I Don't Laugh At Death

Sunset in Sonora, Mexico.

Hermosillo, Sonora

“I thought the body was in a niche. I don’t remember what these are called.”

“Urns.”

“Urns? What an ugly name. Reminds me of politics.”

“We’re sick of politics, that’s what happens. Politics and death are the same.”

“Come here, stop talking about that. Let’s get under a mesquite tree to get you out of the sun for a while. The sun in Icamole will turn you into an iguana.”

“That’s bullshit!”

Nobody knows if the urn belongs to the funeral home or the district attorney. The first time I came, I didn’t want to get close. I stayed just outside the grave. The situation was very strange. I felt relief and pain all at once. Relief because Señora González had finally found her disappeared daughter. Pain because she found out that she was dead and buried in the wilderness. That day there was no vigil, no nothing. They took out the body and then they put it away, directly into a box. And that was that.

We came back because it ended up that the buried body might not belong to her daughter, but to her daughter’s boyfriend, who was also disappeared. When they gave us the death certificate, we sent the information to a lawyer friend of ours and we told him:

“Give it a read, tell us what you think.”

“Well sure, as a rule of thumb, I’d exhume the body and check again. It’s not clear whether the body they buried belongs to Señora González’s daughter.”

When we complained, they told us that if we wanted the exhumation we would have to pay for it ourselves because the government had no money to do it. To be honest, it was a big number, money that Señora González couldn’t make even working extra hours cleaning every house in San Pedro. So we went hard, trying to see what we could do to get the money to pay someone to tell us whether or not it was her daughter’s body. They told us we’d need a forensic anthropologist for that. That sounded like Martian-talk to me, as if we needed help for something extraterrestrial when what we wanted to know was something that’s happening at this moment, in this world, not one from far away or some distant past.

It looks like she’s calling the mayor.

“Good morning, how are you? We arrived on time, as you told us, but the people from the Secretary of Health aren’t here…”

The guy on the other side of the line talks elusively. The wait continues for a while.

In the first months we found no money at all. Then we got excited because we heard that some forensic anthropologists were coming from the South to the North to study bodies from the famous massacres in Cadereyta and San Fernando. That was when we said we should see if, in passing, they could help us to determine if this was the body of Señora González’s daughter or not.

But they said no. The body of Señora González’s daughter wasn’t famous.

Now it looks like someone’s calling the Secretary of Health.

“Good morning, uh huh, the exhumation of the remains is scheduled for today at six in the morning in the cemetery. The mother of the body is here—Señora González—we’re her companions, the investigating officer, the representative from the public ministry, and the forensic anthropologist, but you told us you all would be here too.”

Once again, there are pretexts from the other side of the phone line.

Someone approaches and offers a cigarette to control the rage. At that moment a flying beetle lands on top of the urn and then jumps into Señora González’s hair. The investigating officer, smiling, takes a photo with his cell phone. Then he says, “Nice brooch.” Nobody says anything. I don’t laugh at death. The bug jumps off and starts walking along the ground that’s already burning, even though the sun only just rose. The only thing that makes sense at that moment is the light. The magic hour, they call it, because anything you look at, no matter how ugly, looks beautiful.

***

I am the forensic anthropologist who came to perform this exhumation. I come from Peru. I do this because I belong to a non-governmental organization that does this sort of work on a nonprofit basis. We don’t charge because in my country non-governmental organizations are always nonprofit, so we don’t charge. This is a service that I’m giving to Señora González. The urn we’re going to dig up is sixty centimeters long. It’s not a coffin. I’m going to remove Señora González’s daughter—or whoever is in the urn—and take them to do an analysis of the remains, starting with a dental sample of around three centimeters that I’ll collect in the morgue. With that sample, I’ll continue working in my laboratory in Peru.

I know that there are two bodies mixed together in the urn because they were not recovered correctly by the police who found them. The bodies must belong to Señora González’s daughter and her boyfriend. That’s what we’re going to check. I guess the police experts didn’t separate them between masculine and feminine. They just handed over the remains saying they belonged to Señora González’s daughter when in reality they could also be those of her boyfriend, or even of someone else. I think so because I saw the autopsy report and it wasn’t done properly. In the laboratory you can analyze the bones and see if the pelvis belongs to a woman or a man. You can only see that through the pelvis and the skull, not with the other bones. For example, if the bodies of an Asian man and a European woman were mixed, the one who’ll seem to have a woman’s eyes will be the Asian man, not the European woman. A question of morphology.

