Vidal Herrera is the owner of four empty burial plots, but he's hoping one of them doesn't have to stay empty for long.
A retired coroner's investigator, he's been in the business of helping other families deal with death for as long as he can remember. But this time, it's personal.
In a quest to honor his family divided and traumatized by the Mexican Repatriation Act — an anti-immigration policy during the Depression that saw the illegal deportation of millions of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent across the border — Herrera is gearing up to embark on a journey to exhume the remains of his uncle, who died when he was 7 years old, and bring him back home to Los Angeles.
“His remains should not be in Mexico,” Herrera said, “for his own dignity, for the dignity of the Herrera name.”
To make sure he changes the course of his family's history, Herrera is planning to make a trip down to Juarez to begin the process of exhuming his uncle's remains and moving them across national borders.
With the right paperwork and purchase of a small child's coffin, the process is fairly simple, but also requires the right kind of people, which means coordinating with a funeral director in Mexico, as U.S. funeral directors do not have jurisdiction in Mexico and cannot legally bring a body back to the U.S.
In years past, Hartwell “Skipper” Ragsdale, who runs Anderson Ragsdale Mortuary in San Diego, would arrange to make an exchange at a police station. These days, however, Mexican funeral directors make the trip out directly to his facilities.
Ragsdale said the process to exhume a body in addition to transferring it could prove challenging.
Because Herrera's uncle was most likely buried in a pauper's grave, the location of his remains and their identification after seven decades could be difficult.
“A lot of the time when you exhume remains, you're really finding bone fragments; you just have to collect them all,” said Salvador Perches, a funeral industry veteran who operates funeral homes in the U.S. and Mexico. He's agreed to assist Herrera.
In the meantime, Herrera is gathering documents in L.A. to assist his case and has asked for assistance from the Mexican and U.S. consulates to expedite the transfer.
Thinking back about what motivated him to embark on the journey, Herrera recalled his trip to Washington, D.C., where he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and was serendipitously handed a flier by a passerby that posed the question, “Who are you?”
“That's when the light went on,” he said. “It encouraged me to do it even more. It resonated with me.”
For Herrera, who has only begun to unravel his family's past, bringing his uncle home is not a choice, but a duty.
“That's my gente,” he said. “That's my people.”
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.