Claudine LoMonaco & Mary Spicuzza
Video Premiere: “Matías”

October 20, 2004

Journalist Claudine LoMonaco at the premiere of her and Mary Spicuzza's "Matías" on campus October 20.

Finding Matías
By Claudine LoMonaco

Three lines in a coroner’s report had taken me all the way down to Agua del Espino, a tiny Zapotec village in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’d come to track down the life of a dead man. But things weren’t going the way I’d planned.

Matías Juan García Zavaleta died of dehydration in the Arizona desert. He was one of more than 300 migrants that died trying to enter the United States in 2003.
I’d covered many of those deaths as a reporter in Tucson. But I knew so little about any of them. Many were anonymous. Scattered bones bleached under the blazing desert sun. With each story I asked myself who these people were. What would compel them to walk across a desert? Who did they leave behind?

My friend, Mary Spicuzza and I decided to make a documentary and try to answer those questions for at least one migrant. We drove to Arizona from Berkeley, where we were both graduate students, to search through files at the Mexican Consulate.

We were looking for a campesino with a work history in California. More than anything, we needed a survivor. Most migrants die alone or are quickly abandoned by their groups, but we needed someone to tell the story of what happened. It would probably have to be a family member. Who else would risk appearing on camera?

After searching through more than 200 cases, we finally found it. Matías García had tried to cross with a brother en route to California. The brother survived and was deported. That’s all we knew. But it was enough.

A half hour later, I was on the phone with Isidra, Matías’ widow. The next week, I was on a plane to Oaxaca to pre-interview and scout out locations. Mary would join me a few days later. Brent MacDonald, our main cameraman, would come down a couple days after her.

From Oaxaca City, I took a bus south to Ejutla and then hopped on the back of a pickup truck. The dirt road to Agua del Espino winds through rolling fields covered in cornstalks. Cactus and agave dot the landscape. Mountains rise in the distance.

After half an hour, the pickup pulled into a dirt yard. Matías’ father, the Señor, was unloading baskets of dried beans from the family’s donkey. He helped me down and shooed away the chickens that had begun to peck at my feet. His wife, the Señora, came out of what looked like a little bamboo house, wiped her hands on her apron and greeted me. Her long, black hair was pulled into a ponytail. She offered me a chair in the shade.

I introduced myself and explained our project. They seemed confused — “I’m sorry. Tell me again. What is it exactly you want to do with our son?” — but welcomed us into their home nonetheless. Within a couple of hours, I’d met the rest of the family: Isidra, Matías’ two small children, Juan and Elias, his sister Lupe, and sister-in-law Laura. By the end of the day, I still hadn’t met the brother, so I asked.

“Serafin?” the Señora asked. “He’s in California.”*

“But I thought Isidra said he was here,” I stuttered.

“Oh, no. He’s up north, but we don’t know where. We haven’t talked to him in months.”

My heart stopped. I suddenly envisioned me and Mary driving up and down the coast of California searching migrant camps for a five-foot tall Zapotec Indian named Serafin. It was crazy, but what choice did we have? With no Serafin, we had no documentary. It was too late to turn back.

I spent the next couple of days trying to get a sense of life in Agua del Espino. In the morning, I’d go out to the field and pick beans with the Señor and Matías’ sister. We’d come home, eat a bowl of black beans, and then I’d speak with neighbors, or play with 8-year-old Juan and 4-year-old Elias. Elias was too young to understand about his dad and used to ask Isidra when he was coming home.

In the evening, I sat in the kitchen while the women worked, stirring huge pots of boiling masa for tomorrow’s tortillas. A couple of light bulbs hanging from the pitched tin roof lit up the bamboo walls. A baby goat grazed the dirt floor for stray corn kernels.

The first night, I pulled out a book I’d almost finished and began reading. Serafin’s 17-year-old wife Laura asked me about it. It was The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez by Jimmy Breslin. I told her it was about a young Mexican migrant like Matías, only he’d gone to New York City.

“Why don’t you read it to us?” she asked.

“Well, it’s in English, but I guess I could translate,” I said.

The women gathered around me and I read the parts I thought they would like, about Eduardo Gutierrez’s family and little hometown. They loved it. They hooted and hollered and giggled when I read about his novia and how she made him blush, and they fell silent when I read about him leaving home.

