Regular visitors to this blog know it’s usually image-heavy, without too much text. This time it’s the other way around. There’s a story I can only hint at here, an important one. If you’re interested, follow the links to learn more. And if this isn’t your thing, be assured that next time I’ll revert to the usual emphasis on photography.
In a recent post I featured cacti and other unusual plants at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, which I visited in January. As much as I enjoyed the extraordinary Sonoran desert landscape, I could not ignore the troubled border with Mexico that marks the monument’s southern edge.
Being at the border brings home everything you hear in the media, and more. International borders are political concepts, often drawn for colonial interests that ignore existing human, cultural and ecological realities. These territorial boundaries directly impact the land, the people, and even animals and plants in unexpected ways.
On the US – Mexico border, living standard inequalities butt up against each other. The communities on either side of the border enjoy different opportunities and face different challenges, and those disparities were heightened for me as we drove down a park road that parallels the border. On the American side is Organ Pipe, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve enjoyed by tourists and hikers. On the Mexico side are small towns, businesses, and another preserve. Traffic on busy Mexican Federal Highway 2 can be heard as trucks barrel down the road connecting points east with Tijuana, to the west. Thick smoke from fires on the Mexico side obscured the way ahead on the day we drove down the road on the Organ Pipe side of the border, and trash kept blowing across and snagging on the rough vegetation.
More than smoke and plastic bags drifts across this border.
People have been crossing this border to find a better life for a long time. Many will cross illegally and will find work as farm laborers, in service positions, in construction. They will likely stay and contribute to the US economy. Some will cross to sell drugs here – another path out of poverty.
Back in the 1990’s I managed the grounds on an estate outside of New York City and worked with Mexican men who were probably undocumented. A pleasure to work with, the men I knew were pleasant, reliable, friendly and able and willing to do hard labor. It’s become a cliche in America to say that Mexicans do a lot of the labor that people born here are unwilling to do, and I suspect there’s quite a lot of truth to that.
But that’s just one side among many of a complex issue.
For years there wasn’t much to impede illegal crossings at certain sections of the border with Mexico. In the 1990’s Border Patrol attention increased at urban locations, pushing people to the fringes, like the wide open desert lands of Organ Pipe. With little but barbed wire holding people back, smuggling grew into a huge problem. Organ Pipe became known as America’s most dangerous park, and much of the park closed after Kris Eggle, a park ranger, was killed while pursuing drug cartel men in August of 2002.
Two years later a barrier that keeps vehicles out but allows animals to cross was erected. Humans can still walk across but the barrier has reduced the problematic vehicle traffic. Significant increases in border personnel were made, surveillance towers were built, and things steadily improved. In recent years there has been an overall decrease in illegal border crossings here.
The double vehicle barrier above extends for a short distance, then continues as a single barrier along the road out to Quitobaquito Springs, a welcome if isolated slice of green in a sea of sand. For thousands of years the spring and an adjacent pond have been important landmarks to people who lived here or were passing through.
The area around the spring was closed to most visitors for years because of smuggling, but it’s accessible once again, so this is where we were headed that day. I’m sure our experience as American tourists was nothing like what people trying to cross into America illegally experience here. Too often, Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross under the radar are not prepared for the harsh conditions in the desert. They’re not in cars, they may carry only a jug of water. It’s 99 degrees F there as I write this on a May evening at 6:15pm. Imagine the heat on a summer afternoon.
People die here. Sometimes they are misled by traffickers who promise a short walk across the desert to a pick-up spot that can’t be found when the time comes. It’s a complex situation.
Many visitors to Organ Pipe stick to the scenic Ajo Mountain Loop near the Visitors Center, which we took our first day at the park. Wanting to see more, we ventured south the following day on Rt. 85, to the turn-off for Quitobaquito Springs. We saw only one other car on the gravel road that mid-January weekday. It wasn’t a rental car or an RV; it looked like a local car. Two people were inside, driving at a brisk pace.
We reached the parking area, where another sign cautioned us, and began walking to the pond. A lone coot swam quietly as Mourning doves cooed. Last year’s leaves crunched underfoot. We traced a narrow creek back through the desert to a wash, then lost the creek in the brush. Wandering away from the spring, we came upon a mound with a gravestone. It stood all by itself in the desert, miles from any habitation.
Jose Lorenzo Sestier, the Frenchman who died here in 1900 at the age of 74, was a shopkeeper. Yes, once there was a store in the area that sold food, clothing and mining supplies. It was a moving sight, this hand-lettered grave marker overlooking lonely desert hills that roll on for miles to a ragged horizon of dark purple mountains.
There were more signs of humans.
