Frontline World

MEXICO - A Death in the Desert, June 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A Death in the Desert"

A Desperate Journey

In-depth Analysis

Background, Illlegal Migration, Immigration Reform

Immigration Legislation, Views on NAFTA




Interview with Claudine LoMonaco and Mary Spicuzza: A Desperate Journey
Mary Spicuzza and Claudine LoMonaco

FRONTLINE/World reporter/producers Mary Spicuzza (left) and Claudine LoMonaco (right) retrace the path Matias Garcia and his brother took through the Arizona desert.
FRONTLINE/World producer/reporters Claudine LoMonaco and Mary Spicuzza developed their investigation into deaths on the border as graduate students at the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism. Web producer Angela Morgenstern interviewed them by email about the intimate bond they formed with the family of Matias Garcia, a Zapotec Indian from the village of Agua del Espino, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, who died in the Arizona desert.

In the summer of 2003, you were compiling reports, for a Tucson newspaper, of bodies found in the desert. What prompted you to look further?

LoMonaco: I was covering the border beat for the Tucson Citizen in Arizona -- mostly, that meant writing about migrants who died trying to cross the desert. There was one really hot week when there were so many deaths the bodies just piled up at the coroner's office. Families had to wait days to identify their relatives. It was horrible. We kept count of the dead, but I wanted to get beyond the statistics. I wanted to know who these people were. Some of them were never even identified -- just John and Jane Does. Where did they come from? Where were they headed? What compelled them to walk across the desert? Who did they leave behind?

LoMonaco and Garcia talk

FRONTLINE/World reporter/producer Claudine LoMonaco (left) and Isidra Garcia, Matias Garcia's widow (right), talk after staying up all night for a ceremony in Garcia's village, Agua del Espino, commemorating the one-year anniversary of his death.
Why are so many people attempting to cross if conditions are so treacherous?

Spicuzza: For most migrants, deciding whether to cross the border is not just an individual choice. Men from villages like Agua del Espino started crossing during the 1940s, when the United States government actually began recruiting Mexican workers with a federal policy known as the Bracero program. So these immigration patterns are generations old, and they continue even though new obstacles have made the journey far deadlier than before. But men and women from Mexico and throughout Latin America still feel the pressure to go to el Norte to work and earn money for their families back home.

How do people find work? How do they know where to go once they arrive in the States?

Spicuzza: Migrant workers have been coming to this country for many decades, so complex networks based on family and village ties have developed. This is obviously not a new phenomenon. My father's parents, like many Sicilian immigrants, moved to a neighborhood full of other Italians, many from their own village, when they came here. Newer immigrants often do the same. They help and support each other.

What is the U.S. government's official stance on the border deaths?

Spicuzza: The U.S. government has condemned the deaths, but has made little progress in preventing them. U.S. officials usually blame coyotes [smugglers] for the increasing fatalities. They say coyotes are recklessly risking people's lives. But our border problems are much bigger than smugglers alone.

LoMonaco: Migrants see coyotes as guides -- people who help them get across. Without them, migrants would still cross, but they'd be on their own.

The U.S. government purposefully pushed these people into the desert when they closed off the urban crossing points. Border Patrol used to say exactly that in their promotional videos. They'd say the rough terrain would act as a natural barrier and people would stop crossing. They didn't, of course. Instead, they turned to coyotes to help them get across. So to blame these deaths on coyotes is a bit off mark.

Spicuzza talking to a boy

Spicuzza in Sonoyta, Mexico, the border town where Garcia and his brother crossed. She buys gum from local school children.
What is the Mexican government's response? Did you get a sense that officials from the two countries were working well together?

LoMonaco: Last year, Mexican migrants sent home more than 13 billion dollars in remittances. That money is one of the country's largest sources of income, second only to oil. So the Mexican government is not in a position to try to stop the migrants from crossing. President Fox has tried to negotiate an amnesty or guest worker program to provide migrants with papers and safer passage. That got knocked off the table with 9/11, though President Bush recently resurrected the issue.

How have things changed in terms of immigration since 9/11 for families like the one featured in your piece?

LoMonaco: It's a lot more expensive to get across, for one thing. Because of increased security, coyotes have jacked up their prices. It now costs up to 2,000 dollars. In the case of Matias, this is significant because normally he would have crossed in April. But this year, he couldn't raise enough money until late May. It pushed his journey into a much hotter and deadlier time of the year.

