Magical Realism

•February 15, 2013 • 12 Comments

It’s Tuesday morning, my day with the Samaritans at el comedor. I look out the window and there are a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Big fluffy flakes are falling, and the desert is transformed into a surreal fairyland of silver and icy blue in the early morning hours. The day is fraught with the usual mayhem, as I rush around looking for my passport, scraping snow off the windshield, and rummaging through drawers searching for gloves and a warm hat. It is so quiet outside. Even the birds are silent with their feathers all puffed out to twice the size. They look like fluffy marshmallows sitting in the branches of the palo verde tree. Facing east on this crystal morning, they wait for the sun.

snowfall at the ranch

snowfall at the ranch

Driving out the gate of our ranch I spy two coyotes just meandering through the desert mesquite. They appear healthy and fat, their furry coats thick with a reddish cast. These wild creatures stop, give me eye contact, and just stand there twenty feet away. I roll down the window and we spend a moment gazing at one another until they silently stroll off into an arroyo and disappear.

I think about what draws me to living in the Sonoran desert. There is a mystical feeling to life here. Today I am seeing the world as if in a dream. The mundane and commonplace seem awesome and inexplicable. There is no logical or psychological explanation for this awareness, but my connection to the coyotes and to the beauty of the snow-covered desert this morning feels as tangible as the frozen ground beneath my feet. Reality has taken on a supernatural keenness. There is an element of surprise in the air.

Hot breakfast on a cold morning

Hot breakfast on a cold morning


Walking to the comedor today with my Samaritan colleagues is a cautious, circuitous trek through ice and mud. Construction workers are bundled up continuing their work on the expanded port of entry and the ongoing building of the wall. The digging and building and disruption is endless. Carefully making our way through the maze of temporary pedestrian paths, we hang on to each other and the barricades that are sporadically placed along the way.

When we reach the comedor, there are space heaters cranking out as much heat as they can muster, and a group of migrants are huddling inside the shelter looking cold, wet, and hungry. Many have blankets draped around them. Sister Lorena plays a short video film projected on the wall–a snow scene with Bambi and some deer frolicking in the snow. Everyone laughs at the incongruous scene of snow and deer, and it feels good to be in this room of people making the best of an uncomfortable situation. The mood is upbeat as we pass out the plates of beans, eggs, and a chicken pasta dish.

Clean up after breakfast

Clean up after breakfast

Then Sister Lorena turns on the CD player and “Ode to Joy,” the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, fills the room. To my surprise, most of the migrants hum along with the melody. The whole room seems elevated as we work alongside the migrants cleaning up the breakfast dishes. The comforting smell of coffee permeates the damp cold. The migrants leave the shelter wearing the gloves, socks and jackets that we have brought this week. The sun is beginning to peek through the grey of this frigid morning. There is magic in the air. My ordinary life today seems extraordinary.

Mexican, Not Hispanic!

Mexican!  Not Hispanic!

I think about a man I met a few weeks ago. His story was one that transcended the normal boundaries of reality. I first noticed his t-shirt which boldly stated “Mexican! Not Hispanic.” In tiny letters the t-shirt read: “Hispanics are the people of Spain—European.” My migrant friend was eager to discuss the politics of Spain and Mexico and how he views these differences. He was affable and wanted to talk about his near death crisis in the desert.

His name was Alan, and he told me he was “pure Mexican” from Veracruz. I asked him how he came to be at the comedor, and his story exceeded the boundaries of my normal, everyday world. He took my Samaritan colleague, Ricardo, and me aside to a quiet corner and with great emotion began to tell us about his experience while lost in the desert. He was abandoned by his coyote guide after four days because he could not keep up with the group. One member of the party had died a few days before, and he tremulously spoke of passing by the body laying on the ground. The weather was freezing at night, and Alan had run out of water and food. Things were not looking good as he stumbled alone through the desert looking for help.

Alan, the man from Veracruz

Alan, the man from Veracruz

Alan was no longer able to walk and fell to the ground. He woke up in the early morning and saw the migrant who had died “running in shorts and a t-shirt” beside him along the migrant trail. There was a dusting of snow on the ground. He saw the dead migrant’s footprints. The spirit migrant told Alan to “go home to your family.” Alan did not heed these words, and continued on. Soon “an angel appeared to me and told me to turn back and return to my home in Veracruz where my family awaits.” When he looked ahead, he saw a road and “la migra,” the Border Patrol. The angel stood beside him and the Border Patrol did not see him. He was invisible to the agents and was protected by this guardian angel. Alan ignored the angel’s commands to return home, and continued on the migrant trail alone.

After several hours he spotted the coyote guide that had abandoned him, standing beside a waiting van. The angel appeared at this moment with his arms folded, disappointed that Alan was not paying attention to his directives. The angel told him, “Your service is now to God and your family. Go home!” Again, Alan ignored the angel’s command and joined the coyote and migrant group, getting in the van.  Alan tells me this with certainty and punctuates each word with his fist.  I got the feeling that Alan knew this was a wild tale and difficult for us to believe, but he was absolutely grounded in the reality of his experience.  He described his ordeal in detail.  This was his truth, and the truth penetrates to the heart.

Looking for jeans

Looking for jeans

Eventually, Alan, the coyote guide and the migrant group were picked up by the Border Patrol and taken to a detention center. He was deported to Nogales and sought shelter and counsel at the comedor.

Posing as the angel, he balanced on one foot to show me how the angel stood on a rock. Then he physically assumed the posture of the running spirit migrant who died. It was a magic tableau which came to life over in the corner of the hectic, busy shelter. The drama of the event was reenacted for Ricardo and me, as Alan showed us how he touched the wings of the celestial being out in the middle of the desert just a few days before.  Alan was trying his best to put into words the spiritual essence of his experience.

We helped Alan purchase a bus ticket back to Veracruz.  He finally acknowledged that the angel was right.  He must go home to his family.  Our migrant friend was tearful and emotional when we wished him a safe journey. I took a photo of him in his political t-shirt.

Ricardo and the street peddlers

Ricardo and the street peddlers

So I looked at Ricardo, and asked, “What do you think happened out there?”

Ricardo, an avowed non-believer in such things as angels and spirits, answered, “Well, he was probably hallucinating from no food or water and the freezing temperatures. I think he almost died. But something must have happened that helped this man survive certain death.”  We were both quietly shaken with Alan’s story.

I surveyed the room taking in the 100 or more migrants shivering in the morning air, and thought about all of the stories of survival and miracles that every one of them could tell us. There are 100 books in this room waiting to be written.

Kitty on a sack of beans

Kitty on a sack of beans

I am witness to tragedy and miracles each time I come to the comedor. There are so many stories, I don’t know what to do with them all. I will remember Alan’s energy and vitality when telling me his tale of survival. His is a world that promises not only joy, but a fair share of misery as well. He has taught me to look at the world with new eyes. It is the world of Mexico and the borderlands.  It is magical realism.

And I love being privy to the magic of it all.

Find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans on their website:

The Kino Border Initiative is the binational organization which directs the humanitarian activities at the comedor.  Their website is:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation supports the cultural, humanitarian and economic programs of the U.S./Mexico borderlands.  Bob Phillips, the director, can be reached at: (520) 761-4531

I endorse the activities of these organizations.  They are all angels.   Peg can be reached at:



•December 27, 2012 • 12 Comments

On Christmas morning I put on my red Samaritan sweatshirt and headed toward the border, along with eight other Samaritans. We were a merry band of die-hard do-gooders on this sunny morn, and for once, the border crossing was empty of people and vehicles. Most Americans were at home enjoying the revelry of brightly wrapped presents, excited children and good times around the Christmas tree. A few Border Patrol agents were casually milling around the checkpoint, their weaponry reflected in the sun. We waved and shouted a greeting.

bearing gifts           Chris with gifts for the comedor

Approaching the comedor was a different story. Over the course of the next hour we were busy serving 150 migrants a breakfast of menudo (a hearty traditional Mexican soup) and bread. Everyone got a plastic bag of lunch treats today—fruit, a sandwich, some candies. I helped serve the hungry migrants, washed a hundred glasses, then served more migrants, and washed the dishes again. It felt good to be doing something on this special morning.

