Dia de los Muertos: Remembering Fallen Workers in the Promised Land

Elena Herrada stands at an ofrenda honoring five men whose lives were unfairly taken from them by their employer.
Elena Herrada stands at an ofrenda at the Bowen Branch Library in Detroit honoring five men whose lives were unfairly taken from them by their employer. Photo: Mike Shane

By Elena Herrada

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition made increasingly popular each year through globalization. One of the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement is migration of culture, customs, language and people. The tragedy of NAFTA, as always, is the human side. Corporations win and, by now, rule. Entire villages have lost their young people to the treacherous trek north. Conditions have been made so unlivable that thousands of people have come to work in the U.S. for far less than their U.S.-citizen counterparts. The five men who are remembered in this ofrenda (Day of the Dead altar) are casualties of the greed of a particular restaurant owner, Roger Tam, who owned Kim’s Garden in Novi, Michigan. The case of these five men is especially egregious because they were his employees, lived in a house provided by him, and were victims of a fire that started in the basement of the home.

What little is known of the case is even more disturbing. As I set out to create an altar for them, I realized that the traditional things one puts on the altar were not available to me. I had no pictures of them, no idea what they liked or what villages or cities they came from. I reached out to the Mexican Consulate to no avail. I left messages for them, but received no response. I even filed a Freedom of Information Request with the Novi Police and Fire Departments, but beyond receiving a request for extension, this went unanswered.

The newspaper articles stated that the fire was “likely started by reckless smoking” by the men locked in the basement. Initial reports were that Roger Tam went to the house to pick them up for work but found the house on fire. He called the Novi Fire Department and told them that no one was in the house. Although the house was located in a plush subdivision in Novi, Tam and his wife moved out because of a bedbug infestation, leaving the five men to their basement residence. They worked six days a week, 10 hours a day, and had little time for leisure. They had lived in the U.S. for six months at the time of their deaths.

A small protest was held at the Federal Courthouse following the sentencing of Roger Tam. Judge Marianne Battani sentenced Tam to nine months in prison for “harboring illegals.” The signs with their names on them above the altar on the window sills of the library are the signs from that protest. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “We cannot always prevent injustice, but we must never fail to protest.” The story of these five young men, who came so far from home and did nothing but work, who lived together, worked together, travelled together and died together so broke my heart that I could not forget their lives. Getting information about them has been nearly impossible.

I know nothing of them, except they had lives. They had hopes. Impunity is a term used for criminal behavior by high level officials or rich people, usually associated with Mexico and Latin American countries. But here, the judge acted with impunity when she sentenced Tam to so little time and there was no investigation to charge him with murder or manslaughter for these Mexican lives. The courts do not protect poor people, The courts allow impunity and thus, we can only find an avenue of redress in our remembrances of the people , the lies, the truths. Each act of humanity is an act of resistance. Their hopes were crushed by the greed of a man who owned a restaurant and who owned his workers.

The ofrenda has no pictures of the men because none were available. I put traditional items on it, such as flowers and some Mexican candies in take-out food containers to acknowledge that they were restaurant workers who died from greed and exploitation. The light sentence the judge gave to the owner of the house was less than he would have gotten had he locked animals in a burning house; thus, there are pieces of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights torn up and decorating the altar. There is also a ripped up U.S. Constitution because human beings are treated as if they did not exist. They are not entitled to the rights of receiving minimum wage, overtime, vacation pay, health care or any other rights. These men were treated as slaves. Their boss was allowed to continue to live his life even after causing the deaths of  these young migrants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 24: ”Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

There are small muertes on the altar that represent what people did during their lives: happy little skeletons to represent a musician, a doctor operating on a patient, a couple riding a motorcycle, a teacher and a student. They represent what these young men will never achieve because their young lives were stolen in the fire.

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Article 4
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 13

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Ironically, workers are criminalized while employers face no consequences for hiring undocumented persons. Tam only went to prison for “harboring illegals.” As a landlord, he acted criminally. As an employer, he acted criminally. Regardless, he was allowed to act with impunity by the judge.

Article 14

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.Article 23

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

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