LoMonaco & Mary Spicuzza
Video Premiere: “Matías”
Claudine LoMonaco at the premiere of her and
Mary Spicuzza's "Matías" on campus October
By Claudine LoMonaco
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.
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
them to walk across a desert? Who did they leave behind?
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
to search through files at the Mexican Consulate.
for a campesino with a work history in California.
More than anything, we needed a survivor. Most migrants
are quickly abandoned by their groups, but we needed someone
the story of what happened. It would probably have to be
a family member. Who else would risk appearing on camera?
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.
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
MacDonald, our main cameraman, would come down a couple
days after her.
Oaxaca City, I took a bus south to Ejutla and then hopped on
the back of a pickup truck. The
Espino winds through rolling fields covered in cornstalks.
and agave dot the landscape. Mountains rise in the
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
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
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
“But I thought Isidra said he was here,” I stuttered.
no. He’s up north, but we don’t know where. We
haven’t talked to him in months.”
heart stopped. I suddenly envisioned
me and Mary driving up and down the coast
a five-foot tall Zapotec Indian named
Serafin. It was crazy, but what choice did we have?
we had no
documentary. It was too late to turn
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.
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
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.
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
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!”
read on. The next night they asked for more. It became like
or Mexican soap opera. Every night, another chapter.
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
they loved Agua del Espino. It was their home.
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.
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?’”
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.”
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.
the Señora took me and Mary by the hand. “Come on,” she
said. “We have to go to town.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
our last day in the village, the women in the family loaded
us up with food for the road: homemade tortillas,
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
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.”
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.
cross marking the spot in the Arizona desert
where Matías died.