Strange Geographies: Death at the Border

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I took an unusual road trip yesterday, to a cemetery near the Mexican border. There's nothing inherently unusual about visiting a cemetery, of course, except that in this case, I didn't know anyone who was buried there. Technically speaking, no one does.

Some people call it the Juan Doe cemetery. It's a potter's field: hundreds of anonymous paupers' graves, unadorned save for a single, dun-colored brick assigned to each, spread across a few muddy acres of ground on the outskirts of a one-horse farm town a few miles from California's border with Mexico -- the kind of place where residents have grown accustomed to desperate strangers knocking on their doors in the dead of night to beg for food and water. They are undocumented migrants, and those that don't survive their journeys and cannot be identified end up here, among the indigent dead of Imperial County. It's a sad and symbolic place, and one I wanted to see for myself.

Just as these tragedies are largely hidden, so too are the graves. The Terrace Park cemetery looks like any other from the road, with its manicured grass, shade trees and neatly-tended plots.

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Along the back of the cemetery, a narrow opening in the hedges reveals a long, muddy lane rutted by backhoes and bulldozers, which can dig and fill a pauper's grave in just fifteen minutes. At the end of the lane, beyond a second row of weedy shrubs, lie the indigent, the undocumented, and the unknown.

As I walked down the lane, the breeze shifted and I was overwhelmed by a sudden stench. I was downwind, I realized with some relief, from a nearby feed lot.
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A pauper's burial costs about $1,000. That includes the brick, a simple wooden coffin, and a concrete grave-liner -- stacks of which I noticed at a corner of the lot.

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A group called the Border Angels visits the cemetery every so often to plant tiny wooden crosses and say prayers over the graves.

No mas!

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The only official signage are these cave-in warnings, planted every few rows.

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It had just rained, and indeed, some of the graves were caving in. The wooden cross reads "No Olvidados," or "Not Forgotten."

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These were not easy deaths. People interred here perished alone in moonscape deserts from heat exposure, suffocated in airless trucks, drowned in canals and rivers, were killed by wild animals, and were struck by lightning. There are even unconfirmed stories of migrants dying in explosions while being snuck through military bombing ranges.

Despite the fact that migration from Mexico has fallen off somewhat due to the recession, migrant deaths are still on the rise. Some of them, inevitably, will end up among these anonymous stones, or in the dirt lot adjacent, which sits empty, waiting for the dead.

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Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

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March 9, 2010 - 1:04pm
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