Edgar At the Wall

•September 11, 2019 • Leave a Comment

We sit on the steps of a refugee shelter on the Mexico side of the equation, in Nogales, Sonora. The shelter is a simple shack next to the US/Mexico border. Usually 30 people stay here while waiting for their chance at asylum in the US; today there are 80 men, women and children crammed into this tiny place of refuge. They sleep on the rooftop, they pile into bunk beds, and their sleeping bags are lined up like cord wood on the floor. There is a black puppy that is tied up by the kitchen door which seems to calm the children.

Edgar, a 12 year old boy from Honduras, sits beside me on the steep steps of the shelter, and we stare at the wall about 20 feet away. There are trucks on the US side with men in camouflage putting up razor wire. We watch them for awhile, grateful to be in our own little world, away from the chaos of the shelter. Edgar wears a jacket and sweatpants with the LA Lakers emblazoned in red, white, and blue. His English is quite good—better than my Spanish. He is here with his mother and younger brother.

“So, why are they putting up all the wire?” he asks.

I am fumbling for an answer. How do I tell this child that my country is putting up razor wire because we are afraid of his people? We are building walls festooned with razor wire to keep out brown people fleeing the poverty and violence of their own country.

Edgar wants an answer: “So, is the wire to keep the Americans inside their own country? Are they locking the Americans inside?”

And indeed, the razor wire looks like we are imprisoned inside our own country.

I ask Edgar what he is most excited about when he goes through the asylum process.

“I want to go to school. I haven’t been to school in 2 years. The bullies attacked me and so my mother would not allow me to go to school. That’s why we are going to los Estados Unidos. My grandmother lives in Modesto.”

Edgar parts his hair and shows me a scar on his skull—the result of a beating by the bullies at his school. I am horrified.

“So where is your father?” I ask.

“He was killed last year. My mother cries all the time now, and so I can’t cry anymore. I have to help get us to America.”

Edgar is matter-of-fact about all of this. Mostly, he wants to practice his English with me.

The black puppy joins us, and licks his face. The solemnity of the moment passes, as Edgar leans back on the steps and lets the puppy nip at his nose, his hair, his ears. There are giggles and squeals, and the puppy pees on my leg.

I have relived this moment with Edgar a hundred times, and have a dream of him going to school in Modesto, maybe attending a Lakers game someday, and living a life free of bullies and razor wire. He has blessed my life today. He will bless my country in a thousand ways if we open our doors.

¡Presente! We Will Not Forget.

•June 27, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Several times each year I help create an “immersion experience” on the U.S./Mexico border for high school and college students. Last week was a collaboration with the Sisters of Notre Dame in Douglas, Arizona, and The Academy of Holy Angels, a Catholic high school in New Jersey. Five senior students, two faculty, two sisters from Douglas, AZ, and I spent a day in the desert carrying water to known migrant trails. 

It was 100 degrees on a cloudless June day, and we chose a trail that was shady and tolerable for our hike to the abandoned Wilbur-Cruz ranch near Arivaca, AZ.  Kicking up clouds of butterflies as we walked along, we looked for any lost travelers. 

“Somos Samaritanos. Tenemos agua y comida.” 

“We are Samaritans. We have water and food.” 

There were no answers but the songs of the cicadas and a noisy Gila woodpecker. Arriving at the ruins of the historic ranch, there were ten or more empty water bottles beside a crumbling wall, an indication that the water had been used by thirsty people. Water is life in the desert. The students replaced the empties with bottles of fresh water.  They labeled the bottles with the date and a message of encouragement with black markers.

Vaya con Dios. Walk in safety. You are not alone.

We were sweating, panting, and breathless as we trudged along in our well-fitting shoes and backpacks filled with snacks and water. Our little caravan was over-equipped with all the essentials, and still we struggled. Samaritan Mark Sanders located on his phone GPS the spot where a traveler had died in 2017 within 100 yards of the ranch. We bushwhacked through a thicket, brushed aside clouds of tiny insects, and quietly stood at the spot where this person had taken his last steps. Looking up at the sky and around at the cottonwood and mesquite trees, we tried to get a sense of his last moments. There were no remnants of clothes or personal effects, but there was a strong sense of spirit on this piece of hallowed ground. Someone poured water on the spot, and we all called out in unison, “Presente!” 

We remember.  You were a human being who lived and died. Go in peace.


Holy Angels students and volunteers at the Longhorn Grill in Amado, Arizona


•February 19, 2017 • 25 Comments

The recent Presidential election has me practicing the piano again. Bach is especially helpful. I can’t think about politics or 45 (Trump) when I play the piano, and this is a good thing. When my concentration goes awry, which is often, Bach’s symmetry and elegance go out the window, and my playing is a jumble of notes that fly in all directions. The major chords become minors, and the harmonies are lost. It is like fingernails on a blackboard. Even the dog winces.

I have to be grounded and focused to play Bach. It is my centering meditation. These days Bach is my salvation.

Breakfast at el comedor

Yesterday I attended a Green Valley Samaritan meeting at 8 AM, and there were close to one hundred people in attendance. Most had gray hair. All were looking for guidance, phone numbers to call, letters to write, or something tangible to do that would impact the crisis of people crossing our desert trying to reach a loved one.

We heard a report from a Samaritan witness who attends Operation Streamline regularly. Operation Streamline is the court proceeding that attempts to fast-track undocumented migrants through our court system in groups. Migrants have representation by lawyers, and most are encouraged to plead guilty for the crime of crossing into the United States without the proper papers.

The Samaritan told us of a man who explained to the judge that he had been caught by Border Patrol agents somewhere in the desert. He was told to remove his shoes and socks, and was ordered to run across the desert floor barefoot. After a few minutes a Border Patrol agent chased him on an ATV, running him down like a frightened, injured animal. His feet were bloodied. The man told this story to the judge on this shameful day in court. The judge shrugged it off. Things happen.                                                     A teen’s death in the desert

I cannot get this image out of my mind. It is February, and the mornings and evenings often approach freezing. A man is forced to remove his shoes, and run across the thorny, rocky desert floor while a Border Patrol agent has an adrenaline rush and chases him down. The agent can now claim that the migrant was fleeing the scene.

Struggling with how to impact these atrocities that are occurring close to my home, I sit at the piano and mangle another Bach Invention. I focus on my fingers, the music, and try to get my bifocals just right so I can see the notes. I am a privileged white woman playing the piano, trying to shake off the image of a young brown man running barefoot in the desert, hunted down like a deer.

There is something terribly wrong with America today.

Lucy and the medical team

I remember Mr. Trump back in 2015 announcing his candidacy for President of the United States. In his very first speech he labeled the undocumented migrants heading north from Mexico as rapists, thieves and drug smugglers.  He railed that they were raising havoc in our cities and countryside. I was stunned back in 2015 when I heard this, and his tone has not wavered. Why does Trump view Latino immigrants as terrorists, tax evaders, criminals and drains on social service networks?

Sleep does not come easy these days. Each morning I do not want to read the morning headlines, and yet I cannot avert my eyes. It is like driving past an auto accident, not wanting to look, and yet I must take a peek at the carnage. I wait for someone to organize another demonstration. I make phone calls to Congressional Senators and Representatives I have never heard of. I spend way too much time on Facebook reading every news breaking story.

Today I went to el comedor, the Kino Border Initiative aid station that feeds and counsels thousands of migrants each year. The mood is tense; the men and women look tired and hungry. It is forty degrees inside the small shelter, and some of the travelers are shivering.

The staff of life

A few days ago Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos sat at one of the tables at el comedor surrounded by ten microphones and reporters from all over the world. Brought into the US at age fourteen, she was deported to Nogales, Sonora after twenty-one years of life in Arizona. Living in Phoenix raising her family, and trying her best to work and survive, she did not have the proper papers to stay here legally. Lupe obtained a false social security number in order to get a job, and eleven years ago was caught with this fraudulent identification. As part of her probation, she reported to an ICE office each year. She never missed this yearly visit. Without warning she was picked up and deported to Mexico while making her annual check-in to the ICE office. Looking frightened and bewildered, Lupe sat in front of the array of microphones. Her children spoke eloquently about their mother, and her life centered on family and hard work.

