She is small for her age with delicate features and a soft voice whose words seem to come out very quickly, “what about my mother?” she asked. “I don’t know if she is dead. She could still be alive. I can’t build an alter for her if she isn’t dead.” We were meeting to discuss a community Day of the Dead alter for people who had lost family members to the War on Drugs. This young woman’s comment left me dumbfounded. A middle-aged man who had lost several siblings spoke up, “we will make a separate section for the disappeared … you are right, it isn’t the same.” I watched the group watching her, most had lost everything to the violence that had ravaged their hometowns and yet they looked at her with pity in their eyes.
When my great-grandmother died peacefully in her bed at the age of 89 we took her body back to the village she had raised her family in, and after she was lowered into the hole the men took turns covering it up themselves. Everyone seemed sad, but even as a five year old it struck me as incredibly natural. We all have to go sometime. As I was so young my memories of this and of the village are tainted with family stories and nostalgia. After the funeral I only went back a handful of times. I remember a dusty, lonely little place where old ladies sat on their porches fanning themselves and neighbors stood in the streets to gossip. I never really liked going because nothing much ever seemed to happen.
It was around 2009 when the stories started to come in. The boring, but tranquil little farming community where my grandparents had met and my father played baseball in as a kid had turned into one of the most dangerous places in all of Mexico. Activists and reporters were killed, houses were burned down and 80% of the population would eventually be forced to leave. The young woman who sat in front of me, whose mother was taken away in plain daylight and in the presence of her two young daughters is from this town. In this sort of situation it is hard not to wonder why it happened to them and not us. A fluke had brought my family to the United States. I imagine it is how American Jews separated from the holocaust by one generation felt; helpless and a little guilty except in this case we are close enough to touch one another. How did we get here? Now the town in filled with ghosts. Sometimes they come to our house to visit, but mostly they are being forgotten. The houses burned had photos, documents and memories that cannot be retrieved. Memories were disappeared with people.
“Vivos se los llevaron! Vivos los queremos!” (Alive they took them! Alive we want them!) The throng yells in shared agony, our voices cracked and hurt from days of screaming and pleading. I read somewhere that pain is like helium; no matter the amount it fills its container. This pain could not be contained. It isn’t the pain of death or loss it is the pain that comes without closure. For there to be an end there must be a beginning, without death there is no life. The idea of eternity and limbo make us incredibly uncomfortable. Think back to when you were a child and first became aware of the idea of infinity. Weren’t you terrified? I was. That is what having a disappeared loved one is like. It is the edge of hell. It is the hole that cannot be filled. It is not knowing whether your loved one is being tortured and raped or dead and buried without dignity. It is not the same.