DE LEON SPRINGS, Fla. — In the little dress shop on Highway 17 where cowboy hats and ostrich boots share space with gowns of satin and lace, nine fidgety girls try on the quince gowns they will wear at the pageant.
But their teenage giggles are sliced with talk of death. And faith and family. And being buried in a homeland a thousand miles and a gulf away. Soon, the girls will compete in a special pageant in which beauty falls second to charity. They're raising money to help pay for the proper burials of Mexican migrants who die here. The pageant is as much a celebration of honoring the dead as it is about youth and grace — a strange juxtaposition of beginnings and endings.
"This is not really about being pretty in a contest. It's about helping our community," said Cynthia Salazar, 17. "I have had two friends die recently, so I know how much help is needed."
In this tiny migrant community, nestled between the far suburbs of Orlando and the sands of Daytona Beach, the rite of death, whether it's a final journey back to Mexican soil or funeral services here, whether it's an old man who lived a full life or a baby boy whose life was taken, is precious, revered and owned by the larger community.
It's why teenage pageant girls go door-to-door to collect dimes, quarters and dollars to be used for burials. It's why some undertakers quietly store bodies until enough money is scraped together. It's why some Mexican families drive the bodies of their loved ones in pickup trucks all the way back home.
And it's why when a 3-year-old was run over by an SUV driven by his mother two weeks ago (July 15), the plastic collection jugs with his picture pasted on the front were placed in Mexican restaurants, supermarkets and bakeries across town — less than 24 hours after his death.
For just about every person who dies here, there are strangers, bonded by ethnicity and traditions, who answer the call.
"It is our responsibility to help make sure that after we die, there is dignity," said Antonio Nava, 44, the founder and president of Hispanos Unidos de America, a small nonprofit organization formed last year to help the poorest members of the community with burials, including repatriation of the dead to the villages back home. "So many of our people don't have anything, so we try to help. We believe there's a certain honor in going home, an honor in being buried at home."
The girls had all seen the jugs. Some had even contributed to them.
So when the idea of the pageant came up, it wasn't a hard sell.
"My friends and I decided to enter this contest because we wanted to help our people. When people die, the family needs help in getting them back to Mexico," said Briceida Espinoza, 16. "It was a lot of fun."
Briceida, who was 4 when she moved here from Bejucos and who dreams of becoming a psychologist, collected $406 and was crowned the winner last month, the first-ever Miss Hispanos Unidos de America.
"When I think about it, my family is doing OK," she said, "but if something were to happen, I would need help, too."
And so, throughout the year, this organization — just 11 Mexican-born fern cutters, construction workers, housekeepers — hosts the pageant and dances and concerts to celebrate their culture and raise money.
Just about every Monday after work, members meet in a borrowed auto-insurance office lined with donated church pews. They are here to talk about life and death — the inevitable journey home and ways to improve the lives of northwest Volusia County, Fla.'s tight-knit, growing Mexican migrant community.
So far, Hispanos Unidos has raised $14,000 and helped nine families, including one of its own, a passionate volunteer who died in February when her husband shot her and then killed himself. All of the dead, except two, were buried in their native land.
Poor Mexican immigrants face limited options when burying a loved one: Have the body cremated or buried in the county's indigent graveyard, or scatter collection jugs carved from milk cartons or coffee cans in Mexican stores. On rare occasions, the Mexican Consulate in Orlando provides some assistance.
A typical funeral and burial, whether it's here or in Mexico, costs between $3,000 and $6,000. But getting a body repatriated is a detailed, weeks-long process. The body is embalmed and placed in a casket and an outer container required by the airlines. Documents must be processed in Orlando and sent back to the local funeral home. A flight, most likely to Mexico City, must be arranged. The airlines accept only one or two bodies a day and only on certain flights. And a funeral home there must receive the remains.
"They are helping their people through a difficult process," said Richard Clifton, funeral director and owner of Allen-Summerhill Funeral Homes, one of two in the area that work with Hispanos Unidos. "Without them, families would be at the mercy of how our society over here works."
The mission of Hispanos Unidos was born from the jugs, which had become this dreadful symbol of death in the community.
"We just kept seeing the jugs," said Alma Nava, wife of Antonio Nava. "A lot of people work in the fields and don't have insurance. We knew there was a need."
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Somebody came by the old beige house and placed a palm frond, carefully twisted into a cross, on the spot where the little boy died. Somebody set up a shrine just inside the front door with white roses and photos of the 3-year-old. Candles have burned since his death July 15.
