Exporting the Dead

Every year, the corpses of hundreds of immigrants are flown from San Francisco to their home countries.

One recent Saturday morning, that was the tactic of the family of Luz del Alba Perez, who died on December 27, five days after giving birth to her fourth child at St. Luke's. Her somber father, Emiliano, and puffy-eyed brother, Emilio, piled into the SUV of Uzziel Behena, the godfather of Perez' older sons. First stop: Driscoll's, where Behena paid some $600 in cash he'd collected from his church and neighbors (the Mexican Consulate contributed $4,800 and a women's nonprofit in the Mission donated $1,000). Next stop: the Western Union at 21st and Mission streets, where Emiliano set a stack of $900 in small bills, donated by his co-workers at a fish processing plant in Fort Bragg, in the metal tray under the teller's window. He wired the money to another daughter, Maria de los Angeles, who lives near Palenque, a town in Chiapas, for funeral costs on their end. Final stop: the house of Natalia Perez, a friend (and no relation to Perez), who sent her own husband's body back to Puebla two years ago after he died in a Christmas morning apartment fire on 24th Street. She met Behena on the sidewalk with a plastic bag filled with five white boxes, heavy with coins, which she'd placed in supermarkets and beauty salons along 24th Street.

Back at Behena's Excelsior home, the three men and Behena's wife, Veronica Hernandez, dumped the coins and wrinkled bills from one box on the dining room table to silently count the stash: $479.20. Another box they picked up later that week from a beauty salon contained another $300. The money will be used to help Perez' family back in Mexico with the roughly $600 cost of getting the body driven from the airport in Villahermosa, Tabasco, to the family's home.

After whisking the money into a box, which will later be wired south of the Rio Grande, Veronica serves her guests cinnamon tea and leftover Mexican pastries from the funeral the day before. They reflect on the difference of dying here versus there. "There, in my town," she starts, "they help us with money, beans and corn, coffee. People come to your house and offer you help."

Lopez’ casket is turned over to cargo agents for the flight to Mexico.
Paul Trapani
Lopez’ casket is turned over to cargo agents for the flight to Mexico.
Paul Trapani

"There's no need to go around putting out little boxes," Behena adds.

The guests agree that if they die, they'd want to be sent back, too.

"Of course," Veronica says, and Behena tells the story of a woman he met at the consulate the prior week who was sending back her deceased toddler. Someone asked why she didn't bury her daughter here. "This girl said, 'If they [deport] us all out tomorrow, who's going to bring a flower for my child?'"

The family say they'd all follow Perez' body for the burial if they could, as funeral directors say Filipino families often do. "Since they don't give us papers, we can't come and go," Behena says. "We'd all be at the border waiting two months trying to get back here." For the first time that day, everyone at the table laughs.

About 40 mourners shuffle into the pews of Driscoll's Chapel #3 the Sunday after Thanksgiving, one day after Victor Lopez had planned to start his postponed drive to Mexico. Many are family — uncles, cousins. One cousin hands out black bows to attendees; they'll pin them on their shirts for several days, and, later, hang them on their doors.

Over the past two decades, members of the Lopez family have gradually immigrated to San Francisco, many from Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán. Migration to the United States is a thoroughly embedded part of the central coastal state's culture. More Michoacános now live in the United States than in Mexico, the dollars they wire back annually now dwarfing the amount allocated to the state from the federal government.

Lopez' father was caught by the border patrol while attempting to enter the U.S. in May 2001, after which he called his wife from Tijuana: I'm going to try to cross again. That was the last anyone heard from him.

After his father's presumed death, Lopez, the eldest son but just 15, ignored his mother's warnings and left for San Francisco, intending to support his family. He got painting jobs through Gerardo, and sent back enough money for his mother to buy a house from an uncle while Lopez was still a teen.

But the Mission can be full of temptations of quicker money for a young migrant, and in late 2005, Lopez ditched painting for hanging out in the street with thugs Gerardo suspected were gangbangers. Gerardo told his nephew he didn't want these new pals around his kids, so in late 2005, Lopez moved out. He was arrested at Mission and 17th streets for possession of crack cocaine for sale in January 2006, but was deported before he could make his April court date.

Returning to Mexico seemed to snap Lopez out of his short stint with crime. Never telling his mom why he had been deported, he started driving a taxi and attending an evangelical church several times a week. He had hope for the future: He had started dating a nursing student named Magali, the younger sister of his taxi fleet's boss, and eventually proposed to her. He called Gerardo from Mexico: Will you give me one more chance? He wanted to make some money to outfit his future home with Magali. Gerardo accepted: "He was like a son to me."

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