Migrant Trail Walk #9

Sunday May 31st. The Last Day

Even though we are allowed to sleep in until 6AM because of the shorter distance today, I awaken at 4:30 AM, clean off with baby wipes and use the Porta-Potty before the anticipated long lines at 6. Actually, the lines start to form at 5:45 as many people are up and about as the noises increase: the distinct sound of people walking on gravel or the “clunk” of the porta-potty door if someone lets it close too quickly. The food crew, efficient as ever, has the requisite bagels, cream cheese, peanut butter out as well as coffee on by 5:30.

We, the weeklong walkers, are scheduled to have a ceremony with Maria up on a nearby mountainside at 7AM where we’ll have a vista overlooking the Altar Valley where we’ve walked this past week. Then we’ll pose for a group picture. Maria asked us to call out the names on the crosses we carried this week. She told us our carrying their names helped them “finish their journeys” that they had started. After calling their spirits to be present with us, she sang a song to welcome those spirits and we were again “smudged” with the smoke from burning sage in the Native tradition. We then sang together a healing song as she prayed that Baboquivari would look over the people traveling this desert valley and prevent any more deaths there this summer. [Derechos Humanos keeps a count on their website of confirmed deaths each year.]

After the ceremony, we had our last group circle before walking for the day. There were new people who needed introduction and Erin again led us in some stretching exercises. We had announcements from the teams and Tom told us that he was reminded that every day there are 3,000 people walking this area, hoping they can survive to feed their families and better their own lives. [Others in our group say there really is no way anyone knows how many people are walking the migrant trails each day but we do know the numbers are significant.] We again close the circle time by reciting the Prayer for the Migrant as we have done every day.

Today is a very different experience walking along a busy highway leading into Tucson. The traffic zips by at 55-65 mph. Much of the walk is on the highway shoulder; in other sections there is a path further off the road. There are about 85-90 walking today so the water and rest stops take longer, especially with lines by the porta-potties. The walk culminates in Kennedy Park, just behind the old headquarters building for the Border Patrol. (With all the monies recently poured into “enforcement”, they’ve moved into new, bigger, fancier offices in another location.)

There is a modest crowd of local well-wishers and friends to greet us as we walk in. Kat and the other organizers have scheduled a press conference and some musicians share their music and encourage the crowd to join them. Fr. Bob has asked a representative 12 of us to sit on chairs as he and Fr. Jerry Zawada perform a ceremonial foot washing. Derechos Humanos has arranged for a very tasty meal for everyone and after a couple hours of mingling in the park, those walkers who remain travel back to Southside Presbyterian to unpack all the trailers, clean the equipment, and say our goodbyes. A number of folk are from Phoenix and we send them off. Some of us are staying locally, awaiting rides to the airport to return to our homes tonight or tomorrow. Kat and Chris open their home to fellow walkers for a party that evening that last past my 10PM bedtime.

It has been a memorable week and experience. Immigration is no longer just an “issue” and I have a deep appreciation for the many people working in “the trenches” to make our nation once again a place that “welcomes the stranger”.

For some, this walk is a political statement in opposition to a structured injustice created by politicians willing to negotiate policies that they know will create deaths. How many deaths -where and under what conditions? What is a tolerable amount to begin the compromises? Those who claim we need “comprehensive immigration reform” are often caught in the political compromises.

Others are walking primarily out of religious conviction. Although Derechos Hermanos is clear that this Migrant Trail Walk is inter-religious (and certainly welcoming of those who come who do not embrace organized religion or reject religion altogether), it is obvious that many of the walkers are strongly motivated by their faith. For some, the symbol of the names of the dead on the crosses we carry as we walk reflect back to the image of Jesus on his cross. The “presente!” on the large cross carried at the front of the march hearkens back to the years of the thousands of martyrs in Central America in the 80’s, especially evocative of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is clear that Maria’s embrace of Native American spirituality is clearly a part of her journey this week.

But what is becoming apparent to me is that for some walkers, this is primarily personal. It isn’t that they don’t hold political views or religious conviction. It isn’t even primarily about social change, as essential as that is. It is walking in solidarity with the people victimized by a system which doesn’t recognize their worth or even existence. It is walking to help heal the pain of broken hearts, shattered dreams. Several times organizers request that we walk this next stretch between our water or snack breaks in silence. It gives us time to reflect as we take each step. The blisters, the aching muscles, the parched throats, and the sun beating down mercilessly –all of it fades to the background when you reflect on “completing the journey” as Maria so movingly put it this morning.

The gratitude one receives from the welcoming at Kennedy Park at the end of the Walk is shown on the faces. There is a deeper appreciation than one usually receives for an act of political or social courage. You can sense in some of those gathered the intense personal connection they have and that appreciation that others would undertake this symbolic journey with their loved ones is too deep to convey with mere words. The spiritual, political, and personal have all come together to work for our own healing, the healing of our nation, and the healing of our world. All of us are complicit in the deaths happening here in the Sonoran Desert. All of us must decide to engage in the healing as well.

