Wednesday, August 31, 2011

9 Days in the Desert: Day 4

Day 4: Mala Mujer

This morning I head to the Warsaw and California drops off Ruby Road with Davey, Jacques, an eighteen-year-old Frenchmen learning English, and Mary, a kind, confident Catholic Worker. Davey explains that our first drop is at the end of a rigorous up hill hike. He promises it will be the only hard part of the day, and the worst of it will not last more than 30 minutes. I calm myself with the thought that 30 minutes sounds manageable.

The first half is an easy walk along a rocky wash, and I feel good. I carry two 1-gallon jugs and 2 cans of beans in my backpack—18 extra pounds, but then the incline starts and doesn’t stop. I trip and fall. The weight of my pack throws me forward. Well-meaning, Jacques advises me to walk slower.

This trail is very overgrown, and I am introduced to Mala Mujer (bad woman), a bright green plant with large starred maple-like leaves detailed with white veins and white polka-dots washed from bud to base in white sharp hairs. It might be pretty, except for that when I brush against one I can feel a multitude of hairs run up and down my leg creating individual sharp pains all at once. Somehow it reminds me of being electrocuted, and I slow my stride to carefully step over or around every Mala Mujer I see. She is a demon plant.

We keep moving up. I’m out of breath, and it is clear I’m out of shape, and can't move at the same pace as everyone else. I get a twinge of shame.

I feel the cool of water work down my lower back and into the seat of my pants. “You have a leak,” Davey says. Grateful for this, I stop to remove the gallons off my back and examine the damage. I don’t see anything.

“We try not to carry them in packs because they can break easier that way. We want to avoid that.” I take one out and continue up.

A few more few feet and I start to stumble. “It’s just at the top of the hill,” Davey reassures. I squint into the direction he refers to search for this “top,” but I don’t see it, and it doesn’t come. Water is still leaking down my back.

I have a soaked butt, I’m the only one struggling, and I feel stupid.

I stop to take out the second jug, but again, no visible cracks. Without word, Jacques takes it from me and charges up ahead. His eighteen-year-old energy makes my 31 years feel worn.

I keep moving, slowly. My legs start to give out, and I must brace a hand against my knee to hoist myself up. The sun is beating me down. I feel a heaving in my chest.

“I need to stop.” The whole group halts.

I try to settle my breathing, but it’s hard. I try to drink water, but my hand shakes spilling it down my chest. After a couple of minutes, I feel the exhaustion and panic subside as it has done every day before, and I’m ready to go again, but no more than another 10 steps and I’m on the verge. A dizzy fantasy of throwing down my one gallon to the rocks, pushing off my pack, and plopping on the ground like a six-year-old having a tantrum fills my mind. I want to throw a fit. I am ready for a fit.

“I can’t do this!”

“It’s here! We’re here,” Mary calls from 20 feet ahead and it’s like I’m in a joke. Davey tells me to rest where I am as he takes my last gallon to the top. So close, I suck the tears back into my eyes and trudge my way to the drop—a cluster of gallons sitting in an elbowed pass beneath the shade of a mesquite tree. A barbed wire fence cuts right through the bottleneck of five trails heading down four different slopes.

“You guys are awesome! Getting this drop is so important because as you can see we are hitting many trails. We have a chance of reaching a lot of people,” Davey says. I have no emotion about this. We find evidence of slashed gallons by Border Patrol. I have no emotion about this either.

I sit my soggy ass down on the ground and allow the feeling of failure to soak in, to numb me.

Davey passes us sharpies to write messages on the water. These are meant to communicate to migrants that the water is safe to drink. For two days I’ve been trying to find a symbol that would convey what I want to say to those walking, a symbol that will give them hope, a symbol that they will know without doubt. Below the mesquite, I decide on an image and draw a line figure of the Virgen de Guadelupe with little flowers at her feet and the words, “Que dios lo bendiga.” Yes, the Virgen is hopeful. The Virgen can help me.

"SAMARITANOS," in reference to The Good Samaritans, another humanitarian aid group, is a word migrants have told NMD they trust.

