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Before traveling to the state of Oaxaca,
Mexico, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Claudine LoMonaco
had reported on the statistics about Mexican migrant deaths:
more than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the United
States-Mexico border in the past decade. But after meeting the
family of Matias Juan Garcia Zavaleta, who died in the Arizona
desert during what U.S. border officials call the "season of
death," LoMonaco saw the intimate face of one migrant's tragedy.
LoMonaco travels to Oaxaca with producer/reporter Mary Spicuzza,
and together they interview the brother who accompanied Matias
Garcia on his tragic journey, as well as the wife, children
and parents he left behind. In heartfelt detail, they reconstruct
the story of one man's life -- and death.
Garcia was the oldest of five Zapotec Indian children. He
left school at age 8 to work in the fields and started crossing
the border at age 16 to work in California during harvest time.
Like many men from Oaxaca, he crossed regularly each spring
and returned in the fall, using his earnings to build a home,
feed and clothe his family, and send his children to school.
After years of annual crossings, Garcia had had enough of leaving
his family, so he planted his own chile pepper crop. But when
an early frost destroyed his plants, he was left with no choice
but to cross again.
In the more than 10 years since Garcia first started crossing into California, a lot has changed along the border. In 1990, it was a quick jump over a hill in Tijuana, as his uncle Bertoldo describes it, and you were over the border with no problem. Then the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, opening the border to trade, but at the same time, closing the border to people. The United States strengthened controls at traditional, urban crossing points like Tijuana to discourage crossings. The Border Patrol hoped to push migrants into the desert where they believed that the rugged inland terrain would act as a natural barrier and discourage people from entering the country illegally. But the stronger controls only pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to take greater risks and walk dozens of miles across baking desert -- frequently dying en route.
In the spring of 2003, Garcia, along with a brother and cousin, began his
crossing in late May, when desert floor temperatures can reach
up to 170 degrees. Their smuggler, or coyote, sent the men with
two gallons of water each. It wasn't enough for Garcia, who
became delirious partway across, losing all touch with reality.
His cousin and his 18-year-old brother managed to carry him
the remainder of their 32-mile journey. A mere 40 yards from
their destination, Highway 85 in southwestern Arizona, Garcia
died from dehydration.
Sheriff's Deputy Michael Walsh, who found a weeping Serafin
with his dead brother, tells LoMonaco how he often discovers
bodies in the desert. "With this one there's a lot more
emotion," he says.
Garcia's brother Serafin and his cousin were caught and immediately
deported. But the men had debt to repay, so had no choice but
to turn around and make the same journey again. This time they
crossed successfully and found work on a farm near Fresno. Serafin
says that life now is painful and sad, not what he envisioned
when he set out to take on the world with his revered older
brother. "I began to suffer alone," he says.
As for Garcia's family back in Oaxaca, a life that was hard
is now harder. His widow has two small children to raise in
a region where there is little work. The older of their two
sons is able to understand what happened, but her younger son
still thinks his papa is coming home.
Matias' mother says her son still visits her in her dreams.
"Mama, I'm thirsty," he begs her. "Do you have
And Garcia's father, who years ago had stopped making the
dangerous trip to the United States, says he has no choice but
to go back. His grandchildren are his responsibility now, and
they need money. It's the last thing his family wants him to
do, but neither borders nor deadly deserts can impede survival.
Reported and Produced by
CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES
Produced in association with the
GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
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