Still There are Deaths

February 21, 2012

A few months ago I read this as part of Marginalia, an occasional series of readings at Bluestockings.

For each of the last five summers, I’ve spent a couple of weeks volunteering with a project called No More Deaths that’s based in Tucson, Arizona. No More Deaths collaborates with other organizations in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, to run resource centers for deportees, document Border Patrol abuses, and fight racist laws in Arizona. They are best known, however, for providing food, water, and medical aid to migrants along one of the deadliest stretches of the US/Mexico border, which is mostly what I’ve done with them.

After the first two summers, I wrote this zine about what I’d learned from spending six weeks out in the desert. It was mostly edited and rearranged excerpts from journals I’d kept while there, which are kind of like field notes. I’m really glad I wrote it, but if I did it today I think it’d be pretty different. It was a way of dealing with the intensity of some of what I encountered while I was there, and so it has lots of stories of people I met on the trails, people who were in the middle of what I sincerely hope was the worst and hardest parts of their lives. It can be a little dramatic.

I’ve gone back four times since then and kept taking notes on it. As time’s passed I’ve become less interested in focusing on the horror stories, which can easily end up presenting all the individuals walking north through that desert with their own stories and histories as little more than a helpless mass of victims. Certainly they’re compelling, powerful, important stories. But there’s a lot of other things happening out there, far from the eye of the media and most people, at the edges of what a map says in the United States. And I want to read a bit about some of that stuff too. About how the desert along the US/Mexico boundary line isn’t just empty space, isn’t just a zone of transition between two discrete nation-states. Rather it’s are the middle of something else, of a thoroughly mystifying, often horrifying, sometimes totally magical place in its own right. And everything’s always changing out there, which only adds to the confusion.

So this is a mix of that zine and more recent notes and reflections. It’s a collection of vignettes. It might be a little disjointed in parts, but just remember this spans five years. I’ll let you know when I’m switching years. And please excuse the changes from past to present tense throughout.

 

2008

The thermometer said 103° after lunch but it felt cooler than in recent days, when it was 110 in the shade. It’s hard to describe what happens inside you when it’s this hot all the time. How slow everything becomes. How your brain starts skipping steps. How the thirst never goes away yet you want to pour water over your head rather than drink it. Wherever skin touches skin sweat appears (though it’s so dry here you rarely feel it). You don’t want to move, don’t want to think, stop wanting to talk.

Thunder rumbles in the distance—today is the first with clouds in at least a month. The sun sets pink and orange behind distant streaks of falling rain. The monsoons are coming.

Undulating brown hills dotted with surprisingly green mesquite trees extend out to the base of the rocky mountains fading into the darkness. The border is just on the other side.

The desert is beautiful but it is brutal and dangerous. If it’s not the heat and sun it’s the rattlesnakes and scorpions. Or the poisonous frogs and lizards. Or the oversized fire ants and spiders. Every plant is covered in vicious spines. Some grab on to you and won’t let go; others just slice through your clothes and skin. Any uncovered body part is vulnerable.

The wind blows in the desert like nowhere else. You can tell it comes from somewhere far away, just like the people traveling through it.

Otherwise it is still. That first night, the first year, I laid under the silent desert sky and felt alone, a thousand miles from lights and pavement and anyone else. It seemed empty, forgotten. But right then, out there in the expansive darkness, people were walking, moving, hiding. Hundreds of people. In the morning there would be only footprints and bits of trash along the trails.

***

As the name suggests, No More Deaths (NMD) works hard to end the death and suffering that is so prevalent along the border. Since the US began sealing off major urban crossing areas under Clinton in 1994, more than 5000 bodies have been recovered from the desert. In 2010, 252 were found in Arizona alone, the most on record. Only a fraction of those who die are ever found, however—I’ve heard estimates as low as 1 in 10, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Often the best we can do is leave water on heavily trafficked trails and help evacuate people who require immediate medical attention. From May to October, NMD runs a permanent camp in the desert outside of Arivaca, Arizona, about 12 miles from the official boundary. Multiple patrols of volunteers go out twice a day. We encounter hundreds of people on the trails in the course of a summer, and leave thousands of gallons of water that get picked up by thirsty walkers.

