The Fetish of Migrant Suffering: Necro-Ethnography as Political Accompaniment

by Adrián Félix

Humanizing Acts is a series of essays and artworks that examines the impact of COVID-19 on the Mexico-California borderlands. Each contributor writes about the ethical quandaries of conducting research at the border, living amidst the vulnerability and violence of pandemic times, and navigating complex interpersonal relationships and responsibilities. The scholars and artists share compassionate stories of friends, loved ones, neighbors, and strangers alike, ultimately asking: How can academic research be a humanizing act?

Doing (Transnational) Time: A Political Ethnographer’s Polemic

The town’s humble yet once prideful monument to the migrant had been defaced, “vandalized” anew on account of some locals, who shrugged at the seemingly minor act in the larger context of violence and death enveloping rural México. The rose-quartz statue—whose unveiling was attended by the likes of the former (and now embattled) Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huízar and the late Andrés Bermúdez, two migrants-turned-cacique-like political figures who hail from this region—stood there beheaded, like a headless migrant phantom in the predawn hours. I shot this photograph as I was leaving town for my return to Los Angeles, as an effigy of the violences of the migrant political life cycle and as a reminder of the haunting reckoning that returned migrants face with what Mexican philosopher Sayak Valencia calls the “final and most radical processes of living: death itself.”  

The humble monument to the migrant in Jerez, Zacatecas, beheaded, March 3, 2019. Courtesy of the author.

On this research trip, a year before the world would shutter with the onset of a global pandemic, I found myself gathered in front of the mayor’s office one sun-kissed morning with a growing group of migrant men who had recently been forcibly returned from the U.S. The director of the municipal “Office for Migrant Affairs” had informed me about a political act happening in the state capital, where recent deportees were eligible to receive one-time financial assistance, as part of a cash-transfer program implemented by the state government’s Secretariat of the Zacatecano Migrant, and I offered to help by providing these recent deportees a ride to our bizarra capital.1 Having served their “apprenticeship in ‘illegality’” in the U.S., the deportees—who hadn’t previously met—instantly engaged in an exercise of mutual racial recognition, seeing the mark of banishment in each other, and began exchanging their stories of expulsion. 2 “How long were you locked up before they threw you out?” they asked. “One year,” said one young man who had lived and started a family in Illinois, a family he is now severed from. 3 “Three,” responded another migrant who had lived with his family in California and even attended school there. The man with the most visible prison tattoos chose to remain silent in this impromptu roll call of removal, hanging his head and slightly turning the other way, his silence speaking louder than words. “Ahorita somos la caza del día.” “Right now we’re the prey of the day,” said the most vocal migrant of the group, referring to the hellish authoritarian turn in the U.S. and the racialized persecution of Mexican migrants during the Trump era. 4

Somehow, perhaps unsurprisingly, I had been skipped in this conversation, feeling ever more like the inconspicuous ethnographer and reminded that, as one anthropologist colleague once said to me, I didn’t quite look like the kind of guy who had done time. 5 Yet, there we were serving our own stints in transnational time, albeit in radically different circumstances and conditions.6 If there was one lesson they all agreed on from their time behind the wall (that is, behind bars), it was that everyone hates a “soplón”. A snitch. Feeling ever more invisible, that’s when it dawned on me. Ethnographers are snitches.

“Feeling ever more invisible, that’s when it dawned on me. Ethnographers are snitches.”

