Malín Jimènez
Malín Jimènez

Pascual Miguel Pascual tried with a shaky voice to articulate what he felt after his younger brother disappeared in a tributary of the Columbia River this summer.

“When you experience that kind of pain, there are not really words that can describe what’s in your heart,” said the 28-year-old Guatemalan immigrant.

After four days, rescue crews recovered the young man’s body, allowing the brothers’ Maya Catholic community to hold a funeral Mass and begin processing their grief. But as in many immigrant families, there were mourning loved ones thousands of miles away.

“For our mother and father in Guatemala, they wanted to say goodbye, they wanted to bury him,” said Pascual. “That was very important.”

The fees associated with transporting a body internationally can range from $5,000 to $15,000, a staggering price for most recent immigrants. Pascual supports his four children working for a cleaning company; Jose had been employed at a Mexican fast-food restaurant. “We were not prepared for this, and my family didn’t have the money on our own,” said Pascual. 

A newly formed burial society, or collective, however, was equipped to help. Organized last year by local Maya Catholics, it supports families with funeral expenses, including the cost of shipping a body to Guatemala. Pascual’s family was the first to receive assistance.

It’s a simple arrangement: Anyone 18 and older can ask to be put on a list indicating they will contribute $50 when a member of the community who’s on the list dies. They too are eligible for the pooled funds. 

Jose Pascual is pictured near the Willamette River across from downtown Portland last April. (Courtesy Pascual Miguel Pascual)

The group is comprised of 120 people — primarily members of Portland’s St. Andrew Parish, the spiritual hub of Maya Catholics in the region. The collective “is something special and something we needed,” said Romeo Jimènez, a permanent deacon at St. Andrew and a Guatemalan immigrant. “It’s like putting your hand in another’s hand when they are suffering.”

Groups of Guatemalans first began settling in Oregon in the 1980s as human rights violations and political violence escalated in the Central American country. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Decades later, violence and extortion by criminal organizations and gangs remain serious problems and motivate many people to leave.

As Guatemalans have arrived in Oregon, they’ve brought many Indigenous languages and cultures, including that of the Maya. A diverse group of Indigenous people, the ancient Maya lived in parts of present-day Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and had one of the most sophisticated civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. Today, around 7 million reside in their original homelands and in countries across the globe.

To meet the spiritual needs of the Catholic Maya community growing locally, St. Andrew more than 20 years ago began offering a monthly Mass in Q’anjob’al. It’s the only Mayan-language liturgy in the archdiocese and currently draws around 150 people from Cornelius, Hillsboro and Portland.

Malín Jimènez (not related to the deacon) is a Guatemalan Maya and member of St. Andrew. Her mother reached Oregon in the 1990s after fleeing violence. “She worked hard picking blueberries and strawberries until she had enough money to bring all the kids and my dad here,” said the 31-year-old.

Jimènez is employed by a Portland nonprofit advocating for improved transportation, housing and air quality for the Latino community. She also volunteers to interpret for Maya and connects them with rent and food assistance. She said when members of the Maya community die, they support one another with prayer — usually a novena beginning on the day of death — and different levels of financial aid. Some start a GoFundMe account.

“People fundraise and help, but that’s not always enough for funeral costs and shipping a body,” she said. Because most Maya in the region are first-generation immigrants, there are especially strong links with Guatemala. “Parents there want their children buried next to them,” said Jimènez.

The Guatemala Consulate has a fund that can help cover the cost of repatriating some migrant bodies, but not everyone is eligible. Even if they are, a number of documents are needed for approval and there can be delays.

“People would call me and say a family member passed away and they don’t know what to do, they don’t have the money,” recalled Deacon Jimènez. The burial society was a response to such distress.

Most immigrant communities rally around one another when there’s a tragedy, and if a Guatemalan Maya was not on the list and needed assistance, they “would still receive our care and financial support,” said the deacon. But the society provides a level of security and peace of mind that is unique. “There’s not always a good way to help someone who is really hurting,” he said. “This kind of help means a lot to a family.”

While most members of the collective are St. Andrew parishioners, some belong to other faiths and a few live out of state. The goal is to offset the bulk of expenses whether the family opts to bury the body locally or send it to Guatemala.

The group covered $6,000 of the $8,000 needed to transport Jose’s body to his parents this summer. “It was very, very helpful for us,” said Pascual, adding he was grateful for the recent opportunity to contribute $50 and assist another family.

Life remains difficult without his 21-year-old brother, a quiet young man who sang in the Maya choir and loved to ride his bicycle around Portland.

“When I hear of someone else dying it really affects me, I feel emotional,” said Pascual. “But to have the support of the community through all this, it helps dealing with the sadness.”