MIAMI, Florida — Making burial arrangements for Basilio Juárez Pinzón in the Mexican city of Cuautla won’t be easy. It will be expensive, complicated and painfully bureaucratic, mainly because his ashes will have to be transported from New York City in the middle of a pandemic.
It took Félix Pinzón, Basilio’s brother, one month and four days to make arrangements for the cremation of the body on May 4. Basilio died from Covid-19 at the age of 45. Unfortunately, with funeral homes in New York City overwhelmed and with Félix Pinzón lacking a death certificate for his brother, he still hasn’t been able to repatriate Basilio’s ashes to Mexico.
Over 1,000 Mexicans have died from Covid-19 in the United States, and many of them did not want to be buried in America. Most had an unspoken agreement with their families and friends: If I die in the United States, take me back to Mexico.
“Why wouldn’t Basilio consider a burial in New York, where he worked for so many years?” I asked Mr. Pinzón recently.
“No,” he responded. “I’m sure Basilio would have wanted to go back home to his family.” His wife and children live in Mexico. “It’s obvious to all of us Mexicans; we don’t want to be laid to rest far away from our homeland. Most of our families are in Mexico.”
This long-held tradition is beautifully expressed in an old song sung by the famed Mexican singer and actor Jorge Negrete: “México lindo y querido. Si muero lejos de ti, que digan que estoy dormido y que me traigan aquí.” (“Mexico, my beautiful and beloved country. Should I die abroad, away from you, tell everyone I’m asleep and bring me back to this land.”)
New York and the suburbs of New York City have recorded more Mexican deaths from Covid-19 than any other single state. The sad, lengthy and fairly complex task of repatriating the bodies of New York’s deceased Mexican immigrants has fallen to the local Mexican Consulate. Of the 687 Mexicans who have died from Covid-19 in New York, applications to repatriate more than 500 of them have been submitted, a representative from the consulate told me.
It is easier and less expensive to repatriate ashes than bodies. But even with cremation, many Mexican immigrants still cannot afford to repatriate their loved ones.
“We can help with up to $1,800 per case,” Jorge Islas, the Mexican consul general in New York, told me in an interview. With the consulate still closed, his team is working remotely to issue emergency documents.
“We have traditions that have been part of our life since Mesoamerican times. And when it comes to our dead, we have deeply ingrained cultural traditions, a huge part of which involves bringing them back to the place where they were born," he said. "People tell us: ‘I want to be able to go to a specific place to pray for him, to cry and bring him flowers every year. That’s what we do,’” he added.
A couple of years ago the animated Pixar film 'Coco' showed the world just how close and unusual the relationship between the Mexican people and death is. Our dead live on forever. We want to keep them close — so we can talk to them and pamper them — even if we can’t actually touch them.
The Mexican relationship to the dead bears some resemblance to our relationship with our living loved ones amid the social distancing restrictions imposed during the pandemic. Although our family members are often nearby, we can’t hug them or hold them close.
“Our songs, proverbs, fiestas and popular beliefs show very clearly that death cannot frighten us,” wrote Octavio Paz in “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” one of the most insightful accounts of the Mexican worldview ever written. Paz said that “the Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” To the ancient Mexican “death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle," he wrote.
And so we must go back to Mexico, lest we disrupt that cycle. Mexicans are leaving the United States in huge numbers, dead or alive, pandemic or no pandemic.
Many Mexicans no longer consider the United States an attractive place to work, live and raise a family. Anti-immigrant sentiment surged in America in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and things have only gotten worse under President Trump.
Between 2010 and 2018, just over one million undocumented Mexican immigrants left the United States voluntarily to return home, according to the Center for Migration Studies. A 2015 analysis from the Pew Research Center found that more Mexicans had left America for Mexico than had entered the United States between 2009 and 2014 — and that 61 percent of the one million Mexicans who had returned home during that time had done so to reunite with their families.
Family is a big pull, a constant tug on our hearts. And that longing only ends with our deaths.
No one dreams about becoming an immigrant, about being forced to flee your country of birth because of economic desperation or political oppression. No wonder so many Mexicans want to return home after they die.
Nothing is more personal than deciding where you want to be buried. On the day of Basilio Juárez Pinzón’s cremation, four people, including a priest, took part in a small ceremony next to his coffin in New York. Félix Pinzón hasn’t been able to send his brother’s ashes home to Mexico, but he’s going to keep trying until it happens. “It’s normal for any Mexican to want to go back to our homeland and be buried there,” he told me.
Although Basilio hadn’t talked about it, it was always clear to his brother that his loyalty to his country was as powerful as that expressed by Negrete in that old song: 'México lindo y querido, si muero lejos de ti.'