I live in Tucson. People tell me they love the images they see on my various social media feeds of the mysterious, moonscape desert that surrounds. Many of the friends, acquaintances, and strangers who follow me on social media live along both coasts, so of course it gives me great pleasure to be able to ignite their awe for the uncontainable beauty of the Sonoran desert, even if from afar. For me, being in this desert on any given morning or early evening means giving over to the expansive possibilities of the landscape. It has offered new perspectives when I am stuck on a writing project—to step out into any number of trails and parks and take it all in, whether it’s the way the light moves across the shallow valleys of Gates Pass before sunset or the way the temperature surprisingly drops ten degrees when your trail takes you into the shadowy parts sitting below Pima Canyon. The infinity of surprise that lives here is hard to deny.
But as 115–120 degrees Fahrenheit becomes the new normal for Southern Arizona, indicating a climate change that may not be reversible in years to come, there is another thing one cannot deny—any slight carelessness on your part and the desert will kill you. That fact makes itself clear on a recent ride-along outing with Guillermo and Stephen, two volunteers for the regional organization Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas. As I climb into their water-replenishment truck, I am told that if we broke down in Arivaca—an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson—we would be exposed to the same conditions as the Latinx migrants we are trying to help. I stare dead-eyed behind my Ray-Bans at Guillermo—we would never be exposed to the same conditions as migrants making this trek.
I shake off any doubt that we will be okay. All of us engaging in humanitarian work should have it seared into our minds that we are the lucky ones; after all, we are traveling with over one hundred gallons of water into the harshest topographies in the Southwest. At the worst, we will be sweaty and uncomfortable changing the imaginary flat tire, in my mind’s wandering to worry—but we won’t die.
I make contact with the privilege I carry into different parts of the valley that blanket the infamous border town Arivaca, though I’m not sure I can ever make peace with it. In this part of the country, the thing you do—if you are somebody’s anchor baby, a pedantic gadfly, a broke bourgeois bohemian who cares about justice and human rights and has heated conversations about immigration policy with family members during the holidays, the you who still writes diversity statements for scholarship applications, or eats nopal fries and drinks aged-whiskey cocktails with the liberal latte-sipping NPR listeners in downtown Tucson, where the adobe façades were restored to make it look like you are still in the Old Pueblo—you come and face these incongruent truths, maxing out credit cards to do the thing you do in the name of justice. If there is anything to do with the privilege, it is to risk it. And it will never be enough.
Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey to the north mostly by foot. Each station has its own name: Green Valley (Pecan Orchard), Elephant Head, Rocky Road, K-9, Cemetery Hill, Soberanes, Mauricio Farah, and Martinez Well.
Getting into the truck at Green Valley, we are promptly driven to the first water station, situated behind a pecan orchard. It looks momentarily out of place and time with its trees lined up tightly, towering above a few acres covered by bright green grass, an indication of the obscene amounts of water it must consume on a daily basis. But I am thankful nonetheless for its place in the landscape and hope it is there to offer some shady respite to the men, women, and children who make the orchard a part of their journey.
As soon as we get to the water station, I quietly gasp at the sight of concrete blocks, a quartet of two-by-four wood planks, and a fifty-five-gallon plastic blue barrel sitting stoutly but bravely above the desiccated arroyo. These objects in any other home-improvement configuration might not inspire such deference, but it is like seeing Stonehenge in real life—or rather seeing these water stations gives me the same feeling as when I saw Stonehenge as a high-school sophomore. That there is so much life beyond the little world you’re trying to escape from—we’re all trying to leave something behind and go toward something better, and there shouldn’t be any guilt or fault in that desire. These water stations are myth come to life, a border fable if you will—friends from back home in Southern California who have come out to the desert to do humanitarian work right in the trenches, a newer ground zero located in the Southwest, see the danger firsthand, see the danger abstracted. This severity. Our national border policies producing the need for these rebel barrels. Suddenly I don the beige mask of humanitarianism, sunburnt pink on my brown skin.
But I don’t want this severity to be normalized. My body is here to meet the risk; that is what it is about, right? I will be the distraction so somebody less privileged can make their escape. I will make space in the back seat where I sit, absorbing the bumpy impact over difficult terrain. I don’t want to be arrested and face jail time, or a felony mark on my record like Scott Warren (the Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning lecturer and volunteer for the advocacy group No More Deaths, who in January 2018 was arrested and charged with harboring and one count of conspiracy, which are felonies. Warren will face a retrial in November and twenty years in prison if convicted of those charges. But all the charges will be dropped—a precedent-setting victory for humanitarian aid workers). I have a deep-seated fear of being arrested. But fears are meant to be conquered, I suppose from the back seat of the SUV. I don’t know if I can use this platform so somebody can find the words to say, “there is a problem on the border,” and bring them into their privatized space within a place, a city even, uncertain of calling itself a sanctuary. That space may be here right now, or sometime in the near future.
