Death and Crossing

Too many migrants meet Santa Muerte.

Norma Price

Do you have any chil­dren?” I ask Ali­cia. She says no, then remains silent, eyes fixed on the car in front of us. She was dis­charged from the hos­pi­tal two days before, leav­ing behind the remains of her baby that had been born dead less than a week after she began her trek through the desert.

Fifteen days later, I return to the consulate to pick up the ashes of baby boy Ortiz. Alicia has already been deported, but I promised to mail the ashes so he can be buried in Mexico.

Sit­ting at a stop­light, I glance side­ways at her. Wavy black hair reach­es below her waist. She is pret­ty in a scrubbed-clean, sad way. There is no light in her eyes.

We are on our way to the Mex­i­can con­sulate. The con­sulate will make arrange­ments for trans­fer of the baby’s body from the hos­pi­tal to the funer­al home, the final des­ti­na­tion for far too many bor­der crossers. It will cov­er the cost for cre­ma­tion of the infant and will help her get papers so she can take the ash­es back to Mexico.

At home in Michoacán she had helped sup­port her moth­er, sis­ters and an eight-month-old nephew. Her 15- and 16-year-old sis­ters were still in high school and did not work. The fam­i­ly want­ed them to grad­u­ate since Ali­cia had not had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance past pri­ma­ry school. She had worked in a Coca-Cola plant mak­ing $65 a week for sev­en years. It was hard work, but steady. Some­times she worked from six in the morn­ing until 10 at night, work­ing over­time to make extra mon­ey. But then the plant closed, and she was only able to get tem­po­rary work.

Her grand­fa­ther was diag­nosed with can­cer, treat­ment was very expen­sive, and he accu­mu­lat­ed a lot of med­ical bills. Alicia’s sev­er­ance pay from the Coca-Cola plant was used to pay for his care. Her moth­er made $40 per week clean­ing hous­es. There was not enough mon­ey to sup­port the fam­i­ly, so 28-year-old Ali­cia head­ed north to earn more mon­ey. Six months preg­nant, with the promise of a job pick­ing fruit in Ore­gon, she set out on her journey. 

The father of her baby, a man she had been with for two years, was not upset when she phoned him that the baby was still­born. She says he wasn’t even sad when she left to come north al otro lado (to the oth­er side). He was, she says, a type of man who would go out and look for oth­er women.” 

Ali­cia and I sit in the office of the con­sulate. Peo­ple move back and forth between the rooms. Amid all the bus­tle, Ali­cia looks out of place. At a cor­ner desk a pret­ty young woman with dark hair and per­fect­ly arched eye­brows helps Ali­cia. She is sympathetic. 

Her job at the con­sulate is to help Mex­i­can nation­als who had been hos­pi­tal­ized. On the wall behind her desk was a large board with post­ed infor­ma­tion regard­ing sev­er­al patients in var­i­ous hos­pi­tals. The board is marked off in quad­rants. The seri­ous­ness of the med­ical con­di­tion wors­ened top to bot­tom, while the like­li­hood of sur­vival declined left to right. 

In the top left quad­rant was Imel­da. Her diag­no­sis: dehy­dra­tion. In the bot­tom left was José Nicolás Alvarez, who was admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal with a frac­tured leg. In the top right was Candelar’a Orte­ga Men­doza, a 30-year-old woman. Diag­no­sis: dehy­dra­tion. She required dial­y­sis every day because of renal fail­ure. Walk­ing for days in the desert in blis­ter­ing heat, one becomes severe­ly dehy­drat­ed, caus­ing mus­cle cells to break down. The pro­tein from these cells gets into the blood­stream and cir­cu­lates through the body, becom­ing trapped in the micro­scop­ic tubules of the kid­neys and caus­ing the organs to shut down. 