At a separate gathering at the Secretariat of the Zacatecano Migrant, I witnessed yet another sub-collectivity of would-be migrants engage with the state and its bureaucracies of human suffering. On this occasion, I witnessed a group of senior rural men and women attempt to apply for a state program known as Corazón de Plata (Heart of Silver) that assists elderly parents petition for U.S. tourist visas in hopes of reuniting with long estranged undocumented children who live and work north of the border. This subnational program had been replicated by many other state governments in México, with evocative names such as Abrazando Destinos (“Embracing Destinies”) in the case of Hidalgo state; Palomas Mensajeras (“Messenger Doves”) in the case of Michoacán; Guelaguetza Familiar (“Familial Gift”) in the case of Oaxaca; and, most recently and bombastically, Uniendo Corazones al Son de la Banda (“Uniting Hearts to the Tune of the Band”) in the case of Sinaloa, before the pandemic brought the otherwise successful initiative to a grinding halt.7 The elderly rancho men and women waited patiently for what felt like interminable hours to hear if they would qualify for the program, stunningly resolute in what seemed to me like an insufferable political purgatory.8 Before entering the government building, one man removed his sombrero and crossed himself, as if the visit to the state agency were a matter of life or death. Another man shared with me his blood-stained memories of internal migration to the border town of Juárez decades earlier, where he witnessed a feminicide turned family massacre and deadly police shootout, a harrowing event that would go down in his home village’s migration lore forever.9 The humble señora next to me shared her sense of urgency to reunite with her son who lives and works in San Francisco, California. “No somos eternos,” (“we are not eternal”) said the frail and aging but still nimble elderly migrant matriarch. While she can now communicate with her son via video calling technology (although there is no cellular or internet access in her remote rural village, which, ironically enough, is located near a popular Catholic folk shrine where migrants and others in need pilgrimage to pray for miracles,) that wasn’t enough to mitigate the traumatic temporality and abyss of migration. “Lo puedo ver. Lo puedo escuchar. Pero no lo puedo tocar.” “I can see him,” she said. “I can hear him. But I can’t touch him,” underscoring the phantom-like presence and spectral quality of Mexican migration. 


“Nearly everywhere the political order is reconstituting itself as a form of organization for death.”

– Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics

How does one ethically (and critically) gather, render, and do justice to these stories of Mexican migration? How might one politically accompany migrants and their kin as they navigate the open wound that is their state-imposed (im)mobility, without fetishizing migrant suffering in the process?10 And, just as importantly, to what political end? In response to these methodological polemics, I propose 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 nefarious forms of state power. While necro-ethnography as method (and praxis) can be deployed wherever subjects’ life chances are stripped away by political forces, the present essay juxtaposes the framework with academic and journalistic accounts of migrant deaths at the border and during the COVID-19 pandemic, as stark contrasts to the onto-epistemological commitments of necro-ethnography, the tenants and implications of which I delineate below.

In its very name, my conceptualization of necro-ethnography invokes the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s paradigm-shifting theory of necropolitics. In a much-anticipated update to his original piece on necropolitics, Mbembe begins with powerful reflections on migration, borders, deportation and (im)mobility in our “planetary age.” “In a world characterized more than ever by an unequal redistribution of capacities for mobility,” Mbembe begins, “and in which the only chance for survival, for many, is to move and to keep on moving, the brutality of borders is now a fundamental given of our time.” Reminding us of their fundamental purpose of political partition, Mbembe states, “borders are no longer sites to be crossed but lines that separate.” Borderlands are also zones of (im)mobilization: “Within these more or less […] militarized spaces, everything is supposed to remain still.” While frontiers have always been permeable and intense zones of contact and exchange, in the current age of fortified political boundaries, borders also kill. “Many are those who, encountering them, now meet their ends or, when not simple victims of shipwrecks or electrocution, are deported.” Borrowing from Mbembe’s reflections on colonialism and slavery, borders thus reduce migrants and deportees to “bodies of pain” whose “panoply of suffering” leave them with “no family, no love, no human relations, and no communion with a community.” The necropolitical function of borders then is to produce a form of “social death (expulsion from humanity)” and “death-in-life” by determining “who is disposable and who is not.”

“I propose 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 nefarious forms of state power.”

If necropolitics entails “subjugating life to the power of death,” with Fanon as muse, Mbembe reminds us that “the only subject is a living one.” Here, I borrow from Mbembe to underscore the politico-ethics of necro-ethnography and what he describes as “the possibility of reciprocity and mutuality.” Working with postcolonial and subaltern subjects necessitates “a colossal working on oneself, with new experiences of the body, of movement, of being-together—and even of communion, as the shared commonality that is most alive and vulnerable in humanity—and, possibly also, new experiences of the practice of violence.” As Rosa-Linda Fregoso powerfully states about her accompaniment work with women who are survivors of violence in México—whom she names “Mexico’s Living Dead”—“the presence of the witness in the flesh is fully sensorial […] listening, truly listening and witnessing entails a meeting of hearts, the imagining of oneself in her place.” Necro-ethnography, by definition then, works against, in Mbembe’s words, a “world of people without bonds” by laying out the “care required to write the living into time” and doing justice to “people’s experience of surfaces and depths, of lights and reflections, and of shadows.” Thus, in what Mbembe calls “singing back the dead”, the ethical task of necro-ethnography is to “return to life what had been abandoned to the powers of death,” while its political stakes entail envisioning the “horizon of meaning” and “the deposits of the future, beginning with the future of those in whom, not so long ago, it was hard to say which part pertained to the human and which to the animal, object, thing, or commodity.” Such are the politico-ethical stakes and polemics of necro-ethnography. Yet, in scholarly and journalistic writing on Mexican migration, the political, methodological and/or ethical commitments of these accounts often fall short of what I am proposing as necro-ethnography. What follows is a critical review of these academic and media narratives of migration, taking as an ethical point of departure historian Christian Paiz’s invitation to engage in the “morbid exercise” of asking why migrant workers are “bound to die disproportionately.”

