Hispanic Caucus dedicates Day of the Dead altar to migrants who died in US custody

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) installed this week its first official Day of the Dead altar, dedicated to migrants who have died in U.S. custody or while trying to enter the country.

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a holiday to celebrate the memory of the deceased with cemetery visits and memorial altars, which include offerings representative of the objects and activities that those honored enjoyed in life.

The holiday is a mixture of Spanish Catholic and Native American traditions. The customs followed in central Mexico have been popularized throughout that country and in Hispanic American life, while other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean follow their own traditions.

{mosads}”This tradition brings family and friends together to remember those who have died and typically includes an altar ornamented with gifts, food and toys,” said CHC Chairman Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas). 

“We are proud that our altar stands in the U.S. Capitol this week so we can collectively uplift each of their stories and remember the brave folks who sought a better life in our country,” he added.

The CHC altar includes the pictures of 14 people — most of them minors — who died attempting to migrate to or stay in the United States.

“It’s important, culturally and historically, spiritually, whatever your higher power is, I think it’s important because it’s a connection to people that have passed, a remembrance, and I think it’s good not to forget,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Grijalva installs a Día de Muertos altar every year in his office, and his altar this year includes offerings, or ofrendas, to civil rights icon César Chávez and former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who died Sunday.

Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.), also put up an altar in his office, but for many in the CHC, the tradition is either a novelty or a throwback to their ancestors.

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) said she only learned about the tradition of setting up such altars after watching the Disney movie “Coco,” which focuses on the holiday.

“I think it’s sad that we have to do this,” said Barragán of building an altar to dead migrants rather than the more traditional approach of celebrating deceased loved ones.

“We have to continue to honor them and their memory to remind ourselves of the fight that we have now and need to continue to forge ahead. But we shouldn’t have to do ofrendas for migrants that are dying on U.S. soil,” said Barragán.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), whose grandmother kept an altar with pictures of dead relatives, said the altar reflects the CHC members’ culture, history and families.

“You don’t want to ever see anybody up there but I think it’s an appropriate way for CHC to honor our culture and honor those individuals who made the sacrifice and the journey,” said Aguilar.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited the altar housed in the offices of House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Wednesday, and commented on an image of Oscar and Valeria Ramírez, a Honduran 27-year-old father and his two-year-old daughter who died trying to cross the Rio Grande in June.

“My heart breaks for Oscar and Valeria and other families who have perished while seeking refuge in the U.S.,” wrote Schumer on Twitter.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said the altar could help to humanize the migrants who’ve been thrust into a bigger political process.

“There’s a lot of attention on the wall and all these other things, and my concern is that we’re losing the focus in terms of that we are talking about people who are escaping horrific conditions in their country, that they’re good people, they’re looking for a better — not just a better life, but just to protect their children,” said Roybal-Allard.

And Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said the altar reminds him of the difficulties faced by his parents, who migrated to the United States from the Western Mexican state of Jalisco.

“To me, this is a perfect display of what our country should stand for, which is for people who are fleeing, literally, for their lives. People who are leaving the country that they love to come and start new in a country that inevitably, if they live, they will come to love like my parents did,” said Cárdenas.

“It’s perfect,” he added.

Tags Charles Schumer Congressional Hispanic Caucus Day of the Dead John Conyers Lucille Roybal-Allard migrants Pete Aguilar
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