No Al Muro, by Emma Rigler
Hey y’all! I’ve missed you. I know it’s been a while… I’m so sorry. October and November have been crazy months with so much adventure, learning, and growth. I have so much to tell you! There is no way I’ll get through all of it, but I’m going to share the pieces that moved me the most. Otherwise, you would be reading for a looong time, and I would be writing for even looooonger, and nobody wants that. We will get to the juicy stuff soon enough, but I want to preface. The third week in October Allison, Luke, and I met up with the Tucson YAVs, Lisette and Eli, and another volunteer group called Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVSers), Cade, Michaela, Andrea, and Jessie, for a Border Delegation Retreat. Tucson is only two and a half hours outside of Douglas, Arizona where a U.S. – Mexico port of entry is. What I experienced, I will not be able to fully tell you. There is no way to understand what I saw, heard, and felt, unless you experience it for yourself. I highly, highly, highly encourage every person reading this to spend just a few days with migrants, to listen to their stories, go to the U.S. – Mexico border and see it for yourself. I still have so much to learn and I am by no means even within a fraction of being an expert on immigration, but everyone should be aware of what is happening to real people… human beings, right next door.
As usual, we will start at the top! We arrived in Douglas the first afternoon and had a beautiful dinner at Frontera de Christo with some of the staff and volunteers. We met Hoka who was more or less our guide through our days in Agua Prieta, Mexico. Our first day we were a part of a cross planting ceremony for a young man named Heriberto Garcia Perfecto. Heriberto was 28 at the time of his death in June of 2021. Heriberto was found the day he died. It’s rare for people who die in the desert to be found that fast. Heriberto was alone when he died. Heriberto probably died of hypothermia. Dehydration. Starvation. Heriberto died a quarter of a mile away from where we planted his cross. Heriberto was someone fighting for a better life in the United States.
I knew this day in particular was going to be a difficult one to get through… and it was the first day! I started that day feeling heavy; trying to emotionally prepare myself for what I was going to feel. The Sisters of Notre Dame took us to the cross planting site. They try to go out as often as they can with volunteers to plant crosses. They mark where people have passed during the extremely long and dangerous journey to the border. They run a blog site with a map of the people found, marked by red dots. It only covers Cochise County, and there are hundreds. If you want to look more into it here is their blog! We gathered in a circle and played instruments in celebration of Heriberto’s life. There was a smudging ceremony which probably struck me the most because that is something that my family does before a time of transition or a new beginning. It was incredibly sad, but there was also joy and love being spread among the people there. Here was a group of strangers, coming together to recognize Heriberto. So many people that shared the same fate as Heriberto have never been identified or even found. Imagine how many families are waiting for word that their family member(s) made it safely, and how many are already waiting in the U.S. for their family member(s) to join them, to never get word. Imagine living in that uncertainty. I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of emotional whiplash for me. I caught myself almost felling silly for crying at Heriberto’s cross planting. Who was I to cry over this young man? I didn’t know him or what he went through, and I never will. I am so privileged to have the things I have, to be able to have these experiences and be able to go home, to safety, to be able to call my family and friends whenever and not fear for my life. I have the comfort of knowing that the people I love are safe. This was not the last time I found myself feeling that way.
That night, we went to C.A.M.E. (Centro de Atencion Migrante Exodus) for dinner. C.A.M.E is a place that welcomes migrants, and gives them the space to live while they work and wait to give their testimony before their cases are reviewed in the United States. I was really nervous for this interaction because I have not practiced my Spanish since my junior year of college. Lisette was the only fluent Spanish speaker in our group, but Alison, Cade, and one of the Frontera de Christo volunteers, Kathy, were really good at translating as well, and helped those of us who weren’t so good. Needless today, those of us that weren’t comfortable in our Spanish clung to those four that entire night. For the time that we were there, they were only housing men with two other families. They made the best calabacitas (squash) for Jessie and I (the designated vegetarians) while everyone else had chicken. They graciously made our food with “no spice”, which we all giggled at. I sat with Michaela and Kathy that afternoon, and talked with two men named Enrique and Lae (I probably didn’t spell that right). The best word that I could use to describe Lae would be calming. He sat down and my nerves were calmed a little. He came in so interested, asking questions about us. He made eye contact with us even though he knew we couldn’t understand most of what he was saying. Enrique is from Guatemala and is 20 years old. He came to the border by himself, while his family stayed behind. He shared parts of his story with us. He was born in Alabama when his parents migrated to the US, so he is technically a US Citizen. His family ended up migrating back to Guatemala and his papers got lost in the move so he is trying to go through the process of crossing. His personality was so bright and joyful. He was goofy and loved to make us laugh. He showed us a traditional song called “Michaela” from his home, and practiced his English on us. We were patient with each other. We laughed together. We related to each other, even though it seemed like we couldn’t be more different. We created community in the short time we were with them. This was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip.
The next day, we started at CATPSIC (Centro Atencion Psicologia), a drug and rehabilitation center. They told us that they were housing around fifty people at the time we were there, but it was empty compared to what is has been. The thing that blew my mind the most was that they were completely volunteer run. Every person that was “working” there was there on their own time and dime. You could tell by the way these people interacted together that they were a true community that stood up for each other. They took us out to the “Tree of Life” in the middle of the dessert. David, a local pastor, drove us in his son’s basketball team’s van. It had rained a few days prior to us being there, and there were a few times it felt like we were on a roller coaster driving through the desert mud. We got stuck once and we all had to get out. Half of us pushed and got sprayed with mud, and the other half stayed out of the way and clapped when they succeeded, I’ll let you guess which group I was a part of.