I stare at Lupe in the news photos, her face strained, and her eyes wide with distrust and disbelief. Then I study the faces of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, two of 45’s top national security advisors.

Who are the real criminals here?

US Presidential advisors with frequent communication involving Russian intelligence agents about campaign manipulation and policy matters in Ukraine and Crimea, before Trump is even inaugurated? (not to mention business dealings in Russia)

Or a woman eking out a living in Phoenix?

Peg, Ciccio and Matt keeping the faith at el comedor

Why is it so difficult to carve out an immigration policy that treats people with dignity and respect?

And to be honest, I cannot blame Trump totally for the sweeps of the past 3 weeks. Obama’s immigration policies resulted in 2.4 million deportations of undocumented immigrants during his eight year tenure. Most were “non-criminal.” Just like Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos.

  Packaging the tortillas

Looking over the comedor at the room full of young men, I talk with a migrant and his small son from Honduras. He takes out his cell phone and shows several Samaritans a photo of his slain brother lying on a street in a pool of blood. With a dispassionate face he clicks through the photos on his cell phone. He is fleeing his homeland and faces the same fate as his brother if he returns. His little boy has dark curls and races around the tables chasing after the resident cat. The father is planning to cross into the desert with his young son, seeking safety and work in the USA. The Samaritans are horrified with this plan.

The Honduran is the perfect candidate for political asylum. His brother has been killed in Honduras. This young father cannot return to his home. He has a photo of his murdered brother. He probably knows who killed him. The KBI staff will explain the asylum process to him. Asylum is not without its own perils. Both father and son will most likely spend time in a detention center in the US.  Chances are he will be separated from his son. He is a victim without a voice, caught in the crossfire of the politics of 45.

When all else fails, dance 

Today is Valentine’s Day, and another Samaritan and myself walk around with a pan of homemade cake with pink frosting dotted with sugar sprinkles, and we serve up this confection on napkins to a waiting group. Samaritan friend, Julie, stayed up half the night baking 4 cakes for the migrant travelers that we serve today. The men are delighted with the gift of sugar and frosting, and wolf down the cake with gusto. A couple of guys try to mooch an extra piece.

It feels good serving these Latino men and women, when so often they are the ones serving me—in restaurants, hospitals, as housekeepers, gardeners, nannies, and farm workers.

 Listening to the stories of the travelers’ journey 

Later tonight my husband and I will relish strawberries covered with chocolate on this Valentine’s Day. Probably they were picked by a Mexican farmworker bending over in the fields of Minnesota or Oregon. Possibly this farmworker is here today at el comedor after a deportation due to a minor violation—cruising through a stop sign, or driving without a license. I think about his fingers plucking each strawberry in a field a thousand miles away so I can enjoy this chocolate covered Valentine treat.

Sitting down again at the piano, I take some deep breathes and attempt to play some more Bach. The piece demands my full attention. It is a balm for my addled brain.

Holy Angels High School students tour Tumacacori Mission, home of an early traveler, Padre Kino

Peg Bowden has written a book, A Land of Hard Edges, available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog. Peg Bowden can be reached at: pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert. Information and contributions can be directed to:


Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. The website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity. The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.org


•March 6, 2016 • 22 Comments

We are a motley crew of ten as we set out on a sunny February morning, walking north toward the Whetstone Mountains of Arizona. Our leader, Sister Judy, carries her cell phone and her eyes are glued to the GPS, keeping us on track. She is our tracking bloodhound, nose to the ground, and we are the trusting sheep, silently hoping she knows what she is doing. The sun and temperature are rising, and we don’t want to get lost.

We are searching for the exact spot where a young woman’s remains were found in 2012, a woman who has never been identified by the Medical Examiner’s office. She is “no identificada.”

Walking along a migrant trail

Walking in the steps of a Latina woman

More than 2,000 human remains have been found in the Sonoran desert over the past 15 years. The actual number of bodies is much higher, as many of the lost will never be found.

I think about the official policy of the US Armed Forces, and their “no soldier left behind” code of conduct. This action by our military always seems heroic and somehow holy to me. No soldier’s body will be left on a battlefield. We will find them and bring them home. It is a sacred rule.

The cross with the tuna can sunflower

   Tom Flemming creates a cross with a tuna can sunflower

And yet here we are on this starkly beautiful desert landscape, where thousands of bodies have been left to rot, their bones torn asunder by the wild creatures of this land. Because they didn’t have the correct papers. It is a killing field.

On this journey we are a group of many faiths, many beliefs: an Episcopal priest, a Yaqui holy man, two nuns, a few lapsed Catholics, a non-believer or two, and some social activists. One man carries a cross he has created with the words, “No Identificada” carefully painted on the cross bar. A rusted tuna can painted a colorful yellow looks like a sunflower.  The can was most likely dropped by a migrant. It is nailed to the pristine white cross. The tuna can is a talisman of spring.

The mood is upbeat. We are on a mission. We are going to plant this beautiful cross in the desert and acknowledge that this unidentified woman had a life full of meaning, and it tragically ended here on this sacred spot.

Digging into the earth

Digging into the earth

The conversation bounces from topic to topic. Gabriel, our Yaqui friend, carries a backpack with items to use in the desert ceremony. He asks no one in particular, “I wonder where she came from? I wonder where she was heading?”

We trudge along through the dry grasses dodging cholla and prickly pear cactus. The day is warming up, and I keep my eyes and ears attuned to rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation.

My friend, Trudy, from Buffalo, New York, is slowing down in the desert heat. We stop for a drink of water. She asks, “I wonder how she kept going?”

A prickly pear cactus in bloom

A prickly pear cactus in bloom

In my conversations with migrants at el comedor in Nogales, they have shared with me how they kept going. This is what they tell me:

“I was lying on the ground and couldn’t go one more step. My water was gone, and so was my last chocolate bar. I looked up and saw a woman beckoning me to get up and keep walking. I think it was the Virgen de Guadalupe.  Or maybe an angel.”

Some have said, “I heard my young daughter’s voice. She shouted at me to get up and come home.”

One man told me that when he rose from the desert floor, he saw the Border Patrol in the distance. The vision or angel or whomever it was by his side told him not to worry.

The angel said, “You are invisible to the Border Patrol. You can see them; they cannot see you.”

A desert monument

A desert monument

Gabriel listens with interest. He said that when he was a child, his mother taught him to “disappear.”

“This is called shifting,” he said, “and it is something that parents teach their children in my culture.” He chuckled, and told me, “When my mother would call us kids in for supper, we would become stones and rocks. She couldn’t find us. We would disappear. We would shift to a different level of reality. We became invisible.”

“Well, maybe you just remained very still, and your mother couldn’t see you.”

“No,” my Yaqui friend responded. “It was more than that.”

Hiking to a sacred place

Hiking to a sacred place

When we reach the spot where the unknown woman died, we drop our backpacks and set to work. First digging a hole with a post-hole digger, we then collect small rocks and drop them into the cavity along with some cement and water. We carefully place the cross in the shallow pit of cement facing east toward the rising sun.

Standing in a circle around this spot, Gabriel leads us in a simple, profound ceremony of remembrance and hope. He smudges each of us with the smoke of the sweet-smelling sage. We try to focus our thoughts on this moment, and as the blue smoke rises upward enveloping our bodies, we send our prayers to this woman. I have already silently named her the Woman of Whetstone.

Smudging for purification, the Yaqui way

Smudging for purification, the Yaqui way

I try to imagine what she looked like. She was probably wearing jeans and ill-fitting shoes, and perhaps a jacket from one of the aid stations in Naco or Agua Prieta. Maybe I had handed this woman some shampoo and soap at el comedor in Nogales. We are less than a mile from Kartchner Caverns, and I wonder if this woman was trying to make it to the parking lot where there were people. You can see the trucks and cars moving along a highway from where we stand. There is civilization nearby. What was going on in her mind?

