Closet Cleaning Part 2: Bordering Hell
Silvia Plath once noted, “[n]othing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” If this is the case, I have amassed quite the stinky pile. For a little end-of-summer cleaning, I’m freshening up my closet (aka hard drive), mixing metaphors and posting a few stories I like but for which I have yet to find suitable homes.
The U.S.-Mexico border; for many it can be hell. It where the national sins of both the United States and Mexico combine to create an ever-increasing mass of displaced people, broken families and death. The political border, built on blood and dollars, is guarded on the U.S. side with more than a billion dollars of militarized manpower and surveillance equipment.
Every day more than $800 million dollars in goods and services are legally exchanged across the border. Every day between $20 and $68 million of illicit drugs—mostly marijuana—enter the U.S. from Mexico, and an unquantified, yet large, amount of handguns and assault rifles legally purchased in the U.S. are shipped to Mexico. Every day people working in the U.S. send roughly $68 million to their families in Mexico. And, every day around 2,000 people are detained by the Border Patrol for crossing the vast and varied expanse from Tijuana to Matamoros without papers—only to be sent back to Mexico where they will more than likely attempt the trek again.
“The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture,” wrote Gloria Anzaldúa in her landmark book Borderlands/La Frontera. Many claim the bi-national land as their familial home for generations, starting with the indigenous peoples, then to mestizo, Chicanos and finally to whites who have been settling the region for the past 150 years.
In the summer of 2008, I spent a week volunteering at an aid station for deported migrants at the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales, Mexico. I had been to the border a few times before. For some drunken kicks that turned mildly bloody in Tijuana, a backpacking trip along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park in Texas where the hourly buzz from helicopter patrols interrupted the ancient serenity of the land, and an afternoon strolling the streets of downtown Juarez.
The area surrounding the aid station was a regular hang out for street folk, drunks, drug addicts and a few wanders for the better part of the day. While guides (a.k.a. coyotes, polleros, or human smugglers), petty government officials, Mexican volunteers and idealistic gringos—both young and old—hid in the shade awaited the arrival of those whose lives in America were cut short by la migra-cum-grim reaper.
Everyone in Nogales is from somewhere else. While there are tens of thousands of people for whom Nogales has always been home, they had seen their city cut in two with a border wall leaving neighborhoods internationally divided. Combined with the explosion in the city’s population fueled by the global race-to-the-bottom, the city that locals had once known had ceased to exist. So yes, even the locals are from somewhere else.
For a few, the borderlands are an ancestral home dating back to the migrations—and daily movements—of indigenous people. We’re not talking about 1500 years ago, more like 160 years, that is, until the Mexican-America War. With the first of the Spaniards to arrive in what are now the borderlands in the early-1500’s, rape and intermarriage created the Mestizo, Chicano or La Raza. Many who inhabited the now borderlands changed from Mexican to American with a stroke of the pen with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, yet whose property rights were never practically transferred with citizenship.
There was the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 where the U.S. bought what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico to develop the transcontinental railroad system. Yet it was still such a vast territory that people came and went as they pleased for the most part until the mid-twentieth century. There was still little to contain the movements of people who followed a rough trail to a seemingly better life.
It was the center-right Ronald Regan who granted amnesty in 1986 to nearly 2.6 million people living and working in the United States without documentation. And, it was the center-left Bill Clinton who initiated “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994 that attempted to secure the border around the Tijuana-San Diego as well as Operations “Hold-the-Line” and “Safeguard” in Texas and Arizona respectively. The result hasn’t slowed migration in the slightest, but it did lead to a 600 percent increase in migrant deaths. The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights released a report in October of 2009 that estimates that 5,607 migrants lost their lives traversing the borderlands between 1994 and 2008.
After Clinton’s wall building efforts didn’t meet their desired goals, George W. Bush pushed policy to build a “virtual” wall in 2006, now known as the “Secure Border Initiative Network.” In three years Boeing raked in more than one billion dollars to develop a series of 80 towers with cameras and motion detectors to alert the Border Patrol when people are crossing. By early 2009, only 28 miles of border area in the Arizona desert is being monitored with this fancy gadgetry, which has been effective at pushing migrants into harsher terrain. Bush also signed off on the Secure Fence Act in 2006, to build another 700 miles of wall around the border. Since my time in Nogales in 2008, center-left President Barack Obama has deported more than one million people lacking proper documentation and is on course to deport more people in one term than Bush did in two.
Industrial growth—from Mexico’s National Industrialization Program in the 1970’s and 1980’s and accelerated by the passage of NAFTA—has resulted in maquiladoras sprouting up on the outskirts of the Nogales. People from all over Mexico in search of work often displaced from their land in the face of an agricultural economy working against the interests of small-scale farmers have flocked to border towns like Nogales, often as the end of their journey or as a stepping-stone to the U.S.
Nearly everyone at the Mariposa Aid Station had lived in the United States at one point in their lives. Those who hadn’t were biding their time or trying to save money to attempt the deadly journey through the Sonoran Desert. For many routine traffic stops turned into the uprooting of one’s life leaving all their possessions, friends and family behind. Weeks in jail and a bus ride to a border crossing is all they received on their unwelcomed trip back to Mexico.