Maybe next year, beginning on Memorial Day, you, too, might be able to walk The Migrant Trail.

for information contact:

Migrant Trail Walk #8

Saturday 5/30/09

My best night of rest in a week! Thank God for a couch and a swamp cooler. I woke up at 4:30 AM and beat the rush to use the (indoor) bathroom. After hooking up the gear trailer and getting it ready to be loaded by the logistics team, we discovered one of the walk organizers has a bad eye infection/irritation from getting sunscreen and/or dirt under her contacts. We unhook the Porta-Potty trailer so she can be taken to Tucson for proper medical care. Since we can’t be without toilets on the busy Ajo Way highway, we consider switching trailers but the Highlander van arrives just in time to solve the problem.

Mel and I (once again) take the gear trailer to our last (!) campsite and then return to the walk. It seems that each day has gotten hotter than the last although after our cool space last night, maybe it is all relative. We don’t carry a thermometer with us; I think it’d make us feel hotter- if that is possible.

We go ahead at the last water stop to set up the shade canopies and make side walls on them with tarps to screen out the blistering sun. This “campsite” belongs to the Bureau of Land Management – there seems to be little “management” as this site is the least pleasant for the entire week. We are set up by 11AM and the van and porta-potties arrive by 11:20 with the walkers about 10-15 minutes behind them. We are certainly ready for lunch today.

The hot sun beckons one to a siesta time. It feels too hot to exert oneself so we might as well adopt the south-of-the-border tradition. When the Humane Borders water truck arrives, Mark fills all our water containers and still has enough water left to allow some of our walkers to wash their hair.

A much larger group has joined us by suppertime. A group of students and professors from Duke University are in the area for the next two months for a “Duke Engage” program to learn about border/immigration issues. A Witness for Peace group from Portland, OR is here as well. Others who are part of the No More Deaths and Borderlinks have joined us as well. We have a great sing-along with a banjo and 3 or 4 guitars that ends just before our extended quiet time begins at 9PM. The song session closes with “Goodnight Irene” but before that there has been an eclectic combination of new and old songs - labor and marginalized groups getting the lion’s share.

I’m scheduled for the first shift (9-11PM) of night security watch but Tom, ever mindful of wanting his drivers to be fully alert for the next day asks my night watch partner, Dan, if I can leave early to be sure I get enough sleep. He readily agrees and I turn in after the first hour of the shift –leaving him to the swarms of a myriad variety of bugs which have swarmed to our lantern.

I’ve finally connected with a few folk I’ve met before: John Heid, the Christian Peacemaker Team/Catholic Worker I’ve known for years has rejoined us after walking the first day. Sister Lil and Betsy Lamb, two former Prisoners of Conscience from the School of the Americas vigils are also present. The energy is high with all these new (or returning) folk but you can see the difference between them and the 45+ of us who have been together all week – we are the ones saying, “One more day to go!”.

Migrant Trail Walk #7

Friday 5/29/09

Another hot one!

Last night we discovered about 7PM that the key to the rented 15-passenger van got mistakenly taken with one of the drivers when she had to return to her home in Denver. So this morning was a time of shuttling walkers and the supply trailers back down the 8.3 miles (each way) from the campground to the place on the highway where we left off yesterday.

Fortunately Pat stayed with us overnight so he was able to help pull a trailer and shuttle people in his pick-up truck. I made a trip down with the food team and their trailer while most of the others were still packing up their tents and gear. I unhooked the trailer by the highway and returned up the hill to give others a ride down. Each round trip takes 30-40 minutes. I had to return a third time to get a large drink cooler left in our (now keyless) van so we can give the walkers a choice of Gatorade or water on this extremely (again) hot day.

Although yesterday was longer, because we started so early in the darkness, it didn’t seem as difficult a today’s heat. I was able to walk some as Mel and I swapped driving responsibilities again today.

We ended at “Serenity Baptist Church” near Robles Junction (3 Points) a little after noon. The church graciously welcomed us to sleep and rest in their main sanctuary, their library, and/or their Sunday School/child care building. Some buildings are air conditioned while the sanctuary is cooled with a swamp cellar system that adds moisture to the air to cool it. It was very comfortable!

After a wonderful Thai food lunch supplied by a local Buddhist group (with watermelon provided by the Baptists), most of us just stretch out and enjoy the cool rest – with serenity! It is so serene; most of us doze off.

A couple more walkers have to leave today after lunch. It is sad to say goodbye to someone you’ve just shared these past 50+ miles with under these conditions – but the group will go on.

The jackrabbits and red-tailed hawks are a sight to see. Tom spied a horned toad at one of our water stops. I spotted a colorful beetle or ant that had a bright yellow thorax with an equally bright red head –all on a chassis that was black. I also saw a lizard that was black with orange markings and a black snake with yellow markings on this walk or at the campsites. Another roadrunner scooted across the road today. I wish they and the jackrabbits would sit still long enough for me to snap their picture.

