Friday, July 11, 2008

To remember

Fond memory brings the light of other days around me --Thomas More

I’m going to take a slightly more personal approach to discussing the borderlands this time. Particularly, I’d like to discuss things as they relate to my greatest fear: a fear of forgetting, and of being forgotten.
In every place I’ve been thus far this summer, remnants of migrants’ stories are strewn about in plain sight. Because they are found in so many places and in abundance, it’s almost easy not to see them. It’s almost simple not to question what hand carried this water bottle, almost comfortable not to picture the body that carried that backpack, almost routine not to see the faces behind the tinted windows of the Border Patrol or Wackenhut vehicles. After a discussion with some volunteers this last weekend, it became obvious to me that refusing to see in the present is really no different than forgetting a person or moment from the past. For me this is a realization that I’ve had before, but put into these terms brings profound new meaning.
Since middle school (we’re going to gloss over the reasons why this point is significant, but if you know me you may be able to guess a few reasons why) I have been terrified of losing what resides in my mind, and in turn, of others losing their memories of me. To physically exist means little to me without remembering the experiences of the past and tying them to the present. I’m likewise not sure how truly alive I can feel without the knowledge that I exist in the memories of others. The act of remembering is the greatest display of love I can imagine, a conscious act of ensuring that a person or other being continues to live on well past a specific moment or context. From my perspective, to remember and be remembered—in both past and present senses—is the quality that distinguishes between living with all one’s soul and merely existing.
With this emphasis on remembering, I now sit amidst a scene of great forgetting (points to those who can recognize where that last phrase came from). The hundreds of thousands of lives who cross through this desert each year bring their own stories—the admirable, the terrifying, the fill-in-the-descriptor-here. I can’t think of one characteristic that applies to every single story out here given the massive diversity of persons, but they all seem to be faced with a similar risk of disappearing into the thin desert air. Since the people who carry these stories come to this side of that false, now fenced border and begin to live as a hidden class of people, their arrival is not marked as a milestone in any story most of us hear about—indeed, it’s an event that is purposefully concealed as best as possible. In many ways crossing this desert seems to serve as the beginning of the end for their stories, as they disappear into an unacknowledged class of persons.
To take part in the dissolution of their stories is a spot of shame for me. To slip into an easier method of going about my day and sometimes fail to recognize who has recently shared this desert space with me is understandable, but not acceptable. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be surrounded by (at least on weekends now) volunteers who have the insight to point out the value in being present in the moment. Such volunteers have another role in this context, as well.
Beyond the direct aid duties of volunteers in this desert (meaning their roles in providing water, food, and medical aid to reduce the deaths and injuries in the desert), each person (hopefully) returns to their respective homes carrying a few bits of stories from the migrants out here. They often move on to sharing these snippets with people who have no exposure to this desert, no awareness of the massive catastrophe that is “border enforcement.” Beyond whatever policy and awareness implications this sharing holds (and these implications are significant, I do believe), it also creates an avenue to ensure that the migrants are not forgotten. Even though the people whose stories are shared at kitchen tables or in classrooms across the nation may never know that their brief moments are remembered, I think there is still value in the fact that they are shared. That they are remembered and their stories retold with empathy and often impact. In my mind this ensures that the migrants remain alive in memory, and I’ve already shared with you how important I believe this is. So here we have volunteers who not only work to keep migrants alive in that most essential, biological sense, but also in what I see as the most profound, emotional sense, as well.
I am so unbelievably lucky to work with such people.


So I met this man, and later that evening this came out.

Poison pools in the corners of your eyes,
drawing a hidden tear from mine.
We’re related, you and I, though pulled from different corners—
this common thing humanity.
So when the venom spills from your lips
it burns the cracks in mine,
thins the air moving to my lungs,
shames me as the speaker.
Beyond the rock in my stomach and
my fingers interlocked so you won’t notice the shaking,
more powerful is a question.
An absolute need to know
how a common soul comes to rest upon
thoughts so corrosive as to
dissolve a spirit.
You hear my question, unknown to you.
Kindly, you even answer:
The rugged cliffs around us
did not carve this into your mind,
the desert heat
did not burn this upon your skin,
no creature that crawls leaps runs swims flies
whispered this in your ear.