The Woman of Whetstone was probably a mother trying to earn enough money for her family. She risked her life to come to this country so she could feed her kids. Dreaming of a steady salary from Burger King or a housekeeping job, she wanted a warm safe bed for her children and food on the table. I would bet my life on it.

Gabriel leads us in a beautiful meditation to focus our intentions. First we face east; this is where the sun rises along with the birth of a new day and new life. Then we face south; this is where the sun warms the earth and seeds grow. This is where life unfolds and emerges. Next we turn to the west;  here the sun sets and old age creeps upon us. Lastly we face the north, where our bodies become cold and life ceases. Here we move on to the next dimension. We raise our faces to the sky and gaze at the heavens;  we kneel on the earth and hold the red desert dust.

Setting the cross near the Whetstone mountains

Setting the cross near the Whetstone mountains

The moment was emotional and transcendent. I think we all felt the presence of the Woman of Whetstone beside us. She was our desert vision, and in a strange way, I felt invisible. No one intruded on our pilgrimage. There were no Border Patrol agents checking us out, no helicopters, no one. We had all entered a different reality out here. The desert will do that.

Just when I felt a bit dizzy from the heat, a small breeze stirred and brought me back to this sacred place.  It was the Woman of Whetstone.

Hiking back to our cars, we were all silent.

Our government has failed us; immigration reform has been a dream just beyond our grasp. But this unknown migrant woman taught us humanitarian compassion. She brought a group of ten strangers together in fellowship and mystery.

She was not left behind.

Woman of Whetstone.  Presente! 

The Whetstone group

The Whetstone group


Alvaro Enciso is an artist in Tucson who has made it his mission to construct a cross for every body found in the Sonoran desert. That means he is creating over 2000 crosses. Thank you Alvaro for your dedication and for your beautiful crosses.  Tom Smelling lives near Douglas, Arizona, and is also constructing crosses for those bodies found in Cochise County.  http://www.gvnews.com/news/at-the-cross-fallen-migrants-remembered-in-the-desert/article_5c930818-db15-11e4-9c42-fb923c8c0ca0.html

Peg Bowden has written a book, A Land of Hard Edges, available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog. Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. The website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity. The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Guatemala: The Color and Passion

•April 22, 2015 • 9 Comments

A woman with her textiles

A woman with her textiles

It is 3 AM and I roll over, fumbling in the dark for my iPhone alarm as it erupts with incongruous church bell sounds—a clanging that awakens me from my dream. For a moment, I don’t know where I am. It is Good Friday, and I remind myself that I am in Antigua, Guatemala, with my friend, Sister Judy Bourg. We are here to participate in the festivities of semana santa (Holy Week), and the action starts in the middle of the night.  The last time I awoke at 3 AM was to nurse an infant, and that was a long time ago.

Judy and Peg in the garden, Antigua, Guatemala

Judy and Peg in the garden, Antigua, Guatemala

My first fuzzy thoughts this early morning are that arising at 3 AM is a little crazy, given that we are two women traveling in one of the most dangerous countries in the world (according to US State Department warnings). It is pitch black outside, and we will be sitting ducks walking the streets at this hour.

Good Friday and the women of Antigua

Good Friday and the women of Antigua

I throw some clothes on, and take a lot of deep breaths. Our humble hostel does not provide coffee until 7 AM.

I. Must. Wake. Up.

We both enter the street and are met by Roman soldiers on horseback, equine hooves clattering on the cobblestones.  The costumed soldiers juggle their spears as they text on their cell phones. Groups of men dressed in purple satin robes line up in preparation for their part in this Passion Play, while thousands of the faithful head toward the main plaza to view the processions of Holy Week. Immediately my fears subside. I feel no danger here. Instead, I am swept up in the throng of children, parents, and travelers who have come to witness this spectacle of color, drama, music, and art.

The streets are filled with copal, the incense of Holy Week

The streets are filled with copal, the incense of Holy Week

I see artists on their hands and knees constructing the alfombras—the carpets of exuberant color and design created on the cobblestone streets.  Brightly hued sawdust, flowers, grasses, and vegetables make up the palette. All city traffic stops for the next 18 hours while people create tapestries of beauty in these climactic days of semana santa. The art is transient.  It will disappear when the processions slowly trample over the intricate designs later in the day.

Alfombras with birds

Alfombras with birds

Judy and I spot an espresso shop and we both sip the miracle of caffeine. I never had a bad cup of coffee anywhere in Guatemala—from the tiniest outdoor vendor to the barista preparing the cappuccinos and mochas. A woman sells me a delicious empañada, filled with pineapple, warm from the oven. We munch on this goodness while waiting for the procession, listening for the mournful dirge of the timpani and the slow ponderous music of the band. It is 3:45 AM, and there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be than standing in this crowd on Good Friday.  I feel safe, nurtured, warm, and alive.  And very awake.

Watching the creation of the alfombras, the street tapestries of Antigua.

Watching the creation of the alfombras, the street tapestries of Antigua

Children help create the alfombras

Children help create the alfombras

In most of Latin America, the big day during semana santa is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion. The focus seems to be on the trial and suffering of Jesus during the last days of his life. Easter Sunday and the message of the risen Christ are almost an afterthought. There are no Easter bunnies and colored eggs in Guatemala. Holy Week builds toward the drama of Good Friday.

Timpani set the cadence

Timpani set the cadence

Warming our hands around hot cups of coffee, Judy and I wait in the darkness for the dramatic procession to begin. Men and boys in their purple hooded robes fill the streets swinging incense holders of copal, and a pungent smoke fills the air. It is a purple haze of people scurrying in preparation for the processions.  A faint distant drum beat penetrates the early morning darkness, and soon I hear a funereal march played by a band of musicians dressed in black. The timpani sets the tempo, and the two copper drums are pulled on a cart as the timpanist walks behind, keeping a slow, steady cadence.

Christ and the cross

Christ and the cross

Then come the andas—the floats carrying Christ, followed by his mother, Mary. Eighty or more men struggle carrying an anda weighing over 1000 pounds.  The float sways back and forth precariously.  The faces of the men grimace under the weight. Women dressed in black carry the anda of Mary, Christ’s mother. Their faces are solemn, devoted, and focused.  They are in another world.

Women carry the Blessed Mother

Women carry the Blessed Mother

The whole spectacle creates an emotional impact that takes me totally by surprise. The expressions of the men struggling to carry the anda seem to reflect the suffering Christ as he carries the cross. It doesn’t matter if you believe this Christian story of pain and redemption. The drama of the music, the andas, and the faces of the suffering touch a deep chord. The audience is hushed. People are in tears.

Peg and the alfombra in Antigua

Peg and the alfombra in Antigua

I am not a person to dwell on the suffering and agony of Christ’s death on the cross. My idea of Easter Week is more in line with the “Hallelujah, He is Risen” spectrum of things. But I was dumbstruck by the intense emotion of the semana santa procession. The facial countenance of the men and women carrying the andas says it all. Life is damn hard. And suffering is a part of it. We won’t sugar coat this. We will persevere.

Woman of Antigua   (photo:  Judy Bourg)

A face of Guatemala       (photo: Judy Bourg)

I have no answers to the suffering I see in the world. Witnessing the trauma each week at the comedor often silences me. I have no words. The images stay with me. The migrants are frightened and often alone.

And yet, their sheer doggedness and oftentimes blundering attempts to cross the border wall and get to a better place humble me. Many people make it.  Many don’t.  Their anguish somehow makes them stronger. Even time spent in US detention centers builds strength and determination. People change when faced with danger and suffering. The courage of the migrants transcends their suffering.

Procession through the market of Chichicastenango

Procession through the market of Chichicastenango


A monk and his iPad

A monk and his iPad

The people of Guatemala and all of Latin America understand the dynamic of suffering and strength far better than I. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, explores the idea that there is meaning in suffering.  He makes the point that suffering is a part of life, as is love and death. Life is not complete without these things.

"More poetry, less police"--graffiti in Guatemala City

“More poetry, less police”–graffiti in Guatemala City

I think of Frankl, and his survival of the Nazi death camps.  I think of the passion and creative expression of the people of Guatemala. But most of all, I think of my migrant friends crossing the desert of Arizona, doing their best to survive and preserve their human dignity.

