This article was originally published in Spanish by Pie de Página. Read the original version here.
The blue house of the Hilario Guzmán family in Malinaltepec, Guerrero stands out, a white banner with black lettering covering the left window. “From La Montaña of Guerrero Mexico we demand justice for Victor Hilario Guzmán, deceased in Bronx, N.Y. 9/23/2029,” it reads in uppercase letters.
It is the eighth day since Victorio’s burial. Returning his body in a coffin to his hometown was a journey: Victorio was hit on his electric bike on Wednesday, September 23 at 7:47 PM at the corner of Grand Concourse and 180th Street, New York, just ten minutes from where he lived. It happened as he was on his way for a delivery with DoorDash—the food delivery giant of the United States. He had left his hometown 17 years earlier.
Today the winter chill is setting in. Looking out from the plaza, where a child is playing in a plastic car, mist-cloaked mountains are visible, hills of different tones of green, maize fields, lilac and yellow flowers, wild gannets, Tila trees. In the distance are poppy plants that will flower in January, when the opium gum will be extracted.
It is Thursday, October 29. Smoke wafts off the comal on the wood-fired stove, and three brown cats are playing as lunch is served: dry beef with mole of the Montaña, a red-broth stew with various chiles, large tortillas, and café de olla. Victorio’s family is gathered: his sister Fabiola, his mother Zenaida, his father Félix, his cousin Lucero, and his sister-in-law Rosa, along with the nieces and nephews. His brothers Leonardo and Arnulfo will arrive later. The space becomes a refuge of mourning: finally, after 17 years, or 6,205 days without Victorio. Lucero, an intercultural bilingual teacher, translates for Félix Hilario, 78, and Zenaida Guzmán Barragán, 75. Their language is me’phaa (tlapaneco). Félix is despondent and Zenaida cries as she speaks. With the Covid-19 pandemic, work dried up and they live day to day, with just enough money for food. Their other three children in the United States, Elías, Celso, and Rubén, can’t send the money they usually do.
“It makes me sad that my boy had to leave to work because we are poor. His death was so sudden. He was going to come back and live with us at his house, that blue one, he built it. All I have left is to demand justice and that they find who was responsible. That they tell us why he fled,” says Félix, a white-haired farmer, to his niece Lucero.
“When my boy was little, he cut flowers to sell. With this money he bought his huaraches. His childhood was difficult because we worked cleaning sheep’s wool, so my husband could make gabanes [coats] to sell. Studying was difficult. We didn’t have enough money from our work, and we had to dress them and buy them shoes. I had nine children. That’s why Victorio decided to go,” Zenaida says in me’phaa.
Victorio’s death affected his sister Fabi, 36, a single mother with two children. She handled his money to build his houses—the second is in Tlapa, the capital of la Montaña—and with it she paid for her children’s education and household expenses. She doesn’t have other income, and is a delegate for the town, an honorary position, which aids in social programs and administrative matters in the local government.
“To grow up here is very difficult, because there are no jobs. There isn’t much, money is scarce. That’s why so many people migrate,” her brother Arnulfo continues. He also took the risk of migrating to the U.S. Now he joins the calls for justice for his brother’s death.
Suddenly more relatives enter the kitchen, bringing candles, as they are still praying for Victorio. The family is angry and cannot believe that the authorities don’t care about his death. Rage. Impotency. Sorrow. Despair. They say they feel it all at once. “We are of the same blood, from the same God, we are discriminated against for being Indigenous,” adds Fabi.
The government of Guerrero acknowledges there are more than one million guerrerenses in the United States. Most me’phaas (tlapanecos) and na’savi (mixtecos) who migrate from la Montaña live in New York. They work in service jobs, agriculture, and construction. The migrants come from the 19 municipalities of this Indigenous region, where more than 300,000 of the state’s 3.5 million people live. The pandemic did not stop migration from Guerrero, and migrants continue to leave the state’s seven regions.
In addition to migration, municipalities like Malinaltepec, Metlatónoc, Zapotitlán Tlablas, Atlixtlac, Cochoapa El Grande, Tlacoapa, Atlamajalcingo del Monte, and Acatepec share another accessible economic activity: growing opium poppies.