Bette helps serve breakfast

Bette helps serve breakfast

Shura, a Samaritan founder, was decked out in her bright red velvet Christmas lingerie, wearing this bit of nonsensical seasonal confection over her jeans and jacket. She looked liked a provocative Mrs. Santa Claus. Her husband, Rich, sported a Christmas elf hat that lit up and played a silly song. The migrants applauded our little show of jollity as we entered the shelter, and for a moment there was a festive rhythm to the busy morning. Fr. Sean gave a Christmas blessing, and the multitude was fed.

Mrs. Santa Claus

Mrs. Santa Claus

The crèche in the corner was aglow with tiny lights, and all the characters were in place in the traditional stable—Mary, Joseph, the manger, the angels and all the animals. But there was no baby Jesus just yet. The manger was empty, save for the resident cat who was curled up next to a cow and a camel. The cat knew the warmest place in the comedor, and he slept soundly under the Christmas lights on his bed of wood shavings with his head on the manger.

Room for everyone at the manger

Room for everyone at the manger

As breakfast ended a migrant approached me with his empty soup bowl, not sure where to line up with his dirty dishes. His face was heavily lined with dust and fatigue, and his eyes glittered with a wetness—from the cold, from pain, from tears? I didn’t know what was happening with this gentleman.

A migrant, Santa's elf, and the shoes

A migrant, Santa’s elf, and the shoes

He wore a dirty khaki jacket, his shoes were worn through at the soles, and his jeans were ripped. Looking at me through his teary eyes, I could see my red sweatshirt reflected in his gaze. His eyes looked red; then they looked like all the reflected colors of the Christmas lights on the manger scene. I couldn’t see his irises, but only the lights of the room reflected through his tears. His eyes were barely open as they locked onto mine, and we both looked at each other awkwardly.  I thought he was going to cry.

A Christmas moment

A Christmas moment

I asked him where his home was.

San Luis Potosi,” was his reply, a city in the central part of Mexico. He was more than a thousand miles from home.

He went on to explain that he had walked in the desert in the U.S. for nine days. He had slept in the Nogales cemetery on Christmas Eve, and was still very cold after a night of freezing temperatures. I asked if he was hurt. He didn’t answer. When I asked if he was OK, he stared at the floor and just shook his head back and forth. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, and I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask him, but my inadequate Spanish couldn’t come up with the words. He looked so beaten and despairing, I was immobilized. In fact there were no words in either English or Spanish that wouldn’t seem cheap and superficial. So there we stood, our masks removed, truthfully and transparently trying to make a human connection. I couldn’t get past his eyes; they were full of tears, and yet they would not spill over down his worn, weary face.

A moment of warmth

A moment of warmth

And I wondered on this Christmas morning how we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, when God doesn’t help this man through perhaps the lowest point in his life. Where was the love? Where was the mercy? Why wasn’t God more of a lifeline for this wonderful person in front of me who kept staring at me?  His world was chaos, and I was having trouble entering his world and being with him. I realized that no matter what I said to this man, it would fall short. The room was probably full of 100 more stories as sorrowful and dramatic as this man’s narrative. It was overwhelming, and I wondered what I was doing here on this traditional morning of Christmas joy.

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

So, not knowing what to do, I took his empty soup bowl. It was a gesture of busy-ness, of trying to fill the self-conscious moment. He put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “Gracias.” I told him to be careful. I said I would say a prayer for his safety. I wished him “Feliz Navidad.” And he disappeared out the door. I wondered if I really knew how to pray for anything, much less the well-being of this lost soul.

After serving breakfast and distributing the clothes to the traveling pilgrims, one of the sisters asked our group of Samaritans if we would like to stay and witness the placing of the baby Jesus in the manger. The manger had been empty for weeks, and now it was Christmas Day and time for Jesus to sleep in his manger of straw.

Rocking baby Jesus

Rocking baby Jesus

And so we did. A lovely pageant of Christmas unfolded before our group. We watched two young women place the little statue of the infant Jesus in a small dish towel and swing the baby like a hammock, to and fro, while a group of migrants, sisters and kitchen helpers sang a song about the Christmas story. (a very long song) Then the baby Jesus was placed on a kitchen tray filled with candy and was slowly passed around the group. We were told that this was a time to ask Jesus for our own personal Christmas miracle, and take a piece of candy, a gift of His love. Each person was invited to kiss the infant statue and whisper a Christmas wish as the tray was passed around the circle.

Cradled in sweets

Cradled in sweets

Our group of Samaritans—this motley crew of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and all the in-betweens—all stood there nervously and watched as the ritual evolved. It was a sweet moment of vulnerability for all of us, as we entered the tableau and each planted a kiss on the little Jesus statue. We bent down to whisper whatever we wished–our prayer for ourselves, our family, a sick friend, or the world of pain we had just witnessed with the traumatized migrants. The question of whether we believed the story of Christmas didn’t matter. It was a powerful moment for each of us.

The meek and the mild

The meek and the mild

It struck me at that moment, as I kissed the baby Jesus’ forehead, how vulnerable a newborn baby is, and how vulnerable I was in the presence of the suffering and despair of the migrants. I thought about my own children when they were babies—their illnesses, their traumas, their defenseless nakedness. My emotions were right on the surface. Perhaps His message isn’t experienced in our strongest moments, but in our honest weakness. I have never found it easy to be with people who are suffering. I do not want to enter the chaos and feel helpless.  And yet today I simply stood with a man who had been living an horrific drama, and I forgot about myself and my own discomfort, and just stood with him, connecting as best I could. Being in his presence was a profound gift to me in ways I haven’t quite figured out. He touched my life, and perhaps I touched his.

Peg and the newspaper lady

Peg and the newspaper lady

Our group was oddly quiet walking back to our waiting cars in the U.S. I believe that God was with us today in the unpretentious, simple surroundings of the comedor. I smile when I picture each individual bending over the little statue of Jesus on the bed of candy, and whispering hopes for the future.

And that was the best Christmas gift of all.

(Photo of “Peg and the newspaper lady” by David Zweig, a fellow Samaritan.)

Peg Bowden can be reached at

The Green Valley Samaritans are volunteers whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  To find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans, check their website:

The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a bi-national organization that works in the area of migration, and is located in both Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  The KBI’s vision is to help make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.  Their website is:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting economic development and cross-border issues, can be accessed by emailing the Director, Bob Phillips, at:

I  endorse the activities of these organizations.  Financial contributions to these groups are especially welcome to help support the work in the borderlands.

Holy Infant, so tender and mild

•December 7, 2012 • 5 Comments

Driving to the Mexican border during these dark December mornings, I ask myself a question each week: I wonder how many women and children will be at the comedor today? I volunteer with the Samaritans each Tuesday at a shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Standing in front of the comedor I see a line of thirty or more people waiting for breakfast. Inside the shelter the aid workers and sisters are busy serving up plates of beans and rice to at least 100 migrants who arrived earlier. In twenty minutes, two more vans pull up with perhaps another forty migrants. There is a cacophony of conversation in the tiny kitchen. “How many more plates do we need? Are there enough beans? Can someone run to town and get more eggs? How many more people are outside that we need to feed?” There is a total of 200 migrants today; 39 of them are women.

December breakfast at the comedor

Latinos are heading south to their home villages to spend Christmas with their families; others are heading north to Los Estados Unidos for jobs and a reconnection with spouses and children. Six women huddle together in the chilly morning air. They are from Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Puebla, Honduras, and Guatemala. Bonding and exchanging stories as they wait patiently for breakfast, they tell me they will cross the border together.

The baby in the yellow blanket

One woman tells me she is expecting a baby in January, and was deported last night from Phoenix. She shows me her shoes, which look like a size 10 on her tiny feet. They flop around like clown shoes as she walks. A t-shirt fits tightly over her extended belly. I take her by the hand and lead her over to some bags on the sidewalk in front of the shelter. Fellow Samaritan John is standing in front of several piles of donated clothing, shoes, backpacks and toiletries. We wait to distribute the clothing until after breakfast, and it looks like it will be a long wait. More people keep arriving looking tired, dusty and disoriented.