Everyday we walk but never far. Up at dawn, bagels and granola bars for breakfast, then off in some overloaded truck to crawl along rugged roads, in and out of sandy washes, through dusty cow fields. Where the most-traveled trails cross the unmaintained roads we park and start walking, each of us carrying a gallon of water and food packs to give away or leave on the trail. Thousands of miles of rough trails run across the border to hidden spots where groups of walking migrants are picked up and shuttled to safe houses in nearby cities.

We see more signs of people than actual people. Fresh footprints, empty water bottles, food wrappers, apple cores still yellow. Backpacks, hats, shirts, shoes. Toothbrushes, underwear, lipstick, children’s toys. We can feel the presence of people, smell the smoke of their cigarettes sometimes, but if they don’t want to be found we won’t find them.

Often it’s better to not find them—it means they’re in pretty good shape. That they don’t need help. That they’re not lost, not sick, not injured. That they still have enough physical and psychological strength to continue walking. At least we hope this is true.

It is eerie to know there are people out there, sometimes close by. It gives the silence a certain weight. If you just drove along the paved roads you would think you were passing through an uninhabited landscape. But when you venture out it comes to life, birds and insects and jackrabbits and chipmunks and white tailed deer bounding over it all, lizards and snakes and spiders and frogs. And there are all the human lives that intersect out there too: migrants and Border Patrol, bandits and drug smugglers, local residents and us.

***

The desert is full of myths and folklore. To the Tohono O’odham, the people indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, it is sacred. Baboquivari Peak, always visible on the western horizon, is the center of their cosmology, the home of their creator.

Migrants and their supporters have their own legends, tales of heroic journeys to save ailing friends and family. Shrines dot the caves and canyons. Some honor the dead, others la Virgen de Guadelupe or Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of drug smugglers.

Stories of Border Patrol abuse abound, stories of cruelty and violence. No one doubts them. The specter of bandits and vigilantes with guns haunts the desert, hiding behind boulders, creeping through the darkness. It is a fearful place.

The desert is a land of mystery. Thousands of pieces of thousands of lives strewn across the ground in the most baffling ways. The dry dusty trails are haunted by brittle jeans hanging in thorny bushes, cracked water bottles gathered where a path crosses a wash, single shoes abandoned along the trails. Like everyone just suddenly disappeared.

The desert takes what it wants and leaves only questions, ghosts, suggestions of what came before. It is inexplicable. It casts a spell on those who pass through it, leaving us confused, unsure of what happened and where. It is a land of bones. There are no witnesses. It swallows everything: people, crimes, secrets.

2009

One night, two guys walked into camp. Two guys in basketball shoes and fitted hats who grew up in the US and spoke English like so many Chicano guys in LA and said they didn’t know a thing about Mexico. They’d been arrested for some bullshit and then deported. They met each other somewhere along the way, after being dumped into Mexico, and ended up traveling back north in the same group. Each had kids in the US, other family too. Neither spoke a word of Spanish. One of them had trouble keeping up with their group so their guide was going to leave him behind. The other decided to stay with him, to risk himself and his waiting family for his new friend. They say we saved their lives with water they found on the trail…

Today we walked to the border, six and a half long miles down magnificent Sycamore Canyon till we came to three strands of barbed wire strung over a wash. I don’t think it’d ever seemed so absurd as when we rounded the corner and I could see two crossed sticks that served as fence posts suspended over the sand—you couldn’t even see the wires from much distance. We ate hard boiled eggs under a tree on the other side. It looked exactly the same.

***

The storm trooper helmets made them look mean but these guys looked even meaner, four of them on ATVs glaring at us as we passed them out by Jalisco Canyon. We assumed they were BP but their shirts said Sherriff, which I’ve never seen out here. Search and rescue, we thought. But when we got to the water drop, nine of the bottles were crushed, the ground around them still wet, ATV tracks all around.

2010

It’s really different out here this year: we’re seeing no one on the trails and, much more significantly, hardly any water’s being taken from any of the drop points, even the mega spots where we were leaving a hundred or more gallons a week last summer. ‘No hay nadie,’ one of the migrants that walked into camp at dawn today told me. It’s like everyone disappeared, again, and in a totally different way. Most people don’t seem to think it’s too strange, but the part of me that wants so much to UNDERSTAND is going crazy trying to figure out how so many thousands of people can so suddenly be gone.

