Anyone who has driven down on I-19 from Tucson to Nogales has seen various white crosses along the side of the highway. Have you ever stopped to wonder what may have happened to that person? To that life? Who were they? What was their family like? Who is choosing to remember them?
This tradition, which Jungian psychoanalyst, poet, and Catholic author, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls descansos, or resting place, is used to mark a site where a death took place. In her book, Women Who Run With Wolves, she looks at the ritual of honoring sites of death a bit more expansively and metaphorically to include the symbolic deaths that take place in a person’s life. She writes, “To make descansos means taking a look at your life and marking where the small deaths, las muertas chiquitas, and the big deaths, las muertes grandotas, have taken place. (p.396)
Catholics have used crosses to mark the big and small deaths to honor the many lives that have been lost or taken. Witnessing these crosses in the Sonoran desert takes on a different meaning as they may also signal the death of a disappeared migrant. Tucson-based artist, Alvaro Enciso, has been creating crosses for seven years throughout southern Arizona where the remains of migrants have been found. His goal is “to make the invisible visible, to honor the lives lost, and to point his finger at the policies that lead to unnecessary deaths.” Organizations such as No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, Humane Borders, and Colibri Center for Human Rights intentionally use the word “disappeared” instead of “missing” to reference the legacy of forced disappearances at the hands of the U.S. government throughout the Americas. The US government decided to structure border enforcement in such a way that it would funnel people to the most remote and deadly parts of the desert. Enciso uses Humane Border’s Migrant Death Maps– which pinpoints the exact location where UBC (unidentified border crossers) remains are found- to place his hand built crosses, or descansos. The artist said in an interview with Democracy Now back in 2019- one of the deadliest years for border crossing- that when migrants leave their homes, they are in pursuit of the “American Dream”. He says, this is the “desert’s secret, where dreams die.” The numbers of deaths only keep rising as conditions of violence and poverty worsen in Central and Latin America and the US government cuts off access to legal protections, especially asylum, at the border.
Dr. Pinkola Estes writes, “Descansos are symbols that mark a death. Right there right on that spot, someone’s journey in life halted unexpectedly.” Those are the incidents and circumstances that forever alter someone’s life. There has been a natural disaster that took someone’s home. Someone died due to heat exhaustion or hypothermia crossing the desert. Someone’s husband was slain by organized crime. The pandemic devastated the local economy leaving someone without a job. A family is forced to flee due to extreme violence in their town. An unjust policy prevents a person from seeking asylum leaving them with no other recourse. Those are the deaths that people experience while alive. The death of loved ones, safety and security, of a livelihood and survival, of certainty and stability, of hopes and dreams and dashed futures. For many of the migrants we serve and accompany, they have died a thousand deaths within their lifetimes. How do we account for those profound tragedies and hold space for them to be grieved as such?
These questions are ever-present as we draw closer to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. On these solemn holy days, the Catholic Church commemorates the faithful departed and pray for the departed souls in purgatory who are being purified before entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Here in Nogales, Mexico we celebrate the Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead with our migrant families and our staff. We embrace traditions such as creating an altar called ofrendas.
KBI staff and volunteers co-created an altar at our migrant aid shelter with the children and mothers currently residing here. As you can see, it takes on a more joyful tone rather than mournful. There are foods such as chiles, tomatoes, onions, corn meal, hot sauce, guacamole, objects such as a cafetera or moka pot used to make espresso, there are candles and paper flowers. The altar is decorated with fabrics donated to the shelter that the women use to make their embroidery and fabric arts. We also used papel picado, a Mexican folk art tradition where colorful tissue paper is perforated and cut into elaborate designs, this is commonly used as decorations for various celebrations in Mexico. If you look closely you can see calaveras or skulls/skeletons outlined in the papel picado. The symbol of the calavera serves a memento mori, a beautiful reminder of our mortality and necessity of death; as well as remembering our difuntos or ancestors. On Dia de Muertos, Mexicans oftentimes people paint their faces as calaveras as you see depicted on the fabric wall art in the style of the Disney’s movie Coco.
The calavera as a symbol uniquely encapsulates Mexican culture’s relationship with death. As Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize winner and famed Mexican author, explains in his book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “The Mexican…is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.” Painting one’s face as a calavera is a way to make death visible to all. It is a way to remember the dead and overcome the fear of death. Only then can we truly celebrate life; not only our life here on earth, but true life that starts when we transition from our earthly bodies.
Although Dia de Muertos has pre-Christian Aztec roots, there were similarities in the shared beliefs between the two traditions that made the syncretizing of the customs more amenable to indigenous peoples in Mexico. The central tenant being that Dia de los Muertos and All Saints Day and All Souls Day recognizes the importance of remembering the dead and life beginning after death. Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Alex Aclan seamlessly describes this mixing of traditions in his Mass given in honor of Dia de los Muertos on Oct. 26, 2019 at Santa Ana Cemetery in Oxnard, California
I think it’s a wonderful way to teach people about our beliefs as Catholics on the communion of saints…For Mexicans to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, my experience is that remembering the dead is really the most important part of it. Making sure that the dead are remembered, that their deceased are remembered, and that we really are one with them even though they’re on the other side and we’re still here…And that’s basically our teaching on the communion of saints. The different parts of the Church: the ones in Heaven, the ones that are still on their way trying to find their way to the gates of Heaven, and us here on Earth, and we are still together as one. We are still one Church.