Samaritan John and pregnant Consuela

Rummaging through the sacks of clothing I pull out a new pair of tennis shoes for this beautiful, pregnant woman who tells me she is from Puebla. We both peer inside the shoe searching for the size. They are size 6. Perfecto! The shoes fit her perfectly. She is elated.

Her name is Consuela, and I ask her why she is here. Samaritan John and I listen to the story of her journey. She walked for two weeks in the desert to reach Phoenix, beginning in September. I mentally calculate that she was five months pregnant during this arduous trek. The father of her baby lives in Phoenix along with his own child. They were driving in a pickup truck in Phoenix a few days ago and were stopped by a police officer because the child was not wearing a seat belt. The child was sitting between them in the truck. It was an instance of “show me your papers,” and this unlucky couple did not have the necessary documents. Police officers, under the auspices of SB1070, the Arizona anti-immigration bill, can stop a vehicle for a traffic offense, and if passengers raise their suspicions, can demand proof of citizenship. Her partner, the baby’s father, was deported to a detention center in Florence. Consuela is standing here on this cold morning in Nogales, and her mood bounces between elation at her new shoes, and tearful emotion as she contemplates her next step.

Joseph, Mary, the donkey, and the wall

And then she initiates an action that women everywhere do when they are pregnant. It is an act of trust and intimacy and power. She takes my hand and places it on her pregnant belly and looks into my eyes. Her face is full of awe and pride. “Do you feel it?”

Baby in the red hat

I do. I feel a kick. I am humbled by her trust in me, a stranger to her ten minutes ago. Samaritan John asks her if she knows the sex of the baby. Consuela shakes her head, but thinks it is a boy. She tells us that she intends to cross again and make her way to Phoenix. I implore her not to take on this journey a second time. I tell her she will go into labor and have her baby in the desert.

Mary, Joseph and La Frontera

Consuela reassures me that she will be fine. She knows the desert and what she faces. Traveling with her group of women friends, she will not be alone. Both John and I shake our heads in disbelief and try to mask our horror. She continually pats my arm, telling me “Gracias,” over and over. I tell her to be careful, and to consider spending some time at Casa Nazaret, the women’s shelter. “Think about your baby and the fact that you are close to your delivery date,” I implore her. “The sisters at the shelter will take care of you.” She smiles, thanks us both, and slips away. She has a look of serenity on her face. I am more upset about all of this than she is.

Samaritan Sharon and baby Jeremy

Of all the things I see and hear at the comedor, the specter of mothers and children trying to cross the border wall and walk the desert miles is the most distressing to me. My thoughts center on these women, the children, and the unborn babies, and I try to visualize them safely reaching a destination with people that love them. Somewhere.

Gaby, Jeremy and Mom talk with a Samaritan

The desire to return to family and home defies logic. The wall, the Border Patrol, the detention centers, the desert, the lack of money—these things are minor compared to the intense yearning to be with family and those that we love. A man shows me a scrap of a photo of his wife, and tells me it has been three years since he has seen her. His hands cover his eyes as he tries to control his weeping. A woman sits with her two small children and decides to wait in Nogales until her husband is released from a detention center. She is not sure how she will survive here in Nogales, but she will figure it out. The children are 9 months and 4 years, respectively. Samaritan Sharon cuddles the sleeping baby, Jeremy, while the mother picks out clothes and diapers. Her 4 year old races around under tables and up and down aisles chasing the resident cat.

Seeking his wife

It is the time of Christmas, and the iconic image of the Madonna and Child are everywhere. The U.S. Postal stamp this year is especially striking. It depicts Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt after the birth of Jesus. There is a brilliant desert sunset and a flaming star, and it is a beautiful image–not the usual Renaissance painting of the cherubic Jesus and the remote looking Madonna. I have never liked those centuries-old paintings. To me the Renaissance Madonna often looked distant and cold, never looking at her baby. This year’s stamp looks like a couple on the move. They are migrants on the run, making a get-away to a strange land to save the life of their infant son.

U.S. Christmas stamp, 2012

I smile when I look at the stamp. The sunset looks like Arizona. Maybe Consuela will make it. I think about her every day this Christmas season.

My Christmas prayer is for sweeping, comprehensive policy changes with U.S. immigration laws. As Christmas approaches, I wait, like Consuela, with expectation as if I were pregnant. I wait for a miracle on the border. I have high hopes for President Obama’s second term as President. Business leaders, law enforcement administrators, people of faith and elected officials will soon draft proposals to move this state and the country forward. Families have the right to stay together, no matter where a border exists.

Madonna and child

It is an exciting time to be in Arizona. The whole world is watching. It is Arizona’s chance to crawl out from under the rock of shame and rise above the state’s image of racism.  I am so ready for Arizona to assume some leadership in immigration reform.

I just hope Consuela and her baby can enjoy the fruits of this time of social justice and sweeping change.

La Posada in Nogales

( Several names have been changed in this posting.)

The Green Valley Samaritans are volunteers whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  To find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans, check their website:

The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a bi-national organization that works in the area of migration, and is located in both Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  The KBI’s vision is to help make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.  Their website is:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting economic development and cross-border issues, can be accessed by emailing the Director, Bob Phillips, at:

I  endorse the activities of these organizations.  Financial contributions to these groups are especially welcome to help support the work in the borderlands.

Death at the Border

•October 26, 2012 • 9 Comments

I’ve been reflecting a lot about death these autumn days. My mother died nine years ago this week, and so my thoughts have turned to family, mortality, our children and the grandchildren. I’ve contemplated the foolish things I’ve done as a child and how I’ve somehow gotten away with it unscathed. Growing up in Chicago, my brothers and I used to throw snowballs at passing cars. It never occurred to me that I was endangering the driver. Consequences were not hard-wired into my psyche. Once I was caught and reprimanded by a police officer and was taken home by the scruff of my neck. I never forgot it.

And let’s not forget about all the shenanigans of the 60’s. Thankfully my parents never knew half of what I did growing up. Somehow I made it to adulthood all in one piece.

My point is this:  kids do stupid things.

Flowers for graves at Dia de los Muertos

 I have created a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar in our home with photos of deceased parents and pets, and also small gifts that migrants have given me this past year. When the candles are lit at my altar, I think about the tenuous and precious nature of life. I am reminded of this each week in my talks with the migrants at the comedor. The fact is, some of them might not make it to their destination in the U.S. Some may die trying to reach their American Dream.  The risks are great, and the stakes are high.

An altar for Dia de los Muertos

Masks and skeletons are everywhere these October days. The borderlands are preparing for Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and the stores are full of the special foods and pan dulce that commemorate this time of remembrance. In Mexico the Day of the Dead pays homage to those that have died with stories, songs, marigold bouquets and favorite foods. Often families will picnic at the grave sites. They spend the night in the cemeteries remembering a loved one and perhaps passing a bottle of tequila in a toast to a life well lived. There is guitar music and soft laughter around the family plot. Ghosts are invited to the table, rather than shunned and feared.

Marigolds to welcome the dead

Less than two weeks ago death tragically came to a sixteen year old boy in Nogales, Mexico. Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent while on the Mexican side of the wall. The agent was on the American side and claimed that the boy was throwing rocks over the wall to the U.S. side, presenting a deadly threat.  There was a probable drug smuggling operation taking place and federal agents were responding to the criminal activity.  The boy’s grandmother says that the boy was on his way home after visiting his girlfriend. The incident occurred after 11 PM and the boy was three blocks from his home in Nogales. There were seven bullets found in his body. A Mexican official stated that the teen had been shot in the back. The drug deal had gone awry, and this was the reason for the rock-throwing and subsequent mayhem.

A wall at a border creates an emotional response. It is a visual affront, a kick in the butt. It means we are definitely not on the same page. You are over there and different; I am over here and want some control over who comes and goes. In fact, I’m afraid of you over there. When most people see a fence, they want to peek over and see what is on the other side. Then run on home to their own safe corner of the world.

