June 1, 2001

Search For Better Life Ends in Unmarked Graves

By Yvette tenBerge

Traffic slowed on Imperial Avenue on Friday, May 25th as drivers and passersby were caught off guard by a most unusual procession.

Mourners hold their banner high as they march along Imperial Avenue.

Although a group of people marching through the streets to the rhythm of a guitar-playing singer is odd enough, the white crosses that each person carried spray painted with the slogan "No Olvidados" (not forgotten) and the huge banner that they waved reading, "Would you walk across mountains and deserts for a job? Migrants do; hundreds of them die" were what really caught the onlookers attention.

And getting attention was the point.

More than 100 community activists, clergy, labor organizers, Mexican citizens and local residents took to the streets on Friday to bless and adorn the unmarked graves of 32 "unidentified" migrants at the Mount Hope Cemetery in southeast San Diego. The ceremony also served as protest to the United States' controversial border policy, Operation Gatekeeper.

Lourdes, a Tijuana resident, plays "We Shall Overcome" on her guitar.

"To deal with migrants as a statistic is one thing, but it hurts to know that they were seeking a job, and they ended up here, buried in this barren strip of dirt with no names," says Claudia Smith, an organizer of the event, and a lawyer who heads the border project for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "More than 1600 migrants have died from Arizona to Brownsville in the six years since [the implementation] of Operation Gatekeeper, a [plan that] gives the border the appearance of being a border under control."

Of the 21 areas monitored under Gatekeeper nationwide, the San Diego sector accounts for the highest number of illegal crossings, as well as for more than 40 percent of the Border Patrol's total apprehended immigrants. A 14-mile section of the border west of the Otay Mountain has been the entry point of choice, as immigrants could cross directly into populated neighborhoods and attain access to mass transportation facilities. In contrast, the eastern 52 miles of the sector is unpopulated, undeveloped and marked by steep mountains, deep canyons and thick brush.

Maria Lazcano marches with her son Ramon Lazcano.

Since 1994, measures such as Operation Gatekeeper have been instituted to stem the tide of illegal immigrants crossing the border and to shift existing traffic eastward, where the Border Patrol believed they enjoyed a strategic advantage over would-be crossers. However, moves such as increasing personnel, building higher walls, and using night-vision equipment and four-wheel drive vehicles have not stopped the flow of immigrants. They have, though, forced those seeking jobs in the U.S. to navigate the dangerous, desert areas to the east that claimed an estimated 491 lives from dehydration, hypothermia and drowning last year, alone.

Although all present were aware of the political significance of the march, genuine sorrow for the dead was what brought them there. As Father Eddie Samaniego of Christ the King Church opened his Bible and prayed over each of the graves, mourners pushed their wooden crosses into the grass or dirt beside them, and children adorned them with small bundles of freshly cut flowers.

Organizers of the event located each of the graves, which were scattered throughout the cemetery, by using county information, cemetery maps and Mexican government records. The Mexican Consulate keeps daily logs of Mexican border crossers who are missing. Most are eventually identified through birth records, fingerprints or relatives. Those who remain unidentified, or those whose families cannot afford to take the body back to Mexico, though, are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Father Eddie Samaniego blesses an unmarked, migrant grave.

Maria Lazcano was one of the parishioners who chose to bring her six year-old son, Ramon, along to participate in the event. "We came to honor our countrymen who crossed to find a better life. Instead, they found death, and their families do not even know where they are. This fills me with a lot of pain," says Ms. Lazcano after a final, bilingual mass that was held over the four, newest gravesites. She looks at the bare dirt at her feet, before moving her eyes over the lush grass covering the rest of the cemetery. "I brought Ramon because he was at church when we were told about it. He knows that he is Mexican, too, and he wanted to support his people."

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