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 that guy 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.

 

 

Angels We Have Heard On High

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Thirty years ago, I gave my beautiful daughter up for adoption. My life was in shambles and without a strong support system, I did what was best for her. Intellectually I have always known this. My heart, on the other hand, never reconciled my decision. Each Christmas I took her adoption box from my closet and spread out the items I had collected during and after my pregnancy on the bed. The little hospital band she wore on her wrist, no bigger than a bread tie, held her DNA and remains the most precious thing I own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, she stayed three years old in my thoughts. An age in which she could walk and talk but would have still been completely dependent on me. This was the little girl I mourned for all those years.

After a long and emotional search, my daughter and I finally found one another, and I have been twice blessed to have traveled to Wisconsin to see her this past year. She is an extraordinary, accomplished young woman with a lovely husband and four precious children. All the things I feared would become of her life because of my decision have been laid to rest. She grew up with loving parents who continue to have her best interests at heart, and as a result, she has a full life.

This is the season of giving and receiving, of forgiveness and new beginnings. Of love. For thirty years I roamed the earth in a fog, paralyzed with guilt and sadness for what I had done. I kept my story mostly to myself in fear of judgement. Seeing my profile and long fingers in my daughter, marveling at her smile, and embracing her after all these years gives me hope for a better future.

The sun has set on this most blessed day of the year. The gifts are sorted in neat piles, leftovers are stacked in the refrigerator, and the house is quiet. This Christmas, the adoption box and the broken dreams associated with it remain in the closet. I am so grateful my prayers have been answered and that my daughter has accepted me into her life, making this a very Merry Christmas!

“War Paint” The Musical, Right Here on the Border

helena_rubinsteingettyimages_0Last week I stopped by to see a friend who is working to restore the adobe buildings on one of the old cattle ranches in Sonoita, AZ. He said that in the day it had been owned my a “famous make-up lady.” I did some digging and discovered the ranch had belonged to Helena Rubinstein! This name may not ring a bell with some of you, but as a girl who once had aspirations of becoming a fashion designer, my jaw dropped.

Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer in the cosmetic industry along with Elizabeth Arden. She was one of the wealthiest women in the world. This is the same Helena Rubinstein who found the borderlands so captivating she purchased a cattle ranch in what was once, and still is, in the middle of nowhere. After twenty-five years of living down here, the stories along the borderlands still amaze me. Do you know of a house in a border town that was once owned by someone famous? If so, we would love to hear about it! IMG_3080

P.S. Elizabeth Arden would turn over in her grave if she knew that every door in Helena’s house is red, Ms. Arden’s signature color!IMG_3079

Geronimo Surrenders

Skelteton CanyonThe heat is unbearable! So, if you are in the mood to get lost for a while, take Highway 80 north out of Douglas, Arizona where a lonely stretch of road, flanked by the Chiricahua Mountains to the west and the Peloncillo Mountains to the east, cuts through spectacular grasslands and high desert. Sightings of other vehicles are rare, but if you are lucky, you may run into is a herd of prong horn. These beautiful animals can usually be found grazing off in a pasture across the highway from East Rucker Canyon Road. You won’t find a gas station or restaurant along the way, but if you get into trouble, ranchers in the area are willing to lend a helping hand.

Geronimo Memorial 2Forty miles northeast of Douglas start looking for the Geronimo Surrender Monument at Apache where you’ll find Apache Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse that is still serving kids today, and the old Mattingly’s General Store, an impressive stone building that has stood the test of time in the harsh desert climate. Other than that, there isn’t much to it. Except there is if you pull into the small parking lot and step out of your car. Geronimo surrendered just southeast of the monument up in Skeleton Canyon. When the air is still, you may hear the whisper of those who were there on that fateful day of September 6, 1886. Look west to the Chiricahua Mountains, a majestic range where Geronimo and his followers hid and avoided capture for years. There is a small ramada where you can picnic out of the sun if you’re so inclined.

Geronimo memorialIt is rumored that Geronimo still roams the mountains. For those of you curious to find out, take Portal Road just outside of Rodeo, New Mexico and head west toward Portal, Arizona on Portal Road. Follow the road to Cave Creek and stop in at the Friends of Cave Creek Visitor’s Center. They can help you find a trail that fits your ability and schedule. Tread lightly on your journey, and you may hear Geronimo and his friends just beyond the next bend or through the trees. On your way back, stop in at either the Portal Peak Lodge, Store & Cafe or Sky Island Grill and Grocery for something to eat. And when you get a chance, send me a note. I’d love to hear that Geronimo is still out that way.

