a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
We were unaware of anything unusual happening out there, a crisis arriving on our doorstep, until the greyhound, who had grown so accustomed to the scores of resident jackrabbits he didn’t even notice them anymore, barked. If you spend enough time in the desert, where your closest neighbor might be half a mile away, you notice subtle shifts in color, small movements in the mesquite. We had been on the back patio enjoying a breakfast of black coffee with vanilla yogurt with fresh strawberries and pecans, our usual. I rose from the table at the disturbance and glanced in the direction the dog was barking, but saw only shadows behind the barn, which we used for vehicles rather than horses. The shadows moved when I raised my hand over my eyes to shield the glare.
“Hey,” I shouted and turned over my shoulder to get NW’s attention. “There are some guys by your motorcycle.” Two men crouched next to a spigot at the open end of the barn, where a buried PVC pipe carried water from our well. When they saw me walk around to the front of the house, they stood; one waved an empty plastic milk jug over his head. I knew immediately they were not from this valley, which is home to cattle ranchers, retired BLM managers and railroad workers, business owners, educators, artists and writers, and other folks who defy categorization. I knew what these two were doing here.
The population density here in the San Simon Valley is estimated at fewer than twenty people per square mile. At fifty miles north of the U.S./Mexico border between the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona and the Peloncillo Mountains in New Mexico, we lived at the intersection of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts—hot and dry during the day, surprisingly chilly at night. It must have been a long and lonely trip for these two men, with few safe places along the way to stop.
“Come with me,” NW said, sprinting to the barn. “You can practice your Spanish.”
The two men looked to be in their late twenties. One wore dusty black pants and a sweatshirt of indeterminate color with a hole in it the size of a grape. The other was shorter and stockier and wore an adobe-colored T-shirt, faded jeans, and a woolen cap. He had a scar through one eyebrow.
“¿Tienen agua?” The one with the scar held the battered milk jug out toward me, hoping for water, too polite to help himself.
“Sí,” I said. I kept my eyes on their hands as I reached for the container and leaned over to open the faucet. Like most of the residents in this valley, I grew wary when strangers appeared on my property, although it hadn’t always been this way. The one in the sweatshirt shifted his weight from foot to foot and looked nervously over his shoulder. I followed his gaze, searching for Border Patrol vehicles or more migrants. In the desert in the summer, the landscape looks like an overexposed photograph, reflected light bouncing off random objects like naked rock and cholla until the air itself shines like polished glass. A heat shimmer vibrated off the valley floor. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, but already the temperature was in the nineties.
It was the summer of 2006, the year Border Patrol detained more than one million unauthorized migrants who tried to cross the southern border. How do you count the number of people who cross a political line contrived by governments? How do you tally people who try hard to be invisible? I have seen life-sized shadows duck into washes and behind yucca at the sound of my car approaching on Highway 80. When hiking in Sulphur Draw along the mounds that rise between the mountains and our house, I came across trash left by people who also hiked these trails, not long before me. At first I was irritated that someone littered my hiking trail, practically in my backyard. But then I took a closer look at what had been left on the ground—a pair of sneakers so worn through the rubber had come away from the edges of the soles. Empty bottles of pain relievers, labeled “¡Super fuerte!”; Band-Aids “de color piel”; dented cans of Red Bull. Miniature prayer books. Diapers.
It is more possible—“easier” is not the right word—to count the failures: the border crossers who have died in the desert. Pundits estimate that from 2000 to 2006, an average of 200 migrants died every year crossing the border in Arizona, which was the busiest state in the country for both crossings and deaths. In 2006, Border Patrol rescued more than 2500 migrants from life-threatening circumstances. These statistics do not count the demise of those who have never been found. The primary cause of death began to shift in 2005 from exposure, including dehydration, heat stroke, and hyperthermia, to “undetermined,” suggesting that human remains were being discovered in more remote areas—in side canyons, deep washes, and rocky ledges—and were more decomposed when found. These statistics challenged me to consider the great hunger that sets a group of people on the move—a hunger for a better life and safety for themselves and their families. The craving for an opportunity, however small, to feel your dreams are not dreamt in vain. Security measured by the incremental removal of negatives, like fewer death threats, less chance of gang violence, reduced degree of desperation. The too-heavy burden of hope carried by the people who died here.