Spicuzza: I also think that in the aftermath of 9/11, many in the United States have become more suspicious of immigrants and foreigners. "Protecting our borders" is a common phrase these days. I think this atmosphere of fear and distrust has made it much harder for newer immigrants, whether they are from the Middle East or Mexico.

LoMonaco and Spicuzza bury a cross

LoMonaco and Spicuzza follow through on their promise to Garcia's mother. With a plastic spoon and screw driver, they bury a cross for Matias on the spot where he died.
What happens to the bodies in the desert? How do agents identify them?

Spicuzza: It's hard to say which stories are more heartbreaking: when people die out in the desert with loved ones at their side or when they die alone with nobody to even try to help. There are stories of husbands waiting for hours next to their dead wives until U.S. Border Patrol agents find them, and of children, still alive, found next to their dead mothers. But it's just as horrible to think of someone dying completely alone, often leaving families behind who never even know what happened to them.

At least in recent years, U.S. medical examiners and Mexican officials have been working together more closely to identify remains so families can have some sense of closure. But bodies decompose in the desert very quickly, so the officials are often just working with bones, teeth, or skulls.

When you read through the list of the dead, it's immediately clear there are far too many Jane and John Does.

LoMonaco: A lot of times, families suspect their loved one has died in the desert, but they don't know for sure. I once interviewed a campesino [peasant] from Chiapas who had made it to the border in search of his 19-year-old daughter. He'd received a call from someone in the group she was traveling with. They said she was sick and that she'd fallen behind. That's all he knew. All he had was a scrap of paper with her name scribbled on it in barely legible handwriting. I don't know if he ever found her.

How are the bodies returned to Mexico?

LoMonaco: The bodies of John and Jane Does are buried in pauper's graves in the United States. If the body can be identified, it is almost always returned to the migrant's country of origin. The bodies are transported by plane, in caskets. It costs thousands of dollars, and in large part, the families must come up with the money. Can you imagine? These people are already in debt to pay the coyote. And then they have to raise money to bring the body home? It's rough. In the case of Matias, his relatives went door-to-door raising money.

How did you choose the family you reported on?

Spicuzza: We spent about 15 hours driving from Berkeley, California, to Arizona in the middle of the night so we could get to the Mexican Consulate's office in Tucson early in the morning and read over death records. Before we started reviewing the cases, we knew we wanted three things: to focus on someone who died with family, so there would be survivors who could tell the story of what happened out in the desert;... to find someone who, like so many migrants, was headed to California to work on a farm so we could show the economic connection between a little village in Mexico and the U.S. economy; and... to focus on someone who was a peasant from southern Mexico because that's also very typical.

When we saw Matias's brief case description, we both had a strong feeling that he was the one.

The Garcia family

Garcia's family. Clockwise from left: Serafin's wife, Laura, holding their newborn baby Elias; Isidra, Garcia's widow, holding their son Elias; reporter/producer Claudine LoMonaco; Oaxaca cameraman Brent MacDonald; Matias' mother Ignacia; Garcia's father, Rey; and Garcia's older son Juan.
Talk about the steps you took to find Matias's family.

Spicuzza: The Mexican Consulate's office in Tucson called for us. They called the number for what was then the only telephone in Agua del Espino. We had Isidra, Matias's wife, on the phone not long after we spotted Matias's case, and we both were really impressed by how thoughtful, articulate and kind she sounded.

LoMonaco: When I first spoke to Isidra, I very professionally explained who we were and what we wanted to do. She replied with complete silence and then slowly, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. What is it you want to do?" I paused. I knew I had five, maybe 10 minutes to convince this woman we were OK. I took a deep breath and launched into everything I thought about her husband's death. How horrible I thought it was, how nobody should suffer like that, how it was so important the world know who her husband was. By the end of my pitch I was very nearly in tears, I'd gotten myself so worked up. I remember looking over at Mary and seeing this shocked look on her face. I don't think she'd ever seen me like that. When I finally stopped, Isidra said, "Hmm. Well, let me think about this." It was the perfect answer. She didn't immediately say yes because she was scared. And she didn't immediately say no -- because she was scared. To say "let me think about it" to somebody from a university in el Norte calling from the Mexican Consulate speaks of a real strength of character. If she'd said yes out of fear, she would have felt coerced. And that was the last thing we wanted. A week later, we called back, and she said, "We've discussed it. You can come." The next week, we were on a plane to Mexico.