By Any Methodological Means Necessary?

In the academic literature, perhaps the most poignant, powerful yet problematic text to exemplify this politico-ethical polemic is Jason De León’s controversial and prize-winning book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. While anthropologists have forewarned about the “pornographics of violence,” some studies, perhaps inadvertently, blur those ethical boundaries in their accounts of migrant suffering. To be fair, throughout the text it becomes painfully obvious that De León is wholeheartedly wrestling with his own methodological choices. He struggles with his choice to slaughter a pig for his forensic experiments on death and decomposition in the desert and what he calls a “multispecies ethnography.” He struggles with his request of migrant men who are about to embark on the life-and-limb-risking journey across the border to photograph their trek for him. If the men make it, they are to furnish the photos of their surreptitious crossing to De León. These photos (and those of his photographer Michael Wells) are visual supplements to the “fictionalized ethnography” he gathers at the border from recent deportees and would-be crossers, much of which was collected at the migrant shelter where he volunteered. In one of the most disturbing moments in the book, he struggles for words to console his team of researchers when they unwittingly stumble upon a recently deceased woman in the desert, eventually mustering the courage to utter the following grisly line: “At least we got to her before the vultures did.”

De León was alluding to the “necroviolence” of the “Sonoran Desert hybrid collectif” and its impending process of reducing yet another migrant ghost to “bone dust,” as he puts it in an earlier chapter. Yet De León seemingly can’t put the camera down, deciding to include a full-page photo of the lifeless body lying face-down on the desert floor. As he is reluctantly photographing the Ecuadorian cemetery to which this deceased migrant is eventually returned, a repatriation process in which De León played a key role, he seems to reassure himself when he quotes her young son who innocently asks of him: “Are you going to take some pictures?”

“De León is showing his readers what “Prevention Through Deterrence” looks like on the desert floor. Yet at what cost to the migrant subjects of his research? And for which audience is he holding up these images? Does the political end justify the methodological means?”

As much as I disagree with some of the methodological moves described above, De León deploys these anthropological approaches to a radically important end: To level one of the most stirring political critiques of the U.S. border enforcement policy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence” and the violences it wages on migrant bodies—what Gilberto Rosas calls the “carnality of power”—and by extension, on migrant families, networks, communities and nations.11 In my own discipline of political science, few have taken on the charge. Anna Sampaio painstakingly traces the terrorizing of Latina/o immigrants through an intersectional legal analysis of the nefarious rise to power of the “national security state” in its “masculinized protector” permutation. Alfonso Gonzales deploys a Gramscian analysis of the dialectical battle between the “anti-migrant bloc” of the “homeland security state” and a counter-hegemonic, albeit fractured, migrant rights movement in the policy context of “attrition through enforcement.” Chris Zepeda-Millán provides a sobering activist ethnography of the many weapons in the immigrant rights movement’s arsenal, both electoral and contentious, in the face of ongoing racial threat and state suppression. Most recently, Cristina Beltrán provides a historically and theoretically rich genealogy of the rise of a “heterogenous homeland security state,”  a modern “multicultural security state” tasked with inflicting migrant suffering.

While none of these texts resemble anything approaching what I am calling necro-ethnography, they boldly raise the same political critique as De León, albeit by vastly different methodological means. De León’s political end is clear: to sear in his readers’ minds the egregious human rights violations and violence of the U.S. border enforcement gauntlet that is “Prevention Through Deterrence.” By holding up these haunting and disturbing images, De León is showing his readers what “Prevention Through Deterrence” looks like on the desert floor. Yet at what cost to the migrant subjects of his research? And for which audience is he holding up these images? Does the political end justify the methodological means?

