Border Talk (Part 9)

Geronimo trail 3I packed a picnic lunch before Ron and I headed south toward Geronimo Trail for a well-deserved break from spring chores at the ranch. The trail is an eighty mile stretch of county and U.S. Forest Service back country road that winds thirty miles though the Animas Valley and up over a pass in the Peloncillo Mountains before it drops down into the San Bernardino Valley ending in Douglas, Arizona. A gorgeous four hour round trip was just what we needed, or so I thought.

Geronimo Trail 2Climbing out of the Animas Valley into the mountains, the desert floor flora is replaced by pine and desert oaks. A plaque of the Arizona -New Mexico Boundary marks the crest of the pass. There are also two other signs near the site. One marked the U.S. Mormon Battalion Trail—the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history. It was led by Mormon officers and commanded by regular U.S. Army during the Mexican – American War from July 1846 to July 1847. The other, a U.S. Forest sign that cautioned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area.

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While Ron and I enjoyed sliced salami, cheese, apples, and oatmeal cookies I had baked earlier that morning, I contemplated both the historical marker and the sign warning us of smugglers. Not much had changed in the 175 years since the war. Back then this part of the country still belonged to Mexico and would until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 when Mexico sold the United States 30,000 miles of its northern borderlands for ten million dollars. History books are full of reasons why we ended up with so much land for pennies on the dollar, nonetheless, since claiming this vast desert landscape, we have fought hard to keep it for ourselves. The No Trespassing signs nailed to gates and fence posts on every ranch flanking the Geronimo Trail may keep hunters and weekend outdoor enthusiasts off private property, but they stand as proof to those crossing the border illegally that they have entered the United States. One could argue the need for a monstrosity of a wall or fence spanning 2,000 miles of southern borderlands to keep the riff raff out. Or one, like myself, could argue that it’s time to vote the current demagogue out of office. Those were my thoughts as Ron cut apple slices with his pocketknife, and we scanned the vistas for wildlife.

Geronimo Trail 9The terrain changed abruptly as we entered the San Bernardino Valley where fields of wildflowers encroached on prickly pear cactus. It was late afternoon. We were recapping the day’s adventure and weighing the risk of contracting coronavirus if we stopped to pick up a few groceries in Douglas. When on the horizon, we noticed the newly constructed border fence just east of town. We had been within miles of the border all day and hadn’t seen so much as a footprint. All the joy the desert had filled me with evaporated.

Geronimo Trail 12I asked Ron to pull over so I could take pictures. How could this be happening right under our noses? Human rights organizations and environmental watchdogs are no match for the media blitz covering the coronavirus. Everything from the 2020 presidential race to global warming has taken a backseat while Trump marches on with his 2016 campaign promise, “I will build a great wall—and no one builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a wall, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Geronimo Trail 13Ron and I stared at the 30-foot tall scourge on the land as though we were watching an alien spaceship approach. My camera hung limp at my side. I hadn’t attended protests regarding building the wall or kept up with the news. I didn’t deserve a place at the table with photos to share. Our our local border communities had been sucker-punched, while I turned a blind eye. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we drove closer to town, the wall grew exponentially in stature until it was the only thing I saw. It was Sunday and a construction crew worked with the determination of an ant colony. I asked Ron to pull over again. I thought of how fitting it was that we had traveled so much open country on a road named after Geronimo, a great Apache warrior who surrendered to the U.S. military in Skeleton Canyon some thirty miles north of the border after he was promised land in Arizona for his people. Instead, he and his band of followers were shipped to Florida where they were imprisoned. And there I stood, on the same land Geronimo had once navigated, witnessing yet another one of this nation’s great injustices.

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Racism, prejudice, bigotry, and fear, we all have assigned seats at these tables. I picked up my camera and took dozens of photos of the wall and construction site. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the words of Thomas Jefferson as written in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We have strayed far and wide from that proclamation, but as Covid-19 is reminding us, we are all created equal. We do not bow to the political powers that be, rather we, the people, hold the power.

The ride north out of Douglas was quiet with no radio or unnecessary conversation to interrupt our thoughts. Just south of Silver Creek, Border Patrol Agents had gathered a group of illegal immigrants. All of them men, and all of them wearing masks provided by our government. These men are our new Geronimo. The stories of how we treat them, and how we treat our border will one day fill the pages of history books. The accounts will be either of good men and good women doing great things or quite the opposite. We still have the collective power to choose.