Your truth: Some people are just worthless.

If my heart sank before,
it now lies somewhere far away—
still, unmoving on the path behind us.
Those who taught you to hate
(the one true weapon of mass destruction)
are more kin, more of the same blood.
Members of humanity who sold their humanness.
Not a new revelation
but a further blow to a heart that knows
you and I are one and the same.
You and I are one and the same.
An idea momentarily impossible to absorb
with my feet planted on this dirt path
and your words
shards of glass
cracking within.
Slivers, like needles, screaming

Love has become a commodity.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The daily news

Between Friday and Sunday of this week (today being Thursday the 26th of June), the bodies of seven presumed migrants were found in the southern Arizona desert, specifically the coverage area of the Arizona Daily Star out of Tucson. One article next to the obituaries, taking up approximately ¼ of the page, described the discovery of the seven bodies along with the ‘rescues’ of around 60 other migrants by Border Patrol. Since part of my role in being here is to bring information to parts of the country that have little or no understanding of current situations in the borderlands, I am trying to find a way to put this scenario into a context more readily understood.
The finding of these seven bodies is obviously noteworthy in the minds of the newspaper editors, or they would not have printed it at all. So, this tells us that the deaths of these migrants—or, at the very least, the discovery of their bodies—is not completely commonplace and expected here. However, the deaths of seven migrants—or again, at least the discoveries of their bodies—were lumped into one story next to the obituaries page within the Tucson Area section of the paper. This is where I would like to start at putting things in context for persons outside of the borderlands.
Back home in the Quad Cities—my home region encompassing both Iowa and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River—if one body is found in a field or woods somewhere, it is noteworthy. It becomes front-page news, or if not front-page, at least within the first few pages of the first section of the paper. That seven bodies were found within a weekend, and this only mentioned in a latter section of the paper four pages back within that section, suggests that this is not such a shocking event. Or, it suggests that the deaths are not so newsworthy. I don’t think it’s a far jump to suggest that they are perhaps seen as less newsworthy because they are presumed to be undocumented persons. So the seven deaths—or, the act of finding the bodies—are either not very shocking due to the frequency of such an event, or not very newsworthy because of their undocumented status, or likely a combination thereof. These are the possibilities I’ve come up with (as a note, the front-page stories for this edition of the paper included battery-powered bicycles, a call for a public official to resign, an early monsoon season, and political spending trends).
The question I’d like to raise is this: would this be the case in your hometown? If seven bodies were found in different parts your home region within a weekend, would the story be stuck far back in the local section, next to the obituaries? Would there be an immediate distinction made regarding the documentation status of the deceased?