“Podemos trabajar,” the one with the scar said. It was a declaration of their abilities, an assertion that they were here to contribute, more than an offer to trade labor for whatever we could give them. According to estimates from various studies designed to find answers for these dilemmas, 260,000 to 290,000 undocumented migrants worked in Arizona in 2005. An estimated ten to fifteen percent of them harvested the oranges, grapefruit, lemons, tangerines, lettuce, melons, and other fruits and vegetables Arizona is famous for. Many others worked in construction; some did handyman jobs on cattle ranches. Tougher law enforcement, shifting economics, and changing social standards were shrinking opportunities for migrants moving north. The two men at our barn were counting on the value of undocumented migrant labor in this new social economy. But on this desert morning, under a sun that made even the cholla appear to perspire, they were two hungry men who would be grateful for even half a chance.
I turned to NW, thinking of the leaking irrigation lines that ran to our fruit trees and of the gate on the trash enclosure that had blown down in the last storm. “Is there anything for them to do around here?”
“We’re already being watched,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of our neighbor’s property, the adjacent forty acres to the east. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she already called Border Patrol.”
Our neighbor and her husband had been living in Sulphur Canyon for more than ten years, in a double-wide with a yard full of chickens and rabbits. More than once she told us about the two migrants who knocked at her door one evening about three years earlier when her husband had been out of town. When she stepped outside, more than seventy men appeared out of the snakeweed, hungry and terribly thirsty. The neighbor fed them all the food she had, including the beans she had simmered overnight and all the fruit, carrots, tortillas, and pan dulce she had just bought at the Wal-Mart in Douglas, fifty miles away. She was afraid that word would get out that hers was a friendly stop along the way north, leading to more of these visits. She was also more than a little scared and worried what they would do when they learned she had called Border Patrol. She could tell from their lack of swagger they weren’t drug runners and therefore were unarmed, but she didn’t know what she would do if they started to run away. Would Border Patrol think she had tipped them off? Could she be charged? These were real concerns to anyone living so close to the border, anyone dealing with constantly shifting rules and rumors and judgments. Now when migrants appear on their property, she and her husband pull out a shotgun, command everyone to sit down, and demand their shoes before calling Border Patrol. “I’m on a pension,” she explained to me one afternoon. “I can’t afford to feed everyone who comes through here even if I wanted to. Then I would be the one with no food.”
Ask a local cattle rancher if he has any stories about hiring the men who traveled through the valley every spring, and he can go back generations. Individuals have been coming through this valley for hundreds of years looking for work. Many local old-timers worked for the San Simon Cattle and Canal Company, which they called The Hs because of their brand. Now they say they can’t estimate how many “passers-by” they fed since they built their homes in this valley. How many meals they shared with strangers with few words in common around the kitchen table. Like most locals, these ranchers often left their doors unlocked when they weren’t home. A man passing by could help himself to a meal in return for performing a few odd jobs such as mending fences or chopping wood. Migrants would come in to their kitchens, help themselves to the leftovers in the ice box, then wash their dishes and leave them turned upside down to dry on the drain board. One rancher told me about coming home to find a note in Spanish listing all the things taken from the house—pan, queso, agua—and a few centavos on the table, with an apology. Our neighbor to the west, who had worked for the U.S. Forest Service, told me a similar story. “In the old days we used to count on the men coming through to help us with the fencing and fixing. I remember one fella who took off north with my tape measure. He returned it five months later on his way back south. I put him to work that time, too.”
No matter which story I repeat, whose version I use—together they form a mosaic that paints basically the same picture. Migrants and locals shared a trust and a need for decades, until things started to unravel. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan, made it illegal to hire the people migrating north from the border. Businesses—including cattle ranches—that knowingly employed unauthorized migrants could be fined up to $2,000 for each person hired. Get caught again and the fines could more than triple. From what I have read, as available migrant jobs in agriculture, construction, and service industries began to decrease, the buyers’ market for Mexican marijuana increased. Drug sales became another revenue stream, pursued by a new group of people for different reasons. Americans have been buying illegal drugs for centuries, and various administrations have funded their own wars on drugs. In my lifetime, that includes Ronald Reagan in 1986 and George W. Bush in 1990, Bill Clinton in 2000, and Mexican president Felipe Calderón in 2006. The same neighbors who used to tell stories about hiring border crossers gradually began telling stories about discovering people hiking over the Chiricahua peaks with pounds of marijuana strapped to their backs. By 2007, the amount of marijuana seized in Arizona had more than tripled in ten years.