The aid station was a joint operation between Sonora’s State Commission for the Care of Migrants and the Tucson-based No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. While state officials and NMD volunteers have no small presence at the station, the day-to-day operation and the better part of the aid given to the deportees is done by a small group of men who found themselves stuck in Nogales.
When Ana, my then girlfriend, and I first arrived to the camp we met Shadow, Poncho and Esteban (names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned). Shadow’s name was fitting, she was very shadowy and not in a bad-ass superhero kind of way. At 35-years-old she had six kids, all who lived with their grandmother in the U.S., and maybe a few who lived in Mexico City with their dad, or at least one of their dads.
Shawdow’s nose and eyes reminded me of a friend whose life might have taken a similar turn as Shadow’s if she hadn’t kicked heroin at an early age. Shadow was covered in prison tattoos with the name Josephine—probably one of her daughters—on her left forearm. Further up her arm was a shoddy floral arrangement just below a swastika. The meaning of the Nazi symbol—given its titled axis it was definitely not the Hindu symbol of good luck—never came to me. Given her husband, I was told, was a dark-skinned Chilango, lead me to believe she was not a white supremacist. She could have sided with the Neo-Nazi while in prison for protection, who knows, but she was sketchy. Not just because she was a sex worker with a drug problem, but because the güera made the streets of Nogales her home.
There were also a kind, self-sacrificial bent within her, she could have been a junkie Mary Magdalene for all I knew. She was caring when to the migrants who came through the aid station and saw the work as very necessary. It was a little good that made her life of bad tolerable, and maybe worth living.
It was also through her openness and local knowledge that Ana and I were able to see the relations between the various people we were to interact with on a daily basis. Over the first two days at the aid station Shadow gave us the run down, how petty government officials took payoffs from coyotes so they would turn a blind eye to their activities, and how soldiers in the Mexican Army would spend their days on the hill above the Mariposa border crossing smoking weed they confiscated. Because of her we realized just how connected everyone was.
Poncho was a 52-year-old boracho with a large scar under his right for which he was called Scarface. He had leathery dark skin and eyes that had long lost their whiteness. As Ana introduced herself in the trailer where the three sat, Poncho grabbed his heart and yelled, “Ma! Ma! Ma!” On his chest was the tattooed name of his mother Ana in script.
It was 10:30 a.m. and already Poncho had beer on his breath. That day, Poncho was our friend, constantly drunk, but never sloppy. He sat for hours telling us his story, breaking into tears about his ruined life, and constantly asking us for money so he could buy a bottle of mescal.
Poncho, who moved to the U.S. in his twenties, was born in Michoacan in a small town an hour outside of the state’s capital Morelia. He spoke good English and he had made a humble, yet stable, life for his family in Oxnard, CA where he worked on the strawberry fields. Over the course of his 30 years in the U.S. he stopped sending money back to Mexico, he stopped writing his old friends, his family had either died or moved to the U.S. and his homeland had ceased to be his home.
Alcohol wasn’t a new problem for Poncho, as he had been pulled over numerous times for drunk driving. The first two times the court overlooked his immigration status, but after the third time he found himself on a bus to Nogales.
Instead of picking strawberries, Poncho spent his days staring at the main barriers to his wife and three children, the border wall and the border patrol who stood behind it. When Poncho would recount his stories he would often stop midsentence with a quivering lower lip and swollen eyes. Sometimes he would gain his composure, others he would start to bawl like a big boracho baby.
“Stop crying you big softy,” Shadow would playfully say to him. Poncho would try to compose himself, bring a little smile to his face and then look to Ana for a motherly hug amidst the flies and the stench. Monday was unique, Poncho got wasted on mescal that night and spent the next day puking bile outside his cardboard shanty on a squatter hill that overlooked the border. When he showed up to the camp on Wednesday he was quite.
Esteban was the man in charge. He had the right connections on the ground. He knew that he had to serve the locals and the dispossessed, the street vendors and panhandlers, the drug addicts and drunks for whom a cup or two of arroz con leche with nutritional powder would be their only meal for the day. He knew he was powerless to control the social dynamics of the area, he knew his effectiveness at the camp would be compromised if he drew a hard line with local elements that made his faith-based benefactors and organizers north of the border uncomfortable with the operation.
Many of the migrants came to the aid station in horrible health. Wandering—often lost—in the desert without food, water and proper footwear leaves strong and robust bodies injured and weak. The U.S. Border Patrol often denies migrants found on their perilous journey food and water, according to the NMD. A few deportees told stories of being thrown into the capped beds of border patrol trucks—not much different looking than those used by animal control—with no water in the scorching Sonoran heat. They were then loaded onto a bus on a hot desert road for a day until la migra rounded up enough men, women and children to justify a trip to a border crossing.