Samaritans at the killing site

Nogales police officers indicated in their report that there were rocks being tossed over the wall, but could not verify if Jose was one of the rock throwers. The federal Border Patrol agents stated that two men were seen climbing the wall into Mexico with packs on their backs. Another report stated that packs had been dropped on the U.S. side and the men were climbing over the wall back into Mexico.  Reports vary;  facts are muddy.  When Border Patrol agents responded to the situation, several people on the Mexican side began to throw rocks over the wall.

The question is:  was Jose one of the rock throwers, or was he innocently caught in the crossfire of this tragic border incident?

And more importantly, does lobbing rocks over a fence justify the use of bullets?  I am told that there were surveillance video cameras recording these events. A detailed report including video footage has not been released. Understandably, the citizens of Nogales, Mexico are angry and in mourning for this loss of life.

A few days ago several of my Samaritan colleagues and I walked across the border into Mexico to see first hand where this tragedy took place. A couple of Nogales residents led us to the spot on the sidewalk and the bullet-ridden building where Jose took that fateful last walk. What we saw posed a lot of questions.

Bullet holes near the border wall

At the shooting site the border wall sits on a very high embankment of approximately 25 feet, with the wall extending another 15 to 20 feet above it. A rock thrower would have to lob a rock 40 or more feet into the air to clear the wall. This was not a line drive aimed at someone’s head. This was a rock tossed in a long arc over a very high embankment and girded steel wall. It would be extremely difficult to see through the fence in the dark, and then somehow accurately throw a rock 40 feet in the air at a person on the other side.

Site of rock throwing

The metal slats of the wall are 4 inches apart. The Border Patrol agent would have to guide his pistol or rifle through these slats, so visibility and aiming proficiency would be limited. Plus, it was after 11 PM at night on a dark street. Seven bullet holes were visible in the stucco wall of a small business office and were circled with a red marker. Seven bullets were in Jose’s body. A Mexican resident in the neighborhood pointed to the place on the sidewalk where Jose died in front of the office building. My Samaritan friends and I stood there quietly for several minutes trying to figure out the bullets, the trajectory, the rock toss, how many shooters, and how to aim a gun through those slats. We looked up toward the wall on the U.S. side and saw a video camera perched on a tall tower recording our presence as we pondered what had happened here.  Somewhere there is a video of this whole tragedy.

On the Nogales border there have been five incidents since 2010 of a Border Patrol agent firing bullets or pepper balls at rock throwers. In one shooting a 17 year old boy, Ramses Barron Torres, was killed from a gunshot wound in January, 2011, after another rock throwing incident.  Since 2010 fifteen civilians, mostly Mexicans, have been killed in confrontations on the U.S./Mexico border by Border Patrol agents.

Ricardo and the bullet holes

I do not question the need of federal agents to protect themselves when confronting armed drug and human smugglers. Sometimes a rock can be a deadly missile. Indeed the Border Patrol Union Statement, “Rock Assaults are Deadly Force” reads:

Rocks are weapons and constitute deadly force. If an agent is confronted with deadly force they will respond in kind. No agent wants to have to shoot another human being, but when an agent is assaulted and fears for his life then his hand is forced.”

breakfast at the comedor

There are non-lethal approaches that law enforcement has used over the years, effectively dispersing unruly crowds throwing rocks and bottles. Police have used pepper-ball launchers successfully in Occupy protests in the U.S. in the past year without severe injuries or fatalities on either side. In May, 2011, a Border Patrol agent in Nogales used pepper-ball launchers to seize drugs without injuries. There are ways to de-escalate situations and tamp down the adrenaline.

Bullets should be the last resort.

I have hesitated writing about the tragedy of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez because I do not have all the facts. The newspaper articles have been sketchy without an official report from the Border Patrol. Visiting the site where Jose died has haunted me. It looked like the boy might have been running away. He was retreating. Why was he shot in the back? Where are the facts?

Comforting a man separated from his family at the comedor

Why should I care?

Well, I live here in the borderlands and I am profoundly disenchanted with our war on drugs which is at the root of this violence.  Guns and a military presence have cost too many lives and billions of dollars.   Mexico is our neighbor to the south. Instead of being friendly, amicable neighbors, with maybe a few requisite political tensions and cultural differences, our relationship is now dominated completely by the logic of war.  During the three Presidential Debates these past weeks, there was no discussion of our relationship with Latin America, no discourse on the war on drugs, no mention of the humanitarian crisis at the border, and the immigration issue was never brought up. I am still shaking my head in disbelief about that. Yet in Mexico 50,000 people have died in the past decade over a drug war that has done very little to stop drug trafficking. It is a lucrative business. In fact, U.S. consumption of illegal drugs has gone up.

And this week at the comedor there were 180 migrants trying to figure out how to survive one day at a time. These issues are just too big to ignore.

We have two options in situations like this.

We can either turn away from what feels threatening and uncertain, or we can turn into it and ask what can be done, and hopefully find others who are asking the same questions.

And my first question is, what really happened to Jose on the night of Oct. 10, 2012 at the Nogales border?

My second question is, when will we stop thinking that the militarization of the border is keeping us safe? 

If enough people work together, there are peaceful solutions to this deadly stalemate.  I believe that.

The Green Valley Samaritans is an all-volunteer organization of mostly renegade senior citizens who are passionate about border issues and immigration.  Check out their website at:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to impacting public policy affecting the borderlands, both in the U.S. and Mexico.  The Director, Bob Phillips, can be reached at:

I am a member of both groups and enthusiastically endorse their efforts.

Band-Aid Work

•September 25, 2012 • 6 Comments

When I was a little girl, I had a necklace with a small translucent pendant holding a mustard seed. When I asked what this tiny seed meant, my mother told me that if I “had the faith of a mustard seed,” I could move mountains.

None of this made any sense to me. How can a little seed move a mountain? But I loved that necklace and wore it all through elementary school in Chicago.

Bienvenidos Nogales

Later, attending Sunday School as a child, I learned about the parable of the mustard seed in the Gospels of the New Testament. Jesus told the story of the tiny mustard seed growing to be the tallest herb, and spreading throughout the land.  These past months I have seen fields of yellow mustard taking over the pastures in southern Arizona. Parables are often difficult for me to figure out, but I believe the story of the mustard seed has to do with large growth from small beginnings, and Jesus was probably talking about his Word spreading far and wide.  And indeed, wild mustard probably grows everywhere on the planet.

New clothes and hope

During these summer months I have seen more than one-hundred migrants seeking shelter at the comedor each Tuesday. In 2011 the comedor served more than 35,000 meals to undocumented pilgrims passing through Nogales.

Samaritans help pass out the plates of food at breakfast, and then sort the clothes for the migrants to pick over, each according to their needs. Afterwards we sit down and talk with the people, trying to figure out the next step. Is it a bus ticket back to Puebla? A trip to the first aid station for some needed care for blistered feet? Or simply sitting with a person who is desperately trying to reach his family in New York City.

Lorena and the peppers

In the big scheme of things, it feels like applying a band-aid to a suppurating wound. It feels like dousing an erupting volcano with a garden hose. It feels like offering clean socks to someone who is about to walk through fire.

Whimsy and footprints at the wall

A very thin man in a bright red shirt gave me a small smile last week, and as I approached he invited me to sit with him on the long bench. He had several missing front teeth, visible scars on his arms, and an angular emaciated body. His name was Cesar. He was bent as he walked and was unable to straighten his neck. Beaten and tortured, Cesar cannot return to his home in Guatemala. He has been hopping trains for eight days to arrive at this place. He is seeking asylum in the U.S.  When I asked him why, he told me that his entire family has been murdered in Guatemala.

Cesar talks with Bryce, a Seattle film maker

There are many gangs. There are drugs. I cannot go back or they will kill me.”

Being so far from his homeland, I commented on his courage in traveling such a great distance to this border.

Cesar replied, “When your family is killed, you have no place to cry.”