When we reached the Tree of Life, it fit the image I had in my mind. It was giant, with branches so long and heavy they rested on the ground before they reached for the sky. Beautiful leaves that shaded perfectly, letting just the right amount of light in. About twenty of us fit comfortably under this beauty. There was a giant blue container under the branches, that the people from CATPSIC refill with fresh water every two weeks or so. This is a safe haven for migrants to rest before they make the final trek to the wall. We had a devotional time and reflected on some scripture before we started on our own trek. Some of the folks from CATPSIC were at one point coyotes. Coyotes are the people who smuggle migrants across the border for money. It was interesting to hear their side of that interaction. People looking to cross the border will hear through word of mouth who these Coyotes are. They will contact them before they even leave home. The journey could cost anywhere around $10,000 and it is very dangerous, you are likely to lose everything, and it is not a guarantee that you get to your destination. The Coyotes showed us the safest way to stay hidden and to get to the wall. We crouched, ran, and crawled through the desert all the way up to the wall. We were all bloody and dusty from the thorns and spikes of every plant that surrounded us. I was picking thorns out of everywhere for the rest of the day. IMAGINE DOING THAT THROUGH LITERALLY THE ENTIRE DESERT! WITH BARELY ANY FOOD OR WATER! OR DECENT CLOTHING TO SURVIVE THE PLANTS AND KEEP YOU COOL DURING THE DAY AND WARM AT NIGHT! WHILE PEOPLE ARE HUNTING YOU! I don’t know about y’all but that sounds like the Hunger Games! Yes, there are many ways to get across the border, but each is just as dangerous as the next.
Once we reached the wall, the Coyotes showed us how people climb the thirty foot metal wall. The top six feet of the wall was solid block of metal with nothing to grab. Only one of us succeeded in touching that block of metal. I maybe got five feet off the ground, and trust me, I was proud of myself for even getting that far. I couldn’t even fathom climbing it all the way up and getting over the top to then slide down again and run into more desert for miles and miles AND there are sensors in the ground and cameras in the trees. When we were headed to leave, they told us that both the cartel and border patrol knew we were there and had eyes on us the entire time… that just added to the fire that was rapidly boiling my blood. We hiked back to the Tree of Life and we ate delicious burritos together and processed what we had done. Just like that our time catching a wink of what thousands of people do to survive was at an end.
We drove back to the church, but stopped for a treat across the street. CAFÉ JUSTO! I was in my element here…coffee! They gave us a tour and a crash course on how they came to be. They are a Grower owned Coffee Cooperative based in southern Chiapas Mexico, formed to address the poverty and migration from Mexico to the U.S.A. The church we were staying in helped them get started with the business and started handing out bags of coffee to new members and visitors when they were starting up 20 years ago. Eventually the community fell in love, and it is a must stop coffee shop in Agua Prieta. They showed us how they roasted the coffee beans we even got some lattes. Needless to say I came home with three bags in small duffle bag and my clothes haven’t stopped smelling like coffee yet! Are all of the bags for me, you ask? That is to be determined.
That night we went to the Healing Our Borders Prayer Vigil back on the Douglas, AZ side of the wall. The sisters from the cross planting invited us, and they have been doing these vigils on the same day every single week for the last 20 years. The crosses are almost identical to the one we planted for Heriberto, all of them with different names, different ages, some with no names. All of them a red dot on that map of people who have died on this treacherous journey. After such an exhausting week, this really got me. It was way outside of my comfort zone. I have never been the person on the street trying to get peoples attention, let alone in front of the rush hour line at stand still trying to get across to Mexico holding crosses high, yelling these peoples names. During the closing portion on the side of the road, I started to cry. I imagined holding crosses with my mom’s, dad’s, brothers’ names on them. How many tears had been shed over the names we were holding up that day. How many people don’t know that their loved one’s name is on one of those crosses, and are waiting to see their faces at their front door, or waiting by the phone for them to call, to hear their voice.
Our last day, we visited DouglaPrieta Trabaja Women’s Cooperative. DouglaPrieta Trabaja’s purpose has always been to assist individuals and families in colonias populares, or poor neighborhoods, by developing local capacities for economic self-sufficiency. We ate with some of the women who currently work there. They showed us the carpentry area where women learn to make items like ornaments to sell. They showed us the sewing room where they make pot holders, bags, table mats, dolls, and other beautiful things. There was even a school for the children of the women there and they teach them sustainability in the garden. The garden was massive and buzzing with life! There were even cats that would just chill; Allison was in heaven! If you want to support them by donating or buying some Christmas presents, HERE is their link. From there we were finished in Agua Prieta and headed back to Tucson for the reflection part of the delegation.
Here is where we will take our intermission! The next blog post, I will go into the reflection and the post-Mexico feelings. I want to say thank you for being so patient with me.. I took my time with this post. Maybe a bit too much time. It has been more difficult than I anticipated to get my feelings and thoughts out. This experience is so important to share, so again, thank you for being patient with me.
LEARN MORE ABOUT ORGANIZATIONS IN AGUA PRIETA
To read more from Emma, check out her blog here.
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