If the deportees were lucky they were given one cup and a bucket of water to share between a bus load of thirsty people. In the process all judicial review is forgone by coercing migrants to sign a statement of voluntary deportation. Unless there is a threat of immediate death no medical attention is given even if a person’s condition is serious.
Poncho was dropped off at the Mariposa Border Crossing with no money, no possessions, but without the physical exhaustion of just having attempted a border crossing on foot unlike most of those he had been dropped off with. Yet he was still stuck in purgatory with no one to see, nothing to do and no shelter. All he had were the distant prayers of his family who had just lost its breadwinner. At the Mariposa Aid Station he found a group of men like him, lost souls in the no man’s land of la frontera.
The strength—and some say weakness—of the camp is that it started in this fashion. What was once a camp of gringos with near-bottomless hearts from No More Deaths who gave food, water and medical care to deportees a few days a week, turned into a near 24/7 operation with deportees themselves providing most of the volunteer leg work.
Shortly after the camp was set-up in June 2006, Esteban came to Mariposa on a Wackenhut bus, lonely and a long way from San Jose, California, his home for more than 20 years. He stopped by the camp with the other deportees for food and water, but he never left. He started squatting in the nearby hills and volunteering at the camp during the day. The timing worked out because No More Deaths and the Sonoran government wanted to expand the operational hours of the aid station. Esteban’s genuine compassion, his understanding and his fluency in both English and Spanish lead NMD to ask him to live at the camp and watch over the supplies after hours.
Since that time the camp has grown: from a tent, to a tent with a trailer, to two tents with two trailers and a large Red Cross trailer. A crew of men also assembled itself over the course of a few years, men with large, yet heavy hearts, and a wide array of vices who found themselves bordering Hell far from their families and far from their former lives.
In mid-July—during monsoon season when the Sonoran desert is a lush green and when raging lightening storms and flash floods are the norm—buses full of deportees dropped off at the Mariposa crossing are less frequent. On that first day we found things quite for most of the afternoon other than Poncho’s drunken soliloquies. For most of the day we sat and conversed with those at the camp in the reek of shit—complements of a porta-potty filled with a pile of excrement that nearly rose above the toilet set—and oppressive files it nourished.
There was a well-dressed guy in his early 20’s with styled hair, a trimmed mustache, clean baggy jeans, a navy polo with yellow horizontal stripes—collar popped, two cell phones on his belt which clipped with a large silver buckle, and a shiny silver chain with a large crucifix pendent. At his side were two nicely dressed women and another muscular well-dressed man. The latter three were college students who had internships with the Sonoran government. The former, Luis, was a coyote who grew up in Alabama and was deported, he said, after he ran a stop sign a year and a half before. All four were poring over abuse reports of deportees by the U.S. Border Patrol for the Sonoran government.
On that day Shadow told Ana and I that Luis paid local authorities and Esteban to be the only coyote allowed to work out of the aid station, something NMD allegedly knew nothing about. Over the course of the week I learned that not all coyotes were bad coyotes, yet the bad coyotes were far worse than one would want to believe.
At the aid station there was also Jose, aka Chilango, who was constantly working, either washing windows of cars lined up at U.S. Customs or taking abuse reports when deportees arrived at the camp. He would also do odd jobs around the camp. While tortillas, beans and arroz con leche were his primary source of food, he was one who wanted nothing for free. Neither Ana or I ever got his full story, nor should we have. He’d probably seen many volunteers come and go over the summer and didn’t want to go out of his way to befriend us. But, I could tell from our small interactions and polite formalities that he was one of the better people I met in what is the tragedy of Nogales.
There was also The Cowboy, an old ranchero who was just bidding his time before he would attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert for a second time to get back to his wife in southern California. Another thing about la migra, they often don’t drop deportees at the nearest border crossing. Esteban found himself dropped off at the crossing in Arizona after he’d been picked up in San Jose. California, while many people picked up in Arizona or New Mexico find themselves in Tijuana.
The camps’s cook, Carlos, was one of three men whose names we had been given before we headed to the camp the day before. He was a decent enough cook, and personally amiable with good humor. The ingredients he was working with left his hands tied and the ever-present swarm of flies were beyond his control. Cases of cup-o-noodles, beans, rice, fortified strawberry flavored milk powder, the occasional stack of tortillas, and salt—lots of salt, were what he had to work with. In the morning, he’d splurge and treat the volunteers and the regulars to fried eggs. In the evening he’d break out chicharrón, fried pork skin, to everyone’s delight.
After a slow day of chatting in English and Spanish, smoking cigarettes and drinking instant coffee, the first bus of deportees arrive on the U.S. side of the border. The mass of people walked past the Mexican Customs building which funneled them toward the aid station. As the exhausted faces arrived the men of the camp went out to greet them with clip boards in hand to take down their information and also to compile abuse reports if the border patrol had denied them food, water or medical attention and if the BP had been physically violent. They directed the deportees to the food, water and coffee table, which Ana and I were to work with Shadow. As the camp filled up the medic disappeared into his trailer. He made a habit of hiding when he was needed most, and he was the only person in the camp—other than the coyotes—who was making any money for the their time.
