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Unresolved Grief and Ambiguous Loss — Using Music to Remember

This mural located at 1023 Grand Avenue in Phoenix, AZ was created by Karlito Miller Espinoza, Lalo Cota, Jeff Slim, Julius Badoni, Chip Thomas, Jenn X. Chen, and Thea Gahr. The mural was inspired by the work of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.


We were met with a piercing wind in New Jersey after an hour train ride from the city. Driving past the calm Jersey countryside proved a stark contrast to the iconic towering New York City skyline. The scenic ride leads us to the Salazar home—an impeccable house on a serene plot of land built up by Mateo Salazar Hernandez himself. We were greeted with a loud, boisterous, and warm welcome that was all too familiar for me and Perla Torres, who was on her first official visit as the Family Network Director at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights based in Tucson, AZ.

The work of the Colibrí Center at its roots is simple: upholding the human dignity of all those lost on the US-Mexico border. The Colibrí Center dedicates its efforts to identify the remains of migrants found along the southern Arizona border with Mexico in an effort to find those that have been reported disappeared. To date, the Colibrí Center houses well over 4,000 missing migrant cases in their database and has collected over 1,000 DNA samples from hundreds of family members across the United States and the Americas. Every single family member searches inexhaustibly for answers about what happened to their loved one(s) who were last known to be crossing the Sonoran Desert. Currently, Colibrí is working alongside the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to identify the remains of 1,200 human beings.

Colibrí champions the conversation about ambiguous loss, a unique form of grief that families of disappeared people experience. It differs from what we traditionally know as grief because families of disappeared people are not afforded closure, answers, or even a body to grieve, leaving many floating questions that seem to have no answers. This specific type of loss can have devastating psychological effects on those who are searching. Anxiety, insomnia, uncertainty, and blame, on top of physical ailments like diabetes and high blood pressure are often reported as challenges faced by the families working with Colibrí. "This suffering is not only unnecessary but may also constitute torture," said Roxanna Altholz, Professor of Law at UC Berkeley before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who held a hearing between the Forensic Border Coalition and the FBI. This hearing was made for the purpose of holding the United States government accountable to their international obligation to provide information about the whereabouts of victims who disappeared within the U.S. The Colibrí Center forms a crucial part of those coalitions.

“This type of ambiguous loss leaves the families of those who have disappeared to be left with no clear answers with what happened to their loved one. The continuous search for answers oftentimes leads to delays in the grieving process or unresolved grief,” states Torres. Further, it is crucial to understand the use of the word disappeared versus missing. The Colibrí Center along with organizations in Europe as well as the Americas make the distinction because the word "disappeared" denotes a purposeful act. We know that the disappearances of migrants across all militarized borders are not accidental: they are the direct and anticipated outcome of xenophobic and racist policies.

We can trace the beginnings of these senseless losses to 1994 with the Border Patrol Strategic Plan. Since 1998, well over 7,505 human beings have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and at least 8,000 have been reported as disappeared. Human rights defenders and immigration justice advocates know these numbers to be a vast undercount given that the death records are reported by Border Patrol. This is an enormous conflict—the agency tasked with enforcing the inhumane policies that lead to the deaths of thousands cannot be trusted to accurately report on the magnitude of the true death toll nor do they form any reliable part in recovering or identifying remains. In addition, it is civil society organizations keeping records of disappearances reported by families who are searching, which also leaves a gap in the numbers. Just because someone is not reported missing, does not mean they made it to their destination. There are so many reasons as to why someone who disappeared crossing the border may not be reported: some migrants come from rural agricultural areas where families would have to travel large distances to find a phone line or an office to seek help; linguistic barriers; families simply do not know of the existence of organizations such as Colibrí, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, No More Deaths, Ángeles del Desierto, Aguilas del Desierto, or the South Texas Human Rights Center.

The Salazar family formed their own search team immediately after learning something had gone wrong in the desert of New Mexico where their 60-year-old father was crossing the border. They contacted Angeles del Desierto, a volunteer-based search and rescue organization that operates almost solely in Arizona. They made an exception for them and gathered 40 volunteers to search in New Mexico, which is a border not traditionally used by migrants given the mountainous geography. Mateo’s son and granddaughter drove 36 hours from New Jersey to New Mexico to search for him not once, but twice. Each time leaving still without a trace of their loved one. Mateo has been disappeared for nearly two years. Colibrí sees cases of disappeared migrants ranging anywhere from a few weeks to 20+ years.

Walking into the Salazar home, one can feel that there is a missing presence. Usually, when Colibrí visits families to collect oral history testimonies for Historias y Recuerdos, 2-4 family members are present. The Salazar home is much different. Not only was Mateo’s wife and adult children there, but his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren gathered to support and listen to the extremely detailed story being told not only about their search but about who Mateo is. Their unity also made it strikingly clear that there is a missing piece.

“I remember my dad would be outside at 5 am mowing the lawn and singing his songs. We would get so upset that he would be out there! But then we’d all laugh when he would say he was tired around 7 am.” Mateo was an active, lively man who was thoroughly involved in every aspect of his family’s life.

