When I Was Thirsty

Last year I visited the Sonoran Desert, which straddles the U.S.-Mexican border, for the third time— this time to volunteer for Humane Borders, a faith-based humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO). After seeing their migrant water stations in the desert, I was curious about what kind of people would do such a striking thing as putting barrels of water on migration routes. I was worried about people on this trip.

On my first day, I rode along on the Ironwood Run, which goes into the new Ironwood Forest National Monument. It’s in a thorn scrub community and sports millions of nice saguaros. Maybe it will be an addition to Saguaro National Park. We saw a Gila monster (the first I’ve seen), a black hawk, and a couple of red-tailed hawks on the way there.

This matter of the water seems to be one of driving—lots of it, in all kinds of trucks. It’s important, no doubt about it, but it’s endless. And we find occasional water stations full of bullet holes: a message in a barrel. One message is a copper- jacketed 9-mm. with scoring so it tears open into a kind of six-pointed star. A week later, a group of volunteers found 40-calibre bullets and the complete destruction of barrel stands and the overhead flag. (The water stops the bullets, allowing us to inspect them.) These things are done by "Minutemen," a controversial citizen-organized border-watch patrol —or others with a similar philosophy.

I washed trucks, filled tanks, and relearned a bit of religion and theology. I attended one Quaker meeting and one Unitarian Universalist service, along with a service at First Christian Church, the home of Humane Borders. The other volunteers were students from Mexico and the United States; 10,000 volunteers have worked for HB over the last eight years.

I walked for one day in the Migrant Walk, from Sasebe, Sonora, to a campsite in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The people who travel the 75 miles to Tucson give up their IDs to another walker, who carries them in a locked box to symbolize the migrants’ undocumented status. The No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos groups are well-organized: they have food, medical, security, and logistics sections set up, and Humane Borders provides water for washing and drinking.

At the church in Sasebe, Sonora, we attended mass, which included a homily about the migration by a priest who then walked with the group. He described the economic conditions giving rise to the desperate journey to get work. On a short walk in Sasebe before the main event, we passed the local office of Grupo Beta, a Mexican government agency giving information on the perils and problems of the desert. They also do search and rescue, though now only in the daytime because of the narcotraficantes. We passed an army Humvee with soldiers carrying automatic rifles. Our other visits to Mexico involved the delivery of blankets and clothing to a migrants’ shelter in Nogales, and paperback Gospels to a church there.

A young Franciscan padre, chatty and personable, also walked. We were doing something we were called to do. The marshal who kept us out of the way of traffic was working on a graduate degree in Public Administration: she was now administering 65 people. As I stood by the tents and watched the sun lighting the San Luis Mountains in the east, I imagined my favorite birds, the masked bobwhites, fat and happy, inhabiting the grasslands all around me. Si, se puede.

A Paiute-Shoshone medicine woman officiated in a Blessing Way outside the new wall at the port of entry. She walked with the group, as did a number of other religious leaders. She will carry a 20-foot-length of red yarn with a knot for each of the migrants lost this year, to keep their memory alive. One white knot is for each man, woman, and child yet undiscovered or unidentified. Many will always remain desconocidos.

During a meeting, a mockingbird outside rhapsodized the reading of the balance sheet and financial statement. The discussion of (c)(4) and (c)(3) organizations was similarly accompanied. Mimus polyglottos, the mockingbird, applauds anything to do with providing water to travelers of the Sonoran, and editorializes forcefully. He addresses the living and the dying, morning and night, and sings these cantos throughout his range. I record the human laughter along with his courtyard chorus. Later, I looked for a July 4 date in the bin of crosses in the shed. There was a July 2 and a July 3, but that was all I could find; I personally commemorate an unidentified man I found on a previous trip. Humane Borders’ Geographical Information System specialist says when deaths rise or fall, water consumption does also. The curves coincide.

We meet a young man who says he’s 18 but looks younger, who I note has signs of tuberculosis. He’s a potato worker from Ecuador, where farmworkers suffer toxic effects of insecticides, and where his work supplies a bare living. He knows relatives in a couple of cities and will take the bus from here. In the anti-migrant states like this one, he can’t legally get care. It would simply take a course of antibiotics, in all likelihood, to eliminate this disastrous disease from his life. Without it he may die in a few years. Pope Benedict XVI says we must have a concern for the poor, the sick, and the strangers among us.

We still have a close economic relationship with Mexico. NGOs report that there have been no terrorists caught on the southern border. Everywhere else, it seems, nature is losing while people are winning. Suddenly I find that here, on the Sonoran border in sizzling heat, we are sacrificing people to the environment— officers write tickets to those who leave jugs of water. Meanwhile, 3,500 Latinos have perished in the attempt to get jobs or join their families since the increased enforcement began. Many more have never been found. The waiting period is long for these jobs, and the selection process is endless.


Michael Pratt, a retired park ranger, is a member of Estes Park (Colo.) Worship Group/Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. (About this group, he writes: "Originally formed to allow local Friends and UUs to explore common ground, our fellowship meets weekly year-round. A half hour of silence is followed by introductions, coffee, and Joys and Concerns. A group member or outside speaker then presents a program on a subject announced a month or two ahead.")