Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kneeling in Altar

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me
-"Wagon Wheel," Bob Dylan; Old Crow Medicine Show

The border, la frontera, is death. Again and again when I was in Nogales I heard this expressed by people who call the border home, people whose existence is this increasingly militarized space. Again and again, I saw white crosses, x's that marked the spot, signifying the death in the desert along that line drawn in pencil by men far, far away.

There is a dusty fear here. As a member of the OnFire Borderlinks delegation in October 2009, we traveled from Tucson to Nogales to Altar and back. These memories hit me this week as I sat in front of a computer working at Faith in Public Life when I came across this article by Elliot Spagat from the Associated Press:

Mexican drug cartel killings near Nogales increase

ALTAR, Sonora- Very few residents dare to drive on one of the roads out of this watering hole for migrants, fearing they will be stopped at gunpoint. They worry they will be told to turn around after their gas tanks are drained or, worse, be kidnapped or killed.

A shootout that left 21 people dead and six wounded on the road last week is the most gruesome sign that a relatively tranquil pocket of northern Mexico quickly is turning into a hotbed of drug-fueled violence on Arizona's doorstep...

Nogales, the main city in the region, which shares a border with the Arizona city of the same name, has had 131 murders so far this year, nearly surpassing 135 for all of 2009, according to a tally by the newspaper Diario de Sonora. That includes two heads found Thursday stuffed side-by-side between the bars of a cemetery fence.

The carnage still pales compared with other Mexican border cities, most notably Juarez, which lies across from El Paso, which had 2,600 murders last year. But the increase shows that some small cattle-grazing towns near Nogales are in the grip of drug traffickers who terrorize residents...

"If no one puts a stop to this, these will become ghost towns," said Jose Martin Mayoral, editor of Diario del Desierto, the newspaper in Caborca....

That phrase ghost towns echoes in my mind as I sit here, so far from this fear on the border yet still so affected by it. When I sat down to write this post, I thought about what it was like to sit in a van in Altar looking out into the desert at the road people took to get to the U.S.A. without documents. We couldn't get out of the van because the entrance to the road was patrolled by gangs. I wanted to write about NAFTA and the failed war on drugs, corruption and USAmerican citizens' own complicity with the violence that is migrating over this border in the way people are forced into drug and human trafficking. I wanted to compare the low levels of violent crime in USAmerican Border cities with the fact that Ciudad Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, Texas, is one of the most violent cities in the world.

Yet as I read this Associated Press article and think about what Altar and Nogales meant to me and why I am so saddened to read about the violence on the border, the image that keeps coming into my head is that of José, an eighteen year old who looked so much younger who came to the migrant shelter in Altar the night we were there. He was alone. I didn't get much of his story and don't know if any one of us did, but what I remember about José was the quiet way he sang along to the music as my friend David played guitar in the courtyard to the shelter. We sang song after song as the sun set and the coolness of the desert at night set in around us.

The sacred to me was in the movement of José's lips as we sang "Wagon Wheel" until the haunting beauty of the song dissipated in the darkness and we entered the shelter to eat.

As I continue to sit in front of a computer, I meditate on the movement of God in that moment and I just wish I could give it to you, the way the night air felt against my skin, the sound of Susanna's voice as she led us all in the song, the weight of it all. Would it change you, would it make you ask more questions, make you stop and think when you read about the increased violence of border cities on the Mexican side of the border?

"Wagon Wheel" is a song about traveling south, about getting to Raleigh to be with a lover, where if he died in Raleigh, he says "at least I will die free." I don't know if José ever made it north, but if he did, he only had a few months before SB1070 reminded the rest of us how undocumented people living in this country are not free, continuing to live in prisons of fear from a different violence. José reminds me why we need comprehensive immigration reform so badly, why I pray he is neither living in the border cities in Mexico nor in Arizona but that he has a chance to live free of that fear. That we all have the chance to live free of that fear.


All the pictures are from the OnFire Borderlinks delegation in October 2009. Check out the posts about our trip from David, me, Mallory, Lindsey, and Jen.

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