In the same quad­rant with Candelar’a’s infor­ma­tion was writ­ten in brack­ets, Samar­i­tans will help with her.” I was tak­en aback. How could we help? The help of Samar­i­tans lies in try­ing to pre­vent kid­ney fail­ure, pre­vent dehy­dra­tion that results in renal shut­down. We take water to the desert crossers before they need to go to the hos­pi­tal. We ban­dage blis­tered feet, splint sprained ankles and rehy­drate those who have been vom­it­ing from drink­ing cat­tle-tank water. We encour­age those who can­not keep up with their group to go back rather than risk a jour­ney with San­ta Muerte–Saint Death. The patient was on dial­y­sis. What could Samar­i­tans do? 

I look back to the dry erase board. In the bot­tom right quad­rant of the board was the last patient, Fran­cis­co Portes de la Peña. Date of birth: April 19, 1964. Diag­no­sis: frac­tured hip and cere­bral lesions. Below, writ­ten omi­nous­ly: Uncon­scious – on respirator.” 

Ali­cia explains to the woman at the con­sulate the pro­gres­sion of events result­ing in her hos­pi­tal­iza­tion. When she began her jour­ney, six months preg­nant by her esti­mate, she felt the move­ment of her baby. But sev­er­al days of walk­ing in the scorch­ing desert sun took its toll: dehy­dra­tion with symp­toms of dizzi­ness, nau­sea and weak­ness. One day she felt the kick­ing and the next day, no move­ment at all. Then she began to feel sick. She became very alarmed when her water broke. She pan­tomimes the gush of amni­ot­ic fluid. 

Two women trav­el­ing with her group of 20 stayed with her when she was aban­doned by the rest of the group and the coy­ote, a smug­gler paid to guide them through the desert. The three of them flagged down help and were final­ly picked up by the bor­der patrol. Ali­cia was tak­en to the hos­pi­tal, and her friends were imme­di­ate­ly deported. 

In the air-con­di­tioned office, the forms are com­plet­ed. Ali­cia signs an affi­davit as to her iden­ti­ty, hav­ing lost her iden­ti­fi­ca­tion papers in the desert. They assure her they will call when the ash­es could be picked up. 

Fif­teen days lat­er, I return to the con­sulate to pick up the ash­es of baby bo Ortiz. Ali­cia has already been deport­ed, but I had promised to mail the ash­es so he can be buried in Mex­i­co. Wait­ing on the paper­work, I am once more sit­ting in front of the cor­ner desk look­ing again at the board on the wall. It is emp­ty. I won­der if that means there are no Mex­i­can nation­als in the hos­pi­tal. What hap­pened to the four who were on this board two weeks ago? 

The patient on the res­pi­ra­tor prob­a­bly died. The two who were in the first tier prob­a­bly had been dis­charged. What about the woman on dial­y­sis? Per­haps she recov­ered and was sent back home to Mex­i­co. If so, I hoped that she lived in a city large enough to pro­vide good med­ical care. 

To the left of the blank dry erase board was a large square por­trait of Ben­i­to Juárez, less Indi­an-appear­ing than most pic­tures of the mid-19th-cen­tu­ry Mex­i­can pres­i­dent. To the left of Juárez was a black-and-white poster with three cross­es and a ceme­tery with grave­stones. Across the pic­ture of the cross­es was writ­ten in Span­ish “¡No expon­gas a los tuyos! ¡No dejes tu vida en el desier­to!” (“Do not put your­self at risk! Do not die in the desert!”) 

An offi­cial comes to the door and beck­ons me inside his office. He hands me the ash­es in a lit­tle black box with a file fold­er label taped on it: José Ortiz Men­doza.” I take it home to wait for the prop­er paper­work from the con­sulate before mail­ing the small con­tain­er. I placed it on a ledge over the kiva fire­place in my liv­ing room, beside the urn for my own ashes. 

This essay is adapt­ed from Cross­ing with the Vir­gin: Sto­ries from the Migrant Trail (Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona Press, 2010).

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