Discarded water containers, a common sight, reminded us of those who came to this place in more desperate circumstances than ours.
A helicopter buzzed off to the east. We had seen plenty of Border Patrol vehicles and passed checkpoints so we weren’t surprised by a Border Patrol helicopter – until it was directly over us. It circled closely to get eyes on us. We gave a slight raise of the hand – not enough to indicate trouble, just enough to show we were OK and meant no harm. The helicopter dipped in recognition and circled away.
Feeling uneasy, we returned to the car. We hadn’t seen anyone since that one car on the road out to the spring, and they had disappeared. We decided to head back to the highway. Along the way we relaxed a bit and curiosity got the better of us. We detoured down another park road. Storm clouds threatened and an odd looking flag waved in the distance. We walked towards the flag, and found this:
Emergency water. It was left there by Humane Borders, or Fronteras Compasivas. Their mission is “to save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands.” They are volunteers who recognize a need for humanitarian assistance in this harsh environment. On their website, and printed on a brochure I picked up later, there is a map showing locations in Arizona where human remains have been recovered. The map is pockmarked with red dots, each evidence of tragedy. I stared at the red dots for a long time, trying to make sense of it all.
There are initiatives to try to identify remains, but the spreadsheet on Humane Borders’ website tells a grim story: many remains are never identified. Too often, by the time remains are found the bones have been picked clean and clothing is long gone.
Not far away we found another emergency station offering a red call button with instructions in English, Spanish and O’odham, the language of the indigenous people, the Tohono O’odham – the Desert People (formerly called the Papago).
The solar-powered tower holding the sign can be seen from a good distance, like the flag attached to the water barrel.
Some of the undocumented border crossers who perish in the desert wind up at County Medical Examiners offices. As of 3/20/17 the Maricopa Medical Examiner had over 200 sets of remains, at least half are probably people who crossed the border illegally and died in the process. Illegal crossings have dropped overall in the last ten years but people still try, and people still die trying.
A difficult and moving article about undocumented crossers can be found here, along with an excellent series of photographs documenting items left behind and the places where remains were found.
On the way out of the park a Border Patrol car passed us and motioned us to stop. The officer rolled down his window and “chatted” with us, carefully sizing us up, asking questions in a casual way that didn’t fool us for a minute. Was he after the people we passed earlier? Maybe he was checking to be sure we weren’t there to make a deal with them. It’s a complex border.
Back on the main road to Ajo, we took one more detour, heading down Highway 86 into the Tohono O’odham reservation. Tohono O’odham people lived here long before the US – Mexico border existed. Now their land straddles the US-Mexico border, dividing them in two and profoundly disrupting their lives. It’s their land, severed by our border. At least that’s one way of looking at it.
Roadside memorials, bleak in the overcast January skies, dotted the road. I learned later that drug traffickers pass through tribal lands at an alarming rate, leaving trash and tempting tribe members (whose average income is way below the rest of the state) with promises of quick money.
Even if they are an enrolled tribe member, a person who lives on the Mexico side can be deported while on the US side. It’s a risk that prevents people from visiting friends and engaging in activities that would preserve the culture of the Desert People.
To which nation do they belong?
US/Mexican border issues are especially ironic when a reservation resident hears a knock on the door from a desperately thirsty man crossing the border to find a better life in the US. Or when the family dog brings home a human bone.
We’ll see what happens if an attempt to build Trump’s wall is made here. The Tohono O’odham people are understandably against further incursion into their lives.
Wandering through Ajo the next morning I came across a graphic representation of a nation divided painted on an alley wall:
The flyer pictured below was posted on a billboard. It references the three-nation complexities of this region. Fine print on the left says:
“We stand together in cultural solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our environment, our rights, our safety, our health – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”
MEXICO – TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION – USA
That chilly Saturday in January, Ajo residents were selling vegetables at the farmers market. We bought artwork from a man who makes prints from fish, tasty breakfast burritos fresh from a local woman’s kitchen, and pastry from a local baker. Then we headed north to Phoenix to catch a plane bound for Seattle.
Fate intervened and we missed that flight, but three long weeks later we finally made the flight home. As tough as our own situation was (a medical emergency) it was nothing compared to what many people commonly experience along the border. We are the lucky ones.
Borders and immigration are fraught topics, like many subjects in public discourse these days. Simplifying and polarizing do not help; the complexities involving three cultures and deep history would benefit more from a nuanced, intelligent and compassionate approach. It’s been interesting to learn how Organ Pipe National Monument is intertwined with the human struggles that surround and overflow into it. Getting a sense of how an entire culture is affected – a culture that called this land home well before “America” and “Mexico” came along – that was a truly eye opening experience.