Women in the market

Women in the market

They are all my heroes on this Good Friday.

Children of Chichi

Children of Chichi

My book, A Land of Hard Edges, is now available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  The website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity.  The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com


Free Speech and The Man From Guerrero

•January 20, 2015 • 11 Comments

I met a man at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, a few weeks ago—a student from Guerrero, Mexico, the state where 43 missing students at a teacher’s college are presumed dead. The young man was gaunt, malnourished, exhausted, and he knew no one in the United States. He was preparing himself for the journey northward, fleeing for his life. He was traveling alone. When I asked him why he was on the run, he looked at me with fear in his eyes.

“I saw things,” was his answer.

"Sassy," a little girl looking for a place to be.

“Sassy,” a little girl looking for a place to be.

I pressed him for more information. He just shook his head and stared into the room of bustling activity as the Samaritans were clearing the breakfast tables. He looked like he was afraid to speak. My young acquaintance needed a shower, clean jeans, and some decent shoes. I told him about the dangers of crossing our desert—the extreme cold temperatures, the federal agents that would be hunting for him, the fear and loathing that so many Americans have toward migrants heading north. He spoke very little English, but somehow we connected. He asked for a clean pair of socks.

I asked him what kind of work he did in Guerrero. He told me he was a college student studying to be an engineer, but could do construction work.  I told him, “Cuidado.” Be careful. The desert is a dangerous place. He replied, “It will be better than Guerrero.”

He crossed himself several times, picked up a packet of soap and a toothbrush, and was out the door.

Victoria and the wall

Victoria and the wall

And I have to confess that this kind of experience with a migrant both moves me and terrifies me. As much as I love Mexico, I cannot ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and Central America do not trust the police, their government, or the renegade lawlessness of the drug cartels. In fact, many believe that they are one and the same. This young college student believes that he may lose his life if he reports the things he saw in Guerrero.

I think about him each day, and whisper little half-prayers to the winds and to God. He is closer to my idea of a decent human being than most of the members of Congress.

He prefers taking his chances in the Sonoran desert. Free speech has a price in Mexico.

Samaritans stirring the pot

Samaritans stirring the pot

I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech and its implications since the recent massacre of journalists and cartoonists in the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo or seen any of the cartoons before this incident. To be honest, I was repulsed and shocked by some of the drawings; most of them I simply didn’t understand. Finding the caricatures crude and puzzling, I decided that the humor was a cultural anomaly–a French thing–and France was diving into areas that some Americans would label as hateful, racist and anti-religious. Charlie Hebdo reminded me of Mad Magazine, the radical rag of my youth.

Clean clothes and hope

Clean clothes and hope

Free speech in a democratic society is often messy and provocative. Frequently things get dirty and uncomfortable. We try to organize our complex world, but the best we can do is sketch out a crude map of life from our own particular vantage point. Cartoons, if they are good, often distill this complexity into a few simple drawings, a few words, that deliver deeper truths.

I applaud satire and artists who push the envelope and make me think. They peel away the comfortable layers of my civilized world, often exposing the very things that hold my life together. In a perfect world, artists should be able to create freely and not be restrained by social mores. They should give you a punch in the gut.  I would like to say that I defend the right of free speech and the expression of all ideas, no matter how uncomfortable.  But this is probably not altogether true.  I draw the line at child pornography, incitement to violence, libelous statements, and probably a few other things I haven’t thought of.

As much as I crave order and simplicity and truth, the politics of free speech are murky.

Shoes that fit

Shoes that fit

This is not a perfect world. If a cartoon or article is provocative and offensive to some, it is impossible to predict what will happen. This is the unfortunate state of the world today. Artists and journalists were martyred in Paris for their expression of free speech. They took a risk and they died.

No one should die for a cartoon. No one should die for writing a book. Violence toward another human should not be part of the equation.

But it is.

I honor and respect the artists’ right to express whatever they choose, even if I find the art odious and offensive. Artists and writers must make a choice; there may be freedom of speech, but unfortunately, there may also be consequences.  We take our chances.

Luis, my unstoppable newspaper vendor

Luis, my unstoppable newspaper vendor

So here is my truth: The world has always been embroiled in some destructive crisis somewhere. What keeps it from caving in is our desire not to die, and the miracle of being alive in the midst of it all. In fact, it is a miracle we keep things going at all.  We muddle through, in spite of the massacres, the graft, and the economic disparity.

So if you need to pick a side in this debate about immigration, or Islamic extremism, or free speech, or Republicans and Democrats, pick the side of respect and connection. And if you can’t respect those on the other side, at least try to listen and see them as a human being, and not an abstract idea.  Let robust dialogue and a free exchange of ideas be loud and fierce, no matter how repugnant. Keep your mind open to the views you hate to hear. Try and understand people you least relate to. Let the cartoons open your mind; feel free to close the page on some.

It is never easy, but it is better than murder.

Squash for dinner

Squash for dinner


My book, A Land of Hard Edges, is now available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com. I will be doing presentations and book signings at the following venues:

Feb. 5, 2015, the Tumacacori Mission, Tumacacori, Arizona, 12:30-2 PM

Feb. 13, 2015, Green Valley League of Women Voters, La Posada at Park Center, Green Valley, AZ., Madera Room, 12 noon.

Feb. 21, 2015, Lutheran Church of the Foothills, 5102 N. Craycroft Rd., Tucson, AZ., 10 AM

March 8, 2015, Global Arts Gallery, Patagonia, AZ., 12-5 PM. Open house with refreshments, book reading and signing at 2 PM.

March 15, 2015, Tucson Festival of Books, University of Arizona campus, Modern Languages Building, Room 350, 1-2 PM

March 19, 2015, Democratic Club, Sedona, AZ. Breakfast meeting.


Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity.  The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

Continue reading ‘Free Speech and The Man From Guerrero’

Chuck, mi hermano

•September 14, 2014 • 10 Comments

Charles Bowden, my sweet, irascible, intense, tender, brilliant brother died unexpectedly on August 30, 2014, at 5 PM while taking a nap. He had not been feeling well for a few weeks, claiming he had a touch of the flu. His partner and co-author, Molly Molloy, found him in his bed not breathing. Chuck was living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after spending most of his adult life in Tucson. He wrote books—lots of them—and his words are his legacy.

This is my song to Chuck.

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                                             Chuck and a giant tree     (photo:  Molly Molloy)

The Bowden family moved to Arizona from Chicago in 1957. My Dad, a retired attorney, told the neighbors that he had discovered buckets of gold in the Arizona mountains: He was a private person and didn’t want his Chicago friends to know his reasons for uprooting the family. My mother told neighbors that the move was due to my childhood asthma. Truth be told, the asthma was improving before the move; the real reason was that Dad had a lifelong interest in the West, and actually pushed to move to Tombstone. Thankfully, my mother insisted on Tucson, and we found a house close to the University of Arizona. After a childhood in Chicago, climbing the mountains by day and seeing the Arizona sky at night was right out of a Zane Grey novel. I remember swimming in a motel pool our first Christmas in Tucson, and mailing photos back to the relatives in Iowa and Minnesota. (We were freezing in the pool but did it anyway.) There were three of us kids–George, Peggy, and Chuckie, the youngest. Now there are only two.


                                          Peggy, George and Chuck, 1949

A lot has been written about Chuck in major newspapers throughout the country these past days. The Chuck our family knew was quick-witted, exasperating at times, a precocious reader, and passionate about what interested him. We were all good kids: We did the chores, respected our parents, and grabbed onto this new life in the Arizona desert. In our house there was never any back talk. Our parents’ word was law. We argued, yes, about politics, religion, and who could drive the car on a certain night.

Chuck and I went to elementary school in Chicago. In Tucson, Chuck attended Mansfeld Junior High, Tucson High, and the University of Arizona. He drove his teachers crazy. Rarely reading the assignments, he delved instead into the literature and history that interested him. Our father, an agnostic, was a scholar of the Bible and Shakespeare, and he tutored us in the elegant words and poetry of both. Dad would sit at the kitchen table with tears in his eyes as he read the soliloquies of Shakespeare to us. We tried our best to understand.

