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Dearly deported: Day of the Dead in the shadow of the border


Karla Gutierrez says she often takes odd jobs to get by after she was deported to Mexico from the U.S. Here, she helps families clean up their relatives’ graves ahead of Dia De Los Muertos. Nick Oza/

NOGALES, Mexico — The fragrant smell of marigolds cloaked the air as vendors at the entrance to the city cemetery arranged the flowers in simple bouquets.

On Wednesday afternoon, Karla Gutierrez approached nearly every family passing through the cemetery’s gates, located a short walk from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Do you guys need help?” Gutierrez asked in perfect English. 

The crowds entering the cemetery were there to celebrate Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. During the four-day celebration, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, families clean and decorate the tombs of deceased loves ones. The centuries-old tradition is meant to honor the lives of the dead.

But for others, it’s a way to earn a living.

Gutierrez carries an old paint bucket, a worn broom, and a rag, which she uses to clean the tombs.

She’s one of about a dozen individuals working at the cemetery during the festivities. Nearly all were men, and most like Gutierrez had been deported from the United States.

“Not very many people come at the beginning of the week before the second of November,” Gutierrez said. “You clean like five or six tombs (a day), but then you start cleaning like 10, and then 15 and up to 20.”

‘Do what I can do to survive here’

Gutierrez expects to make up to 1,000 pesos, the equivalent of $60 dollars, over the four-day period. Whatever she earns will go a long way, she said. 

Unlike thousands of other deportees that end up here, Gutierrez was born in Nogales, on the Mexican side. When she was 4, her mother took her to Arizona, illegally. By the time she was 18 and living in Tucson, she got a green card. But she never became a U.S. citizen.

So when she got in trouble and started abusing drugs, she was jailed for four years. The criminal conviction also cost her the green card. In 2007, she was deported, separating her from her three children and two grandchildren, both of whom were born after she was deported.

“I cry every day and I regret it so so much,” she said. “And I have no choice but to accept my reality that I’m here, and I have to just fight and struggle and do what I can to survive here.”

Nogales is one of the busiest repatriation centers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Each year, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants end up here.

While many choose to go back to their hometown in Mexico, many more, especially those with families in the United States, opt to stay in Nogales biding their time until they can attempt to cross the border again.

‘Of course it’s worth it’

Steps from the cemetery, Noe Serrano Leon sat outside the offices of Grupo Beta, a quasi-governmental agency that assists migrants and deportees.

The cemetery’s carnival atmosphere was a stark contrast to the despair and desperation Serrano Leon said he felt about his situation. 

“What we’re living through is hell,” he said. “At least to me, it’s hell.”

After nearly 30 years living and working illegally in the U.S., 15 of them in Arizona, Serrano Leon was on the streets as a recent deportee. He’s originally from central Mexico, but is married to a U.S. citizen and has two U.S.-born children in Phoenix.

He said that after a traffic stop he was placed in detention in Eloy, where he spent four years fighting his case. In February he signed a voluntary deportation order and was sent to Nogales.

He spent eight months trying to earn a living here, working odd jobs. In Arizona, he installed tile floors. But here, he said, it was tough finding any type of job, even though he’s a Mexican citizen.

He relies on the services of migrant shelters and mess halls for food and shelter.

“I’ve looked for jobs, I’ve filled so many applications you can’t imagine,” he says. “They ask me for at least five years’ experience working here, in my own country, which I don’t have.”

It’s especially tough, he said, knowing he could equal a month’s salary in Mexico by working just one week in Arizona.

In September he tried to cross the border illegally once again. He jumped the fence just east of Nogales only to be caught a few hours later, and deported once again.

With his children on the other side, he said he’s not done trying to cross, knowing he’s risking his life.

“Of course it’s worth it, just because of the fact that my kids and family are over there,” he says. “It’s worth it, and I don’t care if I end up in the desert, or if Border Patrol catches me again.” 

The Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights highlighted the dangers such migrants face in its annual Day of the Dead message. The center has recorded more than 2,400 cases of migrants who’ve gone missing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

So far this year, Colibri, working in conjunction with Pima County’s Office of the Medical Examiner, has identified the remains of 32 individuals, according to the center. The message included photos of some of those migrants.

“What makes me ache with horror and shame is that these lives were not lost to ‘fate,’ at least not to that intangible, unpreventable figure of myth that foresees death,” Colibri’s spokeswoman Reyna Araibi wrote in the Day of the Dead message. “No, these deaths were anticipated by human forces,” she added. “The same who design punitive policies that say migrant lives are dispensable, the same that deport and separate families, the same that build walls, the same that funnel people into remote deserts.” 

‘Not sitting and waiting’

Gutierrez said there’s too much at stake for her to risk crossing again. 

She may petition the U.S. government to reopen her case, she said. But in the meantime, she’s resigned to living here and having her children and grandchildren visit her when they can.

Inside the cemetery, her offer to clean tombs caught the attention of Nogales, Arizona, resident Silvia Acosta, who was there to visit her parents’ burial site.

She led Gutierrez to her parents tomb. There, Gutierrez set to work sweeping and washing, while Acosta left to buy flowers from the vendors. 

“I like to see hard-working people, because life here is hard,” Acosta said of Gutierrez. “She made a mistake. We can all make mistakes. But with her, she keeps on searching, and fighting. She’s not sitting and waiting for help to land on her lap.”

When she returned with the flowers, Acosta handed them to Gutierrez to place in built-in pots.

Acosta then handed her some money. For 30 minutes of work she had earned twice Mexico’s daily minimum wage.

Gutierrez put the money in her pocket. She gathered her bucket, broom and rags, and walking among other tombs toward the entrance where she approached other families as they arrived to celebrate the lives of their loved ones.


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