The Migrant Phantoms of the Pandemic: The Fetish of Migrant Death

An even more glaring and widespread example of the fetish of migrant suffering came in the mainstream media’s rush to cover the deaths of Mexican migrants in the U.S. due to COVID-19 and the disruptions the pandemic caused in the longstanding tradition of repatriating migrant remains to their homelands. Indeed, when it comes to migration, as Jessica Ordaz reminds us, “the media has emphasized shock at the expense of presenting a more nuanced and historical context.” For scholars of migrant political life and death, one of the most surreal dimensions of the pandemic was to witness the media’s extensive coverage of the difficulties around posthumous repatriation, an issue that diasporas have faced for generations. Over the last several decades, migrants across the globe have searched for ways to repatriate their deceased loved ones, developing a vast transnational bureaucracy of death—and, indeed, a sustained posthumous tradition of return migration—involving consular offices, home federal and state governments, funerary agencies, religious and civil society actors at home and in diaspora.12 Yet, readers following the media’s coverage of migrant death in the era of COVID-19 might fail to appreciate this deeper history of a posthumous return migration.

Newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times ran feature and editorial pieces on migrant families’ inability to repatriate the remains of their loved ones in times of COVID-19. The first was the LA Times, which reported the story from deep in the Mexican state of Puebla on April 11, 2020. “Along with intense emotional anguish and a sudden economic void from the loss of crucial providers,” grieving families in México who have lost a loved one in the U.S. must endure another blow, the article states: “The crisis has made it almost impossible to ship bodies back to Mexico for burial.” This rupture can be traumatic, as “families are being asked to eschew the common wish to be buried in native soil and to forgo the traditional farewell ceremonies—Roman Catholic wakes, final prayers, communal viewing, public funeral services and flower-bedecked burial in ancestral plots.” Yet, families in bereavement persisted to be reunited with their deceased in diaspora: “Many relatives keep pushing for repatriation of departed kin for internment in familial composantos, or cemeteries, final resting places for generations of ancestors.” In the words of one woman who lost her husband to the disease in New York, “if I could see him, even his body, then at least I would be at peace that he is gone… but I can’t be at peace now, not without seeing my husband again.”

“Over the last several decades, migrants across the globe have searched for ways to repatriate their deceased loved ones, developing a vast transnational bureaucracy of death—and, indeed, a sustained posthumous tradition of return migration.”

The New York Times would follow, reporting on April 23, 2020 from New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the disease at the time, where Mexican migrants and other communities of color were especially hard hit. “If the coronavirus outbreak has transformed life around New York City, it has also transformed death,” the paper states, in language strikingly similar to the LA Times story. “For the area’s Mexican immigrants…the pandemic has brought another cruel change. Mexican families typically send bodies home, for flower-strewn Catholic burials, and to give relatives the chance to glimpse their loved ones again after long separations.” Yet in times of COVID-19, the article states to dramatic effect, “that sacred rite has come to a halt.” The story mentions the role of the Mexican consulates in these returns, but mainly to highlight how Mexican authorities were calling on their co-nationals to cremate the remains of loved ones in the era of COVID-19, as ashes are easier to repatriate and minimize the risk of contagion. While this runs contrary to longstanding Catholic funerary traditions of interring bodies, Mexican migrants were left with little choice if they were to return their deceased loved ones. The article concludes with the experience of two brothers who died of the disease and the lengths to which their nieces in New York went to return their cremated remains. “Their uncles’ funeral might not be as they had imagined it,” the article closes in an elegiac tone. “There might not be caskets hoisted on their siblings’ shoulders and carried to the cemetery. But there will at the very least be two urns, lifted high over Santa Catarina Yosonotú, the village their uncles helped sustain for so long.”

Reporting from Los Angeles, Mother Jones waxed poetic in its coverage of migrant death and repatriation, by opening with Mexican nostalgic lyricism: “There’s a verse in the iconic Mexican song ‘México Lindo y Querido’ that translates to something like this: ‘My dear and beautiful Mexico, if I die far away from you, let them say that I’m sleeping, so they’ll bring me back to you.’” The classic ranchera song “speaks to the human desire to be buried in your homeland, near your family and ancestors—a last wish that, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, has become that much harder to fulfill.” The article does a better job of contextualizing the history of posthumous return migration, stating that in the decade prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, “nearly 47,000 remains were returned to Mexico from the United States from 2010-2019,” but actually, this is a practice that stretches back almost a quarter century before that in some migrant-sending municipalities as I have documented, a history that remains unearthed in these media narratives.