Many of the deportees had known humble, yet decent, lives, and some had hit America’s dwindling middle class over the years. To suddenly find themselves in a hellish city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert taking Styrofoam cups of pink rice and weak coffee in a fly-infested tent that smelt like the over-flowing port-a-potty a few yards away, stood as quite possibly the lowest point in most of their lives.
A few who came toward to the camp had to be supported in the arms of their friends and family, the long hike hard worn the skin on their feet painfully raw. One of the main question people asked when they arrived at the camp was, “¿Tienes calsetines?” Do you have any socks? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Boxes of supplies came through at various times throughout the week and were often exhausted shortly after their arrival.
With the medic hiding in his trailer, Ana took on a new role—foot bandager. Four or five days of walking through the desert with shoddy footwear will leave even the sturdiest of feet raw and skinless. As the buses came in Ana took care of the feet of middle-aged men, elderly women, teenage girls and little kids. Her smile, kind words and soft touch—even though the role of medic was new to her—were welcomed with painful graciases from people who had for days been denied their humanity by coyotes and border patrol alike.
While Luis was the only coyote allowed to operate on the small triangular median on which the camp had been erected, other coyotes stood around the perimeter to prey on the people who wanted to get back to the U.S. as quickly as they could. A study by the University of California, San Diego, found that 92 to 98 percent of people who fail in their first attempt to enter the U.S. without papers continue trying until successful.
While there were a handful of coyotes buzzing around the camp at any given time there was one who stood out above the rest for her appearance, ill-repute and her sway over the local border community of wanderers and dispossessed. She, Juanita, always exposed her broad shoulders, dark skin and sagging breasts with a brightly-colored halter-top. She was also always clad in tight pants and knee-high stilettos. She had dark orange hair, from an obvious failed attempt at dying her black hair blonde, and a receding hairline. Her most striking feature was her long middle fingers that couldn’t bend as if they were permanently giving the world two “fuck yous.”
Her husband Carlos was a short bulbous man. Esteban always joked about how awful their wedding picture must have looked. Carlos was also Poncho’s only link to the past. The two of them grew up in the same village in Michoacan and never thought of each other—so they say—until they ran into each other at the aid station shortly after Poncho had been deported.
Across the narrow one-way street from the station was a muddy hillside littered with trash and which dropped down into a gully where the border wall stood. On top of the four foot embankment stood the coyotes.
At about 8:30 p.m. officials from the Sonoran government came to see the condition of the deportees and to also see if some wanted to take advantage of the government’s subsidized bus rides back to their home states.
About that time Ana and I decided to head back across the border to stay in the home of a pastor and his wife in Rio Rico. Unsure of where to go in the morning we parked close to the main border crossing in downtown Ambos Nogales, a three mile walk from the Mariposa border crossing. That morning we were at a loss of where to go at the main crossing so we decided to follow the wall west to where we knew the Mariposa crossing had to be.
On the wandering walk we saw a mural on one portion of the wall with dozens of white crosses to commemorate those who lost their lives trying to get around that very same wall. On the other side of the wall were buildings with nearly identical architecture to that of the Mexican side—a neighborhood cut in two by an arbitrary border.
We continued to walk, veering off the main road to follow the wall up a hill and into the barrios. We were probably a strange sight. Not many end up losing their way and walking through the impoverished—yet far from destitute—streets of that section of town. We stopped at a little market to ask the shopkeeper for directions to the Mariposa border crossing. The lady sized us up with a puzzled expression. A gringo and a Brazilian dressed in obviously American clothes yet carrying a plastic bag full of food and water.
“Are you two crossing the desert?” she asked with much inquisitiveness. We explained that we were volunteering at an aid station at that border crossing. The reality is that people from all over Latin America make their way to the border to journey through the desert, many Brazilians included. We were also carrying plastic shopping bags which are often what all of one’s possessions are carried in during the clandestine walk.
We figured out that we could take the main road all the way back to the car and we made the walk without incident. Although, halfway through our walk back to the car I noticed a truck full of police with assault rifles in hand slow down at our heels. The truck stopped and they jumped out quickly, which made my heart skip a beat. They weren’t after us, they seemed to be after a few kids who were playing basketball in a private court.
We made our way back to the Mariposa Aid Station on Tuesday morning. Scarface was no where to be found, but a new character emerged, Hector. He had spent the whole day before drunk off his ass. So the he worked twice as hard to make up for his absence the previous day. He was a skinny, unhealthy looking man in his mid-to-late forties. He had been friends with Esteban since the time they both lived in San Jose, California. If Esteban was Batman, Hector would be his Robin.
The day passed much the same as the day before, except Shadow had a cheap plastic bottle of mescal and was trying to pour shots into our cups of overly sweetened instant coffee. We sat and chatted with folks, swatting flies in the afternoon heat as we waited for buses of people to be dropped off at the border.
A man named Miguel showed up to the camp with a Chivas cap, a long mullet, a diamond earring and gold tooth. He came up to Ana and I and asked us a rather absurd question.
