A final journey homeby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
More Mexicans are living in the U.S. than ever before and as they die, many families decide to send their loved ones back home to be buried. The process is called repatriation. The decision is an emotional one that often comes at a high cost.
St. Paul, Minn. — Inside his second floor apartment in Minneapolis, Ramon Sandoval is clutching a picture of his younger brother. Sandoval's wife is sitting nearby. She looks away from her husband - and scans a Mexican soap opera on TV - to keep the tears from sliding down her cheeks.
"All this is so difficult for me right now," said Sandoval, 34. "We were always together. I just can't understand that he's over there and I'm over here, now."
Ramon and Jorge Sandoval did everything together. They were born in a mid-sized city in the middle of Mexico.
In the late 90s, Jorge Sandoval decided to cross the U.S.-Mexico boarder in search of higher wages and an American dream. A year later, he helped his older brother cross the border, too. They eventually made it to Minnesota.
Life was lonely, but the paychecks were steady. The men dreamed of saving enough money before returning to Mexico together one day.
That dream was cut short last month, when Jorge Sandoval died in a fatal car accident in Minneapolis. He was 32.
Ramon Sandoval said they never talked about what they'd do if one of them died in the U.S. But after the accident, he knew his brother had to go back home.
"My mother hadn't seen him in nine years, so logically, she wanted to say goodbye to him," Sandoval said.
The logistics of sending a body across international borders can be overwhelming for families.
Imelda Fonseca is the Latino community liaison at Funeraria La Paz, a branch of the Thomson-Dougherty Funeral Home in Minneapolis.
She's the go-to person for grieving Latino families, who are more often than not here illegally.
"I can tell them from the beginning, don't worry, everything is going to be just fine, because I'm going to help you," Fonseca said.
The funeral home offers two repatriation packages, which range from $3,500 to $5,500. Neither includes the cost of airfare or funeral services in the home country.
Ramon says the final price tag distressed him terribly.
"In all, it cost about $8,000," he said. "Where were we going to get $8,000 from?"
The Mexican Consulate in Saint Paul can help families with small donations of a few hundred dollars to help with the funeral expenses, according to Consul Ana Luisa Fajer.
Once the bodies make it to Mexico, the Mexican government also picks up the tab for transportation to the person's hometown, Fajer said.
"Sometimes they come to us and ask for support," Fajer said. "There are so many [cases] that we have to be careful" in distributing contributions.
The Saint Paul consulate covers all of Minnesota, the Dakotas and northern Wisconsin. It's helped coordinate the repatriation of more than 150 bodies since opening in June 2005, according to Fajer. Consulates of other countries have similar assistance programs, too.
The funerals and repatriations have also led to informal community fundraising efforts around the Twin Cities.
At Taqueria Los Ocampo on Lake Street, owner Armando Ocampo has been letting families put collection boxes inside his restaurant since 2003.
"I think it's helpful because a lot of people can drop $1, $10, $50," Ocampo said. "I see people dropping a lot of money into the boxes. I think it's one of the ways we can help them."
With help from the consulate, the collection boxes, and other donations, Ramon Sandoval was able to gather enough money to send his younger brother home.
Seven days after the accident, Jorge Sandoval's journey was complete. His body was laid to rest next to his maternal grandfather in the family plot in the state of Mexico.
Back at their Minneapolis apartment, Sandoval enters his brother's room, which has remained unchanged for the last month.
"Sometimes I can't even come in here," he said. "I have to ask my wife to do it."
Ramon Sandoval flips through a family album for the first time since his brother died. He smiles when he sees old pictures of family vacations in Acapulco.
Ramon Sandoval laments not having been able to take his brother to his final resting place. He's in the U.S. illegally and worried he would not be able to return.
"It was so hard to let him go," Ramon Sandoval said. "I wanted to go with him, take him to his grave and tell him, 'Now you're gone, but at least I brought you home.' I wanted to go, but I couldn't. I just couldn't," he said.
Ramon plans on sending his brother's belongings to Mexico soon. And he says he takes comfort in knowing that whether it's in life or in death, he'll return home one day, too.
- All Things Considered, 11/26/2008, 5:50 p.m.