A Final Vigil

Community members meet one last time to remember those who died crossing the border

Members of La Coalición de Derechos Humanos gathered last Thursday, May 25, at downtown shrine to light candles in honor of migrants who have died crossing the border.

They helped each other shield the little flames from the wind. Then they sang a song.

"Si quieres paz, lucha por la justicia," they sang in unison. "Si quieres paz, busca fraternidad."

If you want peace, fight for justice. If you want peace, look for brotherhood.

But this was the final time the group would come together for a regular gathering at El Tiradita Shrine, at 420 S. Main Street just south of the Tucson Convention Center. While members of Derechos Humanos hope community members will continue to honor those who lose their lives in the desert, the group will no longer be organizing the weekly event.

"Death doesn't end along the border," said founding member of Derechos Humanos Isabel Garcia. "Our border policies continue to churn people up, disappear people. We've degraded any ability for humans to be able to pass, and so I think it's imperative that we come here all the time."

For 17 years, the human-rights group has been holding the vigil at El Tiradito. Members have sung, prayed and lit candles in honor of the thousands who've died for 890 consecutive Thursdays—in the rain, cold or heat, even (or especially) on Thanksgiving.

Around 30 people gathered on May 25 to hold vigil. In Spanish and English, they spoke about the vigil's purpose and explained why the official weekly vigil was coming to an end.

People also talked about the possibility of a new border wall and the need for more press coverage on human-rights issues on the border.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has recovered an average of 171 sets of human remains annually in the border region of the Southern Arizona desert from 2002 through 2015, for a total of 2,465 remains. In that time, Derechos Humanos has painted just as many crosses, each one representing someone who died trying to cross into the U.S.

Father Ricardo Elford led the vigil for many years, and longtime activist Jon Miles took over a couple years ago. Miles can no longer lead the vigil weekly because of health issues and couldn't find anyone else who could make the weekly commitment.

While members of the group won't have an official weekly vigil, they encourage people to keep coming on Thursdays, and they promise occasional organized vigils at the shrine.

Immigrant-rights activists have been holding events at the shrine since 1976, Garcia said. El Tiradito, which means "the castaway" in Spanish, has come to be known to many as the "shrine to the immigrant."

Derechos Humanos held their first vigil at the shrine in 1997, in honor of Esequiel Hernández Jr., an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who was killed by a group of Marines while he was herding sheep, about one mile from the Texas-Mexico border.

Over the years sometimes few showed up for the vigils, and other times as many as 200 attendees came from across the country and the world to bear witness to the humanitarian crisis happening on the border.

"Students and people from elsewhere come here, and we tell them to take it back to your communities, to your churches, to your colleges," Miles said. "Tell people what's going on here because the press is not covering it."

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