After another good meal, this time it is vegetarian lasagna, the leaders announce that this evening will be the annual Migrant Trail Walk talent share. There is some significant talent to go around but I need to drive Jill back to the Caballo Loco Ranch first to retrieve the van so we can use it tomorrow – so we miss the first half of the show. We return in time to hear some great songs and it appears that everyone had a good time.

Migrant Trail Walk #6

Thursday 5/28/09

Today is “hump day”. Once we are finished with the scheduled 15.9 miles(!), our longest day, we are over the hump and more than half way finished. We got up at 3 AM, packed all the gear and started the walk just a few minutes before 4. We will wait to do our morning “circle-up” at our first full stop when it is finally daylight. We are promised a treat at the end today –showers with hot running water!

We are camping tonight at Caballo Loco Ranch, a campsite/RV park that is 8.3 miles off highway 286, just to the north of the BANWR. Our first 4.6 miles today took us out of the refuge area and the balance of our walk will now be along two state highways, 286 and Ajo Way. That means single file and stepping off the road shoulder when a car approaches. The speed limits are 55 and 65 along these stretches and it seems that almost every other vehicle that passes us is from the Border Patrol.

Mel and I are once again asked to drop off the gear trailer at the destination ranch. We need to stop en route by a trailer with Porta-Potties to get the padlock for our trailer hitch. The trailer is to be parked close to the road but at 4AM it is hard to spot among the mesquite, cactus, and other wilderness growth that makes mile after mile appear the same to me.

At the morning circle, Kat reminds us that we are not trying to mimic the migrant experience. Those who cross here do not often travel on the gravel roads or the paved highway but instead look for openings in the underbrush – just like we do in trying to find our eco-toilets. And now, because we are walking on the shoulder of a paved highway with fences alongside the right-of-way, we will be using two Porta-Potties for the remainder of the trip. We walk not to mimic the experience but rather in solidarity with the migrants and in remembrance of those who didn’t survive it.

Our campsite is at 4,000 feet and the vista of the mountains behind us and across the Altar Valley where we walk is spectacular- especially at sunrise today. But today is relative luxury – flush toilets and showers – our first since leaving Monday morning. Overheard in the men’s bathroom: “I don’t really need to “go” right now; I just want to hear the sound of flushing!”

It is amazing how much we take for granted in our lives. We don’t often recognize our privilege until it is taken away or surrendered voluntarily. This experience, like that of prison, helps me recognize more areas I need to be willing to surrender to be in solidarity with others in our world.

In the midst of the heat and the dust (compounded by no showers …), small graces become important stepping stones. April came up to me and asked if she could wash my long-sleeved shirt that I wear for protection from the intense sun. Then she asked if there was anything else I needed washed at the camp laundry and my pants made filthy from changing the flat tire and hauling 5-gallon water jugs came to mind. While I had changed my pants after my shower, I now had nothing clean to wear after the walk for my flight back to the Twin Cities. Problem solved!

Tom graciously gave me a repaired camping chair he had brought along, saying I could use it until it broke again. It did well the first day I had it but collapsed right in the middle of our logistics team meeting the next day!

During supper, someone asked Margo, a public defender lawyer for Pima County who also has a growing (mostly pro-bono) private immigration practice on the side, what her take was on getting a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress this year. About 20 or more of us sat around listening to her stories and perspectives from her many years as both an activist and an attorney. She volunteers for No More Deaths as well as other groups but her advocacy as a lawyer is something few of us are able to emulate. Her work is so important in trying to keep families together who are threatened by deportation of one or more members. It is critical to retain a vestige of hope as well as an attitude of resistance for this work. I’d like to get her perspective on the role civil disobedience by Anglo/US citizens might play in support of immigrant rights, wishing to stand and act in solidarity with those threatened by our policies. Maybe we can talk as we walk tomorrow or in the afternoon after we rest.

Migrant Trail Walk #5

Wednesday 5/27/09

I had a better night of rest and woke about 4:20 AM. I cleaned off with baby wipes (we are promised our “shower for the week” in Thursday!) and got to the eco-toilets before the 5AM wake-up call rush. We loaded the gear trailer at 5:30 and I helped Tom latch down the pop-up shelters and water jugs on his trailer.

The walkers hit the trail at 6:10 after our morning circle with exercises and the prayer:

Prayer for the Migrant
[Creator], full of love and mercy, I want to ask you for my Migrant brothers and sisters. Have pity on them and protect them, as they suffer mistreatments and humiliations on their journeys, are labeled as dangerous, and marginalized for being foreigners. Make them be respected and valued for their dignity. Touch with Your goodness the many that see them pass. Care for their families until they return to their homes, not with broken hearts but rather with hopes fulfilled. Let it be.