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!

The Road Not Taken, Again

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Google Maps recently put our ranch on the road to El Paso. Logistically this doesn’t make any sense at all, yet several people have ignored the signs leaving our tiny town of Animas: Warning! No Service Ahead, Pavement Ends Next 20 Miles, End State Maintenance. They have ignored reason and instead have followed Google Maps’ prompt to turn left onto the dirt road that leads straight to our cattle guard, a mile off the pavement, and into our driveway. And they have ignored our flailing hands as they drive around the property looking for the road that will take them to the great state of Texas. One woman nearly ran over our dogs as she barreled down our runway toting a camper trailer behind her pick up. Ron finally caught up with her on the four wheeler and found her so flustered, she nearly toppled the trailer as she cranked the wheel 180 degrees to hightail it out of here. Last night while we were getting ready for bed, moving truck pulled in. Ron ran out in his pajamas to find out what the hell was going on. A few minutes later he came in shaking his head. “That guy was looking for Nogales.” Impressive, I thought. Nogales is a border town 193 miles west of here.

There is a correlation between the dependence on technology and our dwindling common sense that I fear is not being studied or addressed. The more we rely on our smart phones, lap tops, and tablets, the less we trust on our own good judgement. And I think we are all guilty of it. Not to the degree that I would turn off a paved road to get to a major city, but still. Last week Ron and I met my sister Kelli and her husband, Carl, along with another couple in San Antonio for Saint Patrick’s Day. Ron used flight software to get us to a local airport. We used the Airbnb app to select a place to stay, another for restaurant recommendations, and the Uber app to get around town. For our willingness to count on technology, we meandered up and down the river walk while Google and Visa tracked our every move collecting data on our preferences from what we like to eat to where we like to shop.

signTotalitarian novels like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were the canaries in the mine warning us of what was to come. Whether it’s succumbing to Big Brother— i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.— as Winston does in Nineteen Eighty-Four or rebuking it as John does in Brave New World, we are at a crossroads. I can’t imagine pulling out a map or asking for directions any more than I can getting lost in an unfamiliar city. But there is a price to pay for the ease and convenience of technology. As we become more dependent on apps, social media, and search engines to make our lives easier, we are whittling away at our free will. When a big yellow and red sign reads: Warning! No Service Ahead, it is time to turn around regardless of what your phone may be telling you.

Apps like Goggle Maps are available to assist us, not to replace us. As Robert Frost reminds us in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” in the end, we are gifted a discerning mind:

… Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Border Talk 6

A good writer does not ask questions on the page, instead she answers them:

I have had nothing but questions since the caravan of asylum-seeking people gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Do I write about …

The people coming up from Honduras and Guatemala?

The proposed wall?

The illegal immigrant children locked up by our government?

The parents separated from their children?

The influx of border crossers here in our backyard?

The toll this is taking on Border Patrol Agents?

The toll this is taking on people seeking asylum?

The effect this is having on our rural border community?

The free pass the cartels have to move drugs along the border because Border Patrol Agents are stretched so thin?

The problems at the Port of Entry at Antelope Wells?

The government shut down?

A good writer does not include her process on the page, instead she begins with her subject. This may include an assertion or thesis:

hondruasI don’t know where to start. My thoughts are a jumbled mess. We live seventy-five miles from Antelope Wells Port of Entry, half that distance as the crow flies. A place on the border most folks never heard of before the caravans coming from Central America showed up. It is a border outpost a hundred miles from a hospital and grocery store. In the summer the temperatures can reach 110˚. This time of year, it can dip into the teens at night. Often 300 people at a time are crossing at this tiny dot on the map, and it’s taxing everyone from ranchers to Border Patrol Agents; illegal immigrants to medical service employees. It’s where seven-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal crossed with her father and died shortly afterwards. It’s where three days ago a man with a flesh-eating bacteria was identified before being taken to a hospital for treatment. Those of us along the border have been warned to lock our doors. There are simply not enough Border Patrol Agents to spare. The drug cartels are having a field day moving drugs through the wide open, unprotected desert, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.

I should be afraid except we haven’t had any problems here at the ranch since this all began. But then I hear about neighbors who are finding dozens of illegal immigrants in their barns and Border Patrol Agents who are sick on the job fearful of what they may have contracted. Those who work for our volunteer ambulance service are working the border. If something happens to someone in the community, we’re on our own. Border Patrol busses loaded with unfamiliar faces are disrupting this otherwise quiet, desert landscape. Our president and some of the news outlets make it sound like we are living in a war zone. If we are, I’ve seen no evidence of it. That said, we are locking our doors. Admittedly, most of us down here are a bit edgy.

