Altar inside at TCRP’s South Texas office, taken by Alexis Bay from TCRP’s Voting Rights team. This is TCRP’s 3rd altar focusing on the victims of border militarization – they have up images of people who have died under CBP custody and/or after being expelled by the United States government.

Death Binds Movements Together

Words by Abigail Vela

When we think of Dia de los Muertos, we imagine colorful altars (ofrendas) filled with cempasúchil, pictures of loved ones who have passed, and their favorite drinks, pan dulce, and calaveritas. This day is a tradition that exemplifies our Mexican culture as a whole, which is one where we honor the lives of our people and ancestors. However, here in the Rio Grande Valley, death disproportionally affects the lives of immigrants who are targeted by violent policies, laws, and the injustices that occur daily. On this year’s Dia de los Muertos, organizers for immigration and reproductive justice in the Rio Grande Valley used their altars to educate audiences and honor the lives lost.

Altar inside at TCRP’s South Texas office, taken by Alexis Bay from TCRP’s Voting Rights team.

Dia de Muertos is one of those ways in which Mexican culture honors its dead and remembers family members, and specifies a day when they can come back and we can give them gifts and food and treats that they loved back in their lifetime.” I spoke with Roberto Lopez, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), about the significance of the altars and events he helped organize.

 

In terms of the border, Roberto explained Dia de Los Muertos is important “because there are so many thousands and thousands of people who die every year crossing the Rio Grande. So in the last few decades, border patrol has tallied up around 8,000 individuals by their count, which is going to be very conservative. There have been massive losses of immigrants for both, not only at the border and people who have recovered, but through policies like Remain in Mexico and Title 42 where people are expelled out of the country and sent back to home country and killed there. The whole border complex is just like Gloria Anzaldua’s poem, it’s just hemorrhaging, it’s just blood, it’s just full of pain and suffering, and the reason we have called upon this bit of our culture, Dia de los Muertos, is to remind people that we lose people constantly.”

Altar outside TCRP’s Austin office in the Montopolis neighborhood – a historically Black and Brown community seeing the creep of gentrification in recent years. On this altar TCRP honored the lives of several migrants, including sadly another transwoman and civil rights activist Melissa Nuñez who was expelled under Title-42.

Aside from their South Texas location, Roberto further shared that Texas Civil Rights Project organized their Dia de los Muertos altar in Austin, Texas for the first time, where they honored Mayela Villegas, who worked closely with many members of TCRP. According to Roberto, Mayela was a “a brave human, immigrant and also trans woman, died in the U.S. after months of advocating and fighting tirelessly for the right to live a safe life.” They also honored Melissa Nuñez, a “trans activist who has been expelled under Title 42 and who was murdered in her home country.”

 

TCRP honored the people who died under Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. Their Austin and South Texas Dia de los Muertos events each had 800 holiday lights, one for every 10 people, according to border patrol’s count.

 

“We started to focus Dia de Muertos at the Texas Civil Rights Project on immigration back in 2018 after the family seperation crisis. Then we focused on a gentleman by the name of Martin Gomez Arellano who had perished inside a tractor trailer. In the years after we have tried to honor the lives of our clients. His family was one of them, Carlos Hernandez Vasquez is another… I hope that we can continue to celebrate the people, the brave immigrants who continue to come across to this country, who continue to show the world that despite whatever fake laws and policies people want to put out there, it’s all connected.”

STRJ’s altar in honor of Rosie Jimenez, currently on display inside IMAS.

This year, South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ) currently has an altar built at the International Museum of Art and Science (IMAS) for Rosie Jimenez, a 27-year-old single mother, daughter of migrant workers, and student of Pan American University. She died from seeking an unsafe abortion due to the Hyde Amendment of 1976, which banned Medicaid coverage of abortion care. The altar will be up for viewing until Saturday, November 5th.

Fyer for the community gathering and photo courtesy of Ramiro Gonzalez, Communications Coordinator at LUPE.

Additionally, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE)’s Alton office hosted a community gathering to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and learn more about our history as well as community organizing.

Roberto’s work with TCRP, as well as that of other organizations, is a testament to the social movements that continue to raise awareness and create positive change for our communities. Dia de los Muertos is a time to honor the lives who have passed, which include those who were affected by inhumane immigration policies and border militarization, the banning of abortion access, lack of labor rights, and the state sanctioned violence against people of color. 

Let’s remember their lives this Dia de los Muertos. And as Roberto so well put it, “I hope we continue to do this across the state of Texas and expand and show how death, sadly, binds these movements together.”

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