The original version of the prayer begins “Heart of Jesus …” but to make it more inter-faith and inclusive it is suggested we begin with “Creator”. Mel and I are once again tasked with leaving the gear trailer at the next campsite and then rejoin the walkers. It is challenging enough to drive on these roads in the BANWR with or without a trailer. We encounter numerous areas called “washes” where the water rushes through during heavy rainstorms that I’m told often come through here in late July. Locals call it the monsoon season. With the ground so parched and baked hard, the water often runs off quickly to those lower dry creek bed areas. If the rains came more frequently, some of the washes might be more properly called arroyos. In any case, the loose gravel and sand along with the potholes would challenge any driver.

Today, the heat seems even more intense than the past three but at least the humidity remains low. Last night about sunset there was a big storm cloud in the distance with thunder; we saw a beautiful rainbow – but we got nary a drop at our campsite.

Special kudos need to be given to Chandra and her sanitation team. They are responsible for finding spots that provide some screening from the road or campsite for a minimum of privacy – often behind a mesquite “tree” or shrub. They dig a hole next to the eco-toilet, leaving some dirt nearby for users to sprinkle on top of their excrement to keep the smell to a tolerable minimum. These “toilets” are carried on Tom’s trailer in 5-gallon buckets in the “unsanitary” zone. The black toolbox separates the trailer between the sanitary zone where the water jugs and medical gear is stored and the unsanitary area where the toilets and shovels are places. Once the toilets are sited (the women's usually to the left of the campsite and the men's to the right), the area is marked with an orange security vest or bright cone and a bottle of hand sanitizer and an extra roll of toilet paper.

Tom spots one of many red-tailed hawks flying close to the road. We’ve also spotted quail that often run along the road in front of the vehicles - occasionally flying in short stretches to keep ahead of us. We are often driving only 10-15 mph on the road surfaces in the BANWR, ready to brake on a moment’s notice for big ruts, potholes, or washes alongside or across the road surface.

Brother David, our brown-robed Franciscan needs to leave at the end of today’s walk to spend time with his mother. Father Bob, another local priest arrives to pick him up after the day’s walk is completed (a relatively easier 10.8 miles after yesterday’s 13.7 miles plus an additional mile and a half or so for the missed turn). Fr. Bob makes the transition of losing Brother David easier by bringing us some candy and two chests of ice to cool our drinks. Blessings abound! The Mennonites left their Igloo cooler/jug for us to use the rest of the week so we are able to make Gatorade for our rest stops.

Several walkers have developed blisters and/or heat rash. Many of the walkers wear “camelback” devices that include a bladder to fill with water that can be worn on the back as a backpack. A tube passes through the harness to the front so one can rehydrate as you walk. It certainly is easier than trying to drink from my Nalgene bottle while I’m walking.

Mel has brought along her guitar and several walkers sing along with her at the campsite as we await lunch or supper. With our relatively “easy” distance today, there is some “down time” before lunch. We arrived at the campsite on time, just before 11AM. Tomorrow promises to be a much more grueling trek and we need to leave much earlier in the morning to try to beat the hottest part of the day.

Each of the drivers carry a walkie-talkie while the walk is in process. Here is a typical exchange:
Kat (with the walkers): Steve, I see the Rodeo ahead. We turn right at the spot where you are?
Steve: correct.
Kat: Thanks. You can go ahead; do it now so we aren’t eating your dust.
Steve: OK. I’m heading out. There is a water no-stop just ahead.

We have two types of “stops” en route during the walking phase: a “water no-stop” means the walkers pass the vehicles on the right side and fill their water bottles (if needed) and continue walking. These are scheduled every 1-1/2 to 2 miles. The “full stop” (between the water only stops, again after another 1-1/2 to 2 miles) lasts 10-20 minutes and people go to the bathroom and get snacks to replace lost salt or sugar for energy. We have fruit, both fresh and dried, pretzels, salted peanuts, cookies or crackers, and Gatorade or water. It is time for some to re-apply their sunscreen; others use the opportunity to sit on the ground and rest. Several members of the food team ride ahead with the drivers to set up the tables and snacks so everything is ready as the walkers arrive. This walk is well organized! It is during these “breaks” that drivers and walkers can switch out if someone wishes and others can get into the van and ride for a stretch if they need a break. The organizers make it clear that peoples’ health and safety remain a priority.

We also use the walkie-talkies to make sure the walkers know when the support vehicles are coming up behind them so they can get into a single-file for us to pass. Later, when we are walking on the main paved highways, we must walk single-file all the time but while in the BANWR we can walk two-by-two and have some conversation easier.

It has become apparent that I am more useful to the success of the Migrant Trail Walk as a driver/support person than as a walker. I’m happy to contribute whatever way is best. While it may seem to be more “heroic” to be walking the 75 miles in the extreme heat, unless the walkers have reliable support in setting up the stops and hauling the gear and supplies, nothing would work as smoothly as we’ve functioned so far.