Asking how to find the “Office of Human Resources,” the Samaritans directed Cesar to a nearby office where he can begin this process. And here are the sad facts about seeking asylum as a refugee from the drug wars and violence in Latin America. In 2011, only 2% of the applicants from Mexico were granted asylum to the U.S. (Global Post, Sept. 15, 2011) In Guatemala, 4.5% of the total applicants were granted asylum, with 3,458 applying. (Guatemala Human Rights Commission, 2009) The war that the Mexicans are experiencing, caused entirely by the drug use in the United States, does not translate into a coherent narrative that immigration judges can use to grant political asylum. This is why so few cases are successful.

More than band-aids

And today I felt like I applied a band-aid to the wounds of a man who has experienced more tragedy than I could ever imagine. Our Samaritan group can offer things—clothes, a nourishing breakfast, perhaps the use of a cell phone. But today we can not change the political process of our country to help Cesar. We can not change the structure, which is perhaps where real help can be found.

I would like to think that the activity of serving food, distributing clothes and listening to the stories of migrants is impacting political policy. Perhaps band-aid work is a way to change policy. Maybe there is a ripple effect. Like the mustard seed, I believe that small things matter. Instead of cursing the government, the politicians, and the broken immigration policy (which I do ad nauseam), maybe showing up each week at the comedor makes a difference. Do little things, extend a helping hand, and have faith that big things will happen. But do something.

the choir of angels

There was a slow drizzle of rain on the day I met Cesar, and the migrants who were lined up outside the comedor were getting wet. The Jesuit priests let the travelers into the shelter while we were sorting the clothes. They lined up in rows on one side of this small space, and I remarked that they all looked like a choir getting ready to sing. A few moments later, much to my amazement, the group broke into song, singing “Cielito Lindo,” (Heavenly Sweet One) a popular Mexican ranchero song. When the migrants came to the most famous part, “Ay, ay, ay, ay….Canta y no llores,”, (Sing and don’t cry…), the whole room joined in.

It was one of those incongruous moments when tragic stories and situations are somehow transcended through music and good people.


T-shirt worn by a migrant from Oaxaca

These vulnerable and forgotten travelers had no material possessions on this gray, drizzly day, but they had human dignity, and in this moment, there was joy. These people are tough. And they can sing.

Engaging in the world of the poor and disenfranchised makes life unpredictable. The Samaritans never know what to expect when we volunteer each week. I am reminded when I go to the comedor that in the midst of our consuming and comfort-oriented society, people are more important than stuff. I meet people who drink out of cow troughs on their journey to the United States. I talk to women who are six months pregnant and have climbed over the border wall.

the comedor lineup

They will most likely do menial, backbreaking work and live in small crowded rooms. They will have dreams for their children, and their children’s children. And I will remember them singing “Cielito Lindo” on a rainy day, with gusto and hope.

Read more about the Green Valley Samaritans at:   All donations are tax deductible.  We are an all-volunteer organization committed to changing immigration policy and preventing deaths in the desert.

Tender Mercies

•August 29, 2012 • 6 Comments

Most days I see the world as a place of hope.  I wake up with a grin on my face and watch the birds at the feeders.

Kitchen duty at the comedor

Mercy #1:

But sometimes the world looks very dark to me when I walk the hot, dusty mile to the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. There is the noise and frenzied activity of the American worker bees building the wall that divides us. On my last trip across the border I tried to take a photo of a banged up sign that said “To Mexico” adjacent to the boundary line. A Border Patrol agent stopped me and told me that this was a “security area” and no photos were allowed. I looked around at the huge machinery and cranes zig-zagging about wondering what was so important about this particular spot, but quickly put away my camera. Rules are rules. His voice was stern. He stared at me with his uniform of kevlar and assorted weaponry.

Securing our border

On this particular day our driver, Jack, was unable to transport the piles of clothing, medical supplies, and toiletries to the comedor. Jack has become an indispensable member of the Samaritan team; he carries loads of needed supplies into Mexico each week saving our troupe of hikers the burden of carrying the load on our backs. But today we put our shoulder to the wheel and carried huge plastic garbage sacks full of jeans and t-shirts and soap. It was 95 degrees at 9 AM, and the hike across the border was a struggle. No one going our way (truckers, tourists, pedestrians) offered to help. We had to stop every twenty steps to rest and wipe the sweat from our brows. It was a mini-migrant experience. I cannot imagine carrying a heavy pack for miles in the desert.

How do they do it?


Carrying the load together

And then a light appears in the most unexpected ways.

Immediately after crossing into Mexico our exhausted group approached an old beat-up pickup truck parked on the side of the road. An elderly Mexican man saw our little band of panting senior citizens balancing those unwieldy plastic bags on our backs. He hopped out of his truck and asked, “Where are you going? Can I help?”

The Hondurans look over the caps

When we told him we were heading to the comedor, he invited us to toss our bags into his truck and he would deliver them for us. We all practically broke out in song. Heaving the bags into his truck, he drove the rest of the way to the comedor and I followed along thinking that this fellow must be an angel or one of Santa’s helpers. Arriving at the comedor a group of migrants helped unload the truck and soon we were distributing the clothes and toiletries to over 100 people. The man in the beat-up truck helped us as well.

Full of smiles

And I thought about all of the reasons I love Mexico. There is a sense of gentle community and people helping people, with nothing expected in return. It just happens.

Mercy #2:

The sun was bearing down as I walked from the small first aid station in Nogales, Mexico, back to the comedor—about one-half mile. It was high noon. I was with a couple of students who were doing a “border immersion experience” during the summer. It was the hottest time of the year, with humidity rising and a monsoon storm brewing. We approached a little fruit stand on the street, one that I have passed many times over the past year. Unable to buy any of the melons or papayas to take home with me, (Our laws do not allow fruit to be carried back into the U.S.) I often felt guilty and deprived about not purchasing any of the vendor’s offerings. On this particular day he came out from under the shade of his cart with a platter of sliced watermelon.

Perfect watermelon.

He approached us and told us to take a piece of his fruit on this intensely hot day. We were all stunned and grateful and eagerly dug into the delicious red fruit. He would accept no money. Between the three of us we ate half of a melon. Our hands and face were sticky with the juice. Is there anything better than a truly perfect watermelon when it is 100 degrees and rising?

Pilgrims full of hope

The vendor, looking pleased with himself, saw my t-shirt with “Samaritans” emblazoned in red, and thanked our group for coming to the comedor each week.

It was another sweet moment of light.

Passing out the clothing

Mercy #3:

I have a couple of Samaritan friends, the two Johns I call them, as they are both named John and have been friends for many years. They live in Green Valley, Arizona, and volunteer for desert searches regularly. Rarely have they found lost migrants, but they have learned about the back country and remoteness of the Sonoran desert on their searches. On this particular day they were playing golf together on the Tubac Golf Course near their home. A migrant staggered up to them on the golf course saying he had been lost in the desert for days and was having chest pain. His name was Santiago. John #1 attempted to give him food and water, but the migrant was unable to digest the nourishment and promptly vomited. John #2 called the Emergency Medical Team at the golf course and Santiago was transported to a hospital in Nogales, Arizona where he was treated with intravenous fluids and evaluated for possible heart damage.


Trying it on for size

The next day the two Johns showed up at the hospital with new clothes, shoes, and a small duffel bag. When Santiago saw them enter his room he burst into tears. So did the two Johns. Santiago did not know their names, and yet they came back to check on him. I am told that it was a sweet moment. Not a dry eye in the room.

There is much more to this story—calls to Santiago’s son in California, transporting Santiago to the comedor for a few days of good food and time to heal, purchasing a bus ticket to Tijuana. The story is convoluted and there are many questions about our encounter with Santiago. But this I know: John #1 and John #2 did a good thing out there on the golf course. They were Samaritans in the truest sense, and probably saved his life.

Sister Rosalba, the Virgin, and the vegetables

I grab onto these tender mercies. I think the expression “tender mercies” is from somewhere in the Bible, a psalm perhaps. Mostly I recall a wonderful movie many years ago with Robert Duvall called “Tender Mercies,” about those sweet moments of light when things look the darkest.