“There’s so much drugs through here now, you can’t trust anybody coming through,” my neighbor, the former Forest Service manager, said. “Hell, just last month Border Patrol stopped a hundred and fifty kilos of pot going through Sulphur Canyon. That’s just one month – and it’s just what they caught.”
From 2005 to 2006, the residents of this valley had increasingly more border crossers showing up unexpectedly on their property. A new sense of danger pervaded the area like a low-level fog that snakes through the foothills and obscures the horizons. At a potluck the evening before my visitors appeared, the conversation, as usual, turned to immigration. Houses broken into, things stolen. As we stood beside a buffet table laden with cheese enchiladas, pork tamales, refried beans, and wedding cookies, we shared stories. One woman told of driving Highway 80, the only paved road coming north from the Mexican border, with a handgun on her dashboard. “I leave it there so they’ll see it,” she said. Another woman said that three men who appeared to be migrants stood in the middle of the highway, refusing to move. “Until I gunned it,” she said. “There’s something intimidating about the sound of my Hummer when I gun it.” I didn’t ask why she drove a Hummer in a community thirty miles from the closest gas pump, but I did ask what happened next. “They got out of my way and I went on to pick up my kids at school. Whatever you do, don’t stop.”
Our barn was in clear view of our neighbors, who could easily see the four of us standing at the water faucet. The only sounds in the morning stillness were the whirring call of a cactus wren and occasional low clucks from a covey of quail. I knew that aiding undocumented migrants was a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. In 2006, Border Patrol agents were still on friendly terms with the locals because they were the only law enforcement within a hundred miles. But if our neighbors called Border Patrol (and everyone here had those numbers taped to a kitchen cabinet or on the refrigerator), I could only hope they would leave me and NW alone. I knew they would pick up the men at our barn and take them to Lordsburg to begin processing them for deportation. They might also choose to save themselves the paperwork and just drop them off near Antelope Wells on the other side of the border, in a desert area with no facilities for miles, where they would no doubt turn around and cross again. In 2006 only a four-foot cyclone fence separated New Mexico from Mexico at the crossing at Antelope Wells. But in October, President George W. Bush would sign the Secure Fences Act to extend existing border fencing by 700 miles, mostly through Arizona. The Clinton Administration in 1994 and 1995 had built border walls and fences in San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso, and increased the number of Border Patrol agents in those urban areas by a factor of five. Sealing off the traditional, safer routes of migration shifted traffic to the more rugged parts of the desert. The strategy was to stem the flow of migration into California and Texas; officials assumed that people wouldn’t risk their lives crossing through the Arizona desert, including this hot, dry valley. They were wrong. In New Mexico, just across the state border from here, that journey is called La Jornada del Muerto.
I weighed my options as I handed the water jug back to the two men. “¿De donde vienen?” I asked. I searched their faces but saw only traces of the formidable obstacles they had met along their journey. The one in the sweatshirt gave me an unexpected half-smile, as if to put me at ease, when it should have been the other way around. I should have been the one smiling, projecting friendliness, but I was still too uneasy. The man with the scar replied that they had come from Agua Prieta, the Mexican town on the border with Douglas that served as a funnel for undocumented migrants. But I knew that the border town wasn’t where they were from originally. “¿Pero antes de eso?” I asked. The one in the sweatshirt said he was from Durango, Mexico; the man with the scar reluctantly admitted he had traveled from Honduras.
“Honduras!” I said, surprised, although I shouldn’t have been. “¿Cuántas semanas que fueron viajar?” I asked, struggling to remember the present perfect tense of “travel.” I had no idea how long a trip from Honduras would take, but I knew it wasn’t days. I figured it involved weeks of accepting rides from coyotes, hopping the train called “La Bestia” (also called “el tren de la muerte” and “el tren de los desconocidos,” but always known as the dangerous, illegal, and sometimes only way to get across Mexico) and walking north from Agua Prieta. I tried to imagine preparing for such a long trip. I understood why they would be in my yard holding only an empty plastic milk jug.
“Tres meses,” the Honduran said, staring at the ground. He crouched down and picked up a handful of sand, letting it sift through his fingers. “Es una vida dura,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. “Una vida dura.”