Do migrants dream of healing elixirs photosynthesized with the cancerous UV rays of the sun? Do they spot the plastic gallon bottles situated at the base of the ocotillos that obscure vultures and other carrion birds, perched in wait?
I go to Arivaca for lunch with A one late-winter day. A is a good friend of mine who works with No More Deaths, another gender weirdo who has been this-close to being charged with a felony for illegal transport of immigrants. Through A, I meet other queers who I may have spotted at punk shows in Oakland or Los Angeles or standing in line at the co-op in Brooklyn. Many an anarchist punk has made their way to Tucson to work for No More Deaths—so many that No More Deaths feels like some kind of queer rite of passage into Tucson’s radical communities, where any given Friday night there’ll be a wild mesh-and-Day-Glo, Bay Area–style dance-party fundraiser for undocumented queer and trans people, or bail funds specifically for queer organizers caught in the crosshairs of draconian border policy. I love A’s tales of hooking up with fellow aid workers that came through for the summers only. Sex and No More Deaths had a very plutonian quality—the intensity of the work that took place there inspired a unique eros.
It is still quiet on the shore of the Arivaca lake. Scott Warren hasn’t yet been arrested for bringing provisions to migrants stuck in a safe house, when A and I stop at La Gitana Cantina for a quick cold beer. No More Deaths is the necessary intervention, much to the chagrin of Arizona’s conservatives. What is the alternative to letting people die in the desert?
A picks me up in their dusty, decade-old dual-cab Toyota two-door truck. We stop at the co-op in Tucson for olives, anchovies, crackers, and kombucha before jumping onto the highway and through the mountain roads that spit us out three miles from the border itself. The town is Wild West tiny with a general store and a saloon jumping colorfully into my sightline. It’s too early for a round at La Gitana Cantina, but that doesn’t stop the parking lot from being packed at eleven am. A parks in front of the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid office to introduce me to the lovely aid worker whose name shall remain anonymous, who welcomes me in and speaks to me in a familiar Spanish, narrating a day in the life that feels absurd after seeing every other car be a border-patrol truck, and wondering who might be eyeballing A. I buy a tee shirt. And take a few photos of the “people-helping-people border zone” murals that portray a Disneyesque pastoral landscape with desert wildlife hiding behind traffic cones and stop signs.
Living in the borderlands, you count among your friends and neighbors those who want things to be different here. We use our time to stay aware, to be in service. We live here to embody the lesson that everyone should be entitled to improve upon the conditions of their lives. That often means leaving behind a pressure-cooker combination of corrupt governments, violence, and barren lands. Those lessons arrive differently for us. We are people connected to immigrants and migrants in deep and complex matrices—as their children, their lovers, their friends, their bosses, their customers, their neighbors, or if, we are lucky, their students. Some of us will never know that direct experience of movement across harrowing terrain. We will never know the hard choice to begin those journeys. Some of us are in networks of care that rely on a rapid-response strategy to help the most precarious members who have made those choices with funds, warm clothes, or a place to stay after leaving the detention centers that dot the Southern Arizona landscape.
And sometimes, if you’re like Francisco “Paco” Cantú, your connection is a complicated relational dyad that will haunt the rest of your days. Cantú spent four years in the Border Patrol and distilled those experiences tracking and arresting border crossers—and the moral injury it produces—in his memoir, The Line Becomes a River (Riverhead, 2018). His book was released to much fanfare, ingratiating him with the liberal media and putting him in the crosshairs of border activists who angrily called him out on several platforms for capitalizing on migrants’ deaths for his artmaking. While some of this critique is echoed in Tucson, the reality of our lived days is that to see a border cop with some toque de mexicanidad is a quotidian event. And it’s time to reckon with why Mexican Americans, the children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants, decide to don olive-green pants and green-and-gold-patched white shirts to police Southern Mexican and Central American migrants making the journey north. Why do these inhabitants of Southern Arizona divorce themselves from the recently arrived? What is gained by enacting these distances? What are the proximities they make way for? I struggle with these questions as a way to understand my own kin. I ask more questions.
