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The Homecoming Hearse

To Fully Understand the Immigrant Experience, It Sometimes Helps to See How the Journey Ends

October 26, 2003|Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones is a Mexico City-based journalist and the author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press).

Alberto Diaz was a short, thin man. He had a mustache, a goatee and a ponytail, and he grew up in the village of Maxela in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest states. He immigrated to Southern California 20 years ago, eventually settling in Ontario along with others from his hometown. He made his living in Ontario for many years, working at a factory that made aboveground swimming pools, but his heart remained in Maxela. He learned little English.

Diaz's job helped him support his wife and two children, who remained in Maxela. He would visit them when he could, at least once a year. Then, late last year, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Within a few months, at the age of 43, Diaz was dead. A few days later, his body was loaded onto a Mexico City-bound Delta flight, where it fell into the experienced hands, and black Grand Marquis hearse, of Oscar Cedillo.

Cedillo drives for Funerales Olimpia, a Mexico City funeral parlor. For five years he has been driving dead immigrants back to be buried in the places, and among the people, they left behind. If the immigrant's persistent dream is to return home someday, it's the job of Cedillo and other drivers to accompany some of those travelers on the final leg of what often has been a long and difficult journey.

Each year, according to the Mexican government, families arrange to have approximately 3,000 corpses of immigrant relatives flown back to Mexico from the United States for burial. A small collection of funeral homes in Mexico takes these corpses home. At least four funeral homes in Mexico City provide this service; Olimpia is one of the cheapest. For between $150 and $350, Olimpia will transport a body from the Mexico City airport to anywhere in the 10 states surrounding the nation's capital.

Mexicans are the archetype for this world of blurred borders and mass movements of people. Over the decades, they have left home and come to the United States by the tens of millions--numbers greater than perhaps those of any group that ever left for another country. In the United States, a poor man who works hard can give his children a better future, so leaving Mexico makes sense.

But human beings don't always obey socio-economic theory. Immigration, especially, is a story of the human heart, where nothing is neat or simple. The American Dream is not necessarily the Mexican immigrant's dream. Instead, the immigrant often yearns to one day go home for good, to be comfortable and comforted, to be the stranger no more. That is why so many people who have achieved so much in the United States still ache for the country from which they fled.

Says Roberto Garcia, a son of Olimpia's owner: "Every Mexican who dies up there, his last desire is to return to his hometown."

This paradox explains vendors at the Paramount Swap Meet who sell Mexicans ostrich-skin cowboy boots and belts adorned in piteado-style stitching. It explains stores on Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park that find a market for grainy videotapes of amateur bull riders at Mexican village fiestas. It explains businesses everywhere that sell these same customers international telephone cards and airline tickets to Mexico. A good dollop of the Los Angeles economy depends on Mexicans' desire to be reminded of the country they left, and to someday return to it.

This also explains the existence, in a working-class neighborhood near the Mexico City airport, of Funerales Olimpia.

The funeral home sits quietly in a narrow storefront on the poor eastern side of Mexico City. Outside rages the immense Ignacio Zaragoza Boulevard, a cacophonous channel of buses, cars and taxis. Olimpia is a funeral home for the working class, which is how it fell into transporting immigrant bodies. One day in 1992, a funeral director in San Diego called to ask Olimpia's owner, Telesforo Garcia, whether he could pick up the body of an immigrant at the airport and take it home cheaply.

The immigrant's return is now a sizable part of Olimpia's business. Every year, the funeral parlor takes home 150 to 300 bodies from the United States. Garcia and his sons have a Web site, www.funeralesolimpia.com, and they have considered advertising in the United States. Each month the company also transports 20 to 30 bodies of people who had migrated to Mexico City from the provinces but didn't want to spend eternity in the capital they never loved.

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