Chuck Bowden, Tucson High graduation, 1963

Chuck Bowden, Tucson High graduation, 1963

When we were children in Chicago (Chuck was 9, I was 11), we pooled our allowance and enrolled in a classical music mail-order program; we got two vinyl records each month for $10, or $5 apiece. This was a big commitment for us, and we both had to work around the house to earn the money. Chuck and I would lie on the floor by the speakers and turn up the stereo full bore, listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Pictures at an Exhibition and the symphonies of Beethoven, trying to comprehend what made them great. Later, Chuck’s love of all musical genres was often a focus of conversation between us. Who was the better poet/songwriter—Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen? (We agreed that Cohen nailed it.)

Chuck with our children, Sage and Cheyenne Weil, 1984

Chuck with my children, Sage and Cheyenne Weil, 1984

Chuck loved to cook, and Italian cuisine was a favorite. He taught me to prepare risotto, making sure I never put the cover on the pan. “Always stir the rice, adding the broth little by little. Trust the Italians. They know food.” Dinners with Chuck were always an event—a decent red wine, maybe something off the grill, and talk far into the night. When I was recovering from a serious illness, Chuck drove up to Oregon with his dog, Sam, and cooked for me. My freezer was full of osso bucco and special soups. He was working on an article about photographs, and we had long conversations about how images affect us in deep ways, sometimes forever.

Chuck, Peg and George in 1967

Chuck, Peg and George in 1967

Chuck became involved in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, and was a member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was on fire about the people he met and sat in Fannie Lou Hamer’s living room in 1967 discussing voter registration and nonviolent protest. Hamer impressed upon Chuck the relationship of racism, sexism, violence and economic injustice, and how all of these factors intersect to keep poor people down. She called him a “white cracker boy,” and he was highly amused by her teasing. Chuck wrote me a letter at that time, pleading with me to join him, as there was a clinic that needed nurses and I was a recent graduate RN from the University of Arizona. I always regretted not jumping in my car and driving to Mississippi.

I believe that Chuck’s life-long interest in those who are trapped behind the walls of racism, poverty, and our fears about who is getting a piece of the pie began in the living room of Fannie Lou Hamer. He told me she was almost totally blind from being beaten by the police while registering people to vote, and yet she saw this country more clearly than any other person he knew.

My children, Cheyenne and Sage Weil, and Chuck explaining god knows what

My children, Cheyenne and Sage Weil, and Chuck explaining god knows what.  “You follow?”

For the record, Chuck hated NAFTA, the maquiladora program, and the wall that separates us from Mexico. He was unequivocal about this, firmly believing that NAFTA protects the property rights and coffers of corporations, while workers’ rights are ignored. The war on drugs is really the war FOR drugs, and he wrote about these things years before the public listened. I will quote him: “I am tired of people saying they demand a solution. They are lying. What they demand is that nothing change in their lives; that when the sky goes black from smokestacks, someone whip up a witches brew of nuclear magic; that when the rivers go dry, someone suck salt from sea water and ship the pure flow to their house.”

Chuck found solace in birds and spent many months in Patagonia, Arizona watching the swoops and dives of hummingbirds. He told me once, “There is a whole universe out there that is invisible to 99% of the people on earth. It is a layer of reality that people ignore. No one notices the birds.” He went on, “You look at a bird, identify it, and feel like you’re a better person.”

Chuck birding near the border fence

Chuck birding near the border fence  (photo:  Molly Molloy)

As an adult, Chuck was an avid bicyclist and hiker, at times embarking on death marches across the Arizona desert. He chronicled these experiences in several books, and the family worried about him when he would disappear for weeks. I think he figured that if he was going to write about mass migration of peoples coming north, he needed to feel what this desperation was. He told me he felt guilty when he finished a trek with a steak dinner and a cold beer in some roadside cafe, adding that he had seen people who probably wouldn’t make it out of the desert inferno.

Chuck has a son, Jesse, who is a lot like his Dad–curious about things he doesn’t understand, articulate, and reflective. We are all reeling in the aftermath of this sudden loss to our family. As Jesse told me, “Everyone thinks that Dad is this great iconic literary giant. To me, he was just my Dad.

Chuck and Molly (center) as desert angels at a fundraiser for Pastor Galvan

Chuck and Molly (center) as desert angels at a fundraiser for Pastor Galvan

My brother’s relationship with our family was strained for many years. He simply quit communicating. The last few years, however, Chuck and I had resumed email contact about his fascination with birds, about my own involvement in border issues, and always about his latest writing project. He and his companion, Molly, planned to speak at the annual Samaritan Border Issues Conference in January, and they were going to stay with my husband and me on our ranch. We were going to have a great dinner, probably risotto, and a special red wine. But mostly we were going to talk and talk far into the night.

He left me far too soon.

This tribute appeared in the Green Valley News, Sept. 14, 2014.
Other tributes to Charles Bowden have appeared in the following links:

No Words

•August 22, 2014 • 10 Comments

For two months I have struggled with what to write on this blog. I kept waiting for the world to look better. I needed some light in what seemed like a perpetual storm of blackness.

It started with the Central American children coming by the thousands to the US border asking for shelter and refuge. So we built holding centers that looked like cages in order to house them while we figured out what to do. Many of these little ones are being deported back to their home country as I write this. We are scolding them for making a harrowing 2000 mile trip on a train known as “The Beast,” and then returning them to the hell they are fleeing.

Little helper at the comedor

Little helper at the comedor

Then there was an assault on a shelter for Central American migrants in Nogales, Sonora, by masked gunmen wearing police uniforms. At 11 PM in mid-summer, the migrants were awakened from their beds, their cell phones and money were stolen at gunpoint, and they were stripped of their clothes. They were forced to lie on the floor face down. Six children were terrorized by the police with guns raised to their faces. The assault is under investigation, and the Kino Border Initiative is pushing for answers.

Morning greetings at the comedor

Morning greetings

The drama in Ferguson, Missouri, continues today, with the police wielding weapons more suited for war than peace-keeping. An unarmed African American teenager was shot by a white police officer in a black community, and tensions are high. There is rioting and protest demonstrations on the streets of Ferguson. The photos look like we are back in 1967 again.

Gaza extremists and Israel continue to communicate with rockets and gunfire. Thousands are dead and wounded. Neither are ready to talk. Madness reigns.

The US journalist, James Foley, missing almost two years, was recently beheaded in Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS) adding to the carnage that is on every front page in the country.  Killing journalists who are printing the truth of what they see is not new.  This has been happening in Mexico for years.  A special prosecutor in Mexico admits to 67 journalist deaths since 2006.

Samaritan nurse Diane and a pilgrim

Samaritan nurse Diane and a pilgrim

And then there was the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, which has nothing to do with the political and humanitarian events of the planet.  But it just hit me in the gut.  I loved the guy, and marveled at his speed and irreverence and kindness and complexity.  He was a whirling dervish onstage, and left me breathless with laughter.

World events are definitely out of my control. I cannot read about it anymore. Maybe this is what burnout feels like—that feeling of being pummeled by hot ash from some volcano in my own backyard.

There is something to be said about walking every Tuesday to the comedor in Nogales and serving up the kitchen miracles of chef Lupita to a roomful of hungry migrants. The food is good, the smells are intoxicating, and the migrants are appreciative. The Samaritans are doing something concrete and useful.

Samaritan Julie, Lupita, and the Mexican lasagna

Samaritan Julie, Lupita, and the Mexican lasagna

Eat, drink, pray, and dance. Today there is dance, and a man from Hawaii with a bright red kerchief on his head does a fancy 2-step with Samaritan Shura. Padre Samuel strums his guitar and the room is alive with song and clapping. The man from Hawaii has lived on the islands for 16 years, was picked up for a minor violation, and deported. He will return to his home in Mexico for now and figure out what is next for him.

