DELANO — Grieving family members laid their tear-stained faces against the pewter-gray caskets. It was the closest they could come to embracing the loved ones inside.
Some 400 mourners surrounded them in familial support Monday as the community of farm workers in this northern Kern County town gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church — once the parish church of famed farm labor leader Cesar Chavez — to pay their respects at the funeral Mass and viewing of Santos Hilario Garcia, 35, and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto, 33, husband-and-wife farm workers who died in a March 13 car crash while trying to evade ICE agents.
The deaths have laid bare feelings of sorrow and fear in this community.
“Marcelina and Santos were not criminals. They were hard workers who only wanted to provide for their family,” said United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez, who attended the hours-long services Monday.
The UFW and its foundation have been assisting the family — and especially the six orphaned children — since the day of the crash, Rodriguez said.
The service, conducted almost entirely in Spanish, began with a short, emotional procession. As the caskets were escorted by family members from two black hearses to the doors of the Catholic sanctuary, the sounds of a brass band could be heard in the background.
Monday’s services were expected to be the only opportunity for the couple’s six children, ages 8 to 18, to say goodbye before their parents' bodies are transported home for burial in Guerrero, Mexico, with help from the Mexican Consulate.
No one expected their lives to end so soon.
But stories of more aggressive enforcement by federal officers already had many in the farm worker community spooked, so when the couple were approached by federal agents, they apparently fled in their car for fear of being deported. They crashed and died just blocks from their home.
Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Richard Rocha described the Garcias' deaths to The Californian as “an isolated and extremely unfortunate incident,” and urged all individuals encountered by federal agents to cooperate. He placed the blame on sanctuary-state policies that have made it more difficult for ICE agents to detain undocumented immigrants in jail, forcing officers to conduct more operations in communities.
But Delano resident Aurelia Talavera, 65, who worked in the fields for most of her life, shared nothing but empathy and love for the grieving family.
“I feel the same pain they feel,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s important to support them.”
But many feel they could be next.
“A tragedy like this could happen to anyone,” she said. “They did what they did because of fear.”
The marathon service and viewing continued into the lunch hour at the local church, which has played a historic role in the farm worker movement. The adjacent church hall was where, on Sept. 16, 1965 the Latino members of Chavez’s union voted to join the Delano grape strike begun that month by Filipino grape workers.
After the prayers were repeated and repeated again, after hymns were sung and communion taken, the caskets at the front of the church were opened. Mourners, many carrying a single carnation, waited for a chance to view the bodies and offer a single flower to the departed.
The family declined to speak to the media, but UFW Foundation Coordinator Nancy Oropez, who has been assisting the children since the day of the crash, said the parents had been in the U.S for about a decade and a half and were in the country illegally.
Four of the six children are U.S. citizens.
“They are good kids,” she said. “They’re involved in school and in sports, and one is in the Delano Police Department Explorer program.”
Following the funeral, hundreds of attendees walked in a procession from the church to Almond Tree Middle School where lunch and cold lemonade was served. Dishing up plates in the food line was Rosalina Rivera, superintendent of the Delano Elementary School District.
“We support the children,” she said of the six Garcia siblings. “It is up to the district and the community to support them. We are blessed to have them in the district. They are good kids. They have loving hearts.”
But many people are now living in fear, she said.
And there are consequences.