I can see immediate reactions to this question, and my assumptions leading up to it. For example, “The situation in Tucson is different, and cannot be compared to other areas of the country.” Yes, I agree with this, and indeed this is my very point. The situation in Tucson is so very different that seven bodies can be found and it is not worth putting even close to the front-page of a newspaper. Or perhaps, “It could be the case that this (unfortunately) happens so often, it’s not practical to expect them to constantly draw attention to it.” Yes, I see this, too. I see this all over the place, actually. We all see this in the lack of attention that is paid to issues such as hunger, poverty, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, . It’s not that they are no longer issues, but that they have been going on for so long that we don’t find them noteworthy anymore. Does this make it okay? There is another response that has crept into my head, but I hope that no one would actually pay it any heed. Can anyone guess what it is? Does anyone see someone suggesting that because these deaths are those of foreigners—and at that those who are ‘illegally’ in our country and in numerous other indefensible ways tagged as undesirable—their deaths are not as noteworthy to U.S. residents/citizens/whatever legal status you prefer? This seems a cold response, and yet, we see it numerous places, as well. Just as we don’t hear about the deaths of migrants on the border (results of our border enforcement policies, be assured), nor do we hear about the deaths of the Afghanis or Iraqis whom we are re-liberating, nor the Africans mining our diamonds, nor the Palestinians being systematically starved because of policies we create/condone, and so on. Surely few people will attempt to defend the position that their lives are somehow worth less because they are not from the U.S., and yet, in our lack of attentiveness to their situations (in which our government and our social/economic/political institutions play key roles) we give credibility to this opinion through our mis-education and inaction.
And so we sit and infrequently learn about these horrendous situations, pour out a few words of horror and sympathy, and sink back into inaction. Too often we fail to educate, fail to act, fail to change. We settle for being angry and feel justified in that. That anger is not enough for me, and I hope it’s not enough for you. Learn about what is being done in your name, tell others about what is being done in theirs, and do something about it, in whatever way your talents allow. There’s no simple path to this, no single way to say, “Hey, take this step and you’ll be karmicly set, guilt-free and happy for life.” Such a simple path may offer immediate gratification, but I’m of the opinion that it does little of substantial value. In the realm of organizing people, I often hear that you need to present a solution to those you are motivating, otherwise you will do no more than depress them about the situation at hand, and I believe this is true. I think, however, that this is too often taken to mean that you must present a simple solution, that you must present an easy course of action that demands no change in the person, no deep introspection, no willingness to step outside of a comfortably-formed routine. Easy-to-enact solutions have their place, for sure, but used alone they do little to create a lasting impact. We all have unique talents, capabilities, desires and inabilities (because, yes, even your inabilities can be of value in particular situations), and in my mind it’s only when we are asked to realize these characteristics and put them to use that true and lasting change can happen.
So change the world. Or don’t. I think you know my preference.