There is always light when I visit the comedor.


Walking the walk back to the USA


A Summer of Students and Reflections

•July 28, 2012 • 4 Comments

Summer in the borderlands of southern Arizona has been a mixed bag for me. On the bright side I have been coordinating a program for college students in an immersion experience on the U.S./Mexican border. Sponsored by the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, two students from Stanford (Nina Foushee and Anais Alonso) and one from the University of San Francisco (Ryan Murphy) have plunged into the murky and often confusing world of immigration and Arizona politics. They have visited successful social programs in Nogales, Mexico, and have taught summer English classes to children in an impoverished community that is reinventing itself as a healthy place for children to learn and grow.  Ryan Murphy collected data for his Master’s thesis on the effects of SB1070 (the anti-immigration bill) on both sides of the border. He interviewed Arizona legislators, city mayors, Russell Pearce (author of the bill), police chiefs in Tucson and Phoenix, and Mexican citizens. His energy and ability to engage people from the entire political spectrum was astonishing.

Ryan Murphy and his English class

We have gone on desert searches together looking for lost migrants with the Samaritans, spotted armed Border Patrol agents hiking up the arroyos, visited a first aid camp operated by No More Deaths in a remote arid wilderness, and traveled to a border conference in El Paso, Texas. One overnight trip took us to Agua Prieta, Mexico, where we witnessed the entrepreneurial success story of a coffee roasting business, owned and operated by a group of coffee growers from Chiapas. There is no better coffee than Cafe Justo.

Ryan, Nina and Fr. Sean Carroll, El Paso

Nina, Anais and Kara (No More Deaths worker) contemplate the nuances of fine coffee at Cafe Justo company.

Nina, Anais and I participated in a vigil in Douglas, Arizona, which paid tribute to the hundreds of migrant deaths in the surrounding desert. We bravely lifted our wooden crosses along with fifteen other participants and shouted out the names of those people, both known and unidentified, who have died on U.S. soil. Led by Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister living in Agua Prieta, Mexico, this vigil has been taking place each week for twelve years.  The numbers of deaths have not diminished. Not given to public displays of religiosity, this was a moment of some discomfort and reflection with the students and myself. We spent the night with the Sisters of Notre Dame in their gracious home in Douglas, AZ. processing the vigil and our feelings about this very public demonstration of remembrance and outrage, and eating their freshly baked bread.

Peg and Sister Judy, baker extraordinaire

We have traveled in buses on bumpy roads all over Nogales, Sonora to teach classes in nutrition and English, and celebrated our successes on hikes and over delicious Mexican food. Starting out with eight students in an English class, Ryan and Nina ended up with 160 children attending these classes at the DeiJuvan Community Center in one of the migrant neighborhoods of Nogales.

Anais, a Sophomore at Stanford University,  was moved by the stark contrast of migrants at the comedor so ready to tell their story, and their silence in the Federal courtroom of Operation Streamline.

Nina at the comedor distributing clothes

The Student Internship Program gives me hope for the future of our borderlands. The insights and fresh perspectives of Ryan, Nina and Anais stimulate my own entrenched thought processes. Plus, we had some fun together hiking desert canyons and drinking our morning coffee in the kitchens of the Columban Brothers of El Paso and the progressive, enlightened Sisters of Notre Dame in Agua Prieta. These Catholic service providers are quietly doing brave, profound work and opened their homes to us. Sister Judy, rising at 3:30 AM one summer morning, surprised our little group with a warm coffee cake setting on the kitchen counter. I am still smiling when I think of this confection waiting for our sleepy group as we staggered into the kitchen hours later.

Peg, Nina and Ryan in downtown El Paso

Then I read of Aurora, Colorado, and the mayhem and death in a movie theater by one crazy act of violence. How can human beings manifest such evil? I began my usual search for an answer. Less guns? A ban on semi-automatic weapons that shoot off 50 rounds per minute? More guns, so we are all armed? Less violent acts on movie screens, TV shows, video games? Better mental health screening? More media coverage? Less media coverage?

Another reality jolt was an article published in the New Phoenix Times by my brother, Charles Bowden.  Chuck and co-author, Molly Molloy, speak of the thousands of deaths in Mexico, 100,000 and counting since Calderon’s presidency, because of the drug wars.  The murders of Mexican journalists reporting this carnage is especially shocking. The U.S. Government mandates and subsidizes this war in Mexico, and yet the traffic of drugs into our country is cheaper and easier to obtain than it was 10 years ago. Chuck has been doing this kind of reporting for years, and of course I worry about my kid brother.

Anais, Nina, Kara and Peg in Agua Prieta, Mexico

The complexities of violence in both the U.S. and Mexico has me stammering and sputtering for answers and solutions.

People ask me, “So what should we do about all of these immigrants who want to cross?”

What should be done about the episodes of violence and carnage in our own country’s malls, movie theaters, college campuses?”

There is my usual laundry list of ideas: a humane and just immigration work permit system, begin treating drug addiction as a public health issue, decriminalization of illicit drugs, a ban on the purchase of assault weapons, and on and on and on.

Seeking some solace in Sycamore Canyon with student interns

I look to the students I have gotten to know and love this summer. These young people are committed and passionate and brave.

I want to simply pass the baton to them and tell them to go fix this mess. But I know I cannot just wish for answers.

Peace and social justice is something you do.  It is something you make. It is the way you live. 

It happens slowly.

My own small piece of the pie is a weekly visit to the comedor and encounters with the displaced pilgrims of Latin America. I am by nature a do-er. Right now I have no glib reply to those who question what I do each week. The more I dive into these issues, the less sure I am of the answers.

Peeling and chopping at the comedor

I am learning to be OK with the gray and ambiguous nature of this work. Clarity will come. And I think these students will be a part of the answer.

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation is setting up a scholarship fund for the Student Internship Program for Summer, 2013.  A tax-deductible donation for this program can be made to the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, 825 N. Grand Avenue, Suite 104B, Nogales, AZ. 85621. Please indicate in the“memo” portion of check that the donation is for the Student Intern Program. Money will be used for student housing during the summer, plus a stipend for food and gas.  Interested students/faculty can contact me at: for information about this innovative border immersion experience.

Livin’ the Dream

•June 24, 2012 • 8 Comments

I’ve had a tough time writing about life on the border these past weeks. Maybe it is the intense heat. We are on the cusp of the monsoon season, and temperatures are triple digits. Humidity is rising. Instead of the famed Arizona “dry heat”, there is plenty of sweat these days. A haze of green fuzz on the desert floor from an early rain last week covers the surrounding landscape and I hope it is the prelude to a torrential monsoon. But there is always a sense of guarded optimism before the monsoon season. Will the rains pour buckets over my desert home and give blessed relief, or will it pass me by?


Monsoon rainbow

When President Obama announced last week that Homeland Security would stop automatically deporting young undocumented immigrants and grant them work permits, I was delighted. But I remain guarded about all the jubilation and hoopla. I don’t want to get my hopes up. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) targets undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before they were 16, and have lived in this country for more than five straight years, staying in school and out of trouble. Hundreds of thousands of young people could benefit from this. I have met many “DREAM kids” over the past year at the comedor. They are kids in college, in high school, some married with families and working at jobs they enjoy. Many were not aware they were undocumented. They consider the United States their home.

a smile and a hug

So visiting the comedor this week I looked forward to a positive and uplifting story to tell. I had a fantasy of walking a DREAM kid back into the U.S., waving at ICE and the Customs Officials as we passed through the border check point.

Instead of DREAMers, our little group of Samaritans got a different kind of migrant experience. Four cows were wandering the busy highway heading toward Estados Unidos. They had escaped from a local corral and were determinedly making their way to the customs gates and FREEDOM!! We did our best to help round them up, but alas, their Mexican owners ushered them back to their holding area awaiting shipment to an American stockyard.

Illegal cows crossing the border

I treasured this moment of high jinx and laughter.