“Do you want to see my booger collection?” he asked in a low voice. We said no with a laugh not sure of the best way to respond.
Just then Shadow approached us and said her friend had his dog captured by animal control. She gave us the sob story of how the dog had been her friend’s only companion since he had been deported to Nogales. I saw the dog the day before and I half believed the story. Miguel stood behind Shadow and her friend shaking his head no.
“We’ll think about it. If you can’t find anyone else to help, then maybe,” Ana said after we attempted to read each other’s faces to get a feel for what the other was thinking. A few hours later Ana handed Shadow a twenty.
“Great! Thank you so much. His heart has been broken without that dog,” she said with complete sincerity. She was a good liar and seemed to have hustled by with little lies for quite some time. We heard through the grape vine that her and her friend had used the money to score some of cheap, but potent, smack and spend the next few days cracked out.
We would later find out that she worked the streets and that sometimes she and a friend used the aid station as a nocturnal HQ of sorts. But not every night, other nights she would fuck for free drugs. But, rumors, rumors…yet I’m inclined to believe the rumors held some truth, the rumors of fabricated details and inflated events were ones that I was probably not privy to.
“Don’t trust anyone here, not even me.” Miguel told me as we stood on a muddy mound of dirt smoking cigarettes. A bus of deportees had been dropped off an hour before and things had temporarily settled. The Cowboy, Scarface, Carlos, Hector and two kids who had recently showed up sat quietly swatting flies. Esteban was having his shoes polished as he was chatting with local bureaucrats.
The sun had just set and there were horses nibbling the oddly green desert grass next to the border wall. Teenagers were throwing rocks at la migra posted up close to the wall on the U.S. side of the border with their heavily militarized dog-catcher trucks.
“Pinche pendejos!” Fucking assholes, the teenagers yelled as all but a few of their stones fell far short of their target. Over the years, more than one Mexican has been shot to death for throwing stones over the border.
“Ellos SON pendejos,” Miguel said with soft force. “I have a 13-year-old son in Kansas and a wife too.” His eyes casually moved from mine to the horizon.
“How did you end up here?”
“There was a raid on the farm I worked at, I left my house at sunrise and never came back. I lost all connection to my coworkers at the detention centers.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Three months. Three months here after being at a detention center for four months.” He told me that he was able to talk to his wife and son because of the money they were able to send him. He was bidding his time, he was unsure of whether he should try to hustle up enough money for a coyote or if he should make the 100 mile journey on his own.
“You say not to trust anyone, why? What about Esteban or Chilango. They’re doing a lot of good for people here.”
“They are, but who’s doing anything good for them? I grew up in el campo without shoes on my feet and I was very poor. I came to the U.S. and overstayed my visa, but I always worked hard and I always had food and a roof in both my old lives—in Mexico and the U.S. But now I have nothing. I don’t have a place to stay and I don’t have food. Lacking those two things will make you do things you never thought you could do.” He then held eye contact for longer than what was comfortable.
“This place seems like Hell.”
“No, es purgatorio. My mother prayed everyday that her father and uncles would make it out of purgatorio and into heaven, just like my wife saves a little money everyday to buy me a coyote.”
“So you’re saying the U.S. is heaven?” I asked with a curious smile.
“Oh no, I hope not. I think I would rather sit in a lake of fire then work on a pig farm for all eternity.” We both laughed. “I say this is purgatorio because I lost my old life, I now must sit and wait, to wait for good weather or wait for money, or whatever comes first.”
“It’s time,” I said as I saw people filing off a bus and walking over the border. I would man the food table for the next few hours. Three buses of deportees were dropped off that evening. I would chit chat with some of the guys in Spanish, two days of speaking the language gave me a little confidence to butcher the language.
As I passed out food and water I saw the tired faces of those whose very being in America had been criminalized. Some people had been day laborers, others were field workers, construction workers, service workers, maids, nannies, cooks, carpenters, a few homeowners, nearly all paid taxes, many had cars. To Uncle Sam, none of that mattered they were all crooks. Some spent hours on a stuffy bus, others spent months at an immigration detention center before being dropped off at the border.
So much for “‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’” Granted the “The New Colossus” inscribed at the Statue of Liberty’s base is poetry not policy. In retrospect France’s gift can be seen as a smug joke, can a Colossus really be a beacon of liberty?
As I manned the table I tried to be polite and engage in some chit chat, but what could I say? “¿Comó estas?” I knew the answer, probably not that great. By 10:30 p.m. most of the recent deportees had gotten food, water and new socks and were off to a government-run shelter for Mexican citizens newly deported from the U.S.
All of a sudden there were dozens of soldiers and federales holding assault rifles around the aid station. Esteban looked at Ana and I and said it would probably be a good time to leave. We hopped into our car after having to politely ask a truck full of soldiers as well as a few federales on foot to move so we could get the hell out of there.
As we were idling in the line for customs we heard the crackle of gun fire in the distance. The next day we found out that the army and federales had intelligence on a simultaneous shipment of guns into Mexico and marijuana into the U.S. In the process of busting the shipment, heavy machine gun fire was directed at a few cars just outside of the camp.