During the pandemic, the Secretariat of International Relations (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE) reported that as of December 4, they had coordinated the repatriation of 397 deceased Mexicans from the United States, with the support of airlines, federal government agencies, state governments, and the consular network. As of November 30, there were 2,968 Mexicans reporting to have died in the United States of Covid-19 and 18 in the rest of the world.
The chancellery created a guide for the Transport of Remains and Ashes of Mexicans deceased abroad. But the program did not aid the Hilario Guzmán family, and they paid for the transportation of Victorio’s remains on their own.
Elías Hilario Guzmán shared a room with his brother. Sometimes they were able to share meals or go out in the neighborhood together. His life in the United States has been all about work.
In his 18 years in the U.S., Elías had never taken part in protests. This October, it was his turn to lead them. With other immigrants, he demanded the removal of Consul Jorge Islas López, who since Victorio’s death has only given them a letter of condolences, which said that the accident took place in Queens, not The Bronx. Elías thinks that the missives are generic. They have not received any legal aid.
On November 4, they received the news that Ernesto Isidoro Guzmán, another food delivery worker, was killed on his bike in The Bronx, in a hit and run. He was 43 and originally from San Juan Epatlán, Puebla. The eighth of the year. Victorio was the seventh delivery worker killed.
Elías, 43, is friendly. He stopped working for DoorDash to complete paperwork, including what the Mexican Consulate of New York required to receive $1,800. He has held several vigils at Grand Concourse and 180th Street, where there is now a ghost bike—a memorial placed for Victorio. Neither Elías nor his brothers will return to Guerrero until the culprit is in prison.
It is not a coincidence that both Victorio and Ernesto died in the same way: run over while making food deliveries.
In several interviews during November and December over WhatsApp video calls, phone calls, and messages, Elías confirmed that they have not received the $1,800 from the consulate. This money hasn’t helped them, or the flowers that the consul brought to the first vigil, 20 days after the crash.
On October 15, the first vigil took place in The Bronx.
“Delivery boy workers. They are essential workers.” Friends and family members of Hilario Guzmán, the consul Jorge López, senator Gustavo Rivero, and activists all attended. Just from San Juan de las Nieves there are 30 people in New York, many of them cousins and nieces and nephews. People from other communities close to Malinaltepec, including La Ciénega, attended. They have also experienced the same tragedy without any justice.
The protest was in three languages: me’phaa, Spanish, and English. “Nanda Xúri mambanú numuu Victorio Guzmán nangua iya xú…” read one sign, demanding justice, the most repeated demand of the protest.
There were mariachis on the sidewalk. All the participants wore facemasks. When he took the microphone, Elías repeated that delivery workers are mostly immigrants who risk their lives so that people do not have to go out and risk contracting the virus.
Mirna Lazcano, a migrant rights activist and community organizer in East Harlem, called out the companies for not giving minimal labor rights to the delivery workers. They are not even legally considered employees.
“DoorDash, UberEats, they marginalize them, they discriminate, some people who make orders rob them, assault them. When they report this to the company, they’re suspended, the police take away their bicycles, they extort them, demanding $500 fines to give back their tool they need to work.”
She continues, “It’s an embarrassment that we’re treating with such classism. Migrants are the pawns of the chess board. When will the time come for inclusion, that these people have a life with dignity, Mister Consul?”
Consul López said he was sad and angry. He said that there would be justice for this seventh fatality and that through the consulate’s legal team they would demand a fair compensation for Victorio’s death from DoorDash.
Two months and five days since this public pronouncement, made in front of journalists and on FacebookLive, at the time of this publication, the consul still has not helped the Hilario Guzmán family.
On October 24, Elías attended another protest-memorial. Members of the streetmemorials.org team, the Five Boro Bike Club, and the Bronx Transportation Alternatives Committee installed a ghost bike in memory of Victorio at the corner of Grand Concourse and 180th Street in The Bronx. Across the city, these bikes, hung with flowers, have something in common: they are often for immigrants.
