When I think of Mexican migration, I think of a powerful metaphor and its sediments: tierra. Land. Earth. Soil. Subsoil. Dirt. Dust. Especially in the experience of rural Mexican migrants, the humble symbol of dust is so ubiquitous, yet so overlooked and misunderstood. The literal and figurative dust of Mexican migration was long seen by assimilationists as something to be left behind: disposed of, shaken off. The symbol even seeps into what is perhaps the most famous study of early-twentieth-century Mexican migration to the United States, with historian George J. Sánchez surmising that the new country must have been “a strange environment for a person who had only recently shook the dust of rural Mexico from his or her shoes.” Dust thus reduced to a vanishing cloud left to settle in the wake of Mexican migration. Yet, for generations of migrants in decades to come, that dust would go on to cement a religion of return migration.
In my own writing on Mexican migration, there is another lingering metaphor that I am obsessed with, if not downright possessed by: ghosts and their many apparitions. These two symbols—dust and ghosts—came back to haunt me during the Covid-19 pandemic in unexpected ways. The pandemic halted a long-overlooked form of return migration that I have been faithfully following: the repatriation of deceased Mexican migrants from the United States to their communities of origin in rural México. In my first book, I metaphorically recount Mexican migration as a ghost tale to argue that migrants’ nonbelonging in the United States and México haunt the projects of nationalism, democracy, and citizenship in both countries. In my next book on the afterlives of Mexican migration, I deploy the politico-ethical frame of “necro-ethnography”—an epistemological and ontological repertoire to theorize the experiences of communities and subjects whose conditions of life and death have been radically impinged upon and eroded by state power.
Below I recount one such story of death and repatriation in times of Covid-19, not in the voyeuristic manner of mainstream media coverage—producing a narrativized fetish of migrant death—but rather as a form of ethical witness and accompaniment, the sine qua non of “necro-ethnography.”
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When I called the Mexican Consulate’s Protection and Legal Affairs department in San Bernardino, California to inquire about the repatriation of cremated remains of a migrant who died of Covid-19 in July 2020, the female consular staffer sounded cold and bureaucratic. She explained the process of repatriating migrant ashes matter-of-factly, as if we were referring to any other remittance or package. First, the next of kin must notify the funeral agency or crematorium that the final resting place of the ashes will be in México. If they don’t, it will be necessary to make “an amendment” she said, momentarily switching to thickly accented English. Then, all the resulting death documents (death certificate, cremation documents, etc.) must be translated into Spanish and presented at the Mexican consulate. This is typically done by the funeral home or crematorium handling the remains; or, conversely, the family can do it themselves if they notarize the translated paperwork. At that point, the Mexican consulate will provide all the necessary approvals and seals for the cremated remains to be returned to México. With all this documentation in order, the consular staffer explained, the grieving family is free to return their loved one’s ashes anywhere in México, by plane or overland. When I asked if the process is any different in Covid-19 cases, the consulate representative said sternly, “Not at all. Since we are talking about ashes, there is no further risk of contagion.” With that, the process of repatriating migrant ashes was explained as if we were talking about any other cross-border commodity.
Yet for the next of kin of this deceased migrant, it was anything but. Returning the small urn with the cremated remains of their departed loved one back home after a lifetime of labor in the United States represented so much more, even if Covid-19 did not allow the return of his cadaver, as is accustomed by these mostly Catholic Mexican migrants. The entire geopolitical history of Mexican migration to and from the United States fit in that small urn, a history now turned necropolitical. If, as Jason De León reminds us, the “necroviolence” of the militarized México-US border reduces clandestine migrant crossers to “bone dust” before even reaching their destination, then the return of migrant ashes after a lifetime as proletarian servants under US racial capitalism is an encapsulation of México-US geopolitics at the end of a migrants’ journey—eternally illegalized, yet thoroughly extracted of and exploited for their labor, only to be disposed of and returned at the end.