 

Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want the smuggler caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Border Talk (Part 8)

MoccisiansMy husband stumbled across a backpack about a mile from the ranch left behind by an undocumented immigrant. Ron brought it home where we opened it together. Inside we found a few t-shirts, a pair of underwear, and a baseball cap. We also retrieved a phone with cords, a charger, and an extra battery. Phones are essential for human traffickers and drug runners who are moving cargo. These criminals often strap carpet remnants to the soles of their shoes allowing them to traverse the desert undetected. The carpet booties we pulled from the pack were hand-sewn and resembled moccasins. The owner of the backpack was most likely spotted by Border Patrol agents and opted to leave his things behind rather than risk getting caught. These packs are strewn across the border landscape like archaeological talismans of a troubled present-day civilization many of us ignore.

quartzI shook the pack to make sure it was empty, and a piece of quartz fell to the floor. This was the real story; a clue to the pack’s owner. Before finding the quartz, I imagined a hardened criminal strapping on the booties over his shoes. Someone stout and muscular with cruel eyes and powerful hands who wore a pistol at his hip. This was the kind of person I could reason into existence. A camo-clad criminal who preyed on the weak and who might show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night. The thought of this guy traveling so close to our house left me examining each item in the pack as though Ron had unearthed a monster in our midst.

What kind of drug runner would pick up a dusty piece of quartz? Certainly not a grown man with evil in his heart. I looked over the clothing again and realized that the t-shirts were size small, and the baseball cap was fitted for someone much smaller than me. The pack most likely belonged to a kid who had been recruited by cartel members to smuggle drugs. I imagined a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen crossing the desert, shielded from detection under a night sky. Alone and afraid, he may have wandered off the trail he had been instructed to follow. I wondered who he had left behind. Was his mother at home crying because her son did not come home from school? Did this boy agree to smuggle drugs because the money would help his family or because someone big and scary wielded a knife? Did he cross the border because he saw no other future for himself?

basketMy mother has a Native American basket hanging on a wall in her spare bedroom. My grandparents found it in the attic of their first home, a farmhouse not far from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The people who sold them the house had left it behind. I stay in that room when I visit my mom and have often contemplated the basket. It’s utilitarian, void of decoration. My grandparents purchased the house during the Great Depression. People in that part of the country were getting up in the morning hungry and out of options. Over weak coffee, many families agreed to flee their farms in hope of finding work in the city. A basket like that would not have been considered a necessity or an heirloom, so it didn’t find its way into a moving box. It was probably made by an Oneida Indian woman and found on the property when the fields were cleared for farming in the late 1800’s. I am surprised my grandma didn’t throw it out. She wasn’t one to collect things unless it was tied to her Irish heritage. In any case, I am the beneficiary of her wisdom to hold onto it and to pass it down to my mom. It is a reminder of the past and our part in it. The Oneida lost much of their land in bogus state treaty deals. The 18,000-acre Reservation southwest of Green Bay is a fraction of the land they once occupied. Like the booties, I may not know the maker of the basket, but both items represent a dark time in American history. A sort of cultural complacency that has allowed for injustice to occur on this soil.

Ron and I threw out the contents of the backpack, but we held onto the booties. They are the physical evidence of our nation’s shared role in agreeing to turn a blind eye to poor kids smuggling drugs across a desert border because their lives and those of their families depend on it. Like the basket, the booties are also evidence for future generations to contemplate.

The piece of quartz has a prominent space on our mantle, a reminder that I can always do better.

 

What Do You Do Down Here?

I am often asked by people who visit the ranch, “What do you do down here?” They look around and wonder how it is we survive. “How far is your closest neighbor?” they ask. “Is there a restaurant around here? What do you do for fun?” Ron and I are generally too busy to give a proper answer to any or all of these questions, but if folks are ready to put on a pair of work gloves and help out, we are happy to share our story.

The truth is I am guilty of asking these same questions when I am driving through small towns or down the Interstate. I wonder where people shop for groceries and what kids do when they are not in school. I think about broader issues like health care, education, and employment. I find myself creating stories about the people who live in these places, and there is a sense of bewilderment in my scenarios. I should know better because the people in these rural towns live like I do. Except I don’t know them. I don’t see them at  Valley Mercantile or at the Fourth of July parade. I don’t attend their school functions or writing groups. I have no history with them. They are strangers so I can make them into whomever I see fit. Instead of admiring the garden in a local park, I may see run down homes and think the whole town is poor. Instead of complimenting the cook on a great meal in a local restaurant, I may gripe about the terrible service. It’s easy to paint a community’s story with broad strokes when you have nothing invested and everyone is a stranger. I don’t want this for you or for my community when you pass through, so I’d like to share what the last month looked like down here along the border:

Animas High School Spring Play. Dinner and a show!