For a second I thought I saw his eyes darken with grief under his woolen cap. I recognized traces of memories crossing his face, no doubt of the past three months, images that haunted him as he wandered: the family he had left—wife, daughters, sons, parents—who waited for his return, for news of where he was and where he would end up. For that brief moment, suspended between his past and his future, now both uncertain, he looked like he had seen a ghost—the ghost of the person he had been when he began this journey, a person he scarcely remembered.
Nothing in my history would motivate me to trudge along desert mountain trails at night for three months, but I have never known the kind of misery that drives men and increasingly more women with children to leave behind everything familiar. Border Patrol agents have told me stories about following women’s and children’s footprints along the edges of steep mountain trails, only to watch the smallest footprints disappear. “We can only assume someone picked up those children and carried them through the narrow spots,” the agents said and I hoped they were right. Neighbors in Portal have told me about watching a line of people filing down a ridgeline at dusk, dressed in traditional Central American clothing that was inadequate protection against the snow that was still falling. Poverty, fear, desperation—all strong forces that compel people to weigh fear against risk and begin this journey. All elements in the making of a despair I hope I will never know.
In 1892 my Irish grandparents arrived at Ellis Island, the first dedicated immigrant detention facility in the world. That was forty years after the end of the Great Hunger in Ireland that killed one million people, one-eighth of the population in the country. Six years later, my great-grandfather, a survivor of the Great Hunger, followed my grandparents from the west coast of Ireland to America. From 1800 to 1900 almost four million Irish citizens emigrated to the U.S., including many other members of my family. All arrived at a border, hungry for the American dream.
“¿Cuántos kilómetros hasta Willcox?” the Mexican in the sweatshirt asked, pronouncing the name of the town “Weelcoax.” “¿Es lejos?”
I wondered what their version of “far” might be and what it would cost them to walk ninety more miles. They could probably find work in the chile fields around Willcox. A veterinarian there told me that so many undocumented migrants worked in those fields that a shantytown called “Perro Flaco”—Skinny Dog—sprang up to support them. Before the drug runners traveled these routes, undocumented migrants thought of it as an oasis. Anxious locals considered it a cesspool filled with drugs and guns. “I’m afraid to drive down that road at night,” the veterinarian said. “I’m afraid of what would happen if the car broke down. And I won’t stop anymore to help anyone.”
Halfway into my explanation about where Willcox sits on the highway, I realized they probably wouldn’t be taking the highway. They listened patiently to my halting Spanish as I changed my thinking from driving ninety miles to walking ninety miles. I tried to picture the twists and turns and detours each part of their trip had already taken, multiplied by the length of their journey still remaining, to whatever city or town they would eventually reach. Not wanting to consider the alternative, I conjured up a happy ending for them somewhere, reunited with their families, finally eating a meal of familiar food.
“¿Tienen ustedes comida?” the Mexican in the sweatshirt asked.
I winced, angry at myself for not anticipating his question. Clearly they were hungry. “Sí, claro. Esperen aquí.” I turned to go back to the house while NW waited with them at the barn. As I walked, I grew more conscious of the neighbors’ watchful eyes. How can it be a crime to give a hungry man some food?
My concern was how little I had to offer them. What could I give them that they could carry across a summer desert? What did I have that didn’t need to be cooked or refrigerated or opened with a can opener? I searched for food that wouldn’t spoil and for easy-open packages. I found an orange and an apple and a couple of avocados. I stuffed a plastic bag with the fruit and added granola bars, V-8 juice, tortillas, and half a loaf of homemade bread. I carried the bag back to the barn where NW and the two men stood waiting. The bag felt so heavy but seemed to hold so little.
The Honduran took the bag with both hands. “¡Gracias, gracias!” they both repeated, dipping their heads and backing away. They held the bag and the water jug close but unopened as they quickly walked north along the base of the mountains. Soon they were out of sight, invisible once again.
Many months later, while washing the outside windows of our cabin on a warm day that carried the scent of ozone on a breeze, I thought I caught a brief glimpse of their faces reflected on the surface of the glass. I knew I was imagining it, but their two faces appeared, faintly, under the soap suds and water drips, in patterns that ebbed and flowed, following a course of their own. For a minute as I wiped the glass, their faces stared out at me, before the water dried and the window cleared.