Our medical team is ready to advise and help –blisters, heat rash, aching muscles, removing cactus’ thorns. They remind us to have food in our stomachs before taking ibuprofen. Taking it in the morning sometimes certainly makes the walking easier for me. The food team sets up our breakfasts, making coffee as well as setting out the bagels that are our morning staple. Their mantra always is: “Sanitize! Sanitize!” Don’t touch any food without sanitizing first and don’t reach into any food container – use the tongs or scoops provided. We have a lawyer who walks with us and she will take charge with any potential contacts we have with the Border Patrol or migrants we encounter.

Each evening close to our suppertime a truck operated by Humane Borders comes to the campsite to replenish our supply. They often have ice as well. What a crucial role water plays in our lives this week!

Today the group decided to walk in silence for a mile and a half to take time to reflect on those who have died in this area. Also, today, during one of the stretches, names written on the crosses we carry are read aloud with the group responding with “Presente!” as a symbolic gesture of carrying that person’s spirit with us, or recognizing his/her presence among us.

Rain? In southern Arizona? Yesterday a cloud came over and I felt about 12 big drops. Then it stopped. About sunset there was another huge threatening cloud but it never came over the campsite. There are no clouds when I awoke close to 3 AM and the stars in the dark sky were incredible! Since our wake up time tomorrow is scheduled for 3AM with the walk starting at 4, hopefully we’ll get to enjoy them again. Meanwhile, threatening clouds moved in about 3PM today and people scrambled to attach rain flies to their tents or to get under the canopies but all we got was thunder and a few sprinkles again – not even worthy enough to settle the abundant dust. With the early departure in the dark tomorrow, we need to load and secure Tom’s trailer before 8PM tonight after we take down the canopy shelters and the water truck has completed filling all our containers.

Migrant Trail Walk #4

Tuesday 5/26/09 Getting Lost in the Sonoran Desert.

Wake up call was at 5AM just as it was getting light outside. Thank God for our sanitation team that had placed the eco-toilets for us to use near the campsite. Just before grabbing some breakfast (usually bagels with peanut butter or cream cheese), I discovered that the rear tire of the Rodeo appeared low. Tom gave me his air gauge (is there any tool he doesn’t carry?) and when it doesn’t register at all, we know we have a flat that needs repair. Although Kat has 195,000 miles on this vehicle, she is prepared with a full-sized spare tire which I am able to change with help from others – just in time for our morning “circle-up” where Erin leads us in some stretching exercises and we recite the Migrant Prayer again, this time in Spanish, led by a retired policeman from Phoenix who has walked this trail before. The rest of the logistics team had reloaded the trailer with all the camping and personal gear while I concentrated on the flat tire.

Mel, an immigration lawyer from Phoenix and I were asked to haul the gear trailer ahead to the next campsite for tonight and then rejoin the group with the Isuzu Rodeo which will serve as our emergency vehicle. Then I will remain as the driver for the day so Mel can walk with the others. (I had volunteered to help out with driving when needed.) Even with detailed instructions with odometer readings of when to turn and a map, we missed a turn and got lost on the BANWR. It turned out that the walkers also missed a turn and got lost and were about an hour behind schedule. We finally connected with the others thanks to the walkie-talkies which helped the three drivers coordinate with the security team members walking with the group. We are communicating on two different channels so a couple of people (Tom and Kat) are carrying two radios.

If we get lost in this desert/wilderness with maps and directions keyed to our odometer readings, can you imagine how hard it is to navigate on foot without these tools? Is it any wonder more migrants don’t die out here amidst the heat and the cacti? It got me thinking about the Hebrew slaves who escaped Egypt only to wander 40 years (!) in the desert/wilderness of the Sinai? No wonder they were a cranky group for Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to lead. I have much more appreciation for their plight after just hours in this wilderness.

And yet … the cacti blooms are marvelous! Also, this morning we spotted about 5-6 deer and almost a dozen large jackrabbits, some as big as a good-sized dog. I also saw a roadrunner scamper across the road but didn’t see a coyote chasing him. (We did hear the coyotes “singing” at night, however.) We haven’t seen any Pronghorn antelope yet but Kat tells us there are some in this area. I hope they enjoy eating mesquite and cacti since there isn’t much else beside some dried grasses. This wilderness is off-limits to the local ranches where the cattle seem to have eaten all the grass.

After we arrive at the campsite and get ready for lunch, I am told to try to get the flat tire repaired at a local town about 10-12 miles away after a quick lunch while the walkers are resting. We will also need to pick up more water as we had run low by lunchtime. Because of the wrong turn, we don’t get lunch until about 2 PM and it is refreshing to get under one of the pop-up canopies to lessen the effects of the mid-day sun. Since the sun is so intense, we’ve set up all five of them so people can sit or lie in the shade.