You found not only the family, but also the agent who actually discovered Matias's body in the desert. How did you connect the dots and track him down?

LoMonaco: At first we assumed a Border Patrol agent had found him. So we talked to a series of Border Patrol press officials about how important it was to show the often lifesaving work of their agents. It took a bit of wrangling, but in the end they were very helpful.... Then they did a little research, though, and said, "Sorry. Our men didn't find him. That was the sheriff's department." It took several more phone calls, but before too long, we had Deputy Walsh [the officer who discovered Matias's body] on the line. He was great.

You came in as outsiders from the United States. How did you win the family's trust? Weren't they afraid that a story in the U.S. press might expose their youngest son's status as an illegal immigrant?

LoMonaco sings and plays the guitar

LoMonaco sings boleros for Garcia's family in Agua del Espino, Oaxaca.
LoMonaco: Well, at first, we didn't think the youngest son's status would be an issue at all. The family told us he was in Oaxaca. Great, we thought. I went down first, without a camera, for three or four days, just to get to know the family and to give them a chance to get to know me. When I arrived, it was as if I never had the conversation with Isidra in the first place. They just kind of stared at me and asked again who I was and what I wanted to do. Which I totally understood: We were probably the first gringos to come to their village since recruiters from the Bracero program came down 50 years ago. They were going to be very cautious.

After our initial greeting, I casually tried to ask where the younger brother was. "Oh. Serafin? We have no idea where he is. He's in California somewhere working in the fields. We haven't heard from him in months." Great, I thought, and I imagined Mary and me driving up and down the coast of California searching all the migrant camps for a Zapotec Indian named Serafin. Suddenly I felt like the piece was going to be a disaster. Without the younger brother we didn't really have a story.

That night, I went into the kitchen to read a book I'd almost finished, The Short, Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez, by Jimmy Breslin. Matias's sister asked what I was reading, and I told her it was a book about a migrant who died. One of the women asked me to read from it. "Well, it's in English," I said, "but I could translate." So I did. The women and children in the family gathered around, I read passages about Eduardo's little village and his life in Mexico. They loved it, and they laughed uproariously at the parts about how shy he was with his girlfriend. At some point, Matias's mom leaned in close and asked, "Is this what you want to do with Matias?"

"Yes," I said.

"Oh -- I get it now," she said. "Please! Keep reading!"

It became kind of like a telenovela [Mexican soap opera] -- I read a little more each night. That book more than anything helped us tell this story.

For the next couple of days, I didn't really do obvious reporting. I just kind of hung out. Picked beans with the family. Brought flowers to the cemetery.

Mary arrived in the village a few days later. That afternoon, the señora, Matias's mother, took us by the hand and said, "Come on, we have to go to the city." We thought we were going shopping or something. We rode with her... to Ejutla and walked into a phone center with lots of old fashioned phone booths with doors. The señora entered one, closed the door and started talking. Five minutes later, she opened the door. "Here," she said, and handed me the phone. "It's my son, Serafin. Talk to him."

They'd known the whole time where he was. But they didn't know who we were. We could have been undercover migra [immigration officials] or something.

LoMonaco and Spicuzza write interview questions

Spicuzza and LoMonaco used mealtime to write interview questions and plan their next shoot in Tucson, Arizona.
Spicuzza: I'm still amazed by how much the family opened their home and their lives to us. They had very little reason to trust a couple of gringas coming from Berkeley to film them. I think their trust for us shows what a wonderful and generous group of people they are.

We also worked really hard to win their trust. One night, we sang "It's Only a Paper Moon," by Nat King Cole, for what seemed like a dozen times. I had never actually sung for interview subjects before, which is probably a good thing. But it made me realize that these people had become more than just potential story sources. I think that once the family started to trust us, they wanted to help honor Matias's life and tell the story of how he died. I never want to break the trust they gave us.

I still worry about putting their youngest son at risk. It's especially scary for them because they so depend on his income now that Matias has died.

Why did you sing with the family?

