By Andrea Johnson
The Razorback Reporter

Nearly 400 people marched in Springdale early this month to commemorate immigrants who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

So far this year an estimated 318 have died, according to Missing Migrants Project data. Between Oct. 1, 2014 and Sept. 30, 2016, 573 people died at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection report.

The march was organized to coincide with Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Latin American and Spanish holiday that honors deceased ancestors by building altars decorated with photos, flowers, food and drink in preparation of their return home on All Soul’s Day, Nov. 2.

Leaders of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center organized their first Día de los Muertos march, beginning at Thompson Street and ending with a procession at the Shiloh Square in downtown Springdale. The Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve working conditions for low-wage and immigrant workers, according to the Justice Center website.

Traditionally, Día de los Muertos celebrations include vibrant colors, music, food and dancing to honor the dead. This event featured similar elements of tradition but focused on honoring dead immigrants and “making people think about how immigrants live in this country,” said Magaly Licolli, executive director of the Justice Center and 2013 UA graduate.

“Day of the Dead has become very popular in the U.S.,” Licolli said. “We see more people being aware of this celebration, so we wanted to take this celebration to also raise awareness about the current situation of immigrants.”

Justice Center officials have assisted in cases of workplace abuse, offered training sessions to inform low-wage workers of their rights and advocated for poultry workers to have safety equipment, according to the website. Licolli wanted the event to serve as an invitation “to stand up for (workers’) rights and keep fighting,” she said.

Some who participated in the march wore decorative skull face paint, also known as “calavera,” and some dressed as “chinelos,” or costumed dancers who celebrate Mexican culture. A team of artists, including locals and Maria Villamil from Los Angeles, helped create giant puppets, sometimes referred to as “mojigangas,” for the march.

As they neared the square, participants chanted phrases in Spanish including, “Sí, se puedes” and “Estamos aquí y no nos vamos” – “Yes, you can” and “We are here and we are not leaving.” At the square, Licolli and other local community leaders spoke and the chinelos led the crowd in dancing.

A group of Latina women from across the state performed an original play based on the stories of local immigrant workers, said Simone Cottrell, outreach manager for The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. The Justice Center collaborated with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre in Fayetteville to create a performance that told the story of an immigrant worker who traveled from her native country, worked in a poultry plant in the U.S. and died on the job.

“You see the cycle of life go all the way through death, but life still goes on and the spirit still goes on,” Cottrell said.

The short play fell in line with the theme of honoring the dead, creating visibility for oppressed immigrant workers and preserving culture, said Cynthia Martinez, an event organizer and 2017 UA alumna.

“It’s important to preserve our culture and our traditions, and it’s important that we tell our stories and not have other people or corporations tell our stories or sell our culture,” Martinez said.

Junior Lucy Espino volunteered with the Justice Center to meet the service learning requirements of professor Juan José Bustamante’s course, Latina/os, Migration and the U.S. South. Espino enjoyed working with the artists and learned about local workers’ struggles, she said.

“I learned way more than I imagined,” Espino said. “You don’t really think about it. No one tells you about it.”

Licolli thinks the event played out successfully and anticipates a similar event next year, she said.

A version of this article appeared in The Arkansas Traveler.