Not knowing where I was going, one of the volunteers who brought us our lunch offers to ride with me to give me directions for the tire repair place. Isabella, an older volunteer with Derechos Humanos tells me as we’re driving about meeting migrants at a center in Nogales who arrive with feet rubbed so raw there is almost no skin to protect them after blisters burst and peel off. One woman told her that her whole extended family saved up money for her to “go north” to try and find work to get money for her family. Even though her feet were raw, she couldn’t turn back to go home because of how shamed she would feel in failing her family.

Isabella has been part of this struggle for a long time. Her parents migrated to the US from central Mexico to better their lives. Isabella worked with Caesar Chavez in organizing farm workers. She told me she still doesn’t eat grapes in honor of him and the struggle for justice. In going to get the tire repaired, I heard a scraping sound at a stop sign. When I got out to inspect it, I noticed the front bumper which had been fastened on with a bungee cord had slipped loose from the rough roads we travelled and now held on with only one fastener. After trying to re-secure it without success, I removed it and put it in the back seat. After getting the tire repaired, the detached bumper was fastened to the roof rack on top of the spare tire for the gear trailer.

What trees there are are short scrub mesquite that are so low one can’t get decent shade and what shade they might provide is intermittent because they are not very leafy. There is no other shade for miles so you pray for some passing cloud cover to provide a respite from the broiling sun which bakes everything around here.

Almost Thou Persuadest Me to Become a Mennonite [Again].

Although I was raised in a church which called itself Mennonite until I was 14 (when the congregation dropped the “Mennonite” identity and reverted to the independent/fundamentalist/evangelical church it, in practice, had always been), the supper brought to the Migrant Trail walkers on Tuesday night made me want to renew my Anabaptist heritage!

Shalom Mennonite Fellowship provided the supper and the first thing I (and others) noticed was the incredibility colorful and even more tasty fruit salad. Not only did it include fresh mango, pineapple, watermelon, cantalope, grapes, and strawberries, but also fresh raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and topped off with fresh pomegranate seeds! There were tossed salads, tuna fish salad, several pasta salads, an apple/broccoli salad. Homemade cookies plus other desert-like treats wrapped in cellophane so they could be squirreled away until needed tonight or after the first few miles tomorrow.

It was evangelism through hospitality. People often referred to as “the quiet in the land” spoke eloquently through their service and generosity. You could physically see spirits lifted during and after the meal. Now, if only that hospitality was contagious – and metastasized exponentially to include our Mexican brothers and sisters and all other “strangers within the land”.

Migrant Trail Walk #3

Monday 5/25/09

Some additional walkers will join us for the first day. Many have purchased this year’s bright yellow Migrant Trail Walk T-shirt . On the back it reads:

Our Vision
The precarious reality of our borderlands calls us to walk. We are a spiritually diverse, multi-cultural group who walk together on a journey of peace to remember people, friends and family who have died, others who have crossed, and people who continue to come. We bear witness to the tragedy of death and of the inhumanity in our midst. Lastly, we walk as a community, in defiance of the borders that attempt to divide us, committed to working together for the human dignity of all peoples.

We also wore our name badges for our identification and on the back of it there is the following statement: To Whom It May Concern: I am a participant of the Migrant Trail, a peaceful event by citizens and immigrants in support of justice on our borders. I wish to exercise my right to remain silent. I will not speak to anyone, answer questions, respond to accusations, waive any of my legal rights, or consent to any search of my person, papers, or property until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney. If I am detained, I wish to contact the following person in order to obtain legal advice: Margo Cowan: 520-850-0058.

We have introductions and some logistical announcements in a circle in the Fellowship Hall of the church after the three trailers are loaded. I’m on the logistics team and our gear trailer carries the tents, sleeping bags and pads, camp chairs, and duffle bags or backpacks of those who will walk all week. We also carry an additional three 5-gallon water jugs on our trailer; it is packed tight! The food trailer is self-explanatory. The third trailer is hauling our water for our rest stops, eco-toilets [in a separate “unsanitary” area], our medical supplies, and our “pop-up canopies” we will use for shade when we finish each day.

Today is the only scheduled day when we walk in the afternoon. We drive about 1 ½ hours to the US/Mexico border at Sasabe, walk across the border and then are shuttled to a local Catholic church in this small Mexican border town. The road is unpaved, with deep potholes, and the driver has to avoid the occasional cow “grazing” in the middle of the main street or along the shoulder.

The women of the church have prepared a meal of rice, refried beans, tamales, and salad. We eat with some of the local residents under a canopy/tent that provides shade for about half of us. Others try to sit alongside the church building where there is little shade. Afterwards we enter the church for a brief service before we process, walking with three coffins the 1 ½ miles back to the border. We past a group of predominately young men, about 30 in all who wait in the shade and we are told will try to cross the border later in the day.