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Animas High School graduation Class of 2019! Twenty-three graduates and over $700,000 in scholarships. Yes, we are all proud of these young adults!

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Two open mic nights. One in Sierra Vista, AZ at Broxton’s Coffee and one in Rodeo,NM at the new Sky Island Grill and Grocery. We have amazing talent in our communities!

IMG_20190601_183929 (4) IMG_20190517_192937  Open mic Portal June 1, 2019

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Open mic June 1 , 2019

My dear friend Denise Hoyos and I went up to the Chiricahua Mountains for a little bird watching and got caught in a rainstorm until a nice gentleman took us back to my truck. We had lunch at the Portal Peak Lodge Store and Cafe where a couple from North Carolina helped us identify some of the birds we saw.

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rede cardinal Mexican JayI

I went up to the annual Cave Creek Garden Party in the Chiricachua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest where I met wonderful neighbors and had a terrific lunch sponsored by Friends of Cave Creek. On my way home, Ron called. Three of his fly buddies flew into the ranch to spend the night. The winds were too strong to fly back to Phoenix. We set them up in my studio, and then we all headed back up to the mountains for dinner at the Portal Lodge and dancing. Entertainment was provided by Al Foul and his band. Al’s from Dudleyville. I’m not even sure that’s on a map!

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And to answer that question about what it is we do down here, well, we do a lot!

Border Talk (7)

2ff82e9a-677b-4dd3-b798-b568ff6b72de-3_United_Constitutional_Patriots_New_Mexico_Border_OpsOn April 16, a group of migrants crossing the border at night just west of El Paso were met by armed American civilians, a militia calling themselves the Constitutional Patriots New Mexico Border Ops Team. Children and adults huddled together in the dirt while the group, playing dress-up in military garb and armed with assault weapons, surrounded the exhausted and confused crowd.

Today a handful of white nationalists armed with a megaphone stormed the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC chanting, “This land is our land” in protest of a scheduled talk by Jonathan Metzle, author, and professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. The motley crew was met with boos by a shocked audience.

Two thousand miles separate these two acts of incivility. On the surface they have little in common: a group of migrants being held at gun point along our border versus a protest at a bookstore in our nation’s capital. But excusing these as unrelated problems has become the problem.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath. Instead of choosing a side, sharing an opinion, pointing a finger, throwing up our hands, or crying in our beer, we should just take a breath. I can’t solve the world’s problems, but I can breathe, and I can connect the dots. I can see that a group of adults dressed like soldiers and a group of grown men chanting a Woody Guthrie refrain are just as frustrated as the rest of us. The difference is that their frustration has morphed in to fear, galvanizing them. Instead of doing something constructive, they are acting out. And their behavior is rewarded by some of our high-ranking politicians.

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Last week Larry Mitchell Hopkins, a 69 year-old, white male and self-proclaimed “national commander” of the Constitutional Patriots New Mexico Border Ops Team, was arrested after it was discovered that Hopkins, a convicted felon, is not allowed to carry firearms. Conversely, Johnathan Metzle was at the Politics and Prose bookstore to talk about his newly released book “Dying of Whiteness:  How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.” As our country becomes more divided and many of us watch our friends, neighbors, and family members succumb to their fears, it is important to stay informed. Arming ourselves with knowledge dispels fear and helps us connect the dots.

Yesterday a group of migrants was caught by Border Patrol just over the hill from our place. We heard some got away. We had dinner plans, but I didn’t want to leave the house. What if they broke in while we were gone? I am guilty of having a vivid imagination and pictured big men carrying guns kicking down our doors and smashing our windows. By the time we left the house, I worried we’d come home to find the ranch ablaze. But we went to dinner where we had a wonderful time with friends. Returning home, we drove around the property looking for signs of people trespassing. It was after dark, so our heightened awareness nearly sucked the air out of the truck. When we were finally in the house, I collapsed in a chair in the living room. All that internal fretting about the unknown had taken its toll on me. In the end, this is what people like Hopkins are banking on. Build a militia and those of us scared out of our wits or at the end of our rope will come.

I propose that Hopkins and Metzle talk over a good meal. It’s not too late to bridge the gap.