Living in the moment

Living in the moment

Many of the pilgrims this week are from Central America. They will either stay in Nogales or attempt to cross into the US to find their families. There are children and babies and mothers and fathers and teenagers looking for a better life than the one they have left in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They are scared, hopeful and determined. The children need a bath. I want to brush their tangled hair. I want to take them home with me. They are adorable as they squeal and chase the resident cat around the tables and chairs. Everyone’s spirits are lifted when the toddlers are running about.

Sister Alicia, Father Samuel, and Sister Engracia sing for joy

Sister Alicia, Father Samuel, and Sister Engracia sing for joy

I’m also pleased to announce that my book is in the marketplace, at last. The book, A Land of Hard Edges, is available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It is the story of my experiences at el comedor over a one year period—my reflections on the power of love and family that drives people into the treacherous landscapes of southern Arizona.

A Land of Hard Edges

A Land of Hard Edges

So I’ll keep walking the mile to el comedor each Tuesday with my Samaritan colleagues. We will pass out the breakfast, tend to the blistered feet of the pilgrims, and listen to their stories.

Just keep moving

Just keep moving

I think the secret to a life of fulfillment is just putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. No matter how crappy you feel.  Do something you believe in, and your life will matter.

Or as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”


Locally in Arizona I will be doing some book readings and signings.  On Sept. 13, at 2 PM, I will be at the Tubac Presidio in Tubac, AZ.  On Nov. 14 I will be at Antigone’s Bookstore in Tucson at 7 PM.  On Nov. 16 I will be at Hozhoni’s Bookstore in Tubac, AZ. at 1 PM.

I’ll be on a book tour in the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Olympia and Tacoma, Washington, and finally Ashland, Oregon, my home for over two decades. So if you’re in the neighborhood, I’ll be at Pacific Lutheran University (1 PM)  and Immanuel Presbyterian Church (7 PM) in Tacoma on Sept. 16; then King’s Bookstore in Tacoma, Sept. 17. (7 PM)

Bloomsbury Bookstore in Ashland, Oregon, will host a signing and reading on Sept. 23 at 7 PM.


Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list.

The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending. Their website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com

The Children

•June 19, 2014 • 17 Comments

I took a walk in the desert this morning and saw my first mal mujer, or wicked woman—a flower that blooms in the hottest days of summer shortly before the welcoming monsoon rains. It is a curious flower, with lush green leaves and a beautiful pristine white flower. If you touch the leaves your fingers are full of nettles which can sting for hours. Mal mujer is a fitting metaphor for the events of the past weeks.

Mal mujer, a flower of the desert

Mal mujer, a flower of the desert

There is a stinging pain which touches the hearts of the people of the borderlands as they watch the drama of thousands of children fleeing for their lives from Central America. The children are young, innocent and pure.  Just like the white flower of the mal mujer flower.  An unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors are crossing into the US;  most are from Central America.  An old storage facility in Nogales, Arizona is presently the temporary home for over 1000 children.

And we tell ourselves, well, it is better that they are sheltered and safe in a warehouse. Perhaps.

And we convince ourselves that better days are coming for these children. Perhaps.

They will be reunited with their parents.  They will be safe in loving arms. Perhaps.

Father and son

Father and son

The Samaritans volunteer weekly at the aid station in Nogales, Sonora, known as el comedor. We have a good sense of the numbers and population patterns that pass through this shelter. Since the federal agencies (Health and Human Services, FEMA, and Homeland Security) do not want local community humanitarian groups to be directly involved in the care of the children, I cannot give a first-hand account about what these kids are experiencing.  It has been both perplexing and confounding to be shut out of the warehouse which holds the children.

Yesterday, June 18, a group of journalists were allowed access to the compound at the Border Patrol station for the first time. Their reports were sobering. This is not summer camp for these youngsters. This is a tragedy. The place looks like a prison—another detention center—and the prisoners are over 1000 children. Their physical needs are being taken care of;  their emotional, spiritual and recreational needs are not. I am told the children look tired, sad, and depressed. Many are in tears.

Two young men from Honduras

Two young men from Honduras at el comedor

I’ve been naïve and trusting before about too many things: the Iraq war, the surge in Afghanistan, Wall Street bailouts, even Lance Armstrong. So forgive me if my gut tells me that there are too many secrets within the walls of the warehouse in Nogales. My mind wants to believe that DHS, FEMA and HHS are handling things just fine; but my gut is telling me to be wary. I get emotional about all of those children.

A more objective historic account of the migration of Central Americans to el norte is accurately reported by a friend and colleague, Joanna Foote. Her factual explanations are worth reading. Check out: http://fromlafrontera.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/beyond-the-sound-bites-unaccompanied-minors-on-the-usmexico-border/

I also highly recommend Juanita Molina’s account of her visit to the warehouse on June 18. See:  http://borderaction.org/border-action-networks-tour-of-the-nogales-national-placement-center/

My account is probably less nuanced and more emotional. It’s personal.

a father looking for his son

a father looking for his son

In southern Arizona there are local humanitarian aid groups that have been working effectively with issues of immigration for years. They have trained personnel that are trusted members of the community. Their track record is exemplary, and far superior to the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol, and FEMA in terms of violence toward migrants and responsiveness to humanitarian crises.  Reports of abuse toward women and children from Border Patrol agents and ICE have been well documented in the past.  I have personally seen and experienced rude, impersonal and sometimes shocking behavior from both ICE and Border Patrol agents over the past several years. So why has the government placed these agencies in charge of 1000 vulnerable children in a warehouse in Nogales?

I understand the need for security and protection toward displaced children. However the secretiveness and black-out of information of these federal agencies breed suspicion and rumors when you are on the outside. There is no collaboration or networking with the locals who have lived for years with immigration issues involving children.


Picking out some clothes at el comedor

Picking out some clothes at el comedor with Samaritan Ray

Father Sean Carroll, the Executive Director of Kino Border Initiative, was allowed into the Border Patrol compound last week. He saw many of the children, but was not allowed the opportunity to speak with them and assess their situation in any depth. Physically they look pretty good, he reports, and have their basic needs met. They are receiving three meals a day and snacks in between. There is a playground and tent area set up for recreation, (45 minutes of playtime each day) and the children have television access and telephones if they know how to reach family members.

The federal agencies have responded quickly to the situation. I applaud them for their efforts. I know there are some real heroes working with these kids. And most likely there are some agents who have no business being around children. The children will be processed through the Nogales warehouse facility, and then moved to another location. Where they go next is unknown to the public.

I don’t know what “processed” means. Will the children be reunited with family members here in the US? Or will they be deported back to their home country from which they fled? Will they be left at a bus station in some city and left to fend for themselves, as I have read in numerous media accounts?  If no one can find a close relative, will they be held indefinitely?

Children drawing at el comedor

Children drawing at el comedor

Here is what I do know:

The numbers of men, women and children fleeing Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) have been increasing at the comedor.  This is nothing new.

Children as young as twelve years old are often seen getting ready to cross into the desert without an adult or parent. They tell us that they are fleeing for their lives. They speak of gangs, poverty and violence. Sometimes they are fiercely resolute and brave; often they are crying quietly off in a corner. A young man from El Salvador told me that he had seen friends killed by gangs in his home village.

Many are planning to cross into the US in order to reunite with a parent or family member. They have a plan. They are not wandering aimlessly. They have a destination. Children want to see their mothers, their fathers. Their sense of miles and direction are hopeless. They tell me that they have no choice.

Supplies for the journey

Supplies for the journey

Juanita Molina, of the Border Action Network, was allowed access into the compound in Nogales yesterday, June 18. She writes of a little girl from Guatemala, age 7, who was crying, standing apart from the other children. She told Juanita, “I am lost and no one knows I am here. My mother will never find me.” The child was inconsolable. Juanita told this child that she will not forget her and will do everything she can to help find her mother.  I cannot get the words of this child out of my mind.

The children are traumatized and many have traveled via the infamous train, la bestia (the beast), which runs through Mexico to the US border. Many have been robbed, beaten and raped. They sit quietly at the comedor, eat their breakfast, and stare into space. A young man from Honduras, age 15, told me that he had been traveling for one month in order to reach the US border. He wants to reach Los Angeles where his family lives.