As mentioned the aid station was a joint effort between the Sonoran government and No More Deaths. NMD started the aid station and still supplies most of the resources. The organization is primarily faith-based, yet far from the right-wing evangelical conservative Christian groups in the U.S. is known for. For them, doing God’s work is working for social justice and human dignity. They see the border wall constructed by Bill Clinton’s administration an affront to human life, for when the hundred of million dollar wall was first started in 1994 it was known that the result would drive migrants away from the cities and into the inhospitable deserts where many would lose their lives.
There was also a disconnect between the patrons north of the border and those who manned the aid station. It was a dirty game to keep a volunteer-based aid station operating fulltime on the seedy outskirts of Nogales. The sensitive liberal middle-upper class disposition of some—not all—of the NMD organizers were very uncomfortable with the idea of prostitutes, drug dealers, coyotes and the like being at all associate with the camp. But it was they who worked the streets before the camp and it is they who will continue to work the same streets after the camp—barring a social revolution.
The location of the camp has worked for and against it. It is the only place were one could expect to reach all the deportees who are dropped off at the Mariposa border crossing, yet it is were many who have found themselves trapped in Nogales live on the streets, and partake in all the vices that usually go along with street living.
NMD seemed to want to help those on the day they reached the border and dropped off in a Wackenhut bus, and not deal with those caught up in purgatorio, as Miguel would say. This isn’t completely fair, NMD only had so many resources it can throw at the problem, so why not reach as many people as they can by keeping their focus specific. But, there is a larger human rights crisis and it lurks in border cities from Matamoros to Tijuana.
The men who ran the camp on a day-to-day basis, had become men of the street, yet NMD’s mission of aid and resistance to injustice through the support of the oppressed was one men could rally around, and find friendship and comradery amidst sorrow and suffering. How could they deny their neighbors of the street shade, food and water when things were slow in the heat of the afternoon?
When we arrived at the aid station the next morning there were two volunteer from NMD who had come down from Tucson to bring some supplies, to see what supplies were needed, and to check out the scene. The gringos’ presence was slightly awkward and many of the regular volunteers kept their distance from the camp. They heard the scene was getting rough and they were a little suspicious. The two, a retired women and a man about forty, seemed like they were good people. They couldn’t speak much Spanish so they were dependent upon Esteban and Carlos for translation. They had strong commitment to their cause and great compassion for the needless suffering of others. Yet, they could sense their pet project was spinning away from them, taking on a life they couldn’t fully control.
This seems to be the typical downfall in many humanitarian aid projects throughout the world and why organizations are often called the open hand of imperialism. In their true and genuine desire to help, to make things better, to fight injustice, there is often a need for control, to always be in the position of giving aid, rather than being involved with mutual aid.
Ana took out a hacky sack and we kicked it around with a few others. There were two brothers about 10 and 12 years old sitting in the shade of a tent looking very frightened. They had shown up to the camp the day before, having been deported without their parents. We asked them if they wanted to play, but they weren’t interested. Their fear made them painfully shy, they would only interact freely with an older man who had taken them under his wing.
During the heat of the afternoon when the buses didn’t run to the border Ana and I would walk around the area—often for Sonoran dogs from carts about a mile away. The dogs were greasy and awesome. A Sonoran hot dog is wrapped in bacon and served in a Mexican roll topped with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno, cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, roasted chili and sprinkled with crumbled potato chips. Delicious.
On the walk back to the camp that Wednesday we passed a group of teenage girls who did an about-face as we walked by. They didn’t seem too pleased that two foreigners were walking through their neighborhood. We tried to ignore them but they kept walking closer and looked as those they wanted a teenage girl kind of confrontation. Just then a beat up Ford Aerostar minivan pulled over and offered us a ride. It was two guys who worked the Sonoran government who we’d met the day before. There was a bit of satisfaction to see the shock on the girls’ face when they saw us hop into a car with Sonoran plates.
Shortly after we arrived at the camp a bus arrived, and a family of women came walking through the camp. They stood out for some reason. There was a mother with two teenage daughters and a younger daughter about ten. They stayed close together in that strange place being eyes by coyotes and wolves—men who rarely glanced at women whose radiance had yet to be varnish by life’s hardships.
Ana and the women had an instant connection. It had been sometime since they had seen a smiling trustworthy feminine face. She brought them into the trailer, kicked out the men, and locked the door so the women could pick out new underwear and socks from the large bags of donated cloths.
They told Ana they had made the four-day trek to Tucson. On their final stretch to relative safety the coyote spotted some I.C.E. agents. The coyote stupidly, or maliciously, yelled at the women to run and blew their cover. They were quickly shuffled through a detention center after being forced to sign a waiver forgoing any judicial process and found themselves in Nogales, although had they refused to sign the waiver they would have spend months in detention with little representation and would have most likely found themselves again in Mexico.
