Los muertos of past struggles walk the streets

Today, los difuntos walk the streets. We build altars to them, inviting the souls of our departed to visit us once more and listen to our prayers directed to them. But if we instead listened to them, what stories would they tell?

Stories of love

Altar in Mercedes office.

As is custom here in the LUPE offices, we have built our yearly Día de los Muertos altars. The altars provide an opportunity for LUPE members and staff to reflect on our loved ones who have passed away, as well as honor the memory of those individuals who have lost their lives struggling for the American Dream.

Stories of dreams turned to nightmares

This year, 40 migrants lost their lives attempting to cross the RGV section of the Rio Grande in search of a better life. 40 small crosses are situated on our San Juan altar, representing each of the irreplaceable lives that have been lost due to our broken immigration system.

U.S.-backed neoliberal policies, like NAFTA in Mexico, have pushed countless thousands from their land and onto the international labor market, migrating north to find work. Public Citizen estimates that by November 2003, 1.7 million farmers – campesinos – had been displaced as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994. They state, “The number of annual immigrants from Mexico to the United States surged from 332,000 in 1993 (the year before NAFTA) to 530,000 in 2000 – a 60 percent increase.”

40 black crosses represent the 40 immigrants who died crossing this section of the Rio Grande River this year.

Instead of being welcomed with visa protections, these migrant refugees of U.S.-backed economic policies are met with a militarized border and increasingly criminalized presence in the U.S. As “border security” increases, migrants are forced to cross under increasingly dangerous conditions, risking exposure in Arizona’s desserts or drowning in the untamed waters of the Rio Grande.

Stories of struggle

Above the crosses hang the pictures of individuals who passed away after a life devoted to working for social justice. Among them are farmworker leader and LUPE founder Cesar Chavez, local UFW leader Baltazar Saldaña, and civil rights organizer Rosa Parks. This year we add to the list local civil rights advocate Dr. Ramiro Casso, and Richard Chavez, brother to Cesar Chavez.

It is fitting that migrants who died crossing the river be included in this number, as they gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their families. The act of crossing the border itself is an act of civil disobedience and great courage against an unjust economic system that values profit over people and rewards the proactive effort to provide for one’s family with criminalization and death. The choice to cross the border is to choose the possibility of life over certain death, hardship over oblivion, hope over resignation and despair.

Stories of hope

Above the altar hang the words of our leader, Cesar Chavez: “Recordamos de los que han caido por la justicia, porque a nosotros han entregado la vida.” The best way to remember those who have died in the struggle for social justice, for themselves, their families and for everyone, is to walk alongside their memory as a participant in that struggle.

As Old Antonio, Zapatista elder, says, “Acá nuestros muertos viven. They live, yes, but not because we love them, of course we do. Not because we cherish their memory, of course we do. They live because they have left us an obligation, unfinished business, something that we must do. For that reason every so often we have to go to where our dead live to continue holding the commitment to fulfill that duty.”

Hoy los difuntos andan en las calles. Let’s walk with them, cumpliendo nuestro deber y pidiendo libertad.

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