At some point, the Señora stopped me.

“Is this what you want to do with Matías?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “This is exactly what we want to do.”

“Oh,” she said. “Now I get it.” Her dark eyes lit up and she broke out into a big smile. “Please! Continue!”

I read on. The next night they asked for more. It became like a telenovela, or Mexican soap opera. Every night, another chapter.

They were excited about the documentary now and told me more about Matías’ s life. How he was the oldest of five children and left school when he was 8 to help his father in the fields. How he’d built the family’s little row of concrete bedrooms with money he’d earned in the north. About how all the men in the village would leave each spring but come back each fall, because they loved Agua del Espino. It was their home.

And they asked more about the project. I told them how we wanted to retrace Matías’s journey from the village to the desert and then continue up to California.

“Are you going to the exact spot where he died?” his mother asked.

Yes, I said. That was our plan.

“I was wondering,” she said, speaking slowly, “because, sometimes I think his spirit is still there. We put water out for him on the shrine here, but I don’t think he can get it because he comes to me in my dreams. ‘Mama,’ he says, “I’m thirsty. Do you have any water?’”

She looked at me.

“When you go there, do you think you could do me a favor? Could you put out a glass of water for him? I think that might help.”

At that moment, I knew the project would work out, whether or not we found Serafin. We’d left the world of faceless statistics long behind, and entered a realm in which the dead talked to the living, and spirits crossed borders that humans constructed, papeles o no. I knew that somehow we would have a documentary.

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “It is the least we can do.”

The next night, I picked up Mary in Oaxaca City. Monday morning, we arrived back in the village to film a mass for the six-month anniversary of Matías’ death.

Afterwards, the Señora took me and Mary by the hand. “Come on,” she said. “We have to go to town.”

We didn’t know why we were going, but we hopped on the back of a pickup truck with her and headed down the winding road. She took us to a call center in Ejutla. She preferred calling from there, because they had private phone booths. On the village phone, everybody could hear your business.

She disappeared into a booth. We could see her through the window talking. After a few minutes, she opened the door and handed me the telephone.

“Here,” she said. “It’s my son, Serafin. He wants to talk to you.”

It turns out they’d known where Serafin was all along. He was picking grapes in the same Central Valley town Matías had worked in for the last ten summers. What they didn’t know when I first arrived was anything about who we were. We could have been undercover migra, or immigration agents, for all they knew.

I talked to Serafin, and when we returned to the States we met with him. He told us about how much he loved his older brother and how they entered the desert together to make a better life for their family. They walked for a day and a half in 104-degree heat. And then, Matías collapsed and began to convulse. Serafin and a cousin carried him for hours. In total, they walked 32 miles. Matías finally died in Serafin’s arms 40 yards away from the highway they’d hoped would carry them to California.

The same day, 18-year-old Serafin was deported to a nearby border town. He rested for one night, and then crossed back over the border again. He told us he had little choice. Who would take care of his family?

Back in the village, we began filming interviews. Matías’ uncle told us that in the 1950s, recruiters from the U.S. Bracero program had come to village and promised them good jobs if they’d work in the north. The program, and papers, ended in the ’60s. But U.S. farmers still wanted their labor, and Oaxacan men still wanted the work. For decades they used to easily cross through Tijuana. He said all that changed in the mid 90s when the U.S. clamped down on the Tijuana border. Men kept going north, but now they had to cross through the desert. Since the United States changed its border policy, more than 3,000 people like Matías have died trying to cross.

On our last day in the village, the women in the family loaded us up with food for the road: homemade tortillas, roasted pumpkin seeds, fresh salsa. The Señor brought out a large, angular package. Inside was a metal cross. It read “Matías Juan García Zavaleta. May 22, 1974–June 3, 2003.” He asked if we could plant it in the ground where Matías died.

Then the Senora came and took my hands.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for coming. We never imagined anybody from el norte would ever care about us.”

“No,” I said, dumbstruck. “Thank you. It is an honor.”

The pickup truck pulled into the yard. The chickens and turkeys scattered. We loaded our gear in the back. It was time to go.

* The name of Matías’ brother was changed to protect his identity.

Claudine LoMonaco is a correspondent for Frontline/World and recently received her master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

The cross marking the spot in the Arizona desert where Matías died.



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