As many of you know, I’m currently immersed in my thesis research in the Arizona desert, and I’ve spent the last week with No More Deaths, the humanitarian aid group I worked with last summer. I’m in Tucson for the evening, and there are some things I’d like to share with all you lovely people. The following may take a few minutes to read and may be a little heavy, but I hope you’ll read it through.What I really want to do is explain the severity and complexity of the migrant experience (“the” as if there were only one…) As I attempt this in my head, however, I realize it’s a silly task—I can’t even comprehend the experiences of migrants, so how can I relay that concept to you? Thus, I am going to attempt to explain things through my eyes, with all the biases that includes, and hope that it does something for your understanding (and my mental well-being).
All the volunteers here go out twice a day to hike the migrant trails along the border with food, water, medical supplies, and a friendly face. As I write to you now my legs are painted in shades of black, blue, purple and green from various rocky climbs, and all my limbs are marked with red lines from thorns and other things that draw blood in the desert. My shoulders are happy for the brief reprieve from carrying the pack of supplies, and my arms are glad not to be clutching gallons of water for an afternoon hike. My whole body is grateful that tomorrow morning I will not have to climb into the bed of a truck after a 3-hour hike and, in an attempt to evade the potent sun, throw a wet bandana over my face and a hat on top of that all while begging the truck to make the hour-long drive back shorter than physically possible. Yet even if I were set to do all of this in the morning, even if all of this and more were taking place just like every other morning and afternoon—this would be nothing. My physical and emotional strains are nothing compared to those of other individuals out here.
So how do I find a way to share this experience, with all its facets? I’m falling back on photos a lot. I can show you all the images of trails, water bottles, food wrappers, clothing, shoes, backpacks, etc., that tell the stories of the migrants passing through and the land that is absorbing them. I will share with you the endearing images of the shrines to saints that migrants create along the way as a small place of comfort in an entirely uncertain situation. Even more powerful is seeing the shrines along the trails that have accumulated in memory of those who took in their last breaths as they moved north through the desert. I very much want to share with you these visual records and to pair with them my own experiences, but in this something is missing. This form of recollection and education is incomplete because I cannot share with you the most important images and associated feelings.
I cannot show you the man whose foot was entirely purple and swollen from a severe sprain, a man who only wanted the ankle wrapped so he could continue walking. There is no way for me to make you understand the sacrifice a second man—a total stranger to the first man—made when he traded shoes so that the man with the purple, swollen ankle could have better footwear. I wish I could allow you to see the perfect faces of this second man’s children. His five year-old who spent a morning vomiting because they had to drink brown water from a cattle tank, and then spent an afternoon drawing pictures with a grin across his face and life back in his eyes. Or, his even younger daughter who was such a tiny wisp of a thing, slipping about in her bright pink dress. I can’t tell you what it’s like to hear their cries as they sleep, nor can I even imagine how their mother kept herself together while comforting them.
There’s no way to explain the faces of a group of men and women as you hand them the hummus, tomato, and Gouda sandwiches (such extravagancies, even when they’re donated food, seem ridiculous in context) that had been packed as a dinner picnic, nor the sense of guilt that comes in that moment. For them to be so grateful for a sandwich and water, when as fellow human beings we should be giving them so much more…
In contexts outside of this work, I often hear that these migrants are lazy, that they are taking the easy way (instead of jumping through the massive financial and legal hoops required for the unlikely-to-be-realized chance at coming in the legal way). As someone who has been beaten down by snippets of exposure to this realm (and all while adequately clothed, fed, rested, and hydrated, which is not the case for the migrants), I can assure you that this is no easy way.
I have to believe that the people who suggest migrants are merely falling into laziness have not spent much time in the desert. If nothing else, I have to believe they have not encountered the most gruesome evidence out here: the rape trees. If you shuddered just now, as I certainly did, it is with good reason. The thing itself is as hideous as the name. The incidence of rape for migrants crossing this desert is so high as to be incomprehensible, and yet the disgusting behavior does not end there. Those who rape women in this desert are not merely content to commit the grossest, most vile act that humanity has conceived of—they go so far as to brag about their absolute lack of respect for other human beings. Along the trails we encounter mesquite trees with bras or women’s underwear displayed prominently in the branches—often, we are told, this is a trophy for the one who committed the rape. They take a tree—normally a chance for rest and shade, and for many cultures a symbol of life—and reduce it to a display for that which humanity should feel the deepest shame. To come across one of these trees, to stand there and know what likely took place in that spot, is beyond chilling. Assault in any context is horrifying, and to imagine the circumstances these women lived through—truly, we can’t begin to comprehend. And so when someone suggests that migrants are taking the easy way into the U.S., it takes a load of self-restraint not to explode with the details of a million stories that I don’t know, that I can never know, in order to show the immense falsity in this illusion of “the easy way.”
This is where I am at currently. I would love to talk with any of you who are interested in issues I’ve mentioned here, or any others directly or abstractly linked. I will be back in town or elsewhere with cell reception from June 29 until July 28. I hope you’re all well, as always.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The End.