Why did my Salvadoran immigrant brother fourteen years my senior join the Marines after barely graduating high school? Why did he become a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy? How did we happen to share the same uterus at different times? It’s time to unmake the quotidian, to learn from those who have permanently damaged themselves carrying out our draconian and inhumane policies from the inside out. To a more privileged subject, the quotidian brings a sense of doom to all of my other like-minded efforts: voting, calling my senators and representatives, tweeting my outrage, unleashing tiresome tirades to trolls whose worlds seem to get bigger while mine diminishes with activists and scholars dying early deaths.
I am often asked if I know Francisco Cantú—but he’s just Paco to me. Paco the well-read, soft-spoken king of the nerds, who brings up Cormac and Anzaldúa in the same breath and will only discuss mezcal-distillation processes if you specifically ask him about them. I am asked if I support the border patrol, because I like his tweets on occasion. This is Tucson, I say. You can’t change the past. In a red state known for denying Mexican American high-school students a chance to learn about their histories by banning ethnic studies curriculum, it means a lot when anyone is willing to step up for the disenfranchised.
You can’t change the past and be the ideal advocate in Tucson; there are people who very literally made it impossible for young people to even learn about the past. I don’t want to have to build false dichotomies about someone’s past against someone else’s as a way to defend those pasts. Living with the past is the hardest task to be burdened with day in, day out, seeing the ways tensions improve between Mexican American and Indigenous communities or don’t. Harnessing those energies for a solidarity where we center the migrant’s plight feels more important to me.
My dad sheepishly admits that the reason he hasn’t gone back to the gym in his neighborhood is that he accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake and totaled his minivan by slamming it into a light post in the gym parking lot. It must have been bad, I said. He laughs. At seventy-five he often doesn’t give me the back-story to most of his mistakes, and any story is often filled with omissions too painful to remember. I think of the story he shared with me over a crab dinner he splurged on in Fisherman’s Wharf after riding the Greyhound all night to San Francisco, where I was living at the time. In the late sixties he had been arrested for working without papers in San Francisco and was placed in custody on a fishing boat in Alameda, California, for a couple of days, cleaning the deck while agents found him a bus to El Paso. This was a time when detention centers meant nothing more than a ride to Ciudad Júarez or Tijuana, while Mexicanos on both sides of the line listened to the San Jose, California, band Los Tigres del Norte sing earnestly about contraband and betrayal in a transnational drug deal between lovers gone wrong. That golden age where you got back on that hill, grassy and lush, and tried it again until you got it right. And he did. My dad got that right.
I start thinking about the ways in which the untraceable is made evident, or how the migrants’ journey has been represented to me throughout my life as a reader, a writer, and the Los Angeles–born 1980s child of parents from El Salvador and Mexico—and the one in the here and now, the adult child. In prose, we have writers Rubén Martínez of Los Angeles, who in his 2001 nonfiction book Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail rode with the Chavez brothers, indigenous members of the Purepecha tribe from the town of Cherán, Michoacán, in search of a better life. But how is a life made better if it means working in the poultry industry in rural Arkansas that will call ICE on you at a moment’s notice? Or Reyna Grande rendering firsthand without mincing words the very particular experience of crossing over. People come north because the alternative is death. Their portraits of others or selves desperate to reunite with family in the North, all in various pursuits of better economic stability.
As a reader, these voices have meant finding the language to illustrate the ways migratory traumas continue to haunt families both constituted and torn apart by inhumane border policies. But my parents’ migration took place in the late sixties and early seventies—they were essentially crossing an imaginary wall with nary an agent in sight to police such boundaries. Or overstaying their visas as in the case of my mother, who was a nurse in San Salvador. She came to the U.S. fleeing a violent husband. But she stayed in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, dare I say in the innocent heyday of border crossing, on par with episodes of The Brady Bunch? Or the golden age of border-law breaking, such as that scene in Born in East L.A. where Cheech Marin’s Lupe interrupts his own privilege as a Los Angeles–born-and-bred Chicano who finds himself caught in the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare of an unlawful deportation. The climax of the film happens when Lupe, atop one of the many hills throughout the borderscape of Tijuana and San Diego, summons the migrant masses with the elegance of an orchestra conductor to run down the hill, overwhelming two slack-jawed border-patrol agents underestimating the ethnic disempowered other, as per usual.
Back in the truck, I feel myself dolefully assign the landscape its benevolence, something to help muster the belief that what we are doing will make the slightest impact. It is Sunday. Of course we all have the same thought that morning—will we encounter anyone in need of our help?
