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The Death of Josseline Hernández

The story of one girl’s attempt to cross the border, and her final destination

“The body was intact,” he went on, reciting details of the scene in a monotone. “She had taken off two jackets and hung them on a rock. She had a tank top on and sweatpants. Her feet were in the water.” The little pearl bracelet was on her wrist. But Josseline’s little brother had said his sister was wearing jeans, and this girl had on sweatpants.

Dan used his cell phone to call Sarah Roberts, a nurse active in No More Deaths who had helped coordinate Josseline’s case. He told her about finding the body and the telltale green shoes and the sweatpants that didn’t match up. Sarah got the message to Kat Rodriguez, who called the uncle, who questioned the brother one more time. This time, the little boy said, no, now he remembered: Josseline had put on her Hollywood butt pants. The news flew back over the cell phones to Dan. But the body was face-up, and he couldn’t see any writing. He knew enough about police procedures not to disturb the scene.

Dan telephoned the sheriff. Then he and another volunteer, Clint, drove the hour into Arivaca, marking down their route through the tangle of ranch roads so that they could give the police detailed directions back to the canyon. It was getting cold, so they picked up some hot soup in town for the two volunteers who had stayed behind with the body. In the meantime, that pair, a Frenchwoman named Marie and a refugee-rights worker named Max, had twisted some branches into a cross and planted it in a pile of rocks. When Dan and Clint got back, all four volunteers held a vigil, sitting by the body and the makeshift shrine, waiting for the authorities to come.


In the late afternoon, two sheriff’s deputies finally arrived. They gently turned the body over. On the back of the pants was a single word: Hollywood.

This memorial to Josseline was erected at the place where she died in Cedar Canyon, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of No More Deaths)

Josseline completed her journey in a white plastic body bag. The deputies dragged her out along the trail, and lashed her corpse to a platform on the back of their SUV. It was dark by then, and they had to follow Dan’s car out on the dirt roads, the two vehicles caravanning in an impromptu funeral procession. Once they hit Interstate 19, going north to Tucson up the broad Santa Cruz Valley, Dan noticed something strange in the sky. “It was the night of the full lunar eclipse,” he remembered. “It was eerie to have the orange moon disappearing.”

Josseline’s father flew in from the East Coast in a panic. Hollywood pants don’t carry much weight in the world of forensic identification, and her body was too far gone after three weeks in the elements to be identified by sight. So Josseline’s dad paid a private lab to put together his DNA profile. The testing took weeks. In the interim, a coyote kept calling Josseline’s mother, insisting that her daughter was not lost. If the family would only send him money, he promised, he would bring the girl to her alive and well. Sonia hesitated, not wanting to believe that her child was dead. But the DNA test, when it came in, was unequivocal. The probability that Santos was the father of the dead girl in the morgue was 99.988 percent. Armed with those results and a copy of the birth certificate, Pima County forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson determined once and for all that this was the body of Josseline Hernández.

She was taken to California for burial. Her mother had no plans to return to El Salvador, and she wanted her daughter close.

Two months later, in the heat of late April, Father Bob Carney, a Catholic priest from Tucson, scrambled into Cedar Canyon to say a Mass for Josseline. He brought up the rear of 30 mourners, among them Josseline’s aunts, uncles and cousins. Her parents were unable to grieve at the place where their daughter had died, and neither was her brother; as undocumented immigrants, they feared arrest. Tucson activists had turned up in large numbers. The death of the teenager had hit them hard. (“That case was hell,” Kat Rodriguez would later say. “Every step of the way was agony.”) The slow climb up the canyon was a reminder of what border crossers regularly endured. “People were getting scratched,” Father Bob said later, “stumbling over the rocks. This is what she went through.”

Josseline’s relatives were the first to arrive at the rock where the body had been found. “All of a sudden, this wail went up through that valley and echoed,” Father Carney said. “When I got there, they were truly grieving, and blaming themselves at the same time. All the emotions came pouring out in a heartrending wail.”

The priest laid an altar cloth and his chalice on the rock, and said Mass among the prickly green plants, the canyon walls rising up behind him. As he broke the Communion bread, he intoned the biblical words, “Do this in memory of me.”

The No More Deaths Phoenix chapter had made a pretty new cross for Josseline, all pink and white, painted with flowers and entwined with ribbons. After the service, Father Bob anointed the cross with oil, and told Josseline, he would later say, “How sorry I was, that we as a people, as a nation, would do this.”

Josseline’s mother had written a poem in Spanish for her daughter, and her words were transcribed on the base of the cross. They began with encouragement to other migrants who might come this way: “When you feel that the road has turned hard and difficult / Don’t give yourself up as lost / Continue forward and seek God’s help.” But it ended with a lament for her daughter: “Te llevaremos siempre en el corazón.” We’ll carry you always in our hearts.

The priest had seen many horrors in the 10 years since he’d first blessed the bodies of eight young migrants piled up in an Arizona morgue, but for him, Josseline’s tragedy stood out.

“For all of us, those who saw her, or saw her picture, she became so alive, so real,” Father Bob said, beginning to cry as he spoke, months after the Mass in the desert. “We called her our sister, our daughter, our child. Every migrant is dear to us. But she was everybody. She was all of those thousands of people who suffered and died.”

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