 A good writer writes what she knows:

honduras2I lived in Honduras back in the early 90’s. As an idealist, I thought I would help people less fortunate; give back something in return for all I had. I hadn’t even pulled my luggage from a heap in the corner of the San Pedro airport before I needed help, and it continued to be that way for the duration of my stay. I needed help with Spanish. Help with transportation. Help with a messy bureaucratic system. Help with shopping for food, asking for directions, finding a place to live. Help with finding a doctor, a dentist, and a pharmacist. I was the proverbial babe in the woods, and if it wasn’t for the kindness of others, I wouldn’t have lasted a week.

As the rhetoric continues to heat up over, “What do we do with these people?” I find myself sharing memories of living in Latin America. While in Antigua, Guatemala, I partnered with a medical student, Chris, who was working with a government sponsored program to inoculate children. The first house we visited wasn’t a house at all, rather a blue tarp secured at the corner of a concrete wall in the back of an empty lot where a divorced woman and her four children lived. Inside the two-sided structure was a small table, two chairs, a propane hot plate set on a shelf next to a few canned goods. Against the far wall was an ancient dresser and a double-sized mattress. An old car missing its wheels sat not far from the structure and contained everything else the family owned. The kids, shy and curious, smiled at us as Chris asked the mother for her children’s birth certificates. I looked around the small space thinking how insensitive this guy was asking for things this poor woman clearly didn’t own. Before I could nudge him, the mother produced a manila envelope from the top drawer of the beat up dresser. Proudly she handed it to David. Inside were the birth certificates along with family photos. I felt my face flush with shame. I had equated poverty with ignorance and lack of caring for family.

One day I missed the last bus out of the campo (a farming community) in central Honduras with no way home. A woman I’d worked with on a rural health project asked me to stay with her family for the night. I didn’t want to impose, but I had no other choice. A room divider made from flour sacks sewn together and strung tightly around a wood frame, something found in most rural homes, split the one room house in half. After a delicious meal shared with her husband and five children, her two daughters moved the divider to the front of the house while the woman unwrapped the finest cotton sheets I have ever seen from layers of yellowed tissue paper and made up the family’s only bed. I knew the sheets had been a wedding gift and had never been used. When I protested, she said it was an honor to have me as her guest. I slept in a room the girls made spacious for me while the woman and her family lay crowded together on blankets covering the dirt floor.

My first bout of malaria struck while I was staying with an American nun up in the mountains in central Honduras. When the fevers made me delirious, she didn’t know what to do. Leticia, a woman from the church, and a curandero (healer) came to the house. She made me strong teas from local plants to sip and kept my skin cool with damp washcloths. But mainly she sat with me and prayed. After a few day and no improvement, she arranged to have me taken to a doctor in Sulaco, a village an hour away over a bumpy dirt road. There Esteban, a doctor I had worked with in a cholera clinic, gave me an IV of electrolytes. For two days he sat by my bed reading the paper. When I mentioned he should go home, he smiled and said he liked the quiet. Leticia and Esteban saved my life.

This is what I know of the Hondurans. I was treated with respect and as a friend. No one ever asked me for money or for something of value. I didn’t meet a single person who took drugs or sold drugs. Instead I met hard-working people who were trying, like most of us, to provide a good life for their families.

I returned again in 1998. By that time the military police had all but been replaced by a civilian police force. In a few short years, I saw how this change was whittling away the spirit of the Honduran people. Strangers no longer looked at me and smiled when I went into a store or walked down the street. Folks kept to themselves on busses and in public spaces. Casually dressed men carried pistols in holsters on their belts. I went to a police station in Tela after my wallet was stolen and immediately regretted reporting the incident. There were men handcuffed to chairs, others laying on the floor handcuffed to desks. I was asked to write what happened on piece of lined paper. When I asked who was in charge, a tall man wearing a button down shirt and black jeans brandishing a pistol laughed, “Supongo que soy yo.” I guess I am.

I saw it then, a systemic weakening of the Honduran spirit. People were fearful. There were rumors of gang activity in San Pedro Sula and the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The cartels are moving in, I heard from old friends. It seemed Honduras was ripe for the picking. I left knowing I would never go back.

The caravan is made up of asylum-seeking folks like the divorced mother with four kids carrying her children’s birth certificates, the woman who graciously offered me a bed, and of course, Leticia and Esteban. They are beaten down and scared for their lives. What do we do with these people? We begin with compassion.