Do migrants dream of blue barrels in the middle of the emptied ocean floor? Hiding in the brush in this harsh wilderness, dying under the weight of the sun?
In the distance, I stop and listen closely: a purple flag waves intrepidly in the hot summer wind, its color dulled by the daily solar pounding of summer.
After surveying the water station for cleanliness, potability, visibility, and evidence of possible tampering, we move on to the next one in Arivaca proper, Elephant Head. But before heading out of the pecan orchard, Stephen asks Guilllermo to stop the truck on the periphery, where he spots empty water bottles and a spectrum of detritus of migrants past. Plastic bottles that are empty but still intact signal recent passage. However, there are also old, discarded backpacks that, like the life they carried inside, have been emptied and are succumbing to the harsh conditions of this merciless desert. They are bits of human evidence that make the area seem anachronistic—to travel by foot in a time saturated by every imaginable technology. This is our refugee crisis.
It is not hard to sense that specter of migrant death nearby or in my third eye. Everything in that mise-en-scène blinks like a neon sign—migrants who came through the shade of the pecan trees more likely than not found their downfall in the washes around Arivaca, eleven miles from the borderline itself.
The border and the imprint of migrants’ death that is left in its hinterlands animates most experiences I have in the nature that surrounds it. There’s no saguaro I pass or silhouette of a mountain range at sunset that doesn’t have the uncanny attached to each of these natural encounters. The beauty of the desert never exists in a vacuum for me, much like art for art’s sake. This sentiment is approximated for me in the artwork of my friend Karlito Miller Espinosa, who like me left a coastal metropole for Tucson in 2016. An artist known for his exquisitely executed murals—from New York to Kiev—he started working in more conceptual registers that allowed for a more direct critique of the cultural zeitgeist in which he found himself. His three-dimensional installation pieces centered on cement bricks made from sand and debris collected from sites around southern Arizona borderlands where migrant bodies have been found. Untitled (Corridor) (2018) is a work that organizes the bedlam that U.S. immigration policy produces on the border space of Arizona and Mexico into a compact, narrow corridor. Fueled by a desire to ensure a futurity, most migrants are indigenous men and young families leaving the dead ends delivered by their countries of origin, countries whose governments have sold off industries to the highest bidders as is what business as usual means in a post-NAFTA world. As Mexican artist Teresa Margolles or Rafa Esparza comment on the ways in which violence intervenes in the daily lives of the most vulnerable of both Mexican and U.S. society, Karlito’s work too is a vehicle for a much-needed elegy for the migrant who comes north to labor. He brings land to art. And while the bricks themselves innovate on a page out of minimalism, to experience them in the seemingly antiseptic walls and floor of a gallery space allows for the Sonoran desert to leave its locale and trouble the viewer comfortably distanced from the deadly terrains. For me, Karlito’s work troubles me through the reminder of the debt I owe the migrant, the uncomfortable intimacies that contour the histories between us, the circumstances that reinforce the tensions.
I am a passenger watching the scenery of the borderlands beyond the brink of madness. One sitting president called the Deporter-in-Chief helped set the rhythm in place for what would come with the new administration less than a year later. We all are—at least the lot of us in the vehicle making this trip, a mere tithe to the desert to spare the living crossing through it. Every day can be marked by a colorful crucifix.
Over the next nine hours, over nothing more than the stretch of six miles at 3 mph, we are all mad. Or obsessed. It is this affective drive that impelled volunteers like Guillermo and Stephen to make this trip every two to three weeks for the last two years. No one should go through this. Everyone should run thumb and forefingers into the bullet holes of signs around the water barrels. Everyone should come close to being trampled by the cattle roaming freely. No one should risk this. Everyone should notice the wake of buzzards flying too close for comfort. No one should be separated from their families. These imperatives shouldn’t fall on the luck of the draw.
When we arrive at Elephant Head, I notice something that wasn’t on the first blue container: La Virgen de Guadalupe. Or, rather, a glossy sticker with her likeness.
