I don’t know what to say about today. It is now 10 o’clock at night, I’m lying in my tent writing in my journal, the mumblings of conversations have quieted, and I can hear a helicopter circling over camp. It feels like I have been on the front lines all day. I feel the closeness of danger sitting beside me in my tent, and even though I’m exhausted I fear closing my eyes. I fear sleep.
This morning we were in Jalisco hiking water out to a drop named the “Oak Tree,” when saw two or three BP trucks, a horse patrol, and a helicopter circling, around and around, above the peaks, like a dark omen blanketing the day. My stomach turned with the helicopter, they are not only searching, but watching. Before we could drop our water, we decided to head back to the car and get the hell out of there because we had no way of knowing what they wanted or what would satisfy them, and we worried they might follow us and slash our gallons.
As I listen to the helicopter outside my tent I can picture the earlier helicopter swirling in the midday sun, and I know what it feels like to be watched. This is a police state. This is Arizona, and worse, this is my country. I must remember this moment. I must not forget even if I want, even if, when I’m back home in bed, the whole scene seems impossible.
I remember a conversation.
“Does your family know where you are?” Yessica asked. It was after lunch. Other people had gone out on patrol, but I stayed back at Lilly’s request to tag-team with our Spanish. The group was always concerned with coordinating one medic and one Spanish speaker for each patrol out and in camp. Lilly was “holding down” the Spanish all morning and needed help and distracting.
“Yes, they are very worried about me,” I told Yessica.
“Oh, yes. The desert is dangerous.” She shook her head.
“It’s worse for her than me,” Lilly added. “She is Mexican. She has more worries.”
“You are scared of them too?” Yessica asked.
“Yes. I don’t know how they see me, or how they will treat me.”
“Imagine that. And you are in your own country.” She shook her head again.
The conversation switched to her daughter. Yessica told us that she loves to eat pizza, but rarely eats meat. She shared this because she knows Lilly also doesn’t eat meat. She smiled as she talked about her. Yessica’s daughter is eight years old.
“What is her name?” I asked. I saw a flash of worry run across her eyes. She gave a quick look to Francisco for approval before saying, “Her name is Lupe.”
“Was she born in December?” I asked making a reference to the feast day for Virgen de Guadalupe on December 9th. “I have an aunt named Lupe. She is born in December.”
“No, she was born January 4th.” She smiled. We were quiet for a moment.
“The first time I crossed, I was four months pregnant. In the middle of the night, I felt like I was losing my baby, like I was going to miscarry. I prayed and prayed to the Virgen to let me keep her.” She rubbed her stomach as she told this story. “I rubbed plants and mud on my belly and just prayed and prayed. And then when I was in the U.S., I prayed that she would have all her limbs, that she wouldn’t be sick. I worried that maybe I had damaged her walking in the desert. But when she was born fine, I named her Guadalupe, Lupe, to thank the Virgen for my daughter’s life.”
Questions I wanted to ask moved through my brain, but I wasn’t sure how to ask, or if I should ask. I wondered where Lupe was. I wondered how long they had been apart. Was she on the other end of this move in the U.S.? It was obvious she missed her even though talking about Lupe didn’t make her sad. In fact every time she shared some detail, she smiled.
“Where is she now?”
“She is with family. We have a lawyer friend who is down there now. He is a U.S. citizen. We have it all worked out, paid him and everything. When we get to Florida he has promised to bring her. Everything is worked out. We just have to buy her ticket,” Francisco shared.
“She is American,” added Yessica.
“Whichever one makes it to Florida, will send for her.” Francisco said this with a smile. He was proud of his well-made plan, but I only heard, “whichever one makes it.” The statement was ominous. The statement rang with various unfortunate possibilities and tragic endings that started with the separation of mother and father from daughter. “Whichever one makes it,” he said as fact, as unchangeable.
The conversation was getting hard. The more I spoke to them the less likely I would be able to forget this nightmare later. The door I entered was quickly closing.
They asked me about our hikes. They have often shown concern for our long days and ask how we are feeling. Their kindness hurts. I told them that that I get tired and that sometimes I want to cry. I felt ashamed to share this, but I acted out my tears and they laughed at my silliness.
“When we were walking, it was night. At first we were being chased and we had to run up to nearly the top of Hippy Mountain.* There were dogs and helicopters, but somehow at the top of the mountain we were able to hide and rest. Then the next day we came down, but after another day, I didn’t want to walk anymore. I couldn’t. I started to cry. I couldn’t do it, but then Francisco shook me by my shoulders and it was like I felt a calm come over me. I felt strength.” She shook her fists in front of her to illustrate what Francisco had to do.
“I took her to a hill and I pointed in the distance to the houses we could see, and I said, ‘do you see those? We will go there. We will go to the houses.’ But no, as soon as we walked down off the hill she started crying again.”
“I couldn’t see them anymore. I couldn’t see anything. He told me he knew where he was going, but how was I to know? I couldn’t see anything.”
“Well, didn’t I know? I told you I did,” Francisco laughed at this, and Yessica smiled at him. Yessica was ready to give up. They had no idea what they were heading to, no idea who they would find, no idea if they would see Lupe again.
I wonder why some people are born into a life of suffering and why others are born into a life of privilege. What makes us different? What brings us together at this moment and yet, grips us in different realities? Who makes our reality?
At one point, we get word from a patrol out in the field that they have found someone alone on the side of a road. We didn’t know much more than he was alive. I looked at Yessica upon hearing this, and for the first time I see her face turn dark. It was hard to look her in the eyes because it was like I could see memories of panic and pain rise back in her like a storm. Francisco patted her on the shoulder.
“Thank God, they found him. No?” Yessica said. “No, he wouldn’t have survived out there alone.” She shook her head and kneeded her hands. I tried not to look at her.
We heard a story that this man was falling behind with his group. His coyote was on drugs and when this man couldn’t keep up, the coyote beat him, took his shirt, and left him (“for dead” are words no one is willing to add). He was without food or water for many days. It was unclear how many days.
“Thank God they found him. No, thank God,” she said again. I looked at her. I could see tears begin to form in the lips of her eyes. I put my hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. Her tears grew fat. I felt my own starting to form and my hand burn hot with need and emotion sparking like bolts electricity in the space between my hand and her shoulder. Unable to take it, I dropped my hand and scurried away to find a task to accomplish. Something easy with a beginning and an end—cooking dinner, washing dishes, unpacking the truck—something I could do without thought, without feeling, without this never ending electric need that just kicked me off my feet.
I now know no good can come of feeling because there is no comfort for the things the questions that bubble up in our chests. I now know why in the cars on the way to patrols we listen to Katy Perry, Nikki Minaj, and Brittany Spears. There are no answers in the world. There is no order left. All there is are manageable tasks and pop music with beginnings and endings and catchy hooks.
And I still can here the helicopter circling above my tent.
* Hippy Mountain is Montana peak. Migrants call it Hippy because it stands above Ruby and Ruby Lake, which was once a hippy commune. Strangely enough, Yessica and Francisco walked on the edges of Ruby Lake when they were lost only days before I went skinny dipping there. Another example of the same place holding horribly contrasting realities.