MEXICO CITY -- Thousands of Mexicans who die in the United States are flown home for burial every year in their native land, where relatives gather at cemeteries on the Day of the Dead with flowers, candles, a favorite meal, and nip of alcohol for the spirits of loved ones.
In a nation where ancestors are honored and death is regarded as a constant presence, the Nov. 2 tradition underscores Mexican immigrants' resistance to being buried abroad, migration experts and funeral homes say.
More than 300 bodies arrive each month at the Mexico City International Airport, just one port in a booming cross-border funeral trade.
"Nearly all migrant workers are sent to Mexico after they die," said Salvador Calderon, manager of a funeral home in Guadalajara that ferries the dead from the airport to towns across the central highlands. Even among people who have become US citizens or have legal residency, "adults always say they want to be buried in their place of origin," he said.
The importance of homeland and family is especially clear on the Day of the Dead, which mixes Indian traditions and the Roman Catholic Church's All Souls Day. It is generally a festive day, celebrated with skeletons and sugar skulls featuring the names of both the living and the dead.
"Bringing (deceased migrants) back here is a way to have them close to celebrate the Day of the Dead and be with them for at least one day," said tractor operator Julian Rivera of Pozos, a town of 4,000 people 180 miles north of Mexico City. Rivera said that tomorrow he and his family will visit the graves of his brothers Roberto and Serafin, among 18 migrants who died in May after being trapped in a sweltering, airless tractor-trailer abandoned in Texas.
Many migrant workers travel back and forth between towns like Pozos in Guanajuato state and the United States, said Diana Leticia Alvarez, who works for the state's support office for migrants. "They don't want to lose this identity as a Mexican," Alvarez said. "What they want is to find a way back to be here, even if they come back dead."
Funeral homes charge at least $1,500 to send a body to Mexico from most U.S. cities, including about $500 for the cargo-class ticket and a modest coffin. In 2002, the bodies of 1,223 Mexicans were sent home from Los Angeles, according to the Mexican Consulate there. That total is likely to increase this year, with 1,156 bodies sent home before Oct. 1.
National Migration Institute spokesman Hermenegildo Castro says Indian traditions associated with death and the Day of the Dead are part of what draws expatriate Mexicans home at life's end. Castro, who is from an Indian village in the state of Oaxaca, planned to drive eight hours with his family to visit his father's grave tomorrow. His father died in Mexico City, but Castro said it wasn't right to bury him there.
"I took his coffin to where his spirit will return. It's not going to return to Mexico City," Castro said. "You have to put him in his village because that is where his vigor and spirit will return on Nov. 2."