desert walk

Across the boundary, at the U.S. Border Patrol, the young employees faced their own fears. Two of our hosts had lived on both sides, since they acknowledged that they were children of migrants themselves. In a control room with extensive surveillance technology, they could spot the slightest movement on the desert trails, though could not tell whether the walkers were looking for work or carrying weapons and contraband. A vast drainage system under Nogales has made it far easier for drug traffickers to create tunnels: more than a hundred tunnels have already been discovered under the city. The narcotics business can prey on migrants to be “mules.” In the Border Patrol office, employees were clean and composed in their well-pressed camouflage, though in their common room we found a variety of brochures advising them how to seek help should they ponder suicide. One placard, posted twice, urged them to give their best, even if this proved to be the day of their death. It is far too easy, from our safe distance, to underestimate the costs of a militarized border.

On the Mexican side, the most immediate symbol of that cost is the homespun memorial for José Antonio Elena Rodriquez, a sixteen-year-old boy shot by a Border Patrol agent in 2012. Dozens of Mexicans have been shot across the boundary, though it is José Antonio’s image that now seems to personify the tragedy. Built in 1994, the fence is a string of vertical iron rods, most rusted, several inches thick and six inches apart. Family members can reach through the cracks to touch loved ones. Young people can throw rocks, and officers can aim guns. José Antonio, apparently a bystander during one rock-throwing episode, was struck down on a sidewalk. Over three years later, after the release of an autopsy disclosing that the boy was hit by more than a dozen bullets, the shooter was finally indicted. Nearby, a set of crosses rests close to the fence itself where a vigil for José Antonio was held on Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The image of a lit candle has been reproduced there on dozens of the iron rails, as if the vigil continues night and day.

Nogales fenceWe also saw José Antonio’s image on a small mural painting on the brick wall of El Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace), a community center in the impoverished Bella Vista neighborhood. Here, close by a children’s playground, he looks to be jumping rope, though there is no rope visible. What can be seen is a flak jacket, painted carefully on his chest, and a halo and wings, struck hastily with a white spray can. I could not determine if the white spray is the final touch of the artist or the stroke of a later hand, but I was reminded that the claim of innocence relies, as it so often does at violent borders, on the idioms of graffiti.

In the midst of the sorrow and desperation, the work of humanitarian groups—Catholic, Protestant, ecumenical, and secular—provided some inspiration. Scott, our guide for the day, is an American clergyman who lives at El Hogar de Esperanza y Paz. HEPAC, as it is known, is poised on a small, dry hilltop that offers a vista over Nogales. In the immediate distance earthen slopes are held in place with walls of stacked tires; three miles to the northwest, the border fence crawls over the undulating hills. To a large extent, HEPAC tries to turn gazes away from the fence, as it strives to build opportunities for migrants in Nogales so that “citizens do not feel that their only choice for survival is to risk their lives in the desert in an attempt to immigrate to the United States.” Jennifer, our host there, described how increased border security—including drones and more extensive surveillance equipment—has prompted many of the poor to become “invisible.” Thousands of migrants come to Nogales with no plans to settle, but as dreams divert they get stuck in town. HEPAC seeks to find them, offer education, free lunches, camps for children, and classes for adults still needing to complete their elementary and high school coursework.

On the eve of our trip into Mexico we were met by John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian and the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. He recalled how early attempts to shelter Central American refugees in Southern Arizona eventually sparked a national network of more than 500 churches that took in those who fled violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Even with the current political impasse, he saw reasons for encouragement in the broad consensus among churches—mainline to Southern Baptist—about key principles in any immigration reform, including the necessity of documenting workers for their own safety. Most of all, he pressed the overriding mandate of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . .” Few have followed that call more faithfully than Juan Francisco and Gilda Lourereiro, founders of the San Juan Bosco Shelter that we visited during our final hours in Mexico. Thirty-four years ago, the couple returned home to find a homeless Oaxacan woman and child in front of their store. Now, more than a million people have passed through the shelter they founded in one of their spare buildings, the stays limited by government policy to a few days but filled with showers, meals, and a place to rest. “Political camps vary,” Dinora Cardoso reflected after our return, “but seeing Jesus in the face of the stranger and the poor will be meaningful to most everyone.”

Border DynamicsWhile still in Mexico, we spent an hour with Guadalupe Serrano, a self-taught muralist, sculptor, and catalyst for the “border art” movement in Nogales. Known locally as Taller Yonke, he described the journey of his large metal sculpture entitled “Border Dynamics,” currently installed as public art on the campus of the University of Arizona. The exhibit—a group of four figures, each roughly 14 feet tall—had first been envisioned for installation on the actual border fence. The four figures, two a side, would be leaning and pressing against the wall, their intentions ambiguous. Are they raising the fence, holding it in place, pushing it down, or simply straining against each other? Each figure is a thick metallic silhouette with painted panels revealing the sinews and tissue below the epidermis. Iron-red brushstrokes imply biceps, deltoids, and quadriceps, with streaks of white suggesting the ligaments and tendons clinging to bone. The visceral imagery prompts diverse interpretations. Some observers see the taut muscles as the index of struggle. Others recognize vulnerability—even a hint of death—behind all the exertion. One art critic has written that the prominent ribcages forecast the skeletal remains found so often under the desert sun. Yonke offered his own slant. When you can see only the raw tissue of the muscles, he told us, you don't know the color of the skin.

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