The Guardian repeats a similar through line: “For many Mexicans, being buried in native soil is an important rite.” But in the era of COVID-19 “families on both sides of the border are facing language barriers, bureaucratic hurdles, and financial burdens as they seek to return their loved ones’ remains.” That article also nods to the deeper history of this practice and to the local actors involved. “Historically, the Mexican government has offered financial and logistical support to families wishing to repatriate remains” and, in some cases, “state governments in Mexico pitch in.” The article closes with a no less melancholy scene of a grieving family awaiting the return of a deceased loved who died to COVID-19 in New York: “In the meantime, Medel’s family has gone through the traditional rites of mourning without his remains […] friends and family gathered in a park […] they recited the rosary and walked, carrying candles and a cross bearing Medel’s name, in a procession to his home. His family kissed the cross, placed flowers on it, and placed it next to the spot where Medel’s father, who died in 2002, is buried.” The Economist also jumped into the fray, acknowledging that in many migrant-sending communities, the practice of posthumous repatriation predates COVID-19: “Over the past five years in Los Haro, a farming village in the state of Zacatecas […] towering graves have sprouted up in the local cemetery […] the migrants who left half a century ago are starting to die.” Not surprisingly, The Economist focuses on COVID-19’s impact on another kind of vital migrant return: remittances. “COVID-19 has caused a flurry of worry about remittances. They seem to be holding up for now. But their long-term future is uncertain.”

“When death in diaspora occurs, the question of where a migrant ghost belongs arises.”

The tug of the topic of migrant death in times of COVID-19 was such that even famed U.S. journalist Jorge Ramos penned an op-ed in The New York Times on the matter. Writing from Miami, Ramos hints at the mythology of migrant death in diaspora, stating that “most had an unspoken agreement with their families and friends: If I die in the United States, take me back to Mexico.” Like the Mother Jones piece, Ramos’ opinion essay draws from the same melancholy Mexican lyricism in its very title: “México Lindo y Querido, Should I die Abroad…” Ramos turns to everything from pop culture (e.g. the Pixar film Coco) to Nobel-prize winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz to explain Mexicans’ proximity to death. “Paz said that ‘the Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it…’ To the ancient Mexican ‘death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle.’ And so we must go back to Mexico, lest we disrupt that cycle,” Ramos states, in a nostalgic undertone uncharacteristic of him. Of course, “family is a big pull, a constant tug on our hearts. And that longing only ends with our deaths.” When death in diaspora occurs, the question of where a migrant ghost belongs arises. “Nothing is more personal than deciding where you want to be buried,” Ramos writes. Yet, for migrants and their families, that haunting question is not merely personal but deeply (necro)political.

Lastly, The Guardian followed up on the ashes of migrants repatriated en masse by the Mexican Consul from New York City, highlighting the pain of one family. “It took weeks of negotiations for the family to receive his ashes […] the day after the official ceremony, the rezandera who had been hired to pray aloud repeated the verses of the rosary […] when the ceremony ended, a peace seemed to fill the house […] Arnulfo now rests in peace, in the land where he was born, while his family takes care of him and his memory.” In a page straight from the above-cited reporting, the article also closes with the same México Lindo y Querido lyricism. Exactly a year after the first of these articles on April 11, 2021, The Washington Post belatedly jumped on the bandwagon with the same mournful narrative of migrant death, reproducing it almost verbatim, stating that “Burial back home was a sentiment immortalized in the country’s iconic song ‘México Lindo y Querido,’ an immigrant’s hymn.”

“What I am proposing here as necro-ethnography offers a methodological approach to not only ethically render these stories of migrant loss but to contextualize, theorize, critique and contest the conditions that produce their life chances and, by extension, their deaths.”

