Cultural traditions strong, even after death

Cultural traditions strong, even after death

June 22nd, 2010 by Perla Trevizo in News

Lety Esquivel becomes emotional while at her Chatsworth, Ga., residence Friday afternoon while speaking about losing her son in a car accident. Ms. Esquivel is trying to figure out how to send her late son's body back to their native country of Guatemala.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

When the police knocked on the door to the mobile home at 5:30 a.m., Guatemalan immigrant Lety Esquivel asked her 14-year-old son José to help translate. But when the officers showed them a pay stub with Alex Vasquez's name on it, she understood that she was never going to see her oldest son alive again.

Mr. Vasquez, 25, who a few hours earlier had said, "I'll be right back," died after his 2001 F-150 Ford pickup struck a crosstie post on Spring Place Smyrna Road in Chatsworth, Ga.

More than 1,000 miles away from her native country and in the midst of her grief, Mrs. Esquivel had to figure out how her four daughters and mother, who still live in Guatemala, were going to see Mr. Vasquez again. There was no doubt that he was going back to the country where he was born, she said.

"They didn't want him to stay here, and I had to send him back so they could see him one last time," she said, speaking Spanish in her Chatsworth, Ga., home.

Many immigrants with ties to their native country and the United States choose to send the body of their loved ones back home, a process that adds to the cost and time of the burial, but which is well worth it to the families, said Beatriz Illescas of the Guatemalan consulate in Atlanta.

"It's a very important Guatemalan (and Latin American) tradition to say goodbye to our loved ones," she said. "It's a way to honor the deceased."

But it's also a generational thing, said Velma Sue De Leon, owner of Memorial Funeral Home in San Juan, Texas, member of the National Funeral Directors Association.

"I think a lot of families who have come across are raising their children here, their children are going to school here, and of course I think there's going to be less and less (repatriations)," she said.

It costs between $2,500 and $3,500 to ship a body to Latin America with no services in the United States, according Ms. Illescas and the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta.

Mike Blevins, manager of the East Chapel of Chattanooga Funeral Home Crematory & Florist in East Ridge, said the price starts at about $5,500 and can go up to $7,000, including airline expense, preparation, paperwork, visitation and a memorial service in the United States and casket.

Mrs. Esquivel spent about $14,000 for a service in Dalton, Ga., and another in Guatemala, she said, but the money required to send him back didn't matter.

"That's where he was born, where he was raised and where I'll end up one day," she said in her living room, where the only photo of Mr. Vasquez on display is an 8x10 taken several weeks before his accident. Most of his other pictures went with him back to Guatemala.

After a visitation service in Dalton, her son José accompanied his brother's body to their small hometown in Guatemala, where a banda group - a brass-based band that plays a form of traditional music - waited for him along with several hundred people and red, yellow and white flowers. The white flowers, she said, symbolize that he was single at the time of his death.

Although every family is different, Mr. Blevins said his funeral home has had to make some adjustments since it started serving the Hispanic community about 10 years ago.

The funeral home has several people to contact, including a Catholic priest, to interpret for the families, he said. And employees have had to learn how to navigate the different consulates for the repatriation process and to deal with airlines. Most of the time, they also must work with a funeral home in the home country of the person they're sending back.

Trying to help funeral homes across the nation learn how to better serve their Hispanic clients, the National Funeral Directors Association offers an online course, "Serving Hispanic Families."

"In communities across the United States - no matter how large or small their business - funeral service professionals are facing the challenge of serving families from another country, whose religious beliefs, customs, funeral traditions and expectations may be unlike anything they've ever encountered," the association's communications coordinator, Emilee High, wrote in an e-mail.

One difference is that, with many immigrant populations, someone's death is much more than a single family's tragedy, said Ms. Illescas from the Guatemalan consulate, which serves Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

"The entire community rallies behind the person to show their support," she said. "I've attended several funerals here (in the United States) where the whole community attends and, in Guatemala, the whole town waits for the body."

To help raise money for the services, Mrs. Esquivel's close friend, Guadalupe Castillón, went to several Spanish-language radio shows in the area, contacted local newspapers and placed boxes with Mr. Vasquez's picture in all the Latin American stores she could find.

"What I find is that, most of the time, the families will get together and take up a collection within the community to help pay to send someone back," Mr. Blevins said.

Consulates also offer financial assistance, usually between $1,000 and $1,500, but the funds are limited, Ms. Illescas said.

"We recommend that the families contact us directly before hiring a funeral home so we can direct them as to what to expect and offer them a list of funeral homes we've already work with and know the type of job they do," she said.

So far this year, the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta has dealt with the repatriation of six bodies, according to consulate officials. There were no consulate breakdowns for previous years, but nationwide the number of repatriated bodies in 2009 was 279, consulate data shows.

The Mexican Consulate in Atlanta - which serves Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama - has processed 163 repatriations so far in 2010, according to consulate officials. In 2009, they had 299.

One reason for the smaller numbers of Guatemalans is the size of the population in the region. Latest census estimates show there about 285,000 Mexicans in Georgia and 75,000 in Tennessee, according to Mexican consulate personnel.

In contrast, there are about 150,000 Guatemalans in the four states covered by the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta, according to Ms. Illescas.

With her son now buried in Guatemala, Mrs. Esquivel visits a wooden cross she placed at the site of the accident - about five minutes from her home - that bears his name. She's left with a debt of about 10,000 Guatemalan quetzales, roughly $1,000, and questions about what exactly happened to her son.

"It's like I'm seeing through a blind person's eyes," she said through tears. "I can't see anything."