May 9, 2008

The Devil’s Breath profiles undocumented migrants who died in the Harris Fire

By Mariana Martínez

“Devil’s breath” is what Native Americans call the Santa Ana winds, a condition that brings extremely dry, hot weather into heavy brush areas, causing massive wildfires that propagate quickly.

It was exactly the devil’s breath that ravished thru San Diego County just last October, taking the lives of 14 people, most of them Mexican immigrants who where trying to cross the border during the emergency and were devoured by the flames.

A simple memorial in the desert marks the place where the wildfires took Juan Carlos Bautista’s life. Credit: Angeles Del Disierto/The Desert Angels

The stories of such men and women have yet to be told, until now, that a half-hour news special by UCSD-TV profiles four of the seven undocumented migrants who died in the Harris Fire, on October 21, 2007.

The program being premiered on May 19 at 8 p.m. on UCSD-TV, brings the victims’ stories to life through the voices of those who were with them when they died; their doctors, grieving family members, 911 phone calls and visits to the sites where they took their last breath in the hopes of getting to the United States.

Titled, “The Devils Breath,” the documentary was produced by Laura Castañeda, an award-winning local journalist who has covered the border since 1990, says she has been deeply touched by this piece of work.

“I hope people of all races, ages, political affiliations, and on both sides of the immigration fence get to see this work, and see past the politics, into the faces on these victims and their families,” said Castañeda.

Castañeda and her crew spend months gaining the families trust to tell the stories of their loved ones, because they feared being in the public spotlight, and have had bad experiences with reporters who lied to get access to the hospital and grieving family members.

The Devils Breath tells us about Juan Carlos Bautista, a construction worker from Chiapas, bound to San Marcos, whose body was located ten days after the fire by The Desert Angels, a volunteer search and rescue group based in San Diego.

She also tells the story of Maria Guadalupe Beltran, a Vista resident and mother of four who had returned to Mexico to attend her father’s funeral, when she and her brother were both critically injured.

The final victims profiled in The Devil’s Breath are Areli Peralta and her husband Ruben Santos Ramirez, whose bodies were found in a scorched ravine, and remained unidentified in the morgue for months, until DNA results confirmed their identities.

“I have not experienced anything like the stories I’m profiling on this piece, but I have a one-year-old son at home, I’m a mother just like María Beltrán,”said Castañeda, “I spend nights laying in bed thinking about this peoples final thoughts, their straight, their kids….”

The documentary also addresses issues that have emerged from this tragedy, including the emergency response to the border crossers’ pleas for help, the language barriers they encountered, delays in recovering and identifying the bodies found in San Diego’s back-country, and the cost of medical treatment for the uninsured victims.

In Castañeda´s view, the 911 response to victims phone calls was far from adequate, because there where not enough questions asked and language barriers lead to terrible miscommunication.

“The 911 piece shows how some of the survivors repeatedly made phone calls and where transferred again and again or responded to in a very rude manner, not all of the operators where like that, but people can judge for themselves if they would want their daughter or father to be treated like that” said Castañeda.

The piece also talks with representatives from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Binational Emergency Medical Committee.

The rural area of Harris, near the border is under the San Diego Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction and the interviews with survivors and victims show a discrepancy between what the Sheriff said he did and their experience.

Over all, Castañeda hopes after seeing her work, “not to be labeled as an activist, but as a story teller, to help try to understand the face of immigration.”

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