I joined the Team of Forensic Anthropologists of Peru after I graduated. My first exhumation was the body of a guerrilla poet killed in 1963, Javier Heraud. A young poet, twenty-one years old. Javier Heraud’s family contacted us to do the work. I knew the poet’s story because you study it in high school. And I knew he had gone to Cuba, returned, gotten involved with some insurgent groups out there in the central rainforest, and then been killed with an expanding bullet. After forty-five years, his family wanted to bring him from the rainforest to Lima to bury him beside his father. His mother was an elderly woman, maybe ninety years old. So we started looking for him in the jungle, in very wet, hot conditions, a totally different climate from this desert in Icamole. We thought we wouldn’t find anything, but we found traces. We brought them by plane, we had to request a special permit from the airline to bring him in an ossuary. Then they buried him in Lima. It was a strange situation.

Before starting university, I got heavily involved in the human rights movement, especially the issue of disappearances in the nineties, in the time of the Dictatorship. Before becoming an archaeologist, I was studying history. And in one of the classes of my selective course, they said a little about what an archaeologist is. That’s when I learned that archaeologists don’t only investigate monumental structures, ceramics, textiles, stones, and metals, but also human remains. At that moment I wanted to do something related to the search for those people, and I decided to study Archaeology and specialize in human remains.

Another time, the team of anthropologists travelled to a community in Ayacucho where a member of the counter-insurgency military base killed 123 people. We recovered ninety-two bodies from a mass grave, where the majority were children and women. There was no poetry to it. Shining Path was killing the community’s authorities, so they fled to higher ground, what we call the Puna in Peru, land that’s over four thousand meters in altitude, where they lived with their animals in caves. One day, the Army arrived in Ayacucho and founded a counter-insurgency base, so they told them to come back from the Puna. The soldiers ordered them to be called back, they told them, “come down and we’ll protect you here, we’ll give you work.” Then, when they returned from the caves of the Puna to Ayacucho, the soldiers separated the women and children from the men. The forced the men to dig a pit, saying they would build a fish farm there. In reality, they made them dig their own grave. The grave wasn’t very big, we’re talking six meters by five. About one and a quarter meters deep.

Then they raped the women.

I have a lot of respect for people’s decisions. Given a problem as serious as the disappearances, it’s a little sad to see that there aren’t many people working on it. It makes me sad: the anthropologists who work for businesses linked to mining or who study history from a thousand years ago instead of this. That happens down in Peru and here in Mexico. That’s Latin America.

***

This is an achievement of the families that have been victims of this war that they don’t want to call a war. When we began to study the case of Señora González’s daughter we were not experts, but we saw that there was no logic to it. We all began to train ourselves: we went to any course that was offered, because we needed to know this stuff. It’s a right, we’ve been training ourselves and learning to understand this situation. We thought that the government workers did too, from all the pressure we’ve been putting on them. But no. They don’t understand anything, and to hide it they use language you can’t understand. Once we were in a court meeting, and when Señora González passed us her daughter’s certificate, the government official shouted at her, “No! You have to read it!” So we grabbed the certificate and told him that we were assisting her, that we knew it was our right. Then he said no and we said yes, until little by little we tore the paper, because he didn’t want to let go of it either. We always have fights like that. Always.

Then we told them that we were human rights people and they changed a little. They had us standing next to Señora González, and suddenly they even offered us chairs to sit and look over the document at our leisure. That’s how we spent the whole year, to make them come and see if it was her daughter’s body or not. We had a lot of highs and a lot of lows. If we keep our spirits up we make a lot of progress, but when the depression comes back we get very weak and we do nothing. We spend weeks at home crying, consuming ourselves, dying of pure pain.

But once you learn that those government people are just as normal or even worse than yourself, or more inept, I mean, you start to realize that the titles are too big for those they call attorney general or governor. That they don’t have the last word about our disappeared relatives—we do. So there are days when we feel compelled to go out and tell the world that reality is not only what they say in the government, that we also have a lot of truth to tell. That we are not laughing at the death that passes through here.

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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