Several weeks ago, one child at the comedor, maybe age 12, drew a picture of his capture in the desert by the Border Patrol. His crayon drawing showed a bush where his uncle was hiding; it showed helicopters and cactus and mountains. In the middle of the drawing the child drew himself with a “soldier who put his boot on my head.” The child was pinned to the ground by a Border Patrol agent who held him in place with his boot, digging his face into the dirt.

Baby at el comedor

Baby at el comedor

One 14 year old from Honduras had not seen his mother in six years. He was on his way to Kansas, traveling alone through Mexico to reach the US border. He was strong, resolved, and determined when I spoke with him. Samaritans warned him of the desert in summer and the miles he must walk to reach the nearest town. He shrugged and gave a shy smile. Connecting with several other young men, he planned to continue his journey with them. He just might make it. Many do.

The news media give conflicting reports about the increased numbers of children crossing. Some news articles suggest there is a conspiracy. The US policy makers are somehow encouraging the children to come in order to create chaos and disruption at the border. (http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/061314-704725-texas-border-immigration-wave-may-well-be-orchestrated.htm)

a child's story

A child’s story

The media and talk show pundits are taking a humanitarian disaster and using it for political advantage. There are the anti-Obama rants claiming that a lax immigration policy is the reason for this tragedy. (even though Obama has deported more undocumented migrants than any President in the past.) This whole scenario disgusts me.

The migrants I have seen the past few weeks have no idea that there is a surge of children crossing the border into the US through south Texas. The notion that these children are aware of US policies regarding the possibility of leniency and asylum if they are caught by the authorities is ludicrous. When I mention the large numbers of children in a Nogales warehouse, the migrants at the comedor do not know what I am talking about.

And yet it is plausible that migrants talk to each other and compare notes. Who did you cross with? How much did it cost? Where is the easiest place to get over the wall? If you’re caught, what happens?

People ask me why I continue going down to Mexico each week to serve breakfast to the migrants at el comedor. I think it comes down to this. We have eye contact and often share a hug. We look at each other. We physically and emotionally touch each other. We shake hands and share a laugh. We don’t look away when we talk about life experiences. I feel connected with these people at this crossroads to their journey. For once I am waiting on them, serving food, and looking at their wounds, instead of them waiting on me.

Peg and a chef from Bakersfield

Peg and a chef from Bakersfield

Latinos in the US often live in the shadows and are invisible in this country. They care for our children, pull the weeds in our gardens, clean our houses, scrub out the toilets in our hotel rooms, and stand on the fringes of our fancy fund-raising events making sure we are happy and comfortable. They do this quietly and graciously.

And we never have eye contact. They are on the outside, on the fringes. They have learned to be invisible.

I need a connection with people before I can truly be of any assistance. We all do. And this is why it is so frustrating to be kept on the outside of this human tragedy at the Nogales warehouse.

A traveling pilgrim receives first aid from Samaritan Diane and KBI volunteer, Leslie.

A traveling pilgrim receives first aid from Samaritan Diane and KBI volunteer, Leslie.


Americans like to help. I receive calls and emails about where to send boxes of clothes for the children. Where is the best place to send a check?

I suggest sending cash donations to the following humanitarian organizations. The money will go directly to the issues facing migrants both in the US and at the aid station in Mexico where I volunteer. Send checks to:

Kino Border Initiative, P.O. Box 159, Nogales, Arizona, 85628

Green Valley Samaritans. Make check out to: Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, 17750 S. La Canada, Sahuarita, AZ. 85629. In the memo, put “GV Samaritans.”

The plight of the children trying to cross into the US is not going away soon. The media will tire of it and move on to the next world crisis. The question is whether we can mobilize as a country and commit to a profound change in US immigration policy, respecting the dignity and humanity of children fleeing for their lives.


Please direct your comments to the “Comments” section of this blog.

Peg can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

The photos of children in this posting are several years old and were taken at el comedor in Nogales, Sonora.  They are not photos of children presently held in the warehouse in Nogales, Arizona.

The Folks Across the Fence

•May 8, 2014 • 7 Comments

I’ve had a fantasy about living in a small Mexican town and immersing myself in the daily rhythms and rituals. Would I feel safe? Would I have fun? Would I hide out in my rented apartment? Or would I venture out into the plaza and get to know the people? Would I make friends? Would I finally master something beyond the present tense verbs of the Spanish language?

Dawn in San Carlos

Dawn in San Carlos

I love Mexico, and want to feel safe as a woman traveling beyond the border. I want to check out those incredible beaches along the Sea of Cortez; I want to sit in a cantina overlooking a plaza and listen to soft guitars strumming the old love ballads, sipping a tequila.

But, it’s complicated. As a country, we are caught in a warm, but menacing embrace with our neighbors to the south. We love the food of Mexico. Oh my god, do we love the smells of real Mexican cuisine with a chaser of ice cold Mexican beer. We love the drugs, and spend billions smuggling them into our country. Then we spend billions on a wall and on law enforcement keeping them out. We are crazed with the militarization and polemic of keeping our borders secure. And yet dope is cheaper and easier to obtain in US cities than twenty years ago (or so I’m told). The collateral damage of the war on drugs has done more harm than the drugs themselves. 80,000 are dead in Mexico as a direct result of the drug wars.  I see the collateral damage weekly at el comedor when I talk with migrants heading north, or recovering from a stint in the Florence Detention Center.

Our films and music have a strong Latino flavor. Our homes are decorated with images of the Virgen de Guadalupe and colorful rebozos and serapes. We spend a fortune on remodeling our bathrooms and kitchens with Mexican tiles and marble. We are so connected with Mexico, and so hypocritical in our actions.

Looking inward

Looking inward

My family and friends employ Latinos to care for their children, clean their houses, tend their gardens, and wash their dishes. I have personally hired housekeepers to help with the clean up of our ranch house. Always they were hard-working Mexican women. I have a friend in the restaurant industry in New York City. He tells me that the industry would collapse overnight if the Mexican workers were to walk out. Especially the undocumented. He cannot afford to hire workers with a Green Card, and is only able to keep his three restaurants alive by hiring the undocumented, paying them slightly above the minimum wage. Often he has sponsored them on the long and arduous path toward citizenship.

The same goes for the hospital industry. Latinos care for our sick and elderly, and we are lucky to have them at our bedside. They pray for us and care for us as if we were their own family.

If I have a flat tire at the side of the road, it is invariably a Mexican family in a dented pickup truck that stops, offers to change my tires, and shares some warm tortillas and water with me.

Kitty and the wall in Mexico

Kitty and a wall in Mexico

So why don’t we embrace this exotic, fascinating, nuanced, multifaceted Mexico?  Why are we hell-bent on kicking out the “illegals?”

I plunged into a journey into Mexico during the month of April with a woman friend, Trudy, from Buffalo, New York. Oh my, how she wanted to get out of the cold and sleet of Buffalo. I wanted to dig deeper into Mexican culture and get away from the border. We drove down to Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, an old silver mining pueblo about nine hours from the Arizona border city of Nogales. As a teenager I had visited Alamos with a church group from Tucson. I never forgot the charm of this city, and decided to return. My Buffalo friend was up for the adventure, not quite sure what she was getting into. But she was sure the temperatures would be warmer than Buffalo.

Church of La Purisma de la Concepcion, Alamos

Church of La Purisma de Concepcion,  Alamos

We drove to San Carlos, the first leg of the journey, and stayed in the home of a friend who has a lovely getaway residence on the Sea of Cortez. San Carlos is an easy 4 1/2 hour drive from the Nogales border. The highways are well maintained and the scenery is quite beautiful. The beaches and coastline of Mexico rival anywhere in the world. The water was blue, the dolphins were jumping, and our time in San Carlos was idyllic and peaceful.

