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.