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Written by Gabriela Rodríguez Clark, AZJFON Board member
The Day of the Dead represents a celebration of memory and a ritual that privileges the remembrance of those who have passed away, with the hope of seeing them again someday. This celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd since it is divided into categories: According to the calendar, November 1st corresponds to All Saints, a day dedicated to the "chiquitos" or children, and November 2nd to the “Fieles Difuntos”, that is, to the adults.
Tradition indicates that, to facilitate the return of the souls to earth, cempasúchil flower petals should be scattered and candles should be placed tracing the path they will travel so that these souls do not get lost and reach their destination.
This day, in the indigenous vision, implies the transitory return of the souls of the deceased, who return home, to the world of the living, to live with their relatives and to nourish themselves with the essence of the food that is offered to them in the altars placed in their honor. In this Day of the Dead celebration, death does not represent an absence but a living presence; death is a symbol of life that materializes in the altar offered.
However, although many families will be able to gather today to remember their loved ones who have passed away, not everyone is as fortunate, as many are still waiting for news of their relatives who once crossed the Sonora-Arizona desert and have not been heard from. They do not know if they disappeared or died in the solitude of the desert.
Since 2000, more than 4,000 migrants have died in the desert and more than half of them have not been identified. In this fiscal year alone, 189 people have lost their lives in the Arizona desert and the numbers are rising.
This increase can be directly attributed to the Border Patrol's 1994 adoption of "Prevention through Deterrence" as its primary operational strategy. The new initiative was formed in the midst of an intense outcry over historic numbers of undocumented immigration from Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. Called "Operation Gatekeeper" it brought a radically new tactic to deter undocumented border crossers, using the unforgiving landscape as a natural barrier.
The strategy said that because "mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers," known migrant routes at urban entry points should be closed and militarized. This left migrants with no choice but to cross the rugged and remote desert. The authorities assumed that they would fear making such a dangerous journey and that, if anyone attempted it, their deaths would act as a deterrent to the future.
What soon became clear, however, was that the challenges of crossing inhospitable landscapes like the Sonoran-Arizona desert would not deter migrants from attempting the journey. And so it was that the lives of thousands of people, with dreams of a better future and better life opportunities, were snuffed out in the vastness of the desert.
It is worth mentioning that the data on deceased migrants reported by the Border Patrol includes only the cases that are reported to them, and it is estimated that agents only find about 50% of the remains that are recovered, which leads to a number below the real figure.
Border Patrol numbers also do not take into account migrants who simply disappear into the desert, never to be seen again, so the number of missing and deceased is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Because of this, remembering and honoring their memory is our duty. We offer our prayers to each and every one of the people who have lost their lives in the vast Sonoran-Arizona desert and we will continue to fight tirelessly until the inhumane policies are ended and no one should be forced to risk their lives in the vast desert.