In many ancient religious texts, fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known only as Desolation. This could be the place. (Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil's Highway)
In March 2008, my documentary class participated in a Borderlinks delegation, much like the one my peers and I completed during the first week of our DukeEngage program in Tucson, AZ and Nogales, Sonora. During my first delegation, I sat in a church pew in Altar, Mexico. Each of my classmates carefully taped a thin strip of paper bearing the name of a deceased migrant onto a cylindrical glass candle holder. The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe printed on the glass shone brightly against the white candle. I lit a flame for the fallen dreams of the migrant, carried the candle during the two-hour caminata to the entrance of Sasabe, the point of departure for those crossing the desert. I set the candle under a white wooden cross built atop a mound of desert sand in honor of those migrants who lost their lives. A memorial site. The sun began to set, the harsh sunlight faded into shades of pink and orange sky.
Yesterday, three months after my first visit, I returned to that very spot in Sasabe and stood for a moment, in silence, at the foot of the white cross. The candles we had so carefully arranged had rolled down the mound and were covered in red sand, the color of aged rust. Jagged glass edges lined the tops of the shattered glass candle holders. The small colored image of la Virgencita could still be seen beneath the dust.
As I walked on, I strayed to the the outskirts of the desert road. Abandoned water bottles, tuna cans, plastic bags lay splattered across the terrain.
A worn pair of children's cowboy boots lay encrusted in the sand. Footprints.
I ran into a Guatemalan man whom I had met and befriended on my first delegation to Altar. The first time we'd met in March, he was disillusioned, downtrodden, lost. Long after I'd returned to Durham, I kept this man's story in my heart. I was afraid to think of what had happened to him. Had he made to the other side alive?
I was shocked when he walked into CCAMYN, a migrant shelter in Altar, Mexico. He was alive. Smiling. His plans had changed, he told us. "Tengo muchos suenos". He found hope and dreams of opening a soldering shop of his own in Mexico, with his eyes set on one day acquiring a visa to the U.S. Amidst all the sadness and fear I saw in the eyes of migrants preparing to cross that day, my Guatemalan friend walked in to remind me of the light that could still be found in this desperate situation. The beautiful resiliency of humankind.
Throughout this first week, I have been painfully aware of the racial undertones driving our border debates. The most outstanding example of this was our group's day in court, witnessing the prosecution of detained migrants in Tucson, AZ. Seventy dark-skinned men stood shackled in the room. White lawyers. White officials. Seventy dark-skinned men tried and convicted in less than one hour. Echoes of slavery.
**photo by Rachel Pea