Altar, Sonora, Mexico.
Saturday morning we left early, driving south along the highway. We passed a mission on Tohono O'odham nation land, named "place of water" though it was dry and hot. We headed south again, through Mexico, through the campo, after leaving the hilly crowded teeming Nogales. We stopped in Magdalena and walked around the small village eating tacos and looking at jewlry, painfully obvious and touristy.
We went south again and didn't stop until Altar. The streets were pretty empty but it was so hot. We settled in at CCAMYN, a shelter sponsored by the church for the migrants who pass through Altar and need a place to stay and eat. Altar is where highways from all over Mexico converge before heading north toward el otro lado (the other side). Because of the US border policy that funnels migrants into the Sonoran desert, Alter is now a waitingroom, a place where people collect themselves before heading north. They find coyotes, buy backpacks, gallons of water, and energy pills for the trip ahead. Some know how dangerous it will be; others do not. Either way, they go. At CCAMYN they serve free dinner every night and so we ate with the men who came in at five o'clock.
I talked most of the time to R., 22 years old and from Honduras, heading north because there was no other way to support his family. We laughed a lot and he attempted to teach me how to pronounce seis (6) correctly. He is waiting for the money he needs to cross.
The next day we went to the central plaza to talk to people for our mapping project. Our teacher asked us (a group of four) to speak to 10-15 people. The plaza was emptier than it had been in the past apparently. There are now more casas de huespedes (motels) where migrants pay three dollars a night to sleep. This is why there were fewer people in the plaza. We entered one of the casas and looked at the wet floors and wooden slabs for beds. This is not a place meant for long stays.
It felt awful and invasive approaching people in the square. I am white and obviously not a migrant and there was no reason for anyone to trust me. A. was very quiet and looked at his feet while I talked to him. He was 22 from Chiapas, also traveling for the work. He had worked on a coffee plantation but it was not enough. He looked so scared, maybe that I was somehow connected to border patrol, and also of what was ahead. Voy a ciegas, he said. I go blindly.
We talked to the priest at the church who talked about women taking contraceptives starting a month before, assuming they would be raped along the way.
We drove along the bumpy road to Sasabe, an important crossing place. Grupo Beta, a Mexican service for migrant safety (that has been accused of corruption) flagged us down, and then a group of men in a van behind us. They gave them the safety lecture. If a helicopter comes, don't run -- if you get lost, you die. Cover your arms so you do not burn. When you get hot, do not take off you clothing, though you will want to. Watch for snakes. Do not leave anyone behind. And then the men left. We stood there for awhile and got back in the truck.
Over the next day I thought about those men and the ones we talked to in Altar. Where in the desert where they by now? How dehydrated where they? Had they been caught? We stayed at a camp of a humanitarian aid group called No More Deaths and patrolled looking for people in trouble, and leaving water in the desert. On our way back, a 16 year old boy came out from the bush, J. He had been traveling for days and had been separated from his group. 16 years old from Michoacan, his arms cut up, trying to get to Sacramento for work. He is not the only one.
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