LoMonaco: We were trying to get them to sing us songs from the village, songs we could use in the documentary. They said, "Fine. We'll sing for you, if you sing for us." And that was it. Mary and I looked at each other and started to sing the songs we'd sung together to keep us awake on the 15-hour car drive to Arizona. Some cool Flaco Jimenez tunes and "It's Only a Paper Moon," very roughly translated into Spanish. "Pues, solamente es una luna de papel, colgada en un cielo de cartón..." -- it was pretty funny. But that was their favorite.

I learned Spanish from old Los Panchos albums, so I also knew a bunch of boleros and sang those for them too. Matias's widow, Isidra, loved "Historia de un amor" ["History of a Love"]. It's a devastating song that says, "Now that you're no longer by my side, I have only solitude in my soul. If I can no longer see you, why did God make me love you so much? Only to make me suffer more?"

This last trip, she made me sing it to her over and over again. It was really sad.

You interview Matias's younger brother, who survived the desert trek. He completed the journey and is working in California now. Did he talk openly with you?

Spicuzza: I think it would have been a lot harder to get Matias's brother to speak with us if it hadn't been for his mother and the other women of the family. They could tell that we weren't out to hurt them. Once his mom asked him to talk to us, he probably felt like he should do it. He was really worried that he wouldn't know what to say, which is ironic because once he started opening up he was one of the most eloquent people I've ever heard.

Garcia's mother and LoMonaco

Garcia's mother Ignacia walking with LoMonaco and talking about her son's death.
As a filmmaker telling such an intensely personal story, did you feel a special sense of responsibility toward the people involved? Did you have any ethical quandaries?

Spicuzza: Yes, definitely. I still do. There have been times when I wake up at about 3am worrying that the film reveals too much about what Matias's brother looks like, where he used to live in California -- he has since moved -- and where people from Agua del Espino work in the United States. I am terrified that Matias's father will try to cross the desert, and I feel that although I can't make decisions for him, it's my personal responsibility to warn him against going.

I look at Juan and Elias, Matias's two sons, and I think about how much I want them to go to school and get an education. After all, that's what Matias wanted for them. But I know how hard it is for the family to support itself now that Matias is gone. I think the boys are incredibly bright and have endless potential. At the same time, I worry about what economics may lead them to do so they, too, can help support the family.

LoMonaco: I feel like we have a responsibility to stay in contact with the family. You can't do a story like this and then disappear.

While we are professional journalists, our lives in some way have become intertwined with this family's. The second night I was there, the señora asked me if we were going to visit the exact spot where Matias died. I said yes and then she told me about how she worried he couldn't reach the water they put out for him at the family shrine because his spirit was stuck out in the desert where he died. She told me about how Matias came to her in her dreams and asked her for water.

"When you go there," she asked, "could you do me a favor? Could you put out a glass of water for him?"

It broke my heart to hear that. I said, "Yes, of course. It is the least we can do." They gave us a large cross to plant where he died. We carried it with us on the plane back to Berkeley and then to Arizona. We were somewhat inept -- it was 5 in the morning when we finally got to the spot and all we had was a plastic spoon and a screw driver, but we managed to get it in the ground. We took photos of the cross and gave some to them.

Spicuzza: I don't think I'll ever forget the looks on their faces as I handed them photos of Matias's cross in the desert. They passed them around to each other and asked us questions about what the area was like. I felt really sad for them, but at least I felt like our photos helped bring them a little more closure.

How did the family react to the piece?

LoMonaco: It was tough. When we went down this last time, we still only had a version with English narration, so I had to translate. Midway through the film I could hear people begin to cry. It was hard to keep going. Afterward, everyone was silent. Finally, Matias's mom spoke. "It's been a year since Matias died," she said. "And we still haven't accepted it. We still think he's going to come home. It's so hard." Then she broke down and started to weep. She said she didn't want to live anymore. She said she wished she were dead.

I felt horrible, like maybe it was a mistake to make the film at all.

And then people began to talk. And a few women from the village said, "Thank you so much for making this. Thank you. People need to know."

When we left the village after our first trip, Matias's mother came up to me and took my hands. "Thank you for coming," she said and looked right at me. "We never imagined anybody from el Norte would ever care about us. Thank you."

I don't think it can get much better for a journalist than to hear something like that. It's the reason I got into this business. To tell people's stories.

Spicuzza: I think that one of the best things about this piece is that we knew that the story wasn't really about us. One of my biggest goals was to get out of the way and help the family members tell their own story.

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