I just arrived home after a long drive and am clean and tired.

I want everyone to know about something that happened this past weeks, for me maybe one of the most intense and touching ordeals from the summer.

Earlier this week a photographer came out to camp, he had wanted to get a shot of a shrine we found earlier this summer. As migrants go through they start little shrines, that sometimes grow big with pictures and candles and other personal items that may be important to people.

The shrine is located on the “Chapman Tank” trail, which is about a four mile loop. We started out and it began to rain shortly after- we kept going thinking it would be okay. When we were almost half way done we started to reconsider, the shrine was in a wash, so we wouldn’t be able to get to it, plus the trail we would come back on was all in a wash. The smart idea was to turn around and go back. A little ways after we started back we ran into a group of 9 migrants. These guys didn’t seem to need our help at, they took some dry socks from us and that was about it. When we asked if they had left anyone behind they said yes, he was following and he was in really bad shape. I went down the trail a ways to find him. When I caught up to him he asked me WHAT I was, and what I was doing? (“What are you, what are you doing?”). I told him I was there to help him. He looked at me shocked: “You’re NOT an angel?”
Then he started crying. Then he showed me the spot he was just about to lay down at and die.

I helped him up the hill where the rest of his group was taking off from. His brother turned out to be in pretty bad shape too, they both stayed behind while the others continued. There was no hesitation in the decision to go back home, the difficult part was how we would initiate the process. It was still raining. I thought we were all going to catch hypothermia, we were all shivering. Both Roger and Roberto’s feet were pretty torn up. We tried to bandage them but all the moleskin, medical tape and gauze was wet. In addition, I had given all the dry socks to the rest of their crew, the other volunteers I was with were new and hadn’t taken any socks with them. Meanwhile, the photographer photographs away, turning their misery into his art.

They weren’t in bad enough shape to get airlifted, and if they were, our GPS wasn’t working. With BP’s inability to read maps, getting them to our location would have been pretty dang hard. Our phone service was also lacking. We ended up helping them to the truck which was about a mile away. We thought with 4 volunteers, each guy could have two humans for support. It turned out though, that photographers are not volunteers, so I had Roger all to myself. We all slipped and slided our way up a huge hill and then back down to the truck. Our plan was to get these guys to camp and call BP from there. The washes were filling up though, before we could get to any destination we were walking through rivers to test the depth. We had to wait at one wash for over an hour. When we got phone service, we got a hold of the other group. They were waiting for us at a neighbor’s house. By this time it was sunny and hot, so we got out there to dry out and bandage them up good. We called BP and helped them figure out where we were. We said to meet us at the Popelotai Wash. When we got there, they had sent four vehicles. They wouldn’t cross the wash though. For two guys who wanted to turn themselves in, they sent FOUR vehicles and not one of the heavy duty government air polluters would go across. They told us to keep them at the camp and that they would come back later.

This worked out well, because they could call their families and tell them not to pay the coyotes (who told them they would only have to walk a block, and then there would be a plane waiting for them- who also told them if they stopped moving they would shoot them- and that the havelinas would get them). They could also put on some clean dry clothes we keep in storage and eat a nice hot meal. BP just stayed up on the hill for a while and watched us. We eventually set the guys up in some beds and had them rest.

By 10pm BP still had not returned. I had crossed the wash twice in our Dodge pickup. I called again to remind them to come back. By 11, nothing, so we all hit the hay. Around 11:30-12, myself and another volunteer heard a car so we got up to look and it was a false alarm, just a local. We looked down at the wash though and saw a light. We walked down, sure enough, it was BP. “ahhh, Are you coming?” I asked. “It looks pretty muddy” he said. “You should be fine, I did it twice today” “Oh I don’t know.” He wanted me to get the guys and help them walk through the river (ya, these guys with severe blisters), I said no, that wasn’t going to be possible, but that we could get them in our truck and take them across. He was cool with that and that’s what we ended up doing, the BP agent seemed to handle them with respect.

Before they left, Roger told me that I was an angel, and that I had saved his life. These are words I have heard more than a couple times this summer. Which is weird, because I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t have any first aid training beyond what I learned in Girl Scouts- all I really had were legs that allowed myself to end up in the same place as them. It’s a really odd thing to have people tell you this, when you’re just a normal person, and it really makes apparent the inequalities that exist between different races and different economic classes.

Thank you to everyone who supported me this summer, through thoughts and finances. No More Deaths is a great organization- the only one that has people go out into the desert and actually search for people who need help. Rather than living in their nice homes and going out to search for people occasionally, they have people who actually live in the desert, who live very much like the migrants (with many more conveniences, like water and food) so they know what it’s like. I learned a lot about our current system, which I’ve written about before, and needs to be changed. While I’m glad to do it, I shouldn’t be out there searching for people, in hopes that there are fewer deaths. That’s just not just. I’m really not even qualified to do it. But that’s what the organization is, a group of people who organized because these deaths shouldn’t happen anymore, because nobody deserves that. It’s called civil initiative: upholding the government to the duties it is supposed to be carrying out, such as protecting the basic human rights of individuals in its country, or whom its country is affecting.

