The plaza in Altar seems like a scene from a film.
A beautiful Mexican church rises up beside a concrete plaza filled with migrants on the last step of their journey before they cross. The atmosphere seems to combine the edgy feeling of a border town with the excitement and commercialism of an amusement park.
Vendors sell tacos, backpacks, walking shoes, bandanas, hats, electrolyte drink. Long-distance buses from Chiapas and Oaxaca arrive on a side street, and their passengers, mostly men but with a surprising amount of women, unload their belongings and stand to stretch their legs after the nearly twenty-four hour bus trip.
Black crows fly through the air and land on the roof of the church, in startling contrast to the blue sky.
We are scheduled to meet for dinner and conversations with migrants and volunteers at yet another shelter run by the town’s Catholic church, but first we spend two hours just looking, talking, and observing the activity in the plaza. Almost everyone in the plaza is a migrant. We can tell because they are wearing layers of heavy clothes despite the heat and because of their large backpacks.
A few, more nicely dressed, with fancy-looking cell phones, are probably the smugglers called coyotes that almost everyone hires to get them to Tucson alive.
A group of men and women sit on a bench beside the church, sharing a package of tortillas and a can of refried beans. The group, about twenty people, is probably half women, including some girls that look incredibly young. The Spanish-speakers in my group strike up a conversation with them, and although they forget to translate for me, I can understand some of what’s being said.
Like many migrants, they are from Oaxaca, one of the poorest, largely indigenous regions in Mexico. “Are the girls your children?” we ask.
“Oh, no,” the woman says. “These girls are all sixteen to eighteen.”
I look at them. Two of them are giggling. One of them takes a blue comb from her pocket and brushes the ponytail of the other. She takes a pair of scissors and snips off an inch from the hair of the second girl. The second girl, whose hair was cut, giggles and squeals and lunges at the first.
They look about thirteen or fourteen.
“Eighteen,” says one of the members of our group, and the woman nods. We find out that it is the girls’ first crossing, but the woman and her husband have crossed before. They have jobs lined up in Georgia, picking onions. But I can’t understand much more than the odd word here and there, and I tune out and look at the girls. Two of them have brand-new matching shoes and hats.
“Are the shoes new?” we ask, and the girls tell us yes. New shoes for walking.
One of the pastors in our group later says that the atmosphere reminded him of a group waiting to go whitewater rafting. You know that you’ll be thrown out of the raft a couple times, but you’re excited about the adventure.
The woman and her husband seem more solemn. They know what’s ahead: seventy miles of desert, no guarantees of not being caught, long days and tired hands even if they do get a job. But the girls, who seem so young for their years, link arms and swing their feet.
I am suddenly overwhelmed by this detail: these shiny blue and white fake Reeboks. I walk into the church, where a picture of the Virgin of Guadelupe is prominently displayed alongside “A Prayer for Our Migrant Brothers and Sisters.” Even though it’s a Tuesday afternoon, there are several people there praying, including two teenage girls. In a side chapel, they light candles to the Virgin or to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
Over the years, as migrant traffic has been funneled to the desert of Arizona, Altar has grown from a tiny blip on the map to the place where almost all migrants go before they cross. As we have dinner later with two women who volunteer at the shelter, they tell us the story of how the Catholic church in town never intended to have a sizeable ministry to migrants.
At first, when migrants started crossing through Arizona instead of California or Texas, the parishioners and citizens of the town were highly suspicious of the strangers. They referred to all migrants, regardless of hometown, as Oaxacans. One year, many town residents had had tanks of propane gas stolen, and everyone blamed it on “those Oaxacans.”
The priest at the time, highly sympathetic to the migrants that were passing through, gently poked fun of the stereotype. “When was the last time you saw a migrant carrying a propane tank on his back through the desert?” he said with a laugh.
With no funding but donations, the volunteers of the shelter, who have homes and jobs and families, have developed the shelter into a well-run center. Many migrants who come from tropical growing regions hundreds of miles away have never seen desert before.
Before they set out, migrants look at a map with the deaths that have occurred in the desert. Volunteers from the shelter show them a video about what to beware of, give them a brochure about the dangerous plants and animals of the desert and how to obtain a tiny amount of water from cactus, and counsel them about their rights if they are caught.
For people who have been caught and sent back, volunteers document any rights violations on either side of the border, ranging from being denied food and water to physical or sexual violence.
The group of Oaxacans don’t come to the shelter that night. They are probably at a guesthouse that their coyote has arranged. The men that come to the shelter are often the most desperate, the ones who have been deported at least once already.
We see the group again the next morning before we set out to take the Sasabe road, the road that the unmarked white vans carrying migrants travel before they branch off on smaller dirt roads to stage their crossing. They have 20-ounce water bottles that likely won’t last the morning.
The girls smile at us and wave as we watch them leave.
That night and the next and the next, I wonder if they’ve made it. I say a wordless prayer for them, that they are not more dots on the map of deaths.
Even after they turn to go, even as I close my eyes that night and the nights after, I see their faces.