A large bearded man named Tommy rolls a shopping cart full of wooden crosses into a small square off the Pan American Avenue. Someone has painted them all white. One block south of where we stand, the United States ends abruptly. Between a double wall made of iron, a concrete trench is filled with loose coils of concertina wire. The metal teeth glint under the red sun. To our west sits an air-conditioned McDonald’s and just past that a Wal-Mart sprawls into the horizon. The people of Douglas and a few Mexicans from Agua Prieta — the very few affluent enough to secure a nonimmigrant visa — walk the broad aisles of the big-box store making their purchases.
I have been volunteering at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. It is 2012, and this is the Tucson sector of the US/Mexico border during the hottest summer on record. Since Operation Gatekeeper, a Clinton-era border militarization initiative, migrants have been increasingly funneled into the most remote areas of the desert where they are most likely to die in their attempts to cross. Later, I’ll come to read that, according to official Border Patrol numbers, there were 177 deaths in this migrant corridor during this fiscal year. This sector has inflicted the most death — 177 stands as the official number of casualties according to the United States government, but this number is certainly low. Because there are no state mechanisms that actively seek to recover those who have been killed in the desert, the number only represents a fraction of those who have actually perished, and more accurately represents the number of dead people a Customs and Border Patrol agent happen to come upon while on patrol or when they are called. The number does not include those who died before crossing the international boundary line. Frank Amarillas, a Border Patrol spokesman for the Tucson sector, told a reporter writing for the Arizona Republic that they only count deaths referred to them by Border Patrol agents, or local law enforcement. “We are not notified in every case,” he said. William Robbins, a Border Patrol spokesman for the Yuma sector, told the same paper that in order to be counted, skeletal remains needed to have been found near the border or on a trail known to be used by migrants.
Two nuns who I’ve been working with at the resource center and a small group of parishioners from a local church gather in a circle around the cart. Everyone makes the sign of the cross, except me. One of the nuns, an older Latin American woman, takes my right hand. A middle-aged white man approaches from the other side and takes the other. Tommy begins leading us in prayer, and even though I’m not religious, I bow my head as he asks God to watch over his children, some of whom are currently walking through the Sonoran desert, to help us erase the boundaries that divide the world, and to bless the families of those who have perished on their journeys.
The first parishioner takes a cross and calls out a name. He raises it above his head and the rest of the group calls out “presente,” an affirmation of the personhood that was extinguished by the barrier.
Until very recently I’d held a steadfast and absolutely cynical view of religion, but these faithful people, and others I’ve encountered in some of the most desolate places in this country, have complicated my beliefs. Some of these parishioners work alongside young anarchist punks — tattooed, smelly, and often foul-mouthed — leaving gallons of water on migrant trails, documenting abuse in short-term Border Patrol custody, and providing emergency medical assistance to injured or dehydrated strangers. They staff the Migrant Resource Center. They gather data the government won’t. They enact radical compassion, radical acceptance, and radical love.
I’d been told this was to be a vigil, but I don’t know what we’ll be doing. One of the nuns tells me they come out here every week with the white crosses that bear the names of the people killed in this sector. She says they slowly walk down Pan American Avenue taking turns picking up a cross, speaking the name of the deceased, and placing it name-faced-out toward people driving in their cars. The group begins walking south toward the militarized boundary. The first parishioner takes a cross and calls out a name. He raises it above his head and the rest of the group calls out “presente,” an affirmation of the personhood that was extinguished by the barrier. Cars slow as they pass. A woman rolls down her window and waves at us. A man in another car shakes his head without turning toward the procession.
I can feel the sun pounding between my shoulder blades and on the top of my head. There are people out there now, in the direction we’re facing, struggling to remain alive. There are those who will meet a violent end, lost or left behind by their guide, separated from their group, ultimately succumbing to something. Their lives and deaths can’t hold our attention very long. Some of us don’t even know they’re dying, some of us don’t care, and some of us care, but that care isn’t enough to move us to act.
It’s my turn to retrieve a white cross. I feel the weight of this gesture now as I approach the cart. A line of stationary cars has formed because of the lag time at customs. I reach for a cross and turn it to read the name, but there isn’t one there. Instead it reads “Desconocido y niño.” The words make my knees buckle and I almost fall forward.
It indicates two deceased people, one adult and one child, were found together in a state that made identification impossible. But one of the bodies was a child, and they must have been found in close enough proximity, perhaps embracing, so that they appeared to have been together. Many of the people in their stopped cars are looking toward me. I look at them and then at the cross. I read what it says and it feels like the piece of wood I’m holding has transformed into something else. I don’t know what, but it no longer feels like an inanimate object. I raise it above my head and then carefully place it on the street, leaning against the curb for others to see.
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is the author of The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement
. He was born in Córdoba, Veracruz, and immigrated to Chicago when he was two. He is a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa and active in Latin American solidarity.