In a November 15 press release, Danny Harris, the director of Transportation Alternatives said, “Two people died this weekend from preventable crashes on New York City streets. To date in 2020, at least 22 cyclists and 82 pedestrians have been killed. With more than 210 people killed in traffic violence so far, 2020 is projected to have the most traffic deaths of any year during Mayor de Blasio’s time in office.”
New York is not capable of securing safe streets for cyclists. “Only three percent of the city’s total protected bike lane mileage is in the Bronx, compared to about 50 percent in Manhattan,” according to the organization.
Elías says that he and Victorio started working for DoorDash because they lost their formal employment at the start of the year at KingDeli. He organized sodas and other convenience store products while his brother managed the register. He still has videos from the deli, where Victorio worked for 14 years. His brother Rubén kept his job in a restaurant kitchen.
“Did you have good income with DoorDash? How were you contracted?”
“We didn’t have a contract, you fill out an online application and they accept you to work and they send you the bag to carry the food, and a card to use in the restaurants to pay for the food. The base pay is $3 per order, and sometimes they add a $2 bonus. So you earn up to $5. If the costumer adds at least a dollar or two for tip, you’re up to seven, eight dollars, as much as $10 per order.”
“How many deliveries did you make per day?”
“Before, when a lot of people didn’t want to work because of the pandemic, they sent you orders quickly: you could do 15, 20 deliveries in a day, and make about $100. It depends how fast you work, if you deliver more quickly, you make more money.”
But $100 isn’t enough when the rent on their apartment, which is less than 80 square meters, is $2,500 a month. They split it four ways: Victorio and Rubén, his brothers, Martín, a neighbor from la Montaña, and Elías. They all also send money home.
Being a migrant in the United States isn’t easy. Elías and his brothers had to walk hours through the desert, drinking dirty water, evading the police, running. The first brother to migrate was Arnulfo, who arrived in 2000 and was in New York when the Twin Towers came down on September 11, 2001. The next year, Elías borrowed $900 from his older brother Eutiquio, a teacher, to make the journey. In total, the coyote charged him $1,500.
His father borrowed 4,000 pesos for Elías to travel from Guerrero to Mexico City, then on to Hermosillo, Sonora, and by car to Altar, Sonora. From there he walked for hours, and then paid 300 pesos for someone to lead him to the border fence. At 8 PM they jumped a wire at the border and ran for 20 minutes, until they began to walk again. There were 27 people in the group that the coyote lead, including seven women.
Elías’s journey from Guerrero to New York took seven days. He had never been so thirsty. He reached the city in February 2002. With the help of other migrants, he found a job that paid $250 for six-day work weeks, and then another in a pizzeria where he was paid $300 a week. He sent $600 to his brother Celso who reached New York in August of that year. Victorio, with the help of his brothers, made the same journey in February 2003. He first worked in a pool hall until, along with Elías, he got a job at KingDeli. In 2005, Elías went back to Guerrero to see his children in San Juan and he stayed for five years.
DoorDash has not provided them with any information. The company send a condolences letter, but they need to find a labor lawyer to demand fair compensation. DoorDash, which is based in San Francisco, had a revenue of nearly two billion dollars in the first nine months of 2020.
Activist Joel Magallanes, director of the Tepeyac Association in New York, which works for the rights of Indigenous migrants, says the situation is difficult because the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the city and there have not been aid programs for undocumented migrants.
Another problem that the Hilario Guzmán family in New York has protested is rent payments. Magallanes says that some people were thrown out of their home without being able to catch up on payments. It is not that they did not want to pay, but people lost their jobs. Additionally, in New York City, immigrants have died of Covid-19 in disproportionate numbers.
Lawyer Juan José Gutiérrez, director of the Coalición Derechos Plenos says that this year the disregard for immigrants has not changed. After September 11, 2000, many Latino immigrants who were at the site during or after the Twin Towers came down have died without support or recognition.
In the meat industry, processing plants depend on the labor of immigrants. There are more than 600,000 workers, who have been recognized as essential, without their rights being recognized, including when they died or are injured. Neither are workers in the service industry properly recognized, in this country where more than 300,000 have died of Covid-19. Immigrant detentions and deportations have not stopped either.