Families commune with their departed loved ones through prayer. They place photos of their difuntos on the altar along with their favorite foods and beverages. Families visit and decorate their loved ones’ graves with bright orange Mexican marigolds or cempazuchitl (a Nahuatl word translated as “twenty flowers” to describe the various petals). The bright orange and strong scent are believed to guide the spirits from the cemeteries to their family homes. Families offer candies, candied fruits, pan de muerto (“bread of dead”), sugar skulls, and traditional beverages such as atole (a warm cornmeal drink) to welcome the spirits of their departed to be in communion with them during these days; as they believe the dead have a brief window of time during Dia de los muertos to leave the spirit realm and visit their loved ones in the mortal world.
Christians understand that death, as we know it, isn’t the end. Our Saviour Jesus’ death and resurrection is a testament to new life springing forward from death. In John 12:23-24 (NASB), Jesus explained his imminent death by using a grain of wheat as a metaphor, he proclaimed; “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Through the death of the seed, new life is possible.
We also understand the mystical life/death/life cycle through the communion of saints and the commemoration of the faithful departed known as All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day. The Feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1st, is sacred because we honor all the saints of the church, whether known or unknown. All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 2nd, also known as the Day of the Dead/Dia de los muertos is important because we dedicate that day to our loved ones and our ancestors to pray for their departed souls.
But how do we honor the lives of those faithful departed who have no resting place or burial? Like the many migrants who lost their lives crossing the desert but whose remains have never been recovered. Or the countless victims of organized crime-related violence whose bodies are disappeared? How do we honor the many symbolic deaths and losses individuals experience in their hometowns and on their migration journey? Like the Guatemalan woman who lost her home and bakery business because she had to flee death threats after not being able to pay her extortioners. Or the families who arrive at the border seeking asylum only to have their rights denied due to inhumane policies such as Title 42. How do grieve those lives interrupted by violence, poverty, and anti-immigrant policy? How do we grieve those deaths and give them a resting place, a descanso?
The border is a purgatory in many ways. And families are forced to contend with layers of ambiguous loss as they try to reconstruct new life and new meaning in a liminal and insecure space.
Postscript: Praying for All Souls, past and present, this All Souls’ Day
As we were creating and building our KBI Dia de muertos altar with the children and some of the mothers at our shelter this past weekend, we chatted about this tradition meant to them. One of the mothers mentioned that she typically added arches of marigolds and flowers. She wished we had flowers to adorn our makeshift altar. She also wished she still had her phone, that she lost along her journey, that had a picture of her beloved grandfather that she could print and add to our altar. “Siempre le ponía un trago de tequila.” “I always poured him a shot of tequila.” she said, as she helped me place food, beverages and candles. A quiet, yet poignant moment.
Something as simple as a phone with a treasured photo. Or not being able to hug and say bye to your mom before being forced to flee in the middle of the night, knowing that you will never return to see her again. Or not being able to properly bury your brother who was slain by the cartels because they also had a hit on your life. Or not being able to parent your newborn child with their father because the cartels left you a widow and you were forced to flee to save you and your child’s life. There are some losses for which you can never find closure or resolve.
I smiled. At that moment, one of the Sisters chimed in and said to her we will get flowers for our altar and pour a shot of tequila for him.
As you celebrate All Souls’ Day and remember your loved ones, keep the migrant families here and everywhere in your prayers.
All Souls’ Day Prayer
On this day, we are called to remember those who have died,
Particularly those who have died in the past year,
And pray for their joyful reunion with you, their loving creator.
As your son taught us to call the stranger
neighbor, our fallen are many–
Names we will never know,
Voices we have never heard,
In lands we many never visit,
Yet brothers and sisters all.
And so we pray.
For victims of war, caught in crossfires of
conflicts we could not quell,
for soldiers and civilians,
adults and children, we pray…
Grant eternal rest, O Lord.
For victims of hunger, denied their share in the
bounty you have placed before us, we pray…
Grant eternal rest, O Lord.
For victims of AIDS, Malaria, Ebola, and other infectious diseases,
who died before adequate care could reach them, we pray…
Grant eternal rest, O Lord.
For those refugees seeking asylum from war,
who died in a land that was not their home, we pray…
Grant eternal rest, O Lord.
For victims of emergencies and calamities everywhere,
who died amid chaos and confusion, we pray…
Grant eternal rest, O Lord.
Lord, as you command, we reach out to the fallen.
We call on you on behalf of those we could not reach this year.
You raised your son from the dead
that all may share in his joyful resurrection.
In Jesus’ name, we pray…
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
Et Lux perpetua lucreat esi.
Requiescant in pace.