In contrast to the hasty coverage by the U.S. press, the Mexican media devoted a lengthier piece of investigative reporting in the throes of the pandemic; however, it also draws on similar imagery of migrant death, going as far as imagining the ghostly return of one deceased paisano. “Did Hugo ever imagine this route?” asks the author about the long road that leads from the border to the deceased’s remote village in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. The author wonders if the late Hugo imagined the sensorial experience of return: “Smell the ocean, feel the breeze, momentarily pause on the sand before proceeding en route with the Gulf in the background. Follow the sweet aroma of mango trees down the Actopan highway that leads to La Reforma. Enter the entrails of the land where he was born 36 years ago, the land that he had not seen in half a lifetime.” The widow of the young migrant in the U.S. described his dreams of return migration. “He would tell me about a crystal-clear river in Actopan… his wish was for us to die old over there… he would show me pictures and I fell in love with that beautiful river… he built a home over there for us. All of these plans that we had gone like a dream and it hurts.” The closing lines are no less heart-wrenching than the U.S. media’s coverage. Before his ashes were returned to their native soil, the deceased’s father don Pablo

approached the remains. With his right hand he attempted to draw a cross in the air over the ashes, blessing his son. Patricia approached her father and delicately took his right hand, like she would a child’s, and guided his fingers to help him bless Hugo. Then she closed the small urn. She took her father lovingly from his back and walked with him to one side. Hugo had his father’s eyes. (Gatopardo, June 28, 2020)

While these media narratives provide moving portraits of migrant suffering in their spirals of amplification and signification, they hardly constitute a sustained accompaniment across the different stages of what I have called the migrant political life cycle. By contrast, what I am proposing here as necro-ethnography offers a methodological approach to not only ethically render these stories of migrant loss but to contextualize, theorize, critique and contest the conditions that produce their life chances and, by extension, their deaths. In closing, I offer a final testimonio of migrant loss during the pandemic to illustrate how necro-ethnography represents long-term (indeed, lifelong), deeply personal and political forms of accompaniment, witness, and praxis based on my fictive kin ties of compadrazgo with transnational migrant communities.

Necro-ethnography as Political Accompaniment

Two return migrants overlook their ejidal community and its communal lands and ancestral burial grounds. Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the damning omissions in mass mediated accounts of migrant loss—as should now be painfully obvious from the above media content analysis of migrant suffering—is a proper socio-political portrait and micro-history of the homelands to which they are returning, their patria chica, which historian Natalia Molina aptly defines as the “highly localized loyalty immigrants have to their hometown, village or region,” which has so powerfully exerted a gravitational pull on these departed souls. At the height of the pandemic, I received a call from my comadre sharing that her cousin—a middle-aged man lovingly known in their extended family and paisano networks as Lalo—had succumbed to COVID-19, the news of his sudden and tragic death sending shockwaves up and down California across the various satellite communities stemming from his native village deep in the hardscrabble and drought-stricken foothills of Zacatecas. Theirs is an ejidal community named after a revolutionary leader that the Mexican census currently shows as having around 600 residents, with over sixty percent of its households emptied to migration and the ongoing spiral of violence that has gripped these hamlets scattered across the arid edge of the sierra madre occidental. This is a place so remote that it only shows up in the colonial historiography as part of the peripheral “hinterlands” in relation to the mining cities that sprouted in the state and were built on the backs of Indigenous migrant labor. Like many rural mestizo migrant-sending communities today, this village has no regular public transport, no major markets or pharmacy, no community kitchen or private medical clinics. Most of its economic activity revolves around bean farming in its communal, rain-fed lands and all of its recent infrastructure projects (e.g., town square, repairs to the church) have been spearheaded by migrants in the U.S. like Lalo, who have been longtime loyal supporters of the nominally leftist political dynasty that runs local politics in this region.

“‘Mi papa adoraba el rancho’ (‘My dad adored his rancho’). Ironically and sadly, Gema recalls her father’s last conversations being all about his plans to return to México in the autumn of his life.”

My comadre, widely seen as a de facto leader in her family and transnational community, had become the point-person during her cousin’s isolation in ICU hospitalization, and she was holding out faith that Lalo—otherwise a strong, healthy, upbeat and hardworking man—would pull through. That fateful dawn when she received the dreadful news of his death, she had been visited by her mother in a dream, who stood by her bedside like an apparition, lovingly comforting her, saying that everything would be okay. My comadre was hopeful that this would be a sign of good news to come but instead it turned out to be an omen that her dear primo hermano Lalo had transitioned to the other side. My comadre who had assisted her compatriots with every major milestone in life, from graduations, to becoming naturalized citizens, to purchasing their first homes in the U.S., was now about to take the lead in repatriating the body of her deceased cousin to their community of origin in the height of the pandemic, a daunting feat that would require using all her political capital with the local Mexican consulate. At a time when most migrants in this situation where either unable to repatriate their loved ones or were only able to send home their cremated remains, my comadre managed to have her cousin’s body sent to their rancho for a proper Catholic burial, in a repatriation process that would take close to a month.

