Field Notes From a Cemetery for the Nameless

In one tiny California city, a graveyard for those who died in quest of a new life.
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Holtville, California.

The entrance to a Holtville, California, cemetery for migrants is just 20 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are 240 unidentified bodies buried deep in the southern California desert, arranged in a grid with disturbingly clinical precision. To say these corpses were laid to rest would be hyperbole; they were disposed of, buried under a thankless sun in a remote lot, in graves so shallow the aging man leading me through the cemetery must warn that, if I step too close, the soil will collapse onto their dead bodies.

On this plot of land, which strongly resembles a crop its owner forgot to harvest — soil evenly hewed, air thick with the smell of horse manure — there are no flowers, no tombstones, no signs of remembering. Instead, every three feet or so, there sits merely a crumbling brick, stamped with a row number, stuck on the head of each grave.

The graves bear one of three names: John Doe, Jane Doe, Baby Doe.

Here, at the Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California, the forgotten corpses belong to migrants, to those who died attempting to cross the United States’ southern border with Mexico, those who died wanting something their own countries couldn’t give them.

Seventy days into the­ administration of a president who has described would-be American citizens like these with words that include “killers,” “rapists,” and “bad hombres,” the campaign to remember them, and what they were looking for, has been reinvigorated.

And on a blustery day in late March, a group of teenagers from De La Salle High School, a Catholic all-boys school in the Bay Area, joined Border Angels, an immigration resource center based in San Diego, on its trip to Terrace Park, gathering in the eye of the burial plot to hold mass for the deceased. They brought with them dozens of hand-painted wooden crosses scribbled with Spanish well-wishes, planting them gently along the perimeter of the lot.

A priest from De La Salle High School holds mass with eight students for 240 deceased, unidentified migrants.

A priest from De La Salle High School holds mass with eight students for 240 deceased, unidentified migrants.

Hugo Castro, an activist and volunteer at Border Angels, has long helped coordinate trips to the cemetery as well as to migrant crossing paths in the desert — a reminder of what immigrants face in both life and death. The Angels used to make those trips, dropping dozens of gallons of water among the sparse brush for beleaguered asylum seekers to find, only once every six weeks. But since January, Castro says, demand to tag along has exploded so fiercely the organization now makes the hour-and-a-half long trek from San Diego to southern Imperial County nearly every week.

The winding drive through the rocky terrain of San Diego and Imperial Counties offers a select glimpse at the disparate iconography of life in the American Southwest: palm trees and corroding barns, RVs and low-slung purple mountains, bubblegum pink cacti and windmills, chrome auto malls and Border Patrol checkpoints.

A priest from the school, dressed in his white sacramental robes, pulled out a well-loved copy of his Bible and began a prayer. In a semicircle around him, the boys raised their fists, clutching a handful of crosses, to the sky. They hugged each other.

But as the priest spoke of God’s mercy, and of our brothers and sisters in the ground, the sharp, keening zip of trucks and semi-trailers traveling along State Route 115 and Zenos Road threatened to drown him out. Death, here, isn’t quiet.

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The bones that lay beneath the kids’ feet were likely collected by Customs and Border Patrol officers roving the desert.The one-time ownersof those bodieswere likely found slumped over in the sand or in a canyon, all of them probably victim to heatstroke, hypothermia, or dehydration in an unforgiving desert where temperatures can oscillate between 30 and 120 degrees. The landscape here is a tricky kind of ominous — a topography that lulls you into passivity before baring its fangs. “Everybody is after them here, everybody wants something from them — customs officers, kidnappers, coyotes,” Castro says, referring to the guides some migrants pay to help them navigate the desert.

“The migrants are tortured even in death, don’t you think?”

The dead beneath us represent a mere fraction of the more than 6,000 people who have met the same fate, along that same route, in the last 15 years. After days of hallucinations, fainting spells, and organ failure, they finally succumbed to the Earth. Now, their remains are calcified into the ground they worked so hard to reach.

Yet that very outcome is not undesirable for the American government: Forcing migrants to flee through remorseless terrain is a codified federal anti-immigration strategy. A 1994 U.S. Border Patrol memo acknowledges that “illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” adding that, along the country’s southwest border, “the prediction is that with traditional [routes] disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing.”

Terrace Park is a symbol of that policy. Castro repeatedly notes that, on the totem pole of socioeconomic value, governments will always rank migrants dead last.

He surveys this lot, sun casting a shadow over his dark eyes. “The migrants are tortured even in death, don’t you think?” he asks. We look at each other, unsteady with nausea.

Left: An international boundary sign at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County. | Right: The grave of one unidentified man who died while immigrating from Mexico. Over 6,000 men, women, and children have died along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001.

Left: An international boundary sign at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County. | Right: The grave of one unidentified man who died while immigrating from Mexico. Over 6,000 men, women, and children have died along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2001.

That quiet horror is cast into full relief at Terrace Park, which hosts two burial plots: In the first, a jade green field that unfolds across the cemetery’s opening gate and rolls beyond it for dozens of yards, the deceased receive offerings of fresh lilies and roses; (Hispanic) Purple Heart veterans of the Iraq War rest under a languid, rustling tree. The unidentified are buried in a second lot, devoid of color or life, at the back of the property. It’s usually chained shut.

As we depart, the priest stops our group to note his displeasure with the arrangement of the cemetery, pointing to the gate that separates those who died with documents from those who died without them.

“That gate is evil,” he says. “It’s evil.”

Yet even this arrangement is generous: Migrants are, by definition, moving,and finding a permanent place to rest is a luxury their identity doesn’t readily provide. Especially when the responsibility to provide one rests with the American bureaucracy.

In 2009, Imperial County decided it would stop burying the unidentified in Terrace Park, cremating lost bodies instead of ponying up the roughly $1,200 per person for a burial.

“The preference is to cremate the bodies,” Imperial County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship says, because of “the cost” (cremations are $645). “But if the person’s religion prohibits it, we’ll bury them.”

Over 80 percent of Mexicans and 84 percent of Latin Americans consider themselves Catholic, a religion that views cremations unfavorably — the body, the church believes, needs to be intact when it’s resurrected on Judgement Day (last October, Cardinal Gerhard Muller announced that “belief in the resurrection of the flesh is fundamental” to the religion, adding that “the human cadaver is not trash”). The vast majority of immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico and Central America, and many thousands of those who have died along the border are unidentified.

Nobody can fight for migrants’ bodies, or for their souls, if those bodies don’t have a name. Instead of finding “a pious place” to rest, the deceased migrants in Imperial County now face cremation.

The most permanent parts left of them are the discarded objects that litter the desert floor: a dull aluminum can of Diet Coke haphazardly dropped in the dust; a nylon backpack tossed aside in the brush; a cerulean sweater torn to pieces, either by animals or the wind.

Their ashes are tossed, indelicately, into the Pacific.

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