Then we headed off to Alamos and our rental house that I found online. On the way we passed up the immigration car registration office (poor signage) outside of the small town of Empalme and had to stop, ask where the office was, and were graciously redirected to the correct office, doubling back 20 miles. We needed a sticker for the car because we would be in Sonora for a month. Occasionally we misread road signs and got lost, but again, were kindly pointed in the right direction. We were two female septuagenarians wending our way through cities and countryside in a foreign land, and we never felt afraid. Confused, yes. Exasperated at times, yes. But never afraid.

Mountain top view of Alamos

Mountain top view of Alamos

Arriving in Alamos we were delighted and amazed with our accommodations. Our house was built in 1720 and was lovingly restored, with adobe walls that were two feet thick. The interior was twenty degrees cooler than the outside temperatures, which some days topped 100 degrees. There was a substantial library, comfortable beds, a colorful, well-stocked kitchen, and wooden shutters on the windows that blocked out the heat of the day. All rooms (and there were a lot of them) led to the central courtyard where we were dazzled with a lush garden and bubbling fountain. We took our afternoon siestas in the courtyard and ate our meals at the patio table.  We invited friends from Arizona to join us, Samaritan Jaime and his wife, Barb.

Peg, Jaime and Barb enjoying the Alamos courtyard

Peg, Jaime and Barb enjoying the Alamos courtyard

Our new home was one block from the central plaza, the social center of Alamos. A beautiful stone church graced the plaza gardens, and bells pealed each day for morning and evening mass. Easter was a four day religious festival, with processions, flowers, music, and vendors on the plaza. Thousands came from out of town for this celebration. Good Friday brought parades of silence and solemnity, and an enactment of the crucifixion on the plaza (in front of a sushi restaurant and cantina). Fake blood, Roman soldiers, and a young man portraying Christ nailed (make-believe nails) to the cross completed the scene. The silence and respect among the spectators was impressive. Merry making and loud music were juxtaposed with absolute silence when the passion of Christ was portrayed.

Good Friday in Alamos

Good Friday in Alamos

In fact, during our four weeks in Alamos, we never witnessed loud, drunken, obnoxious behavior. The cantinas and bars were places for families, with children and dogs running about. Music was everywhere. Men were out on the street in the early morning hours sweeping, and picking up trash and dog poop. The streets were immaculate in spite of the large throngs of people during semana santa.(Holy Week)  The middle class is strong and thriving in Alamos.

One night we were strolling home from the plaza. An old man with his walking stick slowly approached us on a narrow side street. His cowboy hat, jeans and sandals were silhouetted in the moonlight. He was hunched over his walking stick, moving with a slight limp. Singing in full voice an old Mexican ballad, he passed us by, never missing a beat as he meandered home, savoring the softness of the night. It was like a sweet dream of Mexico. And it was real.

Alamos arches

Alamos arches

On another walk through town we saw a woman sitting on the curb with her husband beside a ancient, beat-up truck. It was late in the evening, and their CD player was cranked up high echoing through the narrow street. Luciano Pavarotti was singing a classic aria from the opera, La Boheme. Tears were streaming down the woman’s face. She was a Mayo Indian, an indigenous person of this region, and was an excellent potter. I stopped to listen to the music, and she looked at me and exclaimed, “Isn’t this the most beautiful music you have ever heard?” She wiped her eyes self-consciously, and invited us to join her in listening to opera.

Mayo woman who loves opera and creating pottery

Mayo woman, a potter who loves opera

Alamos is known for its expatriate population, and many Americans have settled here restoring some of the old colonial architecture. We rarely saw them. My friend and I were the only gringas at the mercado shopping for our food, and Americans were conspicuously absent on the plaza and the surrounding streets. After a week everyone knew where we lived, where we shopped, and noticed that we loved to frequent a certain restaurant for an afternoon cafe latte and pastry. Our white hair was a flag that stuck out like a sore thumb. We discovered a special shop that sold only pork, raised and cured by the proprietor. I gestured with my fingers how thick I would like the bacon, and the butcher sliced the pork, always throwing in an extra slice or two. We feasted on the best bacon I have ever eaten. No chemicals or preservatives. The real deal.  And I don’t particularly like bacon, but this was a whole new genre.

The longer we stayed in Alamos, the more we peeled back the layers of this magical city. The town is self-sustaining. Few people leave or migrate north. There is poverty in Alamos, to be sure, but it is not readily visible. I noticed that several nonprofits gathered and prepared Easter baskets for the poor, with cans of food, diapers, toilet paper, and other essentials. I saw no one begging in the streets. The children played endlessly in the plaza with parents watching and snapping pictures with cell phones. The kids played circle games and stick ball. There were no video games or fancy battery toys. They played until they dropped, reminding me of my own childhood when I played outside with friends well after dark.

An Easter breakfast

An Easter breakfast

I attended a spring talent show for elementary school children, with a line-up of judges much like the TV show, American Idol. The children danced, sang songs of spring and true love, and the auditorium was packed with proud parents. Toddlers crawled beneath the folding chairs; dogs wandered in and out; mothers sold cups of papaya, pineapple and jicama with lime and chile powder sprinkled on top for the hungry audience.

The children of Alamos

The children of Alamos

I wanted to study Spanish during my Alamos visit. Dropping in at the local Tourist Office, I asked the receptionist about local Spanish teachers. She said, “If you like, you can just drop in here for an hour or two every day, and I’ll talk with you in Spanish and be your teacher.” So I did. Danitza was an excellent teacher; she assigned homework, pushed me into conversations using past tense verbs, and took me to community events where there were lots of people ready to converse. I met her six year old son, Ricardo, and learned of the school system and quality of education. I still struggle with future and past tense verbs, and those reflexive verbs still stop me cold. But by the end of the month my Spanish improved dramatically.

Easter eve in Alamos

Easter eve in Alamos

On our last night in Alamos, we discovered a restaurant, Doña Lola’s, that rivaled all the food we enjoyed during our month long stay. Finding this place was a challenge. It was at the end of a small narrow alley, and it was dark. With no street lights, we followed the sounds of music, mincing along on the cobblestone street. Sitting on a streetside curb, a group of men and women were singing in the moonlight, strumming a couple of guitars.  Children were playing stick ball although no one could see the ball. A couple of dogs were nosing around looking for scraps. The restaurant had one small sign barely visible to us, as there was only a dim light bulb announcing this establishment. We saw ladies chopping vegetables in a small kitchen area, and figured this must be the place.

We climbed up a steep cobblestone staircase and entered a faintly lit room with long tables covered in brightly colored oilcloth. The place was empty, as 7 PM is early for a Mexican supper. Ushered to a table, we were treated to fresh tortilla chips and the best salsa we had anywhere. And then came the most outstanding Mexican food of our Alamos visit—perfect fluffy chile rellenos, enchiladas, herbed rice, pinto beans, and a chicken soup. The ladies bustled around us in flowered aprons as we inhaled their offerings. Some meals you don’t forget. This was one of them. The ladies packed us a special bag of chips and salsa for our trip home. I think both meals plus chips and salsa came to $12 total, mas o menos.

Peg, Trudy, Jaime and Barb in the plaza

Peg, Trudy, Jaime and Barb in the plaza

Once again I settled back, sipped my drink, and marveled at what a wonderful country Mexico is. The soft music, the kids playing stick ball way after dark, and the Alamos hounds quietly prowling the streets minding their own business—all of it evoked a simple, deeply restful way to live a life.

I wanted to take a piece of this special night and plant it back in southern Arizona. I wanted to stay in Alamos and write a great novel (in Spanish–yeah, right), and paint some watercolors worthy of this beautiful place. I wanted to take the parts of Mexico that I love and somehow integrate them into my life in Arizona.

I am a dreamer. And I can hope.

Porches of Mexico

Porches of Mexico

Rental homes in Alamos are furnished, inexpensive, and often come with a housekeeper(!).  I found our home by Googling “Alamos Mexico rentals.” An excellent resource is:  suzie@alamosmexico.com

Thank you Bill and Jeannie for the respite in your beautiful San Carlos home.

Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog.  Peg Bowden can be reached at:  pegbowden1942@gmail.com

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The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:  www.gvsamaritans.org

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:  www.kinoborderinitiative.org

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending. Their website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com