*Programming note: This blog is now a joint publishing venture between Daniella Ponet and Gabriel Thompson, which will still adhere to the original promises set forth in the Blog Manifesto.
Words below by Daniella, followed by short video (Daniella & Gabriel) and some photos (Gabriel).
Wednesday November 14, 2007, 5:40 AM
It is chilly when we pull up to the drive through espresso place near our apartment and get caffeinated. By 6:00 AM we are at the church and hopping into the Samaritan SUV with our fearless guide, Kathy. She has been a Samaritan for over a year and spends all her free time when she is not working as a hospice nurse searching for migrants crossing the border who may need assistance. We drive for about forty-five minutes, watching the sun rise slowly over the mountains, before pulling onto a dirt road and making our first stop. We hike on a well-used path under barbed wire fence and towards the Cerro Colorado mountain range.
I am not prepared for the amount of garbage left on the trail. There is everything from water bottles and cans of beans to empty backpacks, old shoes, and clothes to toothbrushes and combs strewn about. People leave in a hurry. Black garbage bags, I learn, are used by migrants to cover themselves so that the helicopters can’t spot them on their journey - not to collect the mounds of trash. Some of the clothes are thrown about in such a haphazard way that I can only imagine the level of heat stroke and disorientation that must have led to stripping those layers.
One of the people in our group calls out repeatedly in broken Spanish that we are church friends and have food, water, and medical supplies - but no one comes out. Kathy found someone recently who had fallen into a cactus. His needle-filled knee was so infected that he could no longer walk. He had not had any water in two days and was quietly waiting to be found. The terrain is relentless. It’s beautiful but deadly. The thorns are everywhere, and even on a busy path with fresh prints in bright daylight I am getting pricked. Most of the migrants walk during the dead of night and off the paths, deep in the maze of mesquite and prickly pears. I cannot even imagine what their feet must look like by the end. We see a pair of black shoes that were clearly a girls’ or a woman’s with tiny feet, the soles were completely bent in half.
We drive by the remains of an ancient adobe hut built when the land was still part of Mexico. We take roads that almost no one drives on in hopes of spotting an injured or dehydrated wanderer. We find no one. We follow the mountains until we get on the busier gravel road and encounter la migra. Border Patrol are out in force today: on horses, in vans, in buses. They caught a group of migrants further north. They look smug. Still, we see no crossers. We see a group of Minutemen with big American flags, horses and ATV’s ready to hunt down “illegals.” We see hunters looking for deer, or maybe people - but still no crossers. We see an abandoned ranch where hundreds of migrants have camped out and signed their names and dates of crossing, a right of passage of sorts.
By 12:00 PM it is 85 degrees but feels more like 90 with the intense desert sun. On our way back we stop along a dirt road that runs next to a golf course and gated retirement community. Migrants are literally walking in people’s backyards. Here we find a huge group of backpacks that cannot be more than a few days old. There are three family photographs stuck together on the ground - one of 2 girls dressed up probably at a graduation, one of a father and son laughing in the kitchen and one of the whole family. The photos make me cry. All day I have felt like we were walking through a cemetery of sorts. I know most crossers make it, we know so many people who have shared their harrowing crossing tales with us. But there are so many people who don’t make it. Being out here reminds me that none of us really know the true number of deaths and deportations that take place every day. Gabe found a receipt from the “Super Coyote,” where a migrant had bought beans and mayo and other random food items before he/she left. Was that the last thing that person ever bought?
It’s hard not to be dramatic in the terrain, with the sun beating down and the plants attacking. With people chasing people and others chasing their tracks for signs of life or death. I keep thinking of all the family photos Jews took with them to the death camps - the family photos that no one from the family ever saw again. Photos lost to death, or in this case to the desert.
We see a Spiderman tee-shirt burnt by the sun but still identifiable. We see a child’s backpack with a little baby toothbrush in it. More and more women and children are crossing than ever before. We search each bag for ID’s or any other items that might reveal a person’s identity.
I keep seeing the shoes from the Holocaust museum in Israel, all the shoes of people who never walked again, piles and piles of shoes. I’d like to believe that the shoes we see today were shed for new ones but it feels like we are wandering in a ghost town, or a hastily abandoned village. We are in the calm after the storm. The only migrants we saw today were sitting in the Wackenhut bus waiting to be deported – hoping to try again.
PHOTOS & WORDS BELOW BY GABRIEL
There were a number of abandoned vehicles in the desert. This one has been peppered with bullets. One possibility is that the van's engine died, and bored hunters have been using it for target practice. Another scenario could have involved dueling drug lords, a high-speed chase and lengthy firefight, culminating in a massive explosion.