Every time I come here some things make more and more sense while others less and less. In some ways it’s all just as mysterious as that first summer when everything was so new and overwhelming. All the old trails seem dead, still haunted, but no longer by so many unseen people but rather by the memories of so many who came before and are now long gone. Sometimes it’s like walking through a strange museum of migration in which everything’s been preserved, frozen in the distant past: the untouched gallons of water scattered along every trail, the mountain passes littered with so much fading, crumbling trash, the trails slightly overgrown and clear but for the cow tracks. The other day, when everyone was searching for Marta and Amir, we followed footprints until we realized they were from an earlier patrol, previous guests in this border theme park.

The new thing, though, is the strange tendency of people to walk into camp, which has happened for each of the last eight days. We can’t really figure out where they’re coming from, and they don’t usually want to talk about it. They come in groups of between 2 and 6, early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We give them backpacks and shoes and painkillers and packets of electrolytes, gallons of water and all the food we can get together, and five minutes later they’re off. More than once we’ve given them all the food we were about to eat. Last night two guys walked in who said they were with a group of five while we were making quesadillas for dinner. We packed our dinner up for them, they left, and twenty minutes later two more came in, saying they were from a different group of five. We packed them a dinner too and kept making quesadillas, like we were a roadside restaurant now.

***

Early last week I stumbled across the sprawling triple shrine, which I’d heard about but never seen, spread throughout a twisting canyon—one to Santa Muerte, one to San Juan Tadeo (the patron saint of impossible causes), and one to either or both the Virgen of Guadelupe and Jesus, each carefully separated from the others. There were dozens and dozens—probably hundreds—of candles, prayer cards, sea shells, rosaries, and other things people had chosen to carry so far and then leave behind, all neatly grouped and arranged as if everyone knew the rules. I stood there looking at it all and was so taken by the importance of faith in that journey, the degree to which setting foot in that desert requires surrendering so much to circumstance and believing that everything will work out in the end.

But it goes further: it seems like magic is out there too, both a happy magic and a creepy one, one that both makes giant sea shells appear at shrines and people disappear. Maybe the gallons of water we drop on the trails that must seem to come from nowhere are part of it too. Whether it is or not, we’re some of the few people who get to talk around and feel a little of it too.

2011

Yesterday when we got to the east drop at Apache Well I found a bunch of empty bottles on their sides and my heart sort of lifted up a little in that way that it does when it feels like what we’re doing out here is really worthwhile, like we’ve figured out some ways to actually and meaningfully intervene, if even only a little, in the fucked up and tragic brutality of this too-beautiful place. This is a good feeling, a great feeling. An increasingly rare feeling.

I’m not sure what we noticed first, or who noticed it, but I started touching all the bottles, one at a time, and found they were all empty, all 21 of them, and still sealed. We found little inch-long slits near the handle of each, and identical slits in the bottom. Then Chris noticed all the cans of beans had been opened and their contents dumped into a pile. We walked across the wash to the other drop and found the exact same thing.

Forty-two bottles, 42 gallons of water, slashed and dumped into the desert, carefully and methodically. Someone called it a massacre.

***

It’s over and I’m going back east. No more desert sunrises, no more flies crawling all over me, no more shitting in buckets, no more bone-rattling dirt roads, no more hail storms and thunderstorms and raging rivers where an hour before were dusty washes. No more helicopters circling in the distance. No more tarantulas and black widows and centipedes and rattlesnakes, no more BP trucks lurking in the shadows, no more cactus and ocotillo and mesquite and hillsides of wildflowers, no more waving at every truck that passes, no more silence, no more checkpoints, no more 10 pm bedtime, no more beans and rice and pasta for every meal, or granola bars for every snack, no more sitting around and talking about the border with people coming from such different places.

But still there are deaths. Still there are unrecovered bodies and inexplicable murders. Slashed bottles and hostile BP agents with big guns threatening whoever’s in their way. Still there’s the mystery of so many disappeared people, of so much silence punctuated by occasional chaos and tragedy. Still there’s a seemingly endless stream of volunteers willing to trudge through the searing heat carrying gallons of water and cans of beans and blister kits, searching for people that usually don’t want to be found who are crossing in ways and places we no longer understand.

 

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One Response to “Still There are Deaths”

  1. john c warren said

    thank you for posting, and for witnessing to the beauty, complexity, ugliness…,

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