The mother had put herself and her oldest daughters on birth control before they made the journey. Rape is an all-too-common reality the clandestine excursion. We heard later from other NMD volunteers that women’s bras and panties could be seen hung up on cacti and sagebrush in many places. These were signs coyotes left behind to mark the spots of their personal conquests, their acts of rape.
Luckily the women had been spared the trauma of rape for the time being, but they weren’t planning on being in Mexico for long. Ana helped the mother cut money out of the waistband of her and her children’s clothes. She had sown in money to avoid it be stolen from her by coyotes, bandits or the border patrol, more than five thousand dollars total. Enough to get her and her girl back into the U.S. if she found the right coyote. But there was also a problem in the trailer. All that was to be offered in terms of ladies undergarments were tube socks and granny panties. Regardless of class background, ethnicity, nationality or legal status, nearly all young women are repulsed by underwear cut for dumpy asses and breast that sag down to the waistline. It took nearly an hour of searching before the teenage girls found suitable pair of undies.
The mother went out to speak with some coyotes. Ana told her to speak with Esteban who then referred her to Luis. After speaking with Luis the family headed down the street to a shelter, the eyes of the three girls gleamed at Ana in admiration.
I walked up the small hill to where Luis stood and bummed a cigarette from him, I was out of cash and the surrounding stores were cash only. He picked up a rock and chucked it at the wall where a few border patrol officers were standing. I picked up a rock and followed suit. We smoked cigarettes and walked closer to the wall to see if we could hit la migra or their truck with a good throw of the rock.
“So you’re gonna take care of those girls?” I asked just after the rock I threw bounced off the wall.
“Yeah, don’t worry cabrón, they’re not gonna walk more than 20 minutes,” he responded with a cocky smile.
“Look down there at the wall, there’s an opening about a foot and a half wide,” he said pointing as we braced our feet in the loose refuse and hillside gravel. “Do I look like the kind of guy who spends a week hiking through the desert?”
“More the type than Juanita.”
“True, but she has her husband lead people, she never sets foot in the desert.”
“So you walk 20 minutes, slip through a crack in the wall, then what?”
He broke it down for me. He took a week to find enough people looking to make the trip. Across the wall was a border patrol station and a large distribution center for 18-wheelers. He sets up a safe house in Nogales, AZ or Rio Rico and has his eyes watching the roads from the distribution center to the safe house and from the distribution center to the crack in the wall.
When he had his clients together and all was clear, Luis and the others would make a dash through the wall right under the noses of la migra to a van waiting in the distro center. Once at the safe house scouts would monitor the roads and highways for a break in immigration check points, then the people would be dropped off in Tucson and there were left to their own devices.
Luis said he charged half as less as other coyotes, about $1,000 per person. I wanted to believe him and a still want to believe him as I write this. If what he said was true and he didn’t leave out any horrifying details then his work is the work of public service—albeit lucrative public service. While Miguel might have told me the day before not to trust anyone my gut still gives Luis the benefit of the doubt.
“So you want to get a pack of cigarettes,” he asked me after he offered me his last one. I asked where and he pointed to a Shell station about a mile away on the U.S. side of the border. “Let’s go and I’ll show you how I get people over the border,” he said with a large smile. I wanted to and if Ana wasn’t at the camp I probably would have. She didn’t know how to drive a stick and if I ended up in jail she would have been stranded. “We going? We’ll be back in less than an hour.” I had to turn him down. Luckily two buses pulled up to the border and nearly 100 people started walking toward the camp. He had business to attend to and I had food and beverages to serve.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said as we walked back.
That evening nearly 400 people passed through the aid station. Eyes weary from stress and disbelief were seen on the faces of nearly all. ¡Bienvenidos a Nogales!
A man about my age walked to the table I stood behind and took a cup for coffee. His hands were shaking so much he could barely hold onto the cup in his hand. He whispered thank you without a trace of an accent. He then darted away tripping on his feet, bumping into an overflowing trash can before he took a seat on a picnic table to stare into his cup of lukewarm coffee for a few minutes.
When things died down I went over to talk to him. His name was Javier, his parents had brought him to the U.S. when he was five. That night in Nogales was his first time in Mexico in over 20 years. Javier had a two-year-old son, a girlfriend, a job and was enrolled part time at a community college in Phoenix. If he were to be caught in the U.S. again he would serve a mandatory two years in jail before being dropped off at the border again.
His life had been ripped apart. He was American, Mexican-American, yet American nonetheless in terms of his self-identity, the predominant culture he was raised in, the public-school system he went through. But in the eyes of Uncle Sam he had no right to be in the country, his twenty years of doing thing right didn’t matter a bit.
Ana had come over and we were chatting and listening to Javier’s story. Are hearts were breaking for him, we wished there was a way to help. There was and we both knew the question that would soon be asked. Javier knew we were headed back to the U.S. that night.
“Could you bring me back to the U.S.?” he asked with his hands clasped together as if he were praying. “I just need a ride to Tucson, my girlfriend will pick me up there and bring me back to Phoenix.”
