Eulogy to a Dying Town

I stand at the edge of a desert cemetery watching the impressions that my feet make in the sand. It is a cool, sunny, mild winter’s day in West Texas. I look up at the ominous cypress trees and blink away the sun and then scan the graves that are brightly decorated with silk and paper flowers. “Even the flowers are dead,” I say to myself under my breath. And as much as I’d rather be anywhere but here, I have to admit that this is a victory, which is a horribly depressing thought. It is easier to mourn the dead than wonder about the dissappeared. 

The man being buried was named Manuel Chavez and he was killed in the fall before the leaves had even begun to change, but his body had been missing until a few days ago. He had been brought to Fabens, Texas when he was just six years old and grew up in the United States, but was deported in 2006 at the age of 23. His wife who is a U.S. citizen did not want their family to be seperated so she moved her family to his hometown of Guadalupe, Chihuahua, Mexico which sits quite literally across the street from Fabens and less than 50 miles away from the now notorious Cuidad Juarez. Since 2008 Guadalupe has lived what can only be called a genocide, though authorities on both sides of the border would argue against the harshness of that word. In 2006 former President Felipe Calderon declared a War on Drugs and in 2008 Plan Conjunto Chihuahua was signed which brought military troops out of the barracks and into the streets to fight the organized crime that had been terrorizing the area. Initially, community members welcomed the troops and let out a collective sigh of relief, there was finally hope for a solution to the violence, but it soon became apparent that the nightmare had just begun. Instead of fighting crime the military along with certain members of the state police were easily corrupted by cartels who are fighting for control of “plazas” or drug trafficking routes. Guadalupe became so bad that Cuidad Juarez, which at the time was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, seemed like a safe haven.

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In October of 2013 despite reports that the situation in Juarez and the surrounding area have greatly improved Manuel Chavez was shot seven times at his home and in front of family members. A neighbor of his had been tortured because the state police accused him of owning guns, which is a crime in Mexico. When he couldn’t take it anymore he claimed that it was actually Manuel who had the guns so they went over his house to “investigate”. Manuel answered the door and because he had something in his hand they immediately opened fire, he died clutching a yellow toy train that belonged to his son. The police forced his family, including his twin brother Efrain to watch his burial, if they were ever asked about his whereabouts they were told to say, “los marcianos se lo llevaron,” which means the martians took him. This is a horrifying yet telling look at the impunity that officials in Mexico have. The family exhausted all the means they had in Mexico to bring the killers to justice, but since the body had “dissapeared” there was no evidence of his murder and thus a trial was impossible. The family fearing for their lives fled to the United States and asked for asylum.  At the border crossing bridge Efrain and his cousin, still suffering from the shock and trauma of the death they had witnessed were detained because immigration officials considered them a threat to the community even though they have committed no crime. When his brother’s body was finally “found” he was not even released to attend the funeral.

As his family members covered his body with dry, loose, sand the memory of my great-grandmother’s funeral assaults my consciousness. She had died in the United States, but her body had been taken back to Guadalupe to be buried next to her husband and four dead children. I remembered the dusty little cemetery not unlike the one we stood in today and how important it was that she be buried there, even though El Paso was only a stones throw away. Mexicans in general are very patriotic. Perhaps it is because economic conditions have forced them away from home for so many generations. If they can’t stay home they at least want the opportunity to rest there for all of eternity. In a town like Guadalupe even that is becoming less and less possible as corrupt officials and criminal organization use funerals as an opportunity to attack family members of the deceased. Here nothing is sacred.

Sometimes it feels like we were born in hell, this thought crosses my mind as the stench of sulfur eminating from a very polluted Rio Grand hits my nose. I have to remind myself that things weren’t always like this, that there was a time when the town was ugly, and boring but safe and clean because despite its poverty it was dignified. This was the land of Pancho Villa, a town that at the end of the Mexican-American war could have become part of the United States, but instead said, “Thanks but no thanks, we’re Mexicans”. The pastor breaks up my thoughts with his eulogy, he sites ecclesiates 3:1 which is the passage Pete Seeger immortalized in the song “To Everything there is a Season”. Suddenly, I am filled with rage, no one should die like that and I have heard too many stories of this sort of brutal senseless death. I don’t think God or Seeger were referring to death at the hands of state and/or federal officials when they penned those verses. From where I am standing, Guadalupe can be seen in the distance like a blinking mirage. It is so painfully close, like a word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite remember. It is inside of you, but you have no access to it.

The family release blue and white balloons and place daisies on the coffin. I feel the urge to vomit so I decide to take a walk through the tiny cemetery. I walk through a row of cypress trees and begin to panic at my smallness. Towns, cities, civilizations — they dissappear all the time, but it is a strange sensation to watch it happen. In the end it won’t matter that my grandparents kissed in the well-kempt plaza or that my great grandfather was mayor or that my father and uncles ran through those streets barefoot with the reckless abandonment of childhood. Someday soon all that will be left is a handful of old timers and the ashes of the homes, pictures and documents that the military and cartels burned down. In the grand scheme of things it may not matter that a poor little cotton town on the edge of hell is being wiped out, but it hurts. We hurt and that hurt fills up our universe and deserves more attention. I implore you to listen to our cries and act. Two countries are failing its citizens and until it is brought to the collective consciousness it will be continued to swept under the carpet like the dirt under my feet.

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2 thoughts on “Eulogy to a Dying Town

  1. Hello;

    I was deeply moved by your story, and also by your writing. It is heartbreaking to see this catastrophe so close up. I live in Canada, but I’ve spent a lot of time on the US/Mexico border and in Oaxaca. I am a journalist and author, and my latest project happens to be about a situation similar to the one you describe, only in Oaxaca. I am writing it in the hope of raising awareness in the maximum number of people.

    My heart goes out to you and your family.

    With all good wishes,

    John Vaillant

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