All of my twelve years’ worth of nostalgic Catholic-school hackles go up at the sight of the feminine deity that made her debut on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico. An apparition that, today, only an indigenous man re-christened Juan Diego under similarly violent conditions could witness. As chronicled in a tract written in the mid-seventeenth century, Nican Mopohua, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was an indigenous man born in fifteenth-century Mexico when it was still Tenochtitlan, a subject of the Aztec empire who was basically caught in the crosshairs of colonization. Juan Diego was an early adopter of Catholicism, opting for baptism over complete subjugation. He was canonized in 2002 for being the holy witness to the apparition of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531, and who exhorted him to tell the bishop to build a shrine to her there. Was it because praying to the Virgin in their image made it easier to believe? This of course is relevant because Tepeyac was the site of the recently destroyed shrine to Coatlicue, the mother deity in the Aztec polytheistic tradition. In 1531, just as autumn transitioned into winter, Juan Diego on his return from a fourth encounter with the Virgin opened his tunic, and luscious red roses fell to the floor. This gesture also revealed the imprint of the Virgin Mary’s image on the cloth of his humble vestment. Roses would have been impossible to grow in such a cold spell during that season.
Stephen notices me noticing her and says it’s a way migrants hopefully can understand that the water station is there to help. I nod. He reminds me of the white solidarity folks back in Los Angeles. Stephen, a civil-rights attorney for the ACLU, reminds me of the kind of men who would teach me about parts of the Salvadoran Civil War my mother would omit. I nod, affirming that assumption and hoping non-Catholic migrants can decipher the tank as a site of relief. But behind my sunglasses and smile I bite my lip and pinch the muffin top peeking over my belt to keep the flood of emotions at bay. When will the colonial encounter finally pay its debt to the migrant, the descendant of those who under duress chose one god of Catholicism over the many gods and divinities of Aztec/Toltec/Mayan cosmological spirituality to call on for the variety of supplications that emerge in a life?
I pull the soft red bandana from my back pocket and rub it over tear-streaked cheeks and the sweat from my brow.
As the morning progresses and the sun’s rays intensify, I feel the perspiration pool in and around my body’s various concaves and then disappear. The desert is taking its rightful tax of moisture from me, collecting its debt as it does every day. We snack on sweet baby peppers and throw the ends out the window, to which Guillermo will say it will be a few hours tops before the desert consumes our biodegradable trash. We go on like this for hours. Our bodies flirting with being untraceable, all while traversing Arivaca’s veins and arteries.
Time seems to be marked by how close or far we are to a curious mountain peak known as Baboquivari, a sacred place for the Tohono O’odham nation as the creator, I’itoi, resides in a cave at the base. Baboquivari represents a genesis, of sorts. Or where to return, for many. Throughout our ride-along, Guillermo will stop for all of us to take in the scenery, snap photos, and stretch our legs. It feels like Baboquivari is looking out for us as we do our best looking out for others. Back in the car, rolling at our near-glacial pace, Guillermo, an old punk like me, who lived a decade in a Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood (like me again) but now lives in Tucson (yep, me, too), regales us with a story about his dying grandmother. He traveled from California one spring break years ago so that he and the cousins could gather to go camp and pray for their Yaqui grandmother’s health. They passed a joint around as they hiked up the mountain to Baboquivari’s peak. Being young men on the precipice of adulthood themselves, they silently competed with one another—who could walk faster? Who could carry the most gear? Who could keep up?
I was not going to let those guys know I had a flu, Guillermo says, carefully guiding our vehicle over sharp, rocky terrain, but I was dragging behind them when I felt something watching me. It was a mountain lion, and I turned around so quickly I scared it away. The rest of us in the car sigh in relief collectively. But Guillermo isn’t going to let us off the hook. Did you know, he begins, that a mountain lion loves to eat a fresh kill? He’ll sneak up behind you, take a swipe at the base of your neck, bite down on your cerebellum, and paralyze you.
Wait. Wait. Are you basically watching yourself get eaten alive? I ask, looking out toward Baboquivari, hoping for the hundredth time that hour that we won’t break down.
I touch my own ancestral amulet in my pocket, a piece of black kyanite moon-charged with protecting energies, or that is the metaphysical response to the circumstances currently beyond my control. I want to turn my energetic GPS on so my ancestors can find me, protect me somehow. Our guides are continually asked what happens if we encounter migrants on these trips; Stephen says simply they are to be given food, first aid, and water.
No one mentions felony.
No one mentions the way your right to vote or to secure gainful employment becomes jeopardized with the mere provision of water, food, and medical aid to a migrant found wandering in one of the few deadliest deserts in North America. We are wanderers with maps and GPS, Havarti cheese, and herb crackers. We travel with over a hundred gallons of water and a full tank of gas. We travel with the privilege of knowing our way back home.
Image is Karlito Miller Espinosa’s, Untitled (Corridor) (2018), installation of cement bricks made from sand and debris collected from specific locations within the Arizona borderlands where migrant bodies have been found.