Making a break for Estados Unidos

Then it was all business.

There were 78 migrants at the comedor on this day, and none of them qualified as a DREAM candidate. This group had never heard of the DREAM Act. Most of the migrants today were farmers and bakers and chefs and distraught parents fleeing parts of Mexico and Central America for economic reasons. Several from Honduras simply said it was too dangerous to stay in their villages.

And here’s what I realized. I dreaded writing yet another tragic story of dashed hopes and unspeakable injury. I was afraid to admit that people don’t want to read about this stuff anymore. I was afraid that today’s group was jumping from the frying pan into the fire of the Sonoran desert in June.

Phoning home

So it was a pleasant surprise when I read the op-ed in the New York Times, “Death in the Desert”, by Ananda Rose, June 22, 2012.

Maybe someone is paying attention after all. Rose visited the comedor awhile back and validated my own experience about immigration and the perils awaiting those who cross the desert. Illegal immigration numbers may be down, but the numbers of deaths in the desert remain high. Because of a military presence, the Border Patrol, ICE and National Guard troops scouring Arizona for the undocumented, migrants are pushed into remote mountainous areas which are extremely difficult to traverse. They become lost, dehydrated, abandoned, injured, and many of them die.

One gentleman who looked to be in his 40’s has tried to cross into the U.S. four times and has been in and out of detention centers for months. He is a cook at a Mexican restaurant in Alabama where his wife and children live.

There are harsh laws in Alabama for Mexicans without papers, ” he tells me, limping across the room on blistered feet.

No more. I’m done crossing. I’m going to Puebla where I was born. I don’t know what else to do.”

He shows me a photo of his daughter in a soccer outfit at an American high school in Alabama. His eyes fill with tears. I suggest that maybe she can come to Puebla and visit him.

He shakes his head and tells me, “She is almost American. Why would she want to do that?”

Laundry day

There are two young children at the comedor today traveling with their aunt. They are from Mexico and the youngsters tell the Samaritans that they are going to New York City to see their Papa.

New York City? Walking to New York City?

I am horrified. Shura, a Samaritan mover and shaker, shows the aunt and children a map. We point to the distance from Nogales to any town or city. We point out the little red dots on the map which indicate deaths. We talk about how many bottles of water per day you need to carry to survive. The kids and aunt don’t hear a thing. The little boy, age 9, draws a picture of his dreams for this journey. He draws himself and the wall at the border. He tells us his Papa lives in a place surrounded by skyscrapers. Both kids look at me with hope and a bravado that defies reason. They are going to see their Papa and the journey will be an adventure. There may be insurmountable barriers, but the aunt (in her 20’s) and the kids are dreaming of skyscrapers.

I heard a few days later that this little trio of pilgrims had indeed crossed and were somewhere in the desert. It was 103 degrees on that day.

Fresh clothes, new start

And I think about how much I hate this notion of an American dream. It is a killer. It is a fantasy. It gives me nightmares.

There is next to nothing in the local press about lost lives in the desert during these summer months. I’m told that people don’t want to hear about it. And today, I didn’t want to hear about it either. But thanks to Ananda Rose and her excellent op-ed, I am reminded that things are grim for our desert travelers. It may be good news for the “DREAMers”, but there are scores that are left out.

And the fact that there is so little outrage or interest in this tragedy is an element that astounds me. I wrote of Alfonso’s death in my last posting.  I found out about this death in a newspaper near San Diego weeks after his body was discovered.  It is rare to read of death in the desert in the local news. Why doesn’t 2,025 plus deaths since the year 2000 within 40 miles of my home stir up any interest? What does it take to wake us up to this senseless loss of life? This is happening in our own backyard.  What is to become of the hundreds of pilgrims I meet each week? Many that I see and speak with will die a horrible death in the desert.   Those that make it will work for lower than minimum wage; many will reunite with their families, but live in the shadows.

Underlying a lot of my frustration is that change in immigration policy drags along at a snail’s pace. I applaud Obama’s proclamation to make life more bearable for the DREAM kids. But honestly, what about the rest? What is so difficult about designing a work permit system for immigrants who wish to do jobs that most Americans refuse to tackle? What is so complicated about allowing easier access back and forth across our borders for Latinos that wish to go home to see family and celebrate holidays?

Monsoon time

So in spite of my whining, I’m keeping my hopes up—hopes for an immigration policy that honors life, and hopes for a record monsoon rainy season.  And I hope one of those cows made it across the wall.

To find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans, check out our website:   Your comments, financial support, and dialogue are always appreciated.

Alfonso’s story

•May 28, 2012 • 5 Comments

Sometimes I sit on the patio at our home in the desert and I watch the ants. They march in their long lines like some super freeway across the rocks and arroyos. When a few ants are crushed and dead, the rest keep marching right over their bodies. There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of losing a comrade ant. The march goes on. It seems there is no consciousness of life or death with ants.  I’ve read that elephants gather around their dead in a sort of ritual of respect.  This sort of consciousness however is primarily the stuff of humans. We care. We respect life. We help those who are struggling to survive.


Trailriders in a desert wilderness

I try not to think about what the future holds for my migrant friends when I sit down with them at the comedor. Many are finished with this business of trekking across the desert. They are disheartened and upset, but they are figuring out how to get home to their villages in Mexico and further south. The Samaritans often buy them bus tickets.

Lisbeta from Veracruz

Other migrants are noncommittal about their plans, and smile quietly as I tell them about the scorching desert and the number of liters of water they need to carry to survive. They are being polite. They don’t hear a word. There is a veil over their eyes as I speak to them about the dangers, the Border Patrol, the long distances. They search for decent shoes and backpacks in our piles of clothes and supplies. Many wear large crosses around their necks. The men thank me and are unfailingly polite. Then they are gone.

They wear large crosses

On one particular morning (April 17, 2012) I notice a man limping and looking at the shipment of new shoes that the Samaritans brought for distribution. The man has both feet bound in gauze bandages, and still there are blisters visible. We find him some oversized slippers to wear. I sit down with this gentleman and learn that he is from Vista, California, and has a wife and five children.  They live with him in his American home.  His English is excellent. His name is Alfonso, and he is a butcher who has lived in Vista for twenty years. He lost his job two years ago because of his immigration status, so he has been busy with odd jobs here and there in his community. He gets by.


Alfonso's feet

Alfonso was picked up at a store in Vista in March because of a series of flukes and obtuse circumstances. He was minding the store for a few minutes while the owner, a friend, stepped out. He was not an employee, but was doing his friend a favor for a short while. A deputy entered the store and asked for his identification. Alfonso had his Mexican identification card, but no other papers.

He was deported to Tijuana, Mexico and after trying to return to Vista and his family, he was picked up again, spent some time in detention, and was deported to Nogales. Now he is here at the comedor thinking over his options. He is profoundly depressed and worried about his family. Privately I think to myself, this man will not be walking in the desert in the near future. His feet are too macerated. At least he will be safe here for awhile. I feel some relief that he will not be hiking across the Sonoran desert. The temperatures are rising and we are heading into a very hot early summer. I ask him if it is possible for his family to come here, rather than for him to try to cross again and travel to Vista. He does not think this is possible.

Beauty among the thorns

So we part ways as I often do with the migrants and I wish him a safe journey wherever he is going. I check his feet and ask to photograph them, and he tells me this is OK. He is slumped over sitting at the long tables, and his eyes are a million miles away.

In the coming weeks I went on some desert searches with Samaritans. Packing up the van with medical supplies, water, food packs and clothing, we set off into some of the back country where there are known migrant trails. The country is vast and beautiful during the late spring with the color of blooming cacti and the soaring of migrating birds distracting us from the job at hand. Birds migrate, people migrate, butterflies migrate—Arizona is a crossroads for living things on the move. We are a nation of nomads. The temperatures reach into the 90’s and begin to creep into triple digits. It is 85 degrees at 9 AM and climbing. The Border Patrol tells us there is “a lot of activity.” We gaze through binoculars and see nothing but the birds and flowering saguaros, their white waxy flowers looking like Easter bonnets. I think about who might be out there, but see only the twisting trails up and down the mountains. The Border Patrol tells me that the migrants travel at night and you can see their flashlights in long ribbons dotting the desert. It looks like an LA freeway.