“I’m sorry I’m so serious right now,” Davey says. “I’m just really worried over things at camp, but I want us to be able to laugh. It’s good to have fun. I don’t want this to be so hard.” I would welcome a laugh, but there is nothing to laugh at.

Over the course of the day, I fall a total of three times, and on the last one I jam the heal of my palm into rock and sprain my hand. It stings and I don't want to focus on it, but the entire day stings. Davey bandages up my hand while Mary and Jacques carry gallons a quick walk from the road.

“Today is a bad day,” I say.

“Oh, I’m sorry." He finishes wrapping my hand. Fighting the urge to give up, I walk over the bank on the side of the road to meet Jacques and Mary at the final drop. I feel a need to see it, to finish.

Before going to camp we stop at Ruby, an old rusted-out mining town with a lake that is less lake and more pool surrounded by a white sand beach created by the mine’s mineral deposits. It is some kind of surreal mirage.

We take off all our clothes and jump in. I have never done such a thing, but I haven’t showered in days, and the water over my naked skin is soothing (I have just checked an item off the bucket list). Mary, Davey, and Jacques take turns jumping from a rope swing. Jacques doesn't pull up high enough and the three of us in the water gasp at how close he is to the rocks. He plunks in and bounds back out with a big smile and I look of "what?" We laugh.

I float on the cool surface and try to wash this feeling away that sits with me, not heavy, but haunting: if I can’t do this, what am I here for? Why did I come?

The desert is una Mala Mujer I've walked directly into.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

9 Days in the Desert: Day 3

Day 3: Josseline

Today I participate in a 4-hour hike through an area called Blue Grass with Mike, a soft-spoken and meticulous Catholic Worker, Jason (Mike’s foil), Lilly, and Ricardo, a young Latino L.A. punk. If you know me, you know the idea of me participating in a hike is comical. I have more than once exclaimed from a trail, f*@k this $h!t! But here I am stumbling over unclear paths, bushwacking half the time through heavy vegetation full of thorny plants and cactus that scratch at my legs and arms, and continually rolling weak ankles on loose rocks.

There is a lot of debris along these trails: empty tin cans, blankets, hats, water bottles, and one fresh footprint of a man, and at one point I get the eerie sense that the hills have eyes. I want to call out to whatever/whoever is close, but I don’t. If people are close, they will most likely not show themselves. They do not trust us even though we call out “¡Tenemos agua!” and write messages like “¡Buena suerte!” and a personal favorite, “Que dios lo bendiga” (my grandmother’s regular send off) on water jugs so they know they are safe.

Our first stop on this hike is Josseline’s Shrine. It sits at the bottom of a canyon where a group hills meet next to a wash sprinkled with small stoney pools that reflect the sky. Mike explains that when a person becomes dehydrated they tend to move to the lowest point and he gestures to the high walls surrounding us. He recounts Josseline’s tail as best he can: Josseline was a 15-year-old girl traveling north with her brother. When she became weak she urged her brother to go on without her. Later, a No More Deaths volunteer found her body while hiking on a regular patrol. Her shoes were off and her feet were dipped into one the pretty pools of water. They were able to identify her body by the pink shoes she had.*

This story consecrates the reflective pools of water at my feet.

The shrine itself is a white cross with her name written in script and painted with pink flowers. Rosaries adorn the cross along with a framed Virgen de Guadalupe tied by a pink ribbon and a photo of Josseline standing before a church altar. I’m taken by how small she is. Her body is thin in the way a young girl’s body can be before it begins to round and soften. It makes me sad to see this girl forever on the precipice of womanhood.

Back at camp, I feel the ache that has become my muscles and all I can do is lay still in our one hammock. A kind breeze comes through bringing with it an afternoon cloud cover from the sun. I’m thankful because camp often sits beneath a stagnant heat that is impossible to escape. I hear a group of people in the distance figuring out how to fix the torn tarp that shades our water supply, but I do not move. I can’t. My heart starts to beat fast and my breath shortens. I don’t think I can do this. I hate this! I hate hiking! It frightens me to imagine one more day of this work. For the 4th day in a row, I want to cry, but then somehow my body relaxes, and without warning my mind shuts off, and I fall asleep to the sounds of people fiddling with plastic tarps.