At four in the afternoon on September 26, at 37-year-old, Victorio died in a hospital bed at St. Barnabas in The Bronx, New York.
Three days early he was eating caldo de pollo and tortillas with his brother Elías Hilario at their apartment in Fordham Manor. They were planning to eat tacos with pollo dorado and soup when he returned from making the delivery. He left home at 7:03 PM, shortly after seeing the notification from the application. He was happy because he had just changed the tires on his bike.
Just after 10 PM on September 23, police inspectors arrived to notify the family about the crash. Elías opened the door, he was just about to eat the tacos. He went straight to the hospital with his brother Rubén. He thought that Victorio was only injured.
When they arrived at the hospital, staff told him his brother was brain dead. Victorio’s neck was broken upon impact with a black Honda Concord, which was later found in Michigan. Elías, Celso, and Rubén wanted their father to travel with a humanitarian visa to say his final goodbye to Victorio, as rituals at the time of death are fundamental in Indigenous communities. If his soul is not sent off, the grieving continues.
“I spoke to him and he cried. I tried to open his eyes, but he did not react," says Elías. "Just two tears fell. I told him not to leave us, that he was going to heal, that he had to try, that I would be with him. I spoke to him, saying everything I felt, what we have lived through.”
Elías received his brother’s clothes. He loved football, and in the 10,000 photos and videos recovered from the cloud, there were photos of his last birthday, the 4th of July, in which you see his brother Celso and Rubén cutting a cake with their cousins and family. Smiling.
Abel Barrera Hernández, director of the Human Rights Center of la Montaña Tlachinollan (Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan) says that the pandemic displayed what is known as “Tlapayork,” for Tlapa, the central municipality of the Montaña where most migrants go to New York. There is a whole community from Guerrero living in the U.S., but the structural causes of migration are largely overlooked by consular services.
Guerrerenses face death going to the United States. But the conditions of poverty in the Montaña leave them few options.
Until 2017, the price per kilo of opium gum in the region was around 15,00 pesos. With the price dropping, it was no longer profitable for people to invest money and work for four months of the year to cultivate an illicit crop. This year people resumed planting in various municipalities such as Malinaltepec and Acatepec. This, along with the increase in internal migration: a record of agricultural laborers, more than 14,000.
Planting poppy is not easy, so people chose to go to the northern states as laborers, harvesting tomatoes and chili peppers, or cross the border. Soldiers destroy their plants or put them in jail, even though they are only growing the crop, not processing the drug.
“Poppy was part of the community economy, but it is not a safe market.” The Hilario Guzmán family told stories about poppy. They say it has been the choice of many families, who are stigmatized, murdered, disappeared, and imprisoned. Elías Hilario remembers that they begin to dream of earning dollars, just to avoid dying or planting poppy. “There are families that all their children begin to work it as if it were a milpa. It is the only option because there are no jobs.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Office of Victims of Crime was notified of the family, and they were slated to receive benefits as soon as possible. Elías Victorio says that it is not true, nor is it true that the New York Prosecutor's Office took responsibility for funeral expenses, as stated in the document.
“The case was referred to consulting attorney Andrew Carboy, who is exploring the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit with the employer. However, the lawyer does not consider that the case has many options," according to the Ministry.
Elías Victorio dismisses that information. He says that he and his family are alone, that is why activists helped him. So far, they have collected more than a thousand dollars through a Go Fund Me.
The afternoon was cold in both Guerrero and New York. Fabiola, Rosa, Félix, Zenaida, Arnulfo, and several of their nephews and nieces witnessed over WhatsApp as their brother was disconnected at the hospital. He is the second brother to die, the first was named Octavio, killed by gunfire in the town, in circumstances never clarified.
Vania Pigeonutt is a journalist from Mexico, focusing on on issues of human rights, defense of territory, places in conflict, migration, and gender.
Ximena Natera is a visual journalist specialized in issues of human rights violations, migration and processes of historical memory in the region.
Translation by Martha Pskowski.