Ana and I wanted to, but on the off chance we were caught I would have been sent to jail for a year or two and Ana would have done the same time then would be kicked out of the country having her green card revoked. We were already lying each time we crossed the border. Ana had forgotten her green card and Brazilian passport, thinking that we would be in the deserts of southern Arizona and not in a city in northern Mexico. Every night we would get hassled for only having driver’s licenses when we crossed, we had to plead ignorance saying we were both citizens and that we didn’t know we needed passports to cross—the law has changed only a year before.
But there in front of us was a man who had just been the recipient of great injustice, ripped from his life ripped from his liberty as well as his pursuit of happiness. Basically, he got shafted for being a brown kid driving a few miles an hour over the speed limit. While in that moment Ana and I couldn’t overturn the injustices of the U.S. halls of “justice,” we could have fought justice on the individual level by letting Javier hop into my trunk.
The Reverend John Fife, a co-founder of NMD and who has been jailed on numerous occasions for his work in the Sanctuary Movement, calls the work of NMD civil initiative. Civil initiative differs from civil disobedience in that, Fife claims, the law is good, but it is the U.S. government who is in violation of international human rights law in terms of it’s border abuses.
But bringing a person over the border in the trunk of a car would most definitely have been an act of civil disobedience, and it could have been the most powerful act of civil disobedience I had taken in my life. The risks were too great and the thought of losing Ana to la migra was too much to bear. We left Javier in purgatorio with heavy hearts.
We got through the border crossing with the small talking to we had grown accustomed to for not having passports, but there was no suspicion and no incident.
“We could have got him over,” Ana said with anger and regret. We went to a small Mexican restaurant in Nogales, Arizona for tacos, shots of tequila and beer, a little medicine to ease the heart ache.
The next morning we went back to Mariposa for our final day. The Cowboy was gone. I heard he ventured off into the desert alone, a long dangerous walk for an old man, but people are capable of great strength and resilience when the moment calls for it. I hope he is now with his wife, bickering and loving the way old couples do.
The two kids who had been sitting in camp for three days got a free ride back to Jalisco with a man who drove a bus for the Sonoran government. The family of women were staying in a shelter waiting for a call from Luis to be ferried across the border. Miguel, Poncho, Carlos, Hector, Chilango and the others went about their normal days, biding their time in pergatorio.
We were there for four days, a very, very short time, yet the weight of those four days left a permanent imprint on my consciousness. The day passed, flies were swatted, jokes were told, Shadow was somewhere getting high, Scarface was starring at the border wall with sagging eyes.
A few hundred people were dropped off at the border that day. An older lady hobbled into the camp. Her shoes her to be pried off her swollen feet. She had attempted the long walk but fours days of intermittent torrential rains, flash floods and scorching heat took its toll on her body. The coyote left her behind to die but another decided to stay behind with her, forgoing a life in America to save the life of another. Being captured by the border patrol actually saved their lives. In custody they were given a cup of water and a trip back to the border, but did not receive medical attention they greatly needed.
The medic was forced from his trailer by Esteban to care for the lady. When he pulled the sock off the lady’s right foot most of the skin came off as well. The woman grimaced in pain as her raw, red and swollen feet were cleaned and bandaged.
We stayed at the camp until midnight, not wanting to leave. Miguel gave me a hug goodbye, Luis gave me a pound. Scarface said “Adíos mi mamá” to Ana and gave her a big hug. He saw her as an apparition of his long dead mother.
We left to spend the next few days at the desert aid camp in Arizona. For me it was an uncomfortable ending. I wanted to suspend the experience indefinitely. I wanted to keep the attachment, but the people and the experience demanded no attachment from me. The reality was I came away from the experience taking much more than I gave. My presence didn’t add all that much, nor should it have, but isn’t that the problem with young humanitarians, most want their presence to be integral in the success of the operation. I was a smiling gringo speaking broken Spanish serving coffee and food in a fly infested camp that smelled like shit. I could see that Ana made a difference, the family of women will always remember her and her kindness in their moment of distress.
The reasons behind those feeling showed I had some work to do within myself, mostly because they arose from paternalistic humanitarian source. I was I there as a humanitarian or a solidarity activist? Is there even a difference between the words other than the wish to denote something liberal from something more radical? Humanitarians ease the neoliberal pain, while those engage in solidarity activism attempt to ease the pain while standing hand-in-hand with those most affected to challenge the source.
We drove out of purgatorio, not to heaven, but to an alternate dimension of that purgatory. Purgatory is a borderland—la frontera. Dante’s purgatorio was an island created by the displaced earth on the opposite side of the globe from where the devil crashed after he was thrown out of heaven, today it can be found in the places displaced people called home. We see borders are crumbling under the empire of transnational capital, yet just as fast—and paradoxically—they are being militarized by nearly all states. Now the multitude of humanity lives in a boarderland—una frontera.
We are caught in a purgatory destined for an unknowable future of heaven or hell. The fight for amnesty for all immigrants and to combat neoliberal policies, i.e. NAFTA, that cause mass displacement, is a fight against hell. Yet, something bigger is needed if we actually want to fight for heaven.