When I wake, a new Frankentent has been erected from old bits of tarp and all my anxiety has lifted. I feel strong again. It’s strange and wonderful how quickly the body can forget exhaustion and pain.

Once up, I walk over to the med tent to find our patients sitting out front under some shade. The woman has her foot up on a chair in care of her sprained ankle. She shows me where she lost a toenail. I tell her I have friends who like to run and it is common amongst runners (I guess I say it to soften any worry).

She asks me about my hike and I tell her it was tiring. She shares that it is even harder at night. They have no lights and can’t see the paths and don’t know what they might be walking into—cactus, snakes, rocks. She shows me the severe slashes that have created a red fleshy pattern on her arms as proof. My hike was nothing in comparison. I wasn’t running for my life. I wasn’t moving in the dark. I wasn’t being chased. I was allowed the opportunity to rest and regain strength without fear. I was allowed a rest.

I think about Josseline. All she probably wanted was to stop for a moment and let her feet cool in the water, take a moment to catch her breath. Maybe she thought she would be able to catch up to her brother. Maybe she promised him she would. Somethings make no sense like why Josseline, a young girl, was never allowed a safe place to rest.

*Some details in this story are in correct. Josseline was fourteen and her shoes were green, but this is how I first heard it. For a more accurate telling you can read this excerpt from the book The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands.

Here is an interview with the author Margaret Regan at NPR.

To learn how you can contribute to the efforts to end death and suffering in the desert, please go to the No More Deaths donation page.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

9 Days in the Desert: Day 2

Day 2: I’m Brown

“I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.” -Tupac

First thing in the morning we sign up for the day’s patrols, but before heading out the group opens a discussion on creating “safer spaces” amongst each other, within the desert, and when meeting Border Patrol. The long-term volunteers assure us newbies that every day and every encounter with BP is unique and that there is no way to predict what will happen. Lilly, a generally jovial, blond college student, asks if she should take her ID. Jason, a mid-twenties spiritual Catholic Worker, says it isn’t necessary if any of us are apposed. “Just say, ‘I’m an American citizen.’” Even with Jason’s long, dark scraggly beard it is easy to see his crystal blue eyes, and I wonder if such a statement will be easier for him than for me. There is only one other volunteer in camp that looks “Mexican,” but no one talks about that. There are radicals in this group and they seem willing for confrontation, and I decide to keep my thoughts to myself. I decide not talk about that either.

As long as I can keep the promise I made to my mother and father to be careful, the promise I made to myself, then they can do what they want. I know I have no intention of exploring what might happen to me if I refuse to give over ID. I think back to the jokes I made before leaving California about getting deported, and I realize they are no longer funny. The only thing that makes me feel safer at this moment is knowing that my ID is already tucked into the front pocket of my pack. I don’t talk about that either.

Now in the suburban bouncing down a rocky road to our first drop, Davey again addresses the concern over ID and Border Patrol. I feel a little easier about voicing my apprehension within this smaller group of Davey, return volunteer and gender bending woman, Teddy, and fellow newbie Winston. Everyone in this car with the exception of me is queer. Queer identity is important to them and to many people in camp. I don’t wish to take that away from anyone, but right now that’s not the identity issue that has my chest tightening and my hands shaking.

Davey tries to assuage my and the other volunteers fears by explaining different scenarios that may occur. “Sometimes they just wave us by. Just so you know, they did once jump out of the bushes with automatic rifles drawn and got mad when we weren’t migrants. Sometimes they detain us and threaten us. It’s always different.” He explains that the lawyers often dissuade volunteers from handing over ID because it is a leverage tool BP use to keep volunteers detained and intimidated long enough to get information. I didn’t think about that. I also didn’t consider the possibility of having to evade questions. This all worries me, and once again I’m faced by my reality. I’m really in the shit now.