Nobody found that waiting period more agonizing than Gema, the departed’s sole daughter. I knew that in order to interview Gema, I would first need to get my comadre’s blessing, out of full respect for the family after such a painful loss. As difficult as it was to talk about her father’s passing, Gema graciously agreed to speak with me, partly owing to the trust I’ve been fortunate to cultivate in this community through my fictive kin ties and obligations. Gema lovingly recounted her father’s migration history, almost as if she had lived it in the flesh. Her father arrived in Northern California as a teenager in the early 1980s. He was among the first to migrate from his rancho, and slowly brought over entire kin and paisano networks to the greater Bay Area. Lalo’s job niche, which he would excel at, was roofing, and he landed many people jobs as rooferos over the years, so much so that it seems half of the men from this village work in this sector while the other half work in another industry that absorbed Mexican migrant labor in the last third of the 20th century in California: upholstery. Even as a middle-aged man shortly before contracting COVID-19, “he could still climb atop a roof and dart back and forth across it,” Gema recalled with a chuckle, his only ailment being a bad knee after a lifetime of physically taxing and dangerous labor. Lalo married a woman from Texas in the late 1980s and they had two children, Lalo Jr. and Gema. The young family tried their luck in the Lone Star State for a brief period but Lalo ultimately didn’t like his work experience there and they returned to California. Lalo did good for himself and his family roofing in Northern California during construction booms, eventually purchasing several homes there and in the Central Valley. Over the years, he never lost his connection to his home community in Zacatecas. Gema recalls him being active in planning the town’s annual fiesta in honor of their beloved patron saint San Francisco de Asis and in their migrant hometown association in the U.S. Gema’s most cherished memory is her father organizing and hosting her quinceañera down in his rancho. As Lalo approached retirement, he began constructing a new and spacious home in the rancho and looked forward to spending his golden years there, “so you can visit me” he would tell his only daughter, eagerly anticipating spending time with her and his granddaughters in his community of birth.

“A procession through his native village on the way to the cemetery, backed by the booming notes of a tamborazo, the only sound louder than the brass band being Gema’s gut-wrenching wails. It’s a haunting image seared in my memory and this is how Gema herself recalls it; this is her testimonio of migrant loss during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Well before Gema generously agreed to speak with me, I had seen a video recording of her dad’s wake in the rancho. Lalo’s sister-in-law showed me the heartbreaking images. A viewing of Lalo’s coffin in his newly finished, immaculate home. A procession through his native village on the way to the cemetery, backed by the booming notes of a tamborazo, the only sound louder than the brass band being Gema’s gut-wrenching wails. It’s a haunting image seared in my memory and this is how Gema herself recalls it; this is her testimonio of migrant loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time Gema spoke with her father was by phone. She remembers him having a cough but he dismissed it as nothing serious. At this point, they had no idea that Lalo had contracted COVID-19. Then, a few days later, Gema received a frantic call from her stepmother, telling her that her father could not breathe. Gema dropped what she was doing, immediately called 911 and directed medics to her father’s home. Lalo was rushed to the hospital and after ten days in the ICU, with only vague updates on his condition from hospital staff, he was gone. When I asked Gema about the difficult decision to repatriate her father’s remains, she paused and said in English, “I knew my dad very well…”, before breaking down into tears and switching to Spanish, as if only her native language could truly convey the sentiment behind this vexing question. Gema said emphatically, “Mi papa adoraba el rancho” (“My dad adored his rancho”). Ironically and sadly, Gema recalls her father’s last conversations being all about his plans to return to México in the autumn of his life. He would often say to her that he wanted to spend his final years over there; he was eager to return and rest in his beloved land.

When I asked Gema about the actual repatriation, she only had praise and thanks to offer to my comadre, who took the charge on the bureaucratic side of the process, as Gema explained through tears: “yo ya no tenía mundo” [“my entire world was gone.”] She clearly recalls flying back to await her father’s arrival, which took close to a month. Lalo’s remains were flown to Guadalajara and driven overland five hours by a funeral agency to the nearest city, where Gema’s uncles descended from their rancho to meet the hearse and guide them up the rural roads to their village (not before being shaken down for cash by Mexican authorities.) Gema remembers the rest of the death rites and rituals as happening very swiftly: a brief viewing at Lalo’s newly finished, sparkling home, the procession through the unpaved streets of his rancho to the cemetery and, finally, the burial in his native tierra. After that, Gema dutifully remained for the nine-day novenario of rosary prayers before returning to her two young daughters in the U.S.