If anyone ever wants to talk more about this stuff, I would be glad to, give me a call or e-mail me: 651-226-1790,

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hiking wonders

I've written a lot about the people we've encountered here in the desert, but I've said very little about the landscape (or at least, not enough). Today is the best day for me to do so.
Two other volunteers (Tom and Danielle) and I went for a patrol on the edge of the Cerro Colorado mountains today, setting out for what was going to be a 5.4-mile hike in horizontal distance (putting it at much more once elevation changes are factored in).
To jump to the juicy bits, we came across a rattlesnake and another awesome large red snake, and then we got caught in a monsoon storm. The rains drenched us to the bone in no time, just as our hike was getting to the steep inclines, washes, and nasty drops. For 3+ miles we hiked through monsoon rains with booming thunder and lightning, up and down ridges and through raging washes. We probably did everything we were not supposed to do, but we did it safely! We stayed away from peaks and moved quickly across ridges when we had to, and we held hands and braced one another when we had to cross the larger, more powerful washes (there were at least 30 running washes that we crossed, probably ten that were large...a running wash is akin to a small river, if that terminology confuses you).
The power of the weather and the land was unbelievable today, and we enjoyed our time right in the thick of it to no end. The three of us made the ultimate extreme patrol today, and I am even more in awe of the desert's power now than I was before. It's sunsets and stars are easy to love, and the scenery as we drive through valleys and across ridges is obviously beautiful. What we witnessed today, however, is in an entirely different category.
I will be sad to leave this place.
Added two days later:
What we hiked through was enjoyable because we knew we had a (fairly) dry truck waiting for us at the end, once we found the end. At the same time that we were hiking through the storm, hundreds of migrants were doing the same (or hiding in the non-existent hiding places along the way), with no hope of having time to rest, a nice meal, or a place to dry off afterwards. As we hiked, though we could not see far at all, we still tried to find migrants along the way who were surely in need to help because of the weather. We found no one, but that by no means says that people weren't affected. A thought to keep in mind (white privilege, eh?)
A happier note: if you can imagine us hiking through the monsoon rains yelling, "We're volunteers of the church, and we have water!" you might taste a bit of the hilarity that made the hike so enjoyable.
Less than a week before we leave...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Since last time

Since last time, as usual a lot has happened. I spent a couple days at the migrant resource center in Agua Prieta and then returned to the desert for more search and rescue.

So occasionally while I'm down here, I desperately try to understand what made me drop everything and come down to camp in the desert for the whole summer- patrolling migrant trails in 110 degree weather and shouting out things in Spanish that I hardly understand.

Obviously I came because I care about the issues surrounding immigration- and people- and their well-being. I think I came here to actually do something- rather than buying a catchy little bumper sticker and talking about it. And it actually sucks, and I can honestly say that I have cried about every single migrant we have come across (a number that is getting pretty high), even the migrants that are with BP- that we don't even get to talk to (other than esta bien? & suerte!). And it gets pretty dang hot here too- uncomfortably hot. Today we were commenting on how cool it was, and realized it was 90 degrees. The rains have cooled it down to that, but added some humidity. But it's also beautiful to get people the care they need- when the odds are they wouldn't have made it if us and them hadn't been in the right place at the right time. It's these times when I feel useful. It's beautiful except for when we get them to the hospital and they are deported the next morning, then I feel like we've betrayed them.

I think we nourished some migrant's souls (who had just been deported to Agua Prieta) last week when I went and got them McDonalds. I had mixed feelings about even entering the establishment, but I imagine it must have meant something to them that some bleeding heart gringo was willing to shell out $26 on 4 super value meals and a 10 piece chicken nuggets. It was kind of an interesting display of privilege though- they had lived in the US for 5 years- I was in Mexico and in 25 minuets crossed into the US and returned with fast food.

There's other beautiful things down here too- more than the work but the land. It didn't really take me long to fall in love with the chorus of things that crawl- and then mesquite trees that make us bleed. It smells so good, especially after the rains, and things are turning green, and the ocatia are blooming!

A couple days ago we came across a group of 25 migrants in Jalisco canyon. They were all relatively healthy but still dehydrated and hungry. We didn't talk to them much, we gave them food, water and socks and let them go on their way. That group has been really hard to get out of my mind.