EL SAUCITO, MEXICO, JULY 8 -- At the end of yet another rainless day, five of the 18 men who suffocated in a boxcar in Texas last week were buried here today on a sere hill, 410 miles from the country whose allure led to their deaths.
"There is no work here," said Salvador Lopez Hernandez, whose brother Alfonso occupied one of the flower-bedecked coffins lying in state on the tiny village square. "So my brother said that he would go to the other side to find work and perhaps come back. I did not believe he would come back this way."
It looked as if most of the 5,000 people in this windblown, high-plains village -- men in their cowboy hats, women in dark shawls, children often barefoot in the unpaved streets -- had turned out to honor the dead. It was as if all present saw these dead as theirs.
No one had to ask why these men went to the United States. It is what so many do to survive and to feed their children here in the state of Zacatecas. Together, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacan and Guanajuato -- four of the 32 Mexican states -- account for half of the Mexicans who go to work illegally in the United States, says Gustavo Verduzco, a Mexican emigration expert.
"We are stubborn people in whose faces one can see the red and barren soil," said the Rev. Jose Cordero Ortiz, the village priest, in his homily at a joint funeral mass. "Should we die in our lands or die in a simple train? This is not an ideological question; it is a personal question."
At the mass Tuesday night to receive the bodies home from El Paso, Cordero said: "Today, we are news in this town, where every day we see the hopeless frustrated, where our poor peasant sows with the sweat of his brow and reaps hopelessness. There is no other path for him but to emigrate."
Fourteen hours after a smuggler locked them into a Dallas-bound freight car, 18 men, including these five undocumented workers from El Saucito, were found dead last Thursday in a dawn check of the train by U.S. Border Patrol agents. They had made it only as far as Sierra Blanca, Tex., 22 miles east of the Rio Grande.
Many of the dead were bloodied from clawing themselves in airless agony. The lone survivor had breathed through a hole he punched with a spike through the boxcar floor.
In all, 10 of the dead were from Zacatecas, including five from Ojocaliente in the same rural township as El Saucito. Six others came from two villages in the generally more prosperous state of Aguascalientes to the south. The two other dead men were believed to be smugglers, legal U.S. residents born in Mexico.
The men from Aguascalientes were buried today in their home towns, Pabellon de Arteaga and Tepezala. The dead from Ojocaliente, Zacatecas, did not arrive until today, so their funerals were delayed.
The joint funeral here had to be delayed, too, until late this afternoon. For some reason, permission to bring home the body of Jesus Lopez Zamarron had not been completed, so his body did not arrive until today with the Ojocaliente men.
The news of the victims' identities came impersonally, like so much electronic lightning, from radio and television news broadcasts. Victims' families in El Saucito and Ojocaliente went to the mayor of the township. He talked with higher officials and gathered photographs to be sent to El Paso for positive identifications.
Thus, about 100 peasants came to be gathered Tuesday at the airport of the state capital, Zacatecas City. Two hours late, a plane provided by the Mexican Justice Department landed.
After the twin-engined prop Beechcraft set down, none of the families seemed sure why they had to wait another half-hour. Then the state governor, Genaro Borrego, arrived.
"This is a call to our conscience to work in a more unified way, to find a way for our people to live a more dignified life without having to leave their homes," Borrego said to a Mexican TV camera.
Borrego embraced someone from each family, then three black coffins and one white one were carried across the taxiway to three waiting ambulances and a Chevrolet station-wagon hearse. The procession raced away for El Saucito, 55 miles to the east.
At the dirt turnoff to the village, all of El Saucito was waiting.
The first half-mile of the three-mile dirt track to the village was lined on both sides with cars and pickup trucks, filled with women in black shawls. Men and children stood shoulder to shoulder on the truck beds. Children in ragged clothes milled in the dust, and tumbleweed blew across the treeless plain.
Many of the mourners wept. Others stared numbly, and only sobs and the winds could be heard until an official of the peasants union proclaimed over a loudspeaker, "Start your engines. Let us take our sons home."
The engines revved and through the dust and the ruts, past stunty corn and fields of edible cacti, they did.
In town, the white-washed stucco church stood outlined in lights on the hill. At the outskirts, many on foot were walking toward the church.
"Why am I going?" said a bent old man with a wooden crutch. "Brother, my son has gone to Texas, too."
The regional minimum wage here is $2.25 a day, but there is so little work and such a surplus of willing workers that many employers pay half that amount. Some, said Cordero, the priest to this village and 16 others, pay only in food.
"This is the beginning of the desert," Cordero said today as he gazed across the plain, elevation 7,500 feet, toward the equally barren mountains in the distance. "We have nothing here. People are just born here, and they just go on until they die."
Going on has become a harder task all over Mexico in recent years, but especially in these four states that send so many of their sons and a few of their daughters to El Norte. They get just enough rain to allow them to be fairly populous, but not enough to sustain many of their residents well.
The head of Mexico's National Food Program, Sergio Reyes Osorio, figures that 30 percent of the nation's approximately 70 million people have problems getting enough food. One of five in the countryside, he says, suffer from malnutrition.
Meanwhile, the official minimum wage has risen 193 percent in the past two years, but the prices of basic foods have risen 387 percent. Prices for fruits and vegetables have risen sixfold. Meat consumption has declined 30 percent in the past five years -- beans by 6 percent -- even as the population has grown.
"The people from the state government come out, and they just talk; they don't do anything to help," said Antonio Chavez Mendez, 37, an unemployed laborer, as he stood on the edge of the packed village square. "There's no rain; there's nothing. But we have each other, so I came here today."