At the border, we gather in a circle for a moving ceremony remembering the migrants who take the costly risks in crossing nearby. Maria talks about the indigenous peoples of this area and calls us to pray for all involved in this on-going tragedy. She burns sage and “smudges” each of us before we cross over to the US side.

As we cross the border to re-enter the US, each of the walkers hands their passport or other ID to one of the walk organizers. We will travel as “undocumented” for the rest of the week in solidarity with our migrant brothers and sisters. It is only a symbolic gesture; we are such people of privilege, knowing that we travel with our own attorney this week.

It is a hot, dusty trek today. We walked single-file along highway 286 for close to 3 miles before we turn off into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR). We walk a little more than 6 miles and don’t arrive at the campsite until 6:15 PM. Supper wasn’t ready until about 7:30 and we are scheduled for quiet time from 8PM until 5AM. It gets dark quickly and I will sleep in one of the vehicles tonight hoping it will feel better on my back.

A packet of 3 burritos and a slice of watermelon is our supper. It is getting close to sunset and I’m tired enough not to want to read before I sleep. The moon rises over Baboquivari, the distinct mountain peak to our west that dominates the landscape. We’ve had her in our sight all day. My friend, John Heid, told me a little of the story of this sacred mountain as we walked today. I’itoi, the Creator/God of the Tohono O’odham Nation dwells on this mountain. It is this people’s Garden of Eden/Creation story myth. There is a cave in the mountain where native people leave gifts or sacred objects for I’itoi. Some people say the mountain is shaped like a breast to nourish the people in this parched land. Others say the people complained to I’itoi that they wanted more cultivatable land but God split the mountain (thus the sharp face on one side) and the rocks from that face fell into the area coveted by the people. God felt the people were being too greedy in desiring more land and so made some of it uncultivatable. Whichever story is correct, the mountain and the surrounding area remain a sacred site for the indigenous people on both sides of the border between nations because the native people historically lie on both sides of the US/Mexico divide.

Migrant Trail Walk #2

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It is 85 degrees at 10:30 AM when I land at the Tucson airport. I take the city bus (with a transfer) to Southside Presbyterian Church, our place of orientation. The countryside is stark and barren as our plane approached Tucson from the north and east. I don’t expect much different from the south and the west, the area where we’ll walk. I’ve started reading Dan Berrigan’s Exodus: Let My People Go on the flight down. Moses and his people spent some time in the wilderness, too so it might serve as a helpful companion on this journey.

My first sight of Southside Presbyterian Church is the group of homeless folk who partially obscure the sign. Without the sign, one might not suspect the building behind it serves as a church. When I arrive at the back door just before noon, I am told that they are showing a documentary about immigrant issues in the church library. It is a movie about organizing sweatshop workers in the clothing industry in LA. After the movie, I have 5 hours before orientation so I ask where I can get something to eat nearby. I’m told a good Mexican restaurant is “about 5 blocks away”; in reality it is closer to 10 blocks and the noonday sun is intense. After walking to and from the restaurant, I discover the church is locked so I try to find a spot in the shade and sit on an empty milk crate for a little more than an hour before the students from the Newman Center of U of AZ arrive to prepare our supper.

What a relief to sit in a metal folding chair in the moderately air conditioned Fellowship Hall. When one of the Walk organizers arrives, I’m told I can sleep in the library tonight. There I discover a recliner/rocker in the corner and I camp out there. After reading and napping, it is suppertime and many of the fellow walkers have arrived.

After a supper of beans, rice, enchiladas, salad and fruit, we are directed next door to the “Kiva”, the worship space/sanctuary – a rustic but esthetically beautiful building with an impressive open beam ceiling. The benches (in place of pews) are attractive but hard and no one knows how to turn on the air conditioning. At orientation we are introduced to the sponsoring groups and some of their members. They include Mennonite Central Committee, Pax Christi, American Friends Service Committee, Border Links, No More Deaths, and a Franciscan Peace and Justice group. The main sponsor, Derechos Hermanos (a Human Rights Coalition) shows a brief PowerPoint about the militarization of the US/Mexico border. Kat Rodriguez says it is best described as “when the military acts like police and the police act like the military”. She goes on to describe the “Southern Boarder strategy” where the plan is to shut down all urban crossing points (through the construction of walls and fences) which channel migrants attempting to cross the border (without documents) into remote and physically challenging desert areas. The official sanctioning of “death in the desert” is seen by proponents as one of the “deterrents” promoted by this policy – hoping it will discourage others from undergoing the risky crossing.

Kat shows us a photo she took a couple of years ago of pallet upon pallet of metal sections of military runway which was left over from the Vietnam War. So much of this metal has been used to create this border wall that it is reported that after all the Vietnam era runway was used, some of the wall now being built is from the detritus of the Gulf War. Talk about militarizing the border! We are told some of the same corporations who are building this wall are also some of the same corporate contractors doing the separation barrier installation between Israel and the Occupied West Bank of Palestine.