As Anna Sampaio powerfully argues, in the Latinx migrant experience, “both men’s and women’s bodies became the locus upon which shifts in immigration legislation and national security initiatives were executed.” Foreshadowing the nefarious rise of Trump, Sampaio reminds us that the “fears and anxieties manipulated by the protectionist state are mapped onto bodies of racialized immigrants.” What Sampaio aptly calls the national security state serves a dual purpose—on the one hand wetting an anti-migrant “public appetite for blame,” while targeting Latinx communities and seeking to “implement the notions of securitization and racialized demonization on the bodies of immigrants and their families.” In the Trump and pandemic era, the geopolitics of international migration became ever more necropolitical. Perhaps nothing represents that more tragically yet powerfully than the return of migrant ashes, hauntingly reminiscent of the funerary rites, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Even in death, Mexican migrants are reminded of their nonbelonging in the United States. Due to the delays associated with Covid-19, the grieving sister of the deceased migrant, who traveled to the United States from México on an emergency visa to return his remains, found herself running out of time. Her emergency visa termination was almost up, and the ashes of her late brother would not be released for another six to eight weeks due to Covid-19 backlogs. When she inquired about an extension to her visa, US immigration authorities were inflexible, demanding that she produce extensive proof and documentation of possessions, property, and assets (e.g., bank accounts, property titles, etc.) that would tie her to México and ensure that she would not become an “overstayer.” This kind of documentation was almost impossible to produce for the grieving woman without returning to México.
As a final attempt for legal protection for her, I turned to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, where both times that I managed to get through the telephone line, the call was suddenly dropped a minute into the conversation. When I immediately called back at the same extensions, I was sent to voicemail. I next turned to email, where I explained the situation and requested legal counsel or diplomatic representation for the visiting conational before US immigration authorities. Instead, I received a generic reply with information on the repatriation process, including a list of funeral homes that specialize in this service. When the sister of the deceased migrant called the consulate representative who emailed me directly, she was told there was nothing they could do about her visa’s impending expiration.
The woman in bereavement finally gave up, having been beaten down by the bureaucracies of migrant suffering. She wept as we drove her to Tijuana for her return flight to their homeland deep in the heart of north-central México. “I didn’t mind risking travel amid the pandemic,” she said, “so long as I could bid my brother farewell…and fulfill his final wish: to be buried along with our parents in our native village.” Although she returned empty-handed, we vowed to repatriate her brother’s remains to their final resting place in due time. I was reminded of how Mexican migrants are shunned and invisibilized by both states, in life and death.
When the ashes of the departed migrant were finally turned over to his next of kin in October 2020, I drove his cousin to Tijuana with the small urn and all the documentation of the deceased in tow. “Aquí está mi primo” [“Here is my cousin”], said the man, holding the small urn placed in a simple carry-on bag with great care. On our way to the border, we were pulled over by San Diego police and I momentarily considered disclosing to the officer our important mission. No, I thought to myself, our diaspora deserves dignity in death, not another instance of discrimination after death.
Upon his return from México, the cousin of the departed paisano informed me that the grieving family was unable to bury the ashes in their village’s cemetery because local authorities were not yet allowing Catholic mass ceremonies due to Covid public health measures. Indeed, the archivist of the local parish confirmed to me that several cremated remains that were repatriated in 2020 did not receive a proper burial until 2021. As soon as restrictions were lifted, the family planned to properly bid farewell to their dearly departed, laying him to rest next to his parents, seeing him off with the booming notes of a tamborazo (a regional musical brass band). It would take about five months before local Catholic authorities officiated the burial, the pandemic thus giving a necropolitical twist to what one scholar calls “an ethnography of poor people’s waiting.” Meanwhile, the ashes of this departed migrant sat in the spacious but now vacant home he built in his hometown, with his lifetime earnings as a luxury car detailer who meticulously cleaned and dusted the vehicles of Los Angeles’ rich and famous. His small urn would continue to gather dust before returning to its native soil.