At this point, knowing this community well, I was overcome by emotion myself and I confessed to Gema that when I saw the images of the procession to the cemetery to inter her father, as heartbreaking as that sight was, I thought there was something beautiful and poetic about her laying him to rest in his native soil. She shared that deep down inside, she feels she made the right decision, giving her a sense of closure and me a strange sense of purpose. I suddenly thought about my fictive kin connections and duties to this place and its people, my political accompaniment of its migrants in life and death. I’ve attended their patron saint festivities; I’ve helped their families with immigration cases; I’ve accompanied them in their Catholic sacraments (and they were in my wedding in my hometown in Zacatecas); I’ve done my share of editing and ghostwriting for their migrant hometown association. 

And now, on my next trip, whenever the violence in this harsh landscape subsides, I have a returned migrant’s grave to visit.

This essay is part of the series Humanizing Acts: Resisting the Historical Erasures of the COVID-19 Pandemic across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, funded by UCHRI’s Recasting the Humanities: Foundry Guest Editorship grant. Listen to the collaborative podcast, in which series contributors discuss the gifts of resisting the historical erasure of the COVID-19 pandemic with community and research.

This publication was partially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

  1. The state agency’s name, like seemingly every other official representation of migration in this part of the country, including the modest monument to the migrant itself, is gendered male. The reference is to the famed poet Ramón López Velarde’s La bizarra capital de mi estado, his soulful ode to Zacatecas city. For a colonial history of the Indigenous migrants who founded the city and their incipient “micropatriotism,” see: Dana Velsaco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810. For an environmental history of the same and the lasting impact of the mining industry in the state see: Rocio Gomez, Silver Veins, Dusty Lungs: Mining, Water, and Public Health in Zacatecas, 1835-1946.
  2. In her hemispheric study of deportation, Tanya Golash-Boza argues that deportees are often easily identifiable in their countries of birth as they bear the cultural imprint of having lived, in some cases, for extended periods of time in the U.S. (e.g. English language, urban styles, tattoos etc.).
  3. For a beautifully intimate yet tragic account of the alienation and fragmentation that Mexican deportees and their families experience see: Deborah Boehm, Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation.
  4. On the terrorizing of migrants pre-Trump, see: Anna Sampaio, Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants: Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security. On the deportation-detention leviathan under the Trump regime, see: Alfonso Gonzales, “Trumpism, Authoritarian Neoliberalism, and Subaltern Latina/o Politics.”
  5. While Golash-Boza argues that unlike incarcerated populations in the U.S. who are serving a sentence, deportees are not “doing time” since immigrant detention is often indefinite, I argue that the indeterminacy of their time behind bars—just like that of their deportation—is a defining characteristic of doing transnational time. See: Tanya Golash-Boza, “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism,” page 214.
  6. For an important study of undocumented migrants and time, albeit one that entirely misses the transnational dimension of temporality discussed above, see: Paul Apostolidis, The Fight For Time: Migrant Day Laborers and the Politics of Precarity.
  7. In the case of Oaxaca, the state office of migration refers to the visiting elders as “cultural ambassadors”, underscoring the Indigenous character and makeup of Oaxacan migration. On the multi-generational cultural dynamics of Indigenous migration from Oaxaca, see: Xóchitl Chávez, “‘La Sierra Juárez en Riverside’: The Inaugural Oaxacan Philharmonic Bands Audition on a University Campus” in Theorizing Folklore from the Margins: Critical and Ethical Approaches.
  8. For an ethnography of “poor people’s waiting” elsewhere in Latin America, see: Javier Auyero, “Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina.”
  9. On the terrorizing of women in México and Latin America, see: Fregoso and Bejarano, Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas. On violence in Juárez and beyond, see: Oswaldo Zavala, Los cárteles no existen: Narcotráfico y cultura en México.
  10. On accompaniment as method see: Tomlinson and Lipsitz, “American Studies as Accompaniment.”
  11. As Alicia Schmidt-Camacho argues, in México, migration is a “national trauma.” 
  12. For a haunting analysis of these deathways in diaspora in the ethno-religious context of Muslim migrants in Europe, see Osman Balkan, Dying Abroad: The Political Afterlives of Migration in Europe.