We each voice how we would like to respond to BP if encountered and discuss what showing ID could mean for us as a group and individually. Davey is six-foot, no more than 165 pounds, blond, tanned, and dimpled. I don’t know if he can really know my individual concerns, and even though I find it easier talking in this space, I still dance around the subject for a minute before saying in a shaky voice, “I don’t know how they will treat me.” Breathe. “I’m not so sure I can just say, ‘American citizen.’ You know?” Breathe. “Um. Because, well, I look like this.” My hands are numb and my stomach turns as I say the words out loud. I feel as if I have just betrayed myself. I feel exposed. Suddenly, the twisting weave of braids pinned up at the back of my head feels dangerous, and I wonder if I should have made a more “American” hairstyle choice this morning. I don’t know why I have to think this way. I don’t know why I have to share myself with Davey, Teddy, and Winston this way. It angers me. It makes me sick. I’m brown in a desert where people who look like me are being hunted down with guns and dogs, and I don’t know who I can say that to, how to say it, or even if saying it will make a difference.

By the end of the day we make 7 water drops. Each water drop can be a hike of anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. I hike with 2 1-gallon jugs and 2-4 cans of easy open pinto beans in my pack over rocky uneven and overgrown terrain. The work is hard. Many times I find myself out of breath. Late in the day the muscles in my thighs begin to quiver every time I have to take a step down off a rock or descend a hill. I worry that I will not be able to handle anything more rigorous than this.

On the drive back to camp I scroll through the Ipod and find Tupac’s Changes. I stick my hand out the window and feel the breeze cool my skin. Now and again, I look around at the landscape—hills and valleys in the shadows of mountains as far as I can see. It’s green and wild flowers bloom all along the hills. This isn’t the desert I imagined. This is rocky. This is beautiful. This is unforgiving, and I feel the danger. What is calling people to cross this treacherous area with so many factors (BP, heat, snakes, mountain lions, minute men, etc) against them? I’m struck by the desert’s beauty and then just as quickly by its tragedy. I am looking out over a living graveyard. I hear the woman’s wails again from the night before. I think about her. I think about those still out there. I choke back tears, turn my face into the wind, and listen to Changes.

9 Days in the Desert: Day 1

Day 1: No Turning Back Now

We arrive at Byrd Camp (called so because it sits on children’s book author, Byrd Baylor’s property in the town of Arivaca) around noon and begin a third round of training and orientations. We are introduced to the med tent—a tarp tent with a swinging door that holds a red cross emblem on the outside attached to an old motor home. Medical supplies are stored in the motor home with a row of cots laid out inside the tent. I suddenly feel like I’m in an episode of M*A*S*H without the theme song. From there we are introduced to the kitchen and “office” (another tarp tent attached to an old trailer), the dining area (a row of three picnic tables beneath a tarp cover), the water tent, the dirty dishes station, and last the bathroom that sits at the end of a stone-lined trail where we find a bucket placed below a standing toilet seat next to a green metal cooler filled with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The day before I had heard the words “poop bucket” which sent a quick panic through me and now here I am facing it.

After the tour, we get training on GPS and maps, search and rescue (though recovery is more likely) protocol, and medical procedures where we learn how to look for and treat heat exhaustion and dehydration, and how to dress a blister. We are also introduced to “lightening position,” and what to do if we see mountain lions, rattle snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes as if ranchers, minutemen, and Border Patrol with guns aren’t enough to worry about.

After dinner we circle around the fire pit to talk camp roles. A part of this experience feels a lot like summer camp, but just as I am comforted with that thought Davey, a person on the “Leadership Team,” darts out of our circle and into the darkness. All discussion ceases as we hear him speak to the darkness in Spanish, “Come in. Come in. You are welcomed here.” He is assuring someone that this is a safe place. And then the wailing begins. Loud, high-pitched sobs of a woman break the night and my reality. Her screams are long, full-body, and desperate. I want to cry with her. I take a quick look around the circle and everyone is shocked mute. No one looks anyone else in the eye. This is not summer camp.

Someone within the circle proposes a medical person goes out to meet Davey (there are four people in camp with either EMT or Wilderness First Response certificates), and Jason goes out into the darkness. The woman continues to wail and Kennedy (a woman who works with the group, but lives in town) proposes a woman goes to meet them. I try to imagine what it might be like for this woman to find a strange camp in the dark, frightened, perhaps injured, desperate, only to be met by two men. I picture her flagged by them. Sonia quickly removes herself from the circle to meet them. Jason returns to the fire and asks that someone warms up food, and another person leaves into the darkness. By now her wailing has calmed and we listen to the grumbling of conversation. Davey invites her into the med tent.