The Border Patrol has become a law unto itself. Unlike local or state law enforcement, there isn’t an accountability structure in place for them. When Border Patrol officers are accused of inappropriate deadly force, sexual harassment and racial profiling, there is little recourse – and those committing such human rights violations are often just transferred to another section.

Under the Real ID Act, passed in the fearful years following 9-11, the new Secretary of Homeland Affairs is authorized to waive any laws he/she feels necessary to “protect our borders”. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, waived Clean Air, EPA, and other environmental laws (32 in all) ostensibly to “protect us” from our neighbor and #2 trading partner, Mexico.

We were educated about present practices that undocumented immigrants face here in the US. Many who are caught and detained presently agree to “VR”, voluntary return, which serves like a “catch and release” program where one is returned to Mexico (even if they might be from another Latin American country) without draconian legal penalties. We are told the numbers are so great and the legal system so overburdened, between 1,000 and 1,500 persons are “voluntary returnees” every day in Tucson alone.

Because of the border walls and the funneling of undocumented people into the remote areas, it’s estimated that 52% of those crossing now come through the desert and wilderness areas of Arizona. Local hospitals have become overwhelmed and are not reimbursed by the federal government who has created the crisis.

The latest plan designed to try to squelch this “illegal migration” is called Operation Streamline”. It is a pernicious and draconian attempt to harshly criminalize any undocumented person crossing by permanently labeling anyone caught and processed under this provision as being forever banned from entering the US under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your children (or spouse) are US citizens. Under this process one will be refused any legal visas or other legal papers anytime in the future. Many of these proceeding are occurring en masse where 50-70 undocumented people are processed at one time and then permanently deported. Of course, when people are desperate, they will still attempt to return but must always live in the shadows. As one man told a Derechos Humanos worker, “If I could get a job and feed my family in Mexico, I would never risk this [life-threatening] crossing.”

We talked about the logistics and expectations for the Walk. We are told to select a “pee buddy” to make sure no one is left behind “when nature calls” but also to monitor that one’s partner is drinking enough to pee regularly –because if you aren’t peeing, you aren’t hydrated enough.

The air mattress I borrowed from my neighbor wasn’t terribly helpful for sleep on Sunday night at the church. After two hours of tossing and turning, I get up and sleep in the reclining chair until 5AM when one of the church volunteers burst in to inform us that he is our wake-up call. We were aware that the church hosts a breakfast for the homeless at 7:30 AM and set up begins about 6 but this guy thought he’d start our day off on his schedule!

Walking the Migrant Trail #1

Walking the Migrant Trial 2009: Being Present With Desconocida in the Shadow of Baboquivari by Steve Clemens.

Last week was the start of the 6th annual Migrant Trail Walk coordinated by Coalicion de Derechos Humanos based in Tucson, AZ. They state, “The walk is not intended to simulate the experience migrants face as they cross the gauntlet of death. Walkers are accompanied by support vehicles, unlimited food and water, and medical attention: things that the migrants themselves desperately lack. However by walking 75 miles in the hot summer sun we try to make a small contribution that will some day lead to change on the border. No one should be forced to risk their life in order to provide for their family.”

I walked part of the time and served as a logistics driver for the rest of the time to enable others to receive the support they needed to complete the arduous task. When I was driving, Mel, another driver/walker had me play a song over and over again on Kat’s cd player in the Isuzu Rodeo I drove. On it was a song written by Jake _____, a participant walker several years before on the Migrant Trail. He wrote a very moving song, Desconocida (the term used for “unknown [female]”) and it framed and contextualized the week for me. As best as I could transcribe the lyrics:


Are you wearing your favorite dress?
Is it woven with wedding thread?
When you look over your shoulder
Does it cry colors?

Does your hair fall over your eyes?
Does it seem so to a dragonfly?
They know the way they lose themselves
In the breeze

No one heard the sound of our body
On a grain of sand
Or the Creator had your name engraved
On the palm of His hand.

Do you dance ‘til the sun wakes up?
Slightly moving through the windows of your love
How you barely weave your finger-
Prints on the sill?

Do you gaze into a jealous moon?
With the stellar of old surround your youth?
And when you are leaving
Do they ask you to stay?

No one heard the sound of our body
On a grain of sand
Or the Creator had your name engraved
On the palm of His hand.

Oh, oh, oh …
Are you breathing the freshest air?
Does your garden grow
With every prayer?
I feel the bees
They hum their sweet pollen.

Have you the arms of a loving man?
Do you own the lines upon his hands?
Your family, does he build the table strong?

When no one heard the sound of our body
On a grain of sand
Or the Creator had your name spelled out
On the palm of His hands.
Oh, no one heard the song
Of you dying on the desert floor
But now you’ve got your favorite dress
Oh put on your favorite dress
Put on your favorite dress

‘Cause you don’t have to hurt anymore ….