Juan Octavio Esparza Benitez was killed when his mother, Yadira Benitez-Morales, 20, accidentally backed over him with her SUV. She thought he was inside. He died in his own front yard, steps from where he used to play.
The next day, well before lunch, a tall, pensive man in a black SUV pulled up at the house, knocked on the door, and offered prayers to Juan's mother and grandmother, plus something more practical — a promise to make sure that the boy would be buried properly. He was a godsend for Benitez-Morales, an unemployed single mother who sold tamales to help make ends meet.
"As soon as I heard the news, I knew we would do something. I knew that the family was really poor," said Lucio Ramirez, vice president of Hispanos Unidos. "I got here as soon as I could."
Hispanos Unidos mostly helps families get loved ones back to their native Mexico, but these were extraordinary circumstances.
So, Ramirez, dressed in black slacks and a white shirt to show respect, went to work immediately. He accompanied the grandmother, Lucia Benitez, to a local funeral home to help translate and make arrangements. He told the funeral director that he would be back with a check.
They decided that the boy, who would have turned 4 this September, was too young for a homeland burial. Juan would be buried here.
A Mass was scheduled for July 21 at St. Peter Catholic Church, a lovely century-old chapel. A Mexican businessman who asked to remain anonymous donated a $44 ceremonial ensemble for the boy to be laid to rest in — a delicate white gown blessed with an embroidery of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the front, a smock and a cap.
On July 16, Juan's grandmother came to the group's regular meeting at the gray clapboard building. She filled out a formal application for assistance and handed a tiny plastic bag containing the baby's clothing over to Ramirez to deliver to the funeral home.
"I don't know what I am going to do," she said. "My daughter just looks at the pictures of her son over and over. She won't talk."
Inside, the group decided on an initial check of $1,500 and maybe more, depending on how much the Benitez family could raise.
Now, the angelic face of Juan Benitez is pasted to dozens of collection jugs sitting on countertops in stores all along Highway 17. Somebody put the clear plastic jars out on July 16, and by the end of the day, crumpled $10, $5 and $1 bills and coins were accumulating.
Juan's jar sits next to that of three construction workers killed in nearby Pierson last week.
"This is the way we raise money in our community. That and go door-to-door," said Elizabeth Ramirez, 20, who canvassed the area with collection cans after her father, Pablo, died of a massive stroke in January. "We all give to help."
But the $600 that Ramirez collected was not enough. She turned to the group. They paid to have Pablo Ramirez's body prepared — embalmed and placed in a casket and a wooden crate. Family members loaded his body onto the back of a pickup truck and drove him to Zacatecas, a state in the north-central region of Mexico. It took two days.
There, the family held a church service on a cold winter afternoon.
"You can't imagine what it feels like to have to take your dad carried home in a truck," Ramirez said. "But Dad always said he wanted to be buried back home."
The Mexican story in northwest Volusia County starts nearly four decades ago, when the first arrivals came to work the ferneries and nurseries. Slowly, the community began to establish itself, first opening supermarkets and restaurants.
Last year, the first 24-hour Mexican radio station began to broadcast in DeLand, Fla.
"Our community is somewhat established," said Cesar Perez, 41, owner of the shop that loaned the dresses to the girls for the pageant. "We have been here for a while. Now we have to start working on getting us representation, politically. We are trying to become more visible."
Hispanos Unidos' most passionate volunteer was a mother and grandmother named Maria Ramos, a pleasant woman who ran a housekeeping service. She was a board member and the group's champion.
"She made us know we could do it. She was a cheerleader," Alma Nava said.
"She talked about helping people all the time. And the importance of what the group was doing," said her son, Miguel Ramos. "She loved that group."
On Feb. 26, Ramos was killed by her husband as she tried to open the front door. The husband then killed himself.
"My doorbell rings at 5 a.m. and police are standing there and it was all surreal," Miguel Ramos said.
At the time, both Miguel Ramos and his wife, Sheryl, 22, were students at local community colleges. They had a 4-month-old son, Alec. They had decent jobs, but certainly not enough to pay for a double funeral.
"The group pretty much handled everything. They took me every step of the way," said Ramos, who now supports the group's programs.
Hispanos Unidos contributed $3,000 to fly the bodies home to the border region of Mexico. The community made donations, too.
"I can't explain how much easier they made it for us," Sheryl Ramos said. "They were our family."
(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.
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