Migrants buried in ‘potter's field' mourned

April 12, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

HOLTVILLE — Row-5-27 John Doe.

Row-5-26 John Doe.

Row-5-25 Gonzales.

Row-5-24 Rosa Ossoria.

Row-5-23 John Doe.

The Rev. Gianantonio Baggio's open-toed sandals left behind sunken footprints in the soft earth as he walked down a row of graves.

Every once in awhile he lifted his aspersorio out of a grail filled with holy water and sprinkled the 5-by-12 inch concrete blocks that serve as markers for those graves.


Carved on the face of those blocks is the row number and sometimes the name of migrants who have died trying to cross the international border in Imperial County.

In adjacent Terrace Park Cemetery, on the outskirts of Holtville, the grass is green, fresh flowers are placed daily, there is a "No Fake Flowers Please" sign and ornate headstones tell of loved ones now past.

The "potter's field" of migrant graves and concrete blocks is behind Terrace Park.

(The money Judas Iscariot received for betraying Jesus was used by the Pharisees after Judas hanged himself to buy a potter's field for use as a graveyard. The name is now synonymous with graveyards for people who can't afford to pay for a burial.)

More than 150 unidentified migrants are buried in the field along with those who had minimal identification and couldn't be returned home.

In the "potter's field" graveyard there is no grass, shade or headstones — just concrete blocks.

A collection of supermarket sunflowers buried in front of one of the concrete blocks had wilted.

Baggio, a priest from St. Anthony's parish in Imperial, and more than 100 Mexicans and Americans from Tijuana to San Francisco took steps Wednesday to honor those in the graves and show the immigrants are "not forgotten."

After hearing a reading of Psalm 22, the crowd gathered near the graveyard, took white crosses bearing the words, "no olvidado," or "not forgotten," and placed them on the graves along with a single purple flower.

Even though there is no grass, shade or headstones, Baggio said the souls of the immigrants could rest in peace knowing "we were here with a prayer and the full hearts of many people."

The placing of the crosses and the flowers was the culmination of a morning that featured a liturgy at St. Jospeh's parish in Holtville, a two-mile walk to the cemetery and a series of Bible readings and short sermons during the trek.

At the liturgy, Baggio told his parishioners they were not gathered just for the immigrants who cross the border and die in the Imperial Valley.

"We are here for all those who suffer throughout the world," Baggio said.

After the short liturgy, the crowd began the walk toward the cemetery.

They followed men who carried a 12-foot white cross with the words, "Unidentified Migrant" written on it.

Holding the white crosses they would later leave at the graves, the crowd members sang hymns as they walked.

Claudia Smith of San Diego was one of the organizers of the event. Smith is the regional counsel for the California Rural Legal Assistance.

She said the coalition of groups from both sides of the border came together Wednesday because the immigrant graves "have never really been remembered here."

She explained the symbolism of the two-mile walk: "For many, the border has become the way of the cross."

At various points during the march, Baggio, the Rev. Angelo Risoli, also of St. Anthony's, and the Rev. Cecilio Moraga of St. Joseph's read Bible verses and delivered short messages.

During one of the stops, Baggio said the plight of the immigrants is similar to the plight of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus when they were forced to flee their homeland for Egypt.

"The holy family is the migrant family," Baggio said. "The holy family fled to another country just as migrants risk their lives to cross the border. Both do so because the situation in which they live leaves them no choice."

Lupe Higueras of Holtville walked with the group toward the cemetery. He said the immigrants do have a choice before they decide to cross.

While he feels sorry for the immigrants who die crossing the border, he said they have made a "bad choice."

Higueras said his mother and grandmother are buried in Terrace Park Cemetery.

He said he marched with the group because he wanted to honor the immigrants and "help their souls."

During one of the final stops, Moraga said the people who complain about undocumented immigrants or those who are annoyed by such people have forgotten their roots.

He said everyone is an immigrant and pleaded for people to be caring and receptive.

Kathy Mayberry of Holtville agreed with the priest.

She said her family came over on the Mayflower and probably encountered some of the same problems modern-day immigrants face.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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