His son recalled the times they would enjoy maybe one too many beers and break out in song together, laughing the night away. His granddaughter who refers to him as “Papá” recalls the way he raised her as if she were his daughter. Following his disappearance, she gave birth to her baby who she lovingly named after her Papi. “I spent my entire life by his side except for the three years it took him to bring me over to the United States," she recalls.

Families of the disappeared simply want one thing: to put an end to their uncertainty by knowing what happened to their loved ones. Because ambiguous loss is tied to mental health and emotional challenges, “the family network emphasizes self-care, mutual support, and mental health awareness,” says Torres. In order to meet these goals of the family Network, I asked Perla what Colibrí is doing in the age of COVID-19 since travel to any of the cities in which families gather is not possible right now. Perla & the Colibrí team had mapped out a travel schedule for the year to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York but then had to refocus their efforts amid this public health crisis. “We cannot travel but we already had online communities running before this. In March, April, and May we focused more on resources for families.” One of the largest groups of families reporting to Colibrí is actually in the New York area. Colibrí was able to tap into an incredible relationship with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team headquartered in New York to route families to locations for free COVID-19 testing, help families find online religious ceremonies to virtually participate in, find educational resources for Spanish-speaking parents who are now tasked with homeschooling their children and find food banks among other resources.

Although the pain of not knowing where their father is is insurmountable, the Salazar family much like the hundreds of families that form the Family Network, show incredible resilience. Their strength comes from the memories they continue to keep alive by sharing oral histories of their loved ones who they hope to find through the DNA Program Colibrí manages. The process of identifying remains through DNA matching can take anywhere from 6 months to one year, and that time can pose more challenges with anxiety, uncertainty, and ambiguous loss along with accepting the idea that their loved one may have lost their lives crossing the border.

This is where the Family Network forms such a crucial support system for these families whether online or in person. “The Family Network allows families to freely express themselves through storytelling, community building, and most importantly, as a way to actively partake in the search for their missing loved one,” explains Torres. One of the most powerful and healing tools families can utilize for healing and remembrance is storytelling. “Many of these stories refer to music. Families are able to recall their loved one’s favorite song, the way they danced, and honor a memory brought to life by a tune,” says Perla.

This rang so true while we visited the Salazar family in New Jersey. After explaining the hardships of making two road trips to New Mexico as a mixed-status family, not coming up with any answers, and be left reeling in the loss of their father, the Salazar family was still able to recall the beautiful moments Mateo created in his life. “They talked about his optimistic spirit, his taste in food, and his constant humming of ‘Despues de Tanto Tiempo’ by Jose Maria Napoleon.” In the midst of us exploring the life of Mateo, his wife, three children, and four grandchildren were all singing along in memory and honor of their loved one. Fighting back tears, Perla and I witnessed one of the most beautifully heart-wrenching moments in our young careers as human rights protectors. “The ability to remember through art or music is so unique to the human experience,” Torres explains.

This experience got Perla’s mind working. “I knew this was a story to be explored with other families.” This is how she and her team birthed the idea of creating a Spotify playlist that consisted of missing loved ones’ favorite songs. “We really wanted these songs to be lively and happy but were ready to receive songs that may be more full of despair and sadness.” To their surprise, families slowly began submitting songs to add to the playlist. Although they somewhat expected a playlist that reflected the sadness and unresolved grief families experience, the playlist turned out to be, “lively cumbias and songs that you listen to on a Sunday afternoon with your cafécito!” Perla happily boasted.

The Hermandad Playlist is indeed an eclectic collection of songs ranging from Johnny Cash to Valentin Elizalde to Eagles to Agustin Lara. I truly see a reflection of the diversity of the family network in this playlist as well. The families of disappeared migrants look like your neighbor, your favorite grade school substitute teacher, or the smiling cashier at the best coffee shop in your town. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of people are affected by forced disappearances carried out on behalf of xenophobic and racist border policy.

Since Operation Gatekeeper 25 years ago in California, thousands of people have died and disappeared along the U.S.-Mexico border and continue to perish as we speak. Alejandra Hernandez, the Coordinator of the No More Deaths Search and Rescue hotline explained to me that they are anticipating the yearly rise in calls from families reporting lost or disappeared migrants as of May 15 onward. With social distancing practices being observed by humanitarian groups, more precaution is being taken when sending out teams to rescue folks stranded in the vast and unending Sonoran Desert.

We must not forget them. Not now, not ever. We have to fight for a New Border Vision that honors all life and upholds human rights above a false notion of national security. And ultimately, we have to work toward the fall of all borders. No human being deserves to die for crossing an imaginary line on stolen land. No family should suffer the unimaginable pain of not being able to grieve a lost loved one.

Please listen to this playlist via Spotify and get a glimpse of all the unique, irreplaceable, human lives sacrificed in the name of xenophobia and racism. We hope this playlist brings you closer to immigration justice work being done by Colibrí and many other organizations and activists.

You can follow Colibrí on Instagram and Facebook to keep up with their work, purchase their amazing “Migrar Es Amar” t-shirt & donate to this extremely necessary work. It has been the ultimate honor of my life to work for this organization, meet so many incredible families, partners & human rights workers, and contribute my small grain of sand to this movement.

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