To cross a desert on foot is to risk your life. Some make it through, arriving at their destination safe and alive, but some do not.
Last November, I joined a BorderLinks delegation to Arizona and Mexico. BorderLinks is a non-profit, faith based organization that offers educational immersion experiences on border and immigration issues. Our group of twelve from Florida and three from North Carolina spent a week in Tucson with an overnight visit to Agua Prieta, Mexico. The trip was heart-touching and enlightening, and one of the most moving experiences was the Healing Our Borders Prayer Vigil.
Tuesday afternoon we left Tucson and traveled to the border town of Douglas, Arizona. This was my first visit to Arizona and I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the state. We drove through desert alive with cacti, mesquite, and wildflowers. Beyond stood breathtaking mountains streaked with purple and other hues. We made a pit stop in Tombstone. This state is so full of history, I plan to return someday to explore what I missed.
In Douglas, we stopped at a MacDonald’s a few blocks from the Mexican border. Soon, we were joined by Pastor Mark Adams, a local Presbyterian minister, a group of Presbyterian Youth, a handful of local people and visitors, and Sister Lucy, a Teaching Sister of Notre Dame.
Prior to 1994, when NAFTA was passed, there were no recorded deaths of migrants in the desert, but this soon changed. Rural Mexico saw economic collapse and small farmers lost their homes and livelihood. As a result, many went elsewhere to find work in order to feed their families, some to the United States. With changes in the political climate and tightening of border policies, the most desperate resorted to entering through remote desert areas.
The same beautiful country I rode through in the comfort of an air conditioned van can be lethal for someone on foot. By 2000, the number of deaths had risen to alarming rates. Many humanitarian organizations were formed, including Frontera de Cristo which leads the vigil every Tuesday evening in remembrance of those who have died trying to achieve the “American Dream.” In Cochise County alone, between 2009 and 2015, the remains of more than 260 people had been found in the desert. Since then, the death toll has risen and upwards of 6,000 have lost their lives in the desert southwest.
A van arrived with a load of white crosses which we transferred to a shopping cart. Each cross bore a name and the person’s dates of birth and death. There were more than 260 of them. But some had no names, only a designation “No identificata” and the date of when the remains had been found.
We each took three crosses and lined up along the street leading to the border crossing. Pastor Mark held up his first cross and spoke the name written on it. Everyone else responded, “Presente!” Then he laid his cross against the curb. The next person in line held up a cross, we said “Presente!” and the cross was set down a few feet away.
Down the street we progressed. One by one. Some of the fallen were women and children. My turn came. By now I was struggling with tears and could barely pronounce the name through the lump in my throat. When we each had set down our last cross, we took another from the cart and continued down the street, announcing names, “Presente!” and laying the crosses against the curb, until only three were left, which Pastor Mark took for himself.
One of my crosses had no name. On it was written, “Mujer—No identificata” (unidentified woman).” More tragic even than a name of a child who had died, was this woman with no name. Who was she? How did she die? Did she perish of dehydration or heat exhaustion? Or was her death more swift, by drowning in the large ditch at the border?
My Mujer was certainly someone’s daughter, probably someone’s sister. Was she married? If so, what became of her husband? Was his name, or lack of it, inscribed on another cross? Did he survive to go on, unable (or afraid) to report her death or claim her body? Did she have children? Where were they? Waiting for her to join them in the Land of the Free? Or did she leave them with relatives in her quest for work so she could send money to feed them?
And why, oh why, do we not know her name? Were her remains so scattered that no clothing, papers, or possessions could be traced to her?
After the last cross, save three, had been laid down, we gathered in a circle at a park within sight of the border. One by one, Pastor Mark announced two names, one of them a teenage boy, and another unknown. One by one, we “Presente’d” and he laid each cross in the center of our circle.
Standing there in the cold night, listening to prayers for the families of the fallen and for both of our countries, remembering the dead and praying for a peaceful solution, I was moved by the tragedy of so many hopeful lives cut short.
Whatever you may think about those who were lost, about their motivations, their judgment, these were living, breathing souls, like you and me, with hopes and dreams, struggles and sorrows. Some died alone and some in the company of friends or loved ones who had no choice but to go on. And even the unknowns, the No Indentificata, were loved and mourned by someone.
On that cold night in that border town, as we returned to the parking lot, picking up the crosses as we went, we all mourned for our brothers and sisters, those children of God, whom we never met on this side of the border between life and death, but who had become real to our hearts.