The small white coffins containing the bodies of three children brutally killed in Baltimore arrived Saturday in this grieving farming village for an all-night farewell by hundreds of townspeople and relatives.
"It is the saddest thing that has ever happened to this town," said Berta Bolanos, who operates a public telephone in this village of a few thousand, where many travel by donkey and cut mangos from trees in the searing sun for less than $200 a month.
"What we are going through is killing us. It hurts the soul," said Venancio Espejo, uncle of one of the slain children, Alexis Espejo, 10, who was decapitated May 27 in Baltimore. Two of his cousins, Lucero Quezada, 8, and Ricardo Espinoza, 9, were nearly decapitated in one of the city's most gruesome crimes, said Baltimore police, who have arrested two other relatives and charged them with first-degree murder.
"What can we do for the children? The only thing we can do is say a last goodbye," the uncle said.
The three coffins were driven in a five-hour funeral procession from Mexico City through majestic mountains and orchid-filled valleys to Tenenexpan, the home town of the children's parents. "Why, God? Why, God?" screamed Alexis's mother, Maria Andrea Espejo, beside the flower-covered coffin of her son. Minutes earlier, she had lifted the lid and fainted into the arms of relatives.
The bodies arrived by plane Friday in Mexico City. The children's final resting place, some 2,000 miles from the northwest Baltimore neighborhood where they were killed, is a gentle slope overlooking lush green fields.
The children's burial was planned for Sunday in the village's cemetery, where, as one relative said, "all of those who have left, ultimately return."
By some estimates, half the town has immigrated to the United States to seek better-paying jobs. A headline in the local paper read, "Tenenexpan weeps for Alexis, Ricardo, and Lucero." The article described the village, which has one main road and many dirt paths, as a "ghost town" because so many had abandoned it for work north of the border.
But Saturday, it was anything but abandoned as hundreds of relatives and friends arrived on foot and by donkey, car and taxi from nearby villages and faraway cities. The immediate family members who had been living in Baltimore illegally will be allowed to return temporarily to the United States after the funeral, U.S. immigration officials have said. Their testimony in the homicide cases will be needed in court. The Mexican government paid the cost of the families' and the bodies' return for the funeral.
"This has really brought the town together," said Leonora Lopez Lozano, who offered for the wake a large room her family once used. The room was decorated with candles, flowers and three crosses. After the coffins were lifted inside the room and teddy bears were placed inside, hundreds of mourners filed in. Many said they planned to spend the entire night before the coffins.
Lopez said that "even people who were not part of the family" brought tamales, chicken, bread and other food to feed the crowds.
Alexis and his mother, Espejo, left for the United States from Mexico City as recently as December, Lopez said. "Like many, she left with the illusion of going to the United States to make more money there," Lopez said.
She said that Espejo had been working as a secretary in a legal office in Mexico City, but that she complained of low wages and decided to risk crossing the U.S. border illegally with Alexis before Christmas. Lopez said that she didn't know exactly how they crossed, but that a typical route is to fly to Tijuana and cross near there.
Alexis and his mother came to Tenenexpan in November to celebrate the popular Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, during which families honor deceased relatives. Several villagers recalled seeing Alexis, a cherubic boy with brown eyes and brown hair, enjoying the country life, rolling in the dirt near chickens.
After the killings, a grandmother of Alexis's was told he died in a "bad accident," relatives said, because they believed the ailing woman would die if she knew the details.
Likewise, a grandmother of the other two children was not told they had died, to spare her the heartbreak. She was one of the only relatives not at the wake Saturday, said a family member who described the killings as "simply too ugly to understand."
Apart from speculation, people in the village said they had no idea why the killings happened. Several close relatives of the children said they found it difficult to believe that the two suspects in jail in Baltimore, Adan Espinoza Canela, 17, and Policarpio Espinoza, 22, could be responsible. Both men are related to the children. They were born in the village of La Capilla, about a two-hour drive from Tenenexpan in the state of Veracruz.
Espinoza Canela's mother, Teresa Canela Chacha, cried as she spoke by phone from La Capilla. She said her son had only left for Baltimore a little more than a year ago, after tiring of his low pay at a creamery, where he helped with cows and delivered products. For eight days of work, his pay was meager: $40, two quarts of milk and a pound of cheese, she said.
With word of what wages are like in Baltimore, it is hard to keep youth in Mexico, Canela Chacha said. She said her son had sent money to her twice. "How I cried when he left," she said. "I don't think my son is ever coming back."
An uncle of Alexis, Venancio Espejo, said the horrible details of the death have added to the grief. "With adults. there might be grudges or hateful problems," he said. "But what could a kid have done to provoke this?"
Amancio Dominguez, 70, who drives a truck in Tenenexpan, said he was furious. "The people who did this should be tied to a pole and burned with gasoline, so they feel what the children felt," he said.
Noemi "Mimi" Quezada, the mother of two of the dead children, arrived in the village Saturday for the funeral service. She had returned to Mexico only once during the nearly eight years she had been in Baltimore, said her brother, Miguel Angel Quezada Morales, 56.
He said she returned last Christmas because their mother was so ill. The trip is costly and risky, he said.
"She wanted to live in the United States in order to give her children more opportunities," said Quezada Morales, as he sat on the porch of the modest brick home in which he and his sister, and nine other siblings, were raised.
He said his family is counting on the U.S. justice system "to do everything it can to find those responsible for this most ugly crime."
Staff writer Nurith C. Aizenman and Mexico City researcher Bart Beeson contributed to this report.