Jesús is coming home. He isn't returning to the arms of the mother who has prayed for his safe return since he left for the United States on May 8, 2006. Or coming to visit the father who had such dreams that his son would have an easier life north of the border.
Jesús is coming home in a coffin, one of the 1,137 border-crosser bodies found in the desert near Tucson since 2000. Nearly a third of them are never identified, partly because an estimated half of illegal entrants travel without documents, and many of the rest carry papers that are borrowed or fake.
A voter identification card, a gap in his teeth, clothing and other evidence helped the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office say with some certainty that the bones found on May 7, 2007, are those of Jesús Alberto Cabral López. Only DNA testing would have provided absolutely certainty, but the family decided against that.
They just want Jesús back.
Just when did he die?
It seems like a perfectly reasonable question: "What date do you want for the date of death? Is it there in the documents?" asks funeral director Miguel Ramírez Alanis of Funerales Económicos in Jesús' hometown of Villa Juárez, Sonora.
But there is no simple answer. Jesús was in the desert for almost a year, and no one who loved him knows exactly when, or how, he died. For his family, those missing details are agonizing.
His mother, Guadalupe López, tracked her son's journey from the time he left home until he called her for the last time just before he crossed the border on May 12, 2006. These moments and dates matter to Guadalupe. They are as important as knowing dates of birth — and dates of death.
But Jesús' younger brother Rosendo, who has just completed the 19-hour, more than 800-mile round trip to the border at Nogales to retrieve his brother's body, has no date to give.
He confers with his half-brother. He asks strangers for advice. Finally, he calls his mother. They agree that the cross to adorn Jesús' grave should say he died on May 12, the day Jesús was lost to them.
The decision made, Rosendo transfers his brother's coffin from the beat-up blue pickup truck that brought them from the border to the mortuary hearse that will carry Jesús the last three blocks to his family's home — and then to his grave.
Jesús' last ride home
The Mexican Consulate had told Jesús' two brothers they would need no documents, just a vehicle in which to transfer the body. Jesús was to be delivered to the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales by the Adair Funeral Home in Tucson.
For Rosendo, the trip to the border reminds him of Jesús' promise to help him get a tourist visa to the United States. Rosendo still can't get into the United States legally, so he hesitates as a U.S. customs agent motions for him to approach the large gate separating the two countries.
Silently, three U.S. port officials help him and two funeral home workers carry the simple blue-gray casket to the hearse of a Nogales, Sonora, funeral home that has volunteered to help with the international transfer. As the brothers pull away from the port of entry, the gate between the two nations closes behind them.
At the funeral home, Jesús' casket is transferred to his half-brother's pickup, which will carry him the 400 miles to Villa Juárez. The casket is too long for the bed of the truck, so at the suggestion of the funeral home director they cover it with a large black plastic sheet and lash it down with bright yellow rope. They can't close the tailgate, so the covered casket is in plain view in the open truck bed, along with a discarded plastic soda bottle, some dead branches and a spare tire.
It should be enough to keep them from attracting attention from the federal police Mexicans fear because of their reputation for harsh treatment of the drivers they stop.
The nine-hour trip home is quiet and uneventful with just a couple of stops, one at a convenience store for some cookies and pastries, the other a dinner break at an open-air restaurant about two hours from home.
Jesús' brother and half-brother, who are both named Rosendo after their father but have different mothers, eat carne asada tacos, joke and talk. They ignore the coffin hanging over the back of the truck just 10 steps away. On the street, people walk by, oblivious to the cargo under the plastic sheet.
A homecoming; a sad vigil
When she sees her son's coffin removed from the funeral car, Guadalupe López stands immobile on her porch. She can't go near it, and she does not cry.
"I see it but I don't believe it," she says over and over.
She wonders aloud about Jesús' final hours.
"He got too much sun, and since he was alone … or maybe he was alone and he couldn't walk anymore, so they left him, tossed aside," she says.
As friends and funeral home workers set the coffin in the carport, Jesús' father gets out of his white plastic chair and goes into the house to retrieve an extension cord for the two candelabra delivered with the coffin. Then he goes inside again. He returns with a portrait of his son, which he sets on the coffin.
"Were there any problems getting him across the border?" he asks his youngest son. He sits again in the plastic chair, where he remains through the night and into the next day.
He is joined by about 30 friends and family members, some of whom waited for hours at the Cabral López home for his return on this hot, humid August night.
The police have closed the street in front of the home to allow for Jesus' arrival and to protect the crowd. Visitors come and go through the night; the women comfort Guadalupe and with their children, join her in the carport in prayer. Out in the street, the men stand discreetly sipping beer or tequila from bottles hidden inside brown paper bags.
Despite tradition, no one peeks into the coffin.
His parents stay up through the night and long into the next day for the wake. They had waited for his return; now they wait to say goodbye when they bury him in just a few hours.
"Tico" is buried with music
Jesús had once said he wanted to be buried to the sound of banda Sinaloense. He especially loved Norteña music, which he had danced to the night before he left home.
"He was a happy person, a dancer," his mother remembers.
So on this bright and cloudless afternoon, as the wake winds down, Jesús' family will offer him one last dance. They have spent nearly $1,400 — almost nine times his father's $150-a-month pension — to hire the Banda Santa Teresa from Ciudad Obregón.
The burial, including cost of the band, $600 for the funeral home, about $150 for the burial plots, and other expenses, comes to nearly $3,000.
"We borrowed the money, and it's left us in debt," says Jesús' younger brother Rosendo.
At about 3 p.m., 12 musicians in white pants and blue shirts arrive at the Cabral López home. It is almost time for the procession to the church.
Ninety minutes later, Jesús is loaded into the back of the hearse as the family prepares to see him off. About 40 women and children walk behind him for the mile to the church. The band, standing in the beds of two pickups, plays a rolling concert of songs about death and goodbyes. The men bring up the rear in trucks and cars they'll later use to drive to the cemetery.
"The music is sad. It gives me chills, but it's what he wanted," says Balbaneda Palomares Valenzuela, a cousin of Jesus' mother.
The music stops just long enough for the 25-minute Mass at the Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador. Even at 5 p.m., the heat and humidity force the priest to hurry through his sermon.
At the cemetery, the Banda Santa Teresa plays for more than an hour as people walk past, dropping handfuls of flowers and dirt into the open grave. It continues to play as cemetery workers lay boards across the grave and cover them with cement.
The music still playing, mourners start to trail off. Guadalupe is the the last to leave.
Weeks later, the family still has many questions about how Jesús died.
They know he likely succumbed to dehydration in the desert, but they wonder.
The only consolation, his mother says, is that, at last, her "Tico'' is home.
"We have him," she says. "At least we can bring him flowers."