                          Lunch in Arivaca, Arizona after a desert search

On April 20, three days after my encounter with Alfonso, he began his journey in the desert. How he was able to walk even a mile astounds me. He lasted one day, and was left by his coyote guide because he was holding back the rest of the group. His friend, Isaac, stayed with him and found Alfonso’s cell phone in his pocket. He called 911 but had no reception. The pair was somewhere on the Tohono O’odham reservation, a vast expanse of desert with few people. Walking for two hours, Isaac was finally able to reach the Border Patrol who came and picked him up. He was immediately arrested. Isaac begged the officers to return to his friend, Alfonso, who was sick and unable to walk. Isaac knew exactly where he was. The Border Patrol said they would “send out another agent” to look for the injured Alfonso.

Old mining camp and migrant trails

And this is the point in the story where I have a basic disconnect. Isaac knew where to find Alfonso, and could do so within two hours. The Border Patrol agent did not know where to find Alfonso. It is basic human decency to search for a person who is unable to walk and in danger of dying in the Sonoran desert. For reasons I do not understand, this did not happen.

And I think about the ants on my patio. The march goes on. The business of the Border Patrol continues without interruption.

Looking for the lost

Isaac was deported to Mexicali, Mexico, and released in two days. He immediately called Alfonso’s family, and his wife and children created an altar to her husband praying that he was still alive.

The Border Patrol after several days asked Isaac to take them to the place he had last seen Alfonso. Isaac returned to Arizona with the agents and was able to find his friend on April 26 at the base of Baboquivari, the sacred mountain of the Tohono O’odham. Alfonso had not survived. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition. It took several more days to positively identify the body in the Medical Examiner’s office.

The Virgin and the jacket

So here is the time table:

  • I meet Alfonso April 17 at el comedor and find him some slippers to wear. I examine his severely blistered feet and photograph them. We talk about his family, his home, his career as a butcher.
  • Alfonso begins his journey across the desert April 20.
  • He is unable to keep up April 21, and cannot go on. His friend, Isaac, stays with him. They are both abandoned by their migrant group and the coyote guide.
  • Isaac contacts Border Patrol after hiking two hours and is immediately arrested. The agent refuses to look for the lost Alfonso and instead deports Isaac to Mexicali.
  • Isaac is in detention for two days and upon release contacts Alfonso’s wife and family.
  • Border Patrol agents ask Isaac to lead them to Alfonso.
  • Isaac is able to lead the agents directly to his friend on April 26. Alfonso is dead from hypothermia, exposure and dehydration.

    A desert lifesaver


This story has hit me hard. It is a senseless waste of life. It is imperative that this situation be examined and the Border Patrol be held accountable. Most of the time my conversations and encounters with Border Patrol agents have been helpful and cordial. I have felt a mutual respect. They appreciate what the Samaritans do, and I am grateful that the agents are in the business of saving lives and keeping the peace. But there was no reason for this death.

The man was two hours from a rescue.

May God forgive us for allowing this sort of desperation where a man dies in the desert trying to reach his family, and we don’t have the humanity to look for him.

For further details about this tragic story, please refer to the link below:

For more information about what the Green Valley Samaritans do in response to the immigration crisis in the borderlands, check out our wonderful website:

Mother’s Day in the Desert

•May 12, 2012 • 3 Comments

He is sitting quietly at the long tables in the comedor staring at a plate of food before him. He doesn’t touch it. The smells from the little kitchen are intoxicating. Sister Lorena has cranked up some rockin’ salsa music and the mood is upbeat on this gorgeous spring day. There is definitely something wrong with the gentleman staring at his plate while those around him are inhaling the beans, rice and chicken stew with gusto.

High school students help with breakfast

Approaching this man I ask him if he is OK in my halting Spanish. He replies in perfect English that he is having a lot of stomach pain and was advised to only have liquids for a few days. His name is Jonathon and he was recently discharged from the hospital in Tucson after being lost in the desert for two days without food or water. He was traveling with nine others in the desert and could not keep up after developing stomach pain and vomiting. The coyote (guide) left him, and he tells me that he fell asleep on the desert floor and was awakened by the Border Patrol. “They saved my life.” He was taken to the University Medical Center in Tucson where he received treatment for two days.

Wearing the drawstring pants from the hospital and a well worn t-shirt, he holds his stomach and rocks back and forth at the table. His feet are bound in gauze bandages and his skin has a pale yellow caste. The man is ill and the beans and rice simply will not do this morning. The kitchen crew gives me a glass of milk for my new friend, Jonathon, and he takes some tentative sips telling me his story.

Jonathon and Samaritans

He has been working in Seattle for seven years as an electrician, a job that pays well and one that he enjoys. Money is sent home regularly to Veracruz, Mexico, to his wife, his three children, and his mother. His daughter’s quinceanera (her fifteenth birthday, a celebration of womanhood in Mexico) was coming up and she begged him to be there for this special day. He was given a four month leave of absence from his Seattle job and went home to celebrate.

Trying to get back to Seattle was a different story.  After his failed attempt to cross the border and his near-death experience in the desert, he was returned to a detention center in the U.S  where his clothes, wallet, I.D., cell phone and money “disappeared.”  The man had literally nothing but the hospital issued clothes on his back.

Passing out clothes at the comedor

He wants to go home to Veracruz, be with his family, and get well. And here is the silver lining to the story. The Mexican Consulate will pay for this man’s bus ticket home because he is disabled and is still in a fragile state. The Samaritans help get this man a bus ticket and expedite the transportation paperwork so he can return to Veracruz. And we find him a clean polo shirt for the trip home.

"You are more of a man when you respect a woman"

I think about Jonathon and this life-changing experience. All he wants at this moment is to go home to his wife and “live like a real family.” Risking his life in order to make the comfortable wages of an electrician in Seattle, well, it is not how he will live his life. He will figure out a way to survive economically in Veracruz and celebrate all of his children’s birthdays and quinceaneras.

So this is the weekend of Mother’s Day, one of those Hallmark events where our thoughts turn to our own mothers or the mothers we wish we had become. For me, Mother’s Day is usually tinged with a bit a guilt. Shoulda done it better, this motherhood stuff. (do mothers ever think they do it right?) It’s one of those times of nostalgia and memories of coffee in bed and maybe a breakfast tray with a couple of flowers in a vase.  My own children used to make crepes with strawberries and whipped cream on top. Whipped cream on the coffee too. The kitchen was a mess, but Mama was happy. And the kids were so pleased with themselves. And we were together, the kids and I.

Moms and kids

I’m missing my children today and will pick up the phone and talk with them. They are parents now, and we will talk about what they are doing with their own children. Is their kitchen a mess? Did they get whipped cream at breakfast? Do they even remember that today is Mother’s Day?

And I’m missing my own mother and wishing she could come with me on my treks down to Mexico each week. I think she would enjoy dishing up the beans and rice and listening to the stories of these pilgrims. My mother died several years back, but she is in my thoughts a lot. She would disapprove of the civil disobedience aspects of my immigration politics, but would be the first to lend a hand to the hungry and the wounded. My mother was a kissing mother and a scolding mother, and I got generous amounts of both. I think she would both kiss and scold at el comedor–scold the migrants for leaving their children, but kiss them and wish them god-speed on their journey.

To my Mother, Nogales cemetery

I try to imagine leaving my children in one country and traveling under the radar to another country knowing I am not welcome, am despised by many, and may never see my family again. To be totally vulnerable with little or no money, no job, trekking across the searing desert in May hoping for a chance to make a few dollars—it all sounds like a nightmare.

It is a nightmare. Jonathon survived the nightmare, barely.

I wish I could be in Veracruz when that bus pulls into his village and his family greets him. The whole scenario makes me smile.

His mother will kiss him and scold him. I just know it.

The Samaritans have a new website.  Check out:  for more information about our activities.