“Should we continue?” someone in the circle suggests, and we return to the doling of camp roles as if nothing has changed, but of course everything has. Davey returns with an update: There is a man and woman in camp with us. They were split from their group by Border Patrol and chased by dogs. She is very scared of dogs. They have been lost without clean water or food for two days. They are trying to get to Florida. We will be checking their vitals and caring for their injuries. Their names are Francisco and Yessica. Don’t be afraid to say hello when you get a chance.

Don’t be afraid to say hello? But I am afraid. I gulp back the round, dry lump in my throat and stare out into the darkness. I don’t think I am ready for this. I’m not ready for it to be real. When did I become this person? How did I get here? I didn’t know it would be so quick. I didn’t know I would thrown-in without warning. Suddenly, I am (we are) responsible for the well-being of two people and I should say hello. To say hello means there is no turning back. There is no turning back now.

I wonder if this is what war feels like.

Monday, August 15, 2011

No More Deaths Training

I got to Tucson on Saturday night at about 10:30pm and took a van share straight to the abandoned convent I was told I could stay. Once there, I met my first NMD's volunteer, Smat. He was here for the training too. We chatted a bit, I made myself a sandwich and headed to one of the empty rooms to place my things on the ground and setup "camp." It's quiet in the convent. There is a room with furniture for toddlers with a play rug and a slide. Everything in this room is in primary colors. There is another room with four bookshelves filled with books on saints for children from the 1950s and such with a few tables and chairs. There is a kitchen, a few bathrooms, and that's about it. No beds, no couches, no internet, no TV. Already on my first night, my sleeping bag and mat laid out on the concrete floor, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? And I quickly chuckled at how unbelievably privileged I am that I can't lay on a floor in silence for more than 2 minutes without wondering how I can get out of this. The following day, Sunday, the other volunteers appeared and we got a 6 hour long training on border history, the Good Samaritan project from the '80s, No More Deaths, open communication and consensus, and a talk on legal matters. This last one was an important talk as some of the things I would be doing in the next 10 days might be on a fine line of what is legal and illegal, but by then my stomach was growling for dinner and my back aching for a stretch, and I just thought, well, I hope I don't get ticketed for anything and made a note to take my ID with me everywhere.

Day two began with a two hour lecture and discussion on the prison industry, SB 1070 and copycat laws, and Operation Streamline. This video kind of gives a quick overview on how these are all connected:

This was definitely new to me, and I still want to do much more research on the subject, but it's hard not to feel an emotional reaction to the profiteering of convicted migrants. Not to mention how it makes my stomach turn every time I see another example of how money really runs the government, not the people.

After lunch we went to the Tucson court building to see Operation Streamline in action. Operation Streamline is an action meant to streamlining the judicial system to get more illegal immigrants prosecuted of a federal misdemeanor in a shorter amount of time. And basically that means a federal judge sees 70 men a day, 5 days a week within the time span of 45 minutes to an hour and a half. And for that to happen a judge calls up 5-7 men at once. It's like a removal factory, except they aren't necessarily removed, but placed in our prison system from anywhere from 30 to 180 days, and then sent back.

It was heartbreaking to see these men and one woman shackled at the ankles, waist, and wrists, still wearing the clothes they walked the desert in, still dirty, still lost. As I walked into the pristine court room the smell coming from the right side of the room where they all sat and then the sound of the jingling chains were the first things to hit me. There is so much more I want to say, but I will leave it here for now. Here is an article from NPR on Operation Streamline.

Tomorrow I finally go to the desert. I have to say I'm a little apprehensive about it. There will be no toilets or showers. There will be rattle snakes and diamond backs. There will be border patrol and ranchers, and of course there will be migrants. Even though I've been told of what I will find out there, I still don't know what to expect. I feel like a soldier new in country. I have my clean socks and I have my water supply ready, but that's about all I can do. That and wait, wait to be in the shit.