincarnate as Medea, to hate the bravado of our Indo-European male. El machismo. The dyke killer is born, raped, and gives birth to hell hounds who clamor forth only to return to devour her genitalia and uterus. Or it is as simple as two brothers embroiled over the last water in a canteen. I look for a grave and I cannot find it.
Even those bodies that could be identified by normal autopsy procedures often elude identification because the deceased were too poor to leave a paper record. The county morgues holding these bodies are running out of space and resources. In Pima, the Medical Examiner’s Office recently requested $60,000 in federal grant money to buy a refrigerated trailer to house immigrants’ bodies until DNA samples could be taken. Later, this office spent $240,000 merely to double the capacity of the county morgue. “In 2006, Pima County’s chief medical examiner estimated that the processing, identification and storage of recovered bodies cost his office $100,000 annually. For the unidentified, remains are buried or cremated at public expense.”
Assuming identification occurs successfully and the deceased’s family can be located, costs of repatriating the body may be prohibitive. These costs have been prohibitive for both the U.S. and Mexican governments. The Mexican government in 2007 spent nearly $3.9 million in repatriating human remains. “In 2006, 6,186 Mexican citizens were returned from the U.S., a 37 percent increase from the 4,515 in 2004.”
Rejoice, O Mexico, in your greatness, hastening your wings to beat the land and sea. In hell too your name is spread about! Your song dwindles at the edges, where the blockade makes your mothers cry. I am sorry mother. I have deluded myself into thinking that I am greater than the wooden horse I devised that paraded us into America’s cities. Where all our tongues are flames not light bearing. Yet America speaks through us: “In the flesh of the bones my mother gave me, were those of the fox, not the lion. I was expert in all the stratagems and covert ways, and practiced them with so much cunning art the sound extended to the earth’s far end.” Here inside I sit with Judas and Satan, playing cards—in the place they say all sorrow springs. The coyote will not follow me here.
The science of documenting immigrant mortality rates receives little oversight from local and federal agencies, thus creating inaccuracies in reporting. Given these inaccuracies, the federal government has not been fully apprised of the dire need of preventative measures, and rescue measures. The U.S. Border Patrol’s response to influx of immigrants, Operation Blockade, has only shifted migration to more remote and dangerous nodal points along the Mexican-American border, as one scholar has noted. More recently, the federal government has implemented the Border Safety Initiative (BSI), which sought 1) to raise awareness among Mexican citizens of the dangers inherent to border crossings; 2) to establish search and rescue operations conducted by specially trained agents in Border Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR); 3) initiate training of agents in early life-saving and rescue techniques; and 4) to implement a data tracking system recording all border deaths and rescues to inform ongoing operations. The problems with monitoring the progress and success of this initiative are several. The Border Patrol’s method of deterrence by warning of the risks associated with illegal passage does not speak to the conscience of those determined to cross. Understanding the danger, immigrants brave water and desert, only to come to know America, at times, all too intimately.
I sing for my father whose hand I held in the trailer where we cooked to death. “Greif finds a barrier where the eyes would weep but forced back inward, adds to their agonies: a crystal visor of prior tears fills the cup below the eyebrow with a knot of ice.” I sing for my coyote who left me to seek otro coyotaje. I sing for myself because the sorrow issuing forth from here is the only thing that will cool my burning flesh.
Daniel Boyer is a poet based in Salt Lake City, Utah, who will soon be a practicing attorney. He will receive his Juris Doctorate from S.J. Quinney College of Law in May 2013, and received his Master of Arts in British and American Literature from the University of Utah in 2009. He is currently serving as a senior staff member on the Utah Law Review, a periodical of legal scholarship. His writings range from essays on constitutional law to experimental poetics in international affairs. His creative work addresses and challenges the borders between law and literature.
 The following poem/essay alternates between 1) translation of Dante’s Inferno onto Mexican-American borderland soil and 2) statistical study of the problems associated with burial of illegales who die while crossing. The trans(p)la(nta)tion of Dante follows the Pinsky translation, Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. Robert Pinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), at times quoting it directly.
 Jorge Ramos, Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 7.
 James Pinkerton, “Burial in Mexico Proves Expensive for Many Immigrants,” BanderasNew, July 17, 2007, http://www.banderasnews.com/0707/edat-burialinmexico.htm.
 See Karl Eschbach et al., “Death at the Border,” Int’l Migration R. 33, no. 2 (1999): 430–31 (documenting more than 1,600 migrant fatalities as having occurred between 1993 and 1997 due to drowning, hyperthermia, hypothermia, and dehydration).
 Miriam Raftery, “DYING TO COME TO AMERICA – Immigrant Death Toll Soars; Water Stations Sabotaged,” East County Magazine, September 1, 2008, http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/0809borderangels.
 Karl Eschbach et al., “Death at the Border,” 437.
 Ibid., 438.
 See ibid., 449.
 See ibid. (noting that many of the deceased never “visited doctors or dentists on a regular basis, so dental or medical records may not exist. Sometimes, a family photograph of the deceased smiling widely is all investigators have to document dental work.”).
 Maria Jimenez, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Report co-sponsored by Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties (October 1, 2009), 49.
 See Pinkerton, “Burial in Mexico Proves Expensive for Many Immigrants” (noting that in 2007, “the fees to prepare a body and ship it on a commercial airline [from Houston] to Mexico start at $3,500, and $4,000 for shipping remains to Central America”).
 See Karl Eschbach et al., “Death at the Border,” 450 (“In the absence of systematic recording of migrant deaths by a centralized agency, . . . local databases were partial and did not use common standards.”).
 Daniel A. Scharf, “For More Human Borders: Two Decades of Death and Illegal Activity in the Sonoran Desert,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 38, no. 1 (2006), 145 (describing the sudden and autonomous reaction of the Border Patrol to Mexican immigration in 1993).
 Maria Jimenez, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” 32 (BSI was born in 1998).
 Inferno, 289.