Scenery Changes Everything

On one of our first days of the Border Studies Program, we went to the  Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Walking around the museum, that’s really more of a desert botanical garden, I found the looming saguaros, palo verde trees, and animals fascinating and beautiful. It was a much different landscape from my hometown of New York City, and was different still from my provincial Midwest college campus in Ohio. I thought about the inevitability of a consciousness change in a context as stark and different as the desert was. The mystery of a new ecological landscape made me both excited and terrified for the coming semester—exposure is important, I thought, but change is always hard. My thinking at this time placed this experience into the context and terms of my own life. Throughout the past three months being in Tucson on Border Studies, I’ve learned much more about this environment and communities of the Sonoran Desert, and still feel as excited and terrified of this place as I did on that first day, but in ways I wasn’t able to conceptualize during those few hours at the Desert Museum.


What has changed in the feeling of this place has come with a whole lot of listening, learning, and un-learning of all of these romanticized views of the desert and the Southwest.


On Halloween, I walked 8 miles for the Día de los Muertos Pilgrimage, organized by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, alongside other folks from the Tucson community in order to honor the human remains of those who have perished in the desert during their migration journey north. 137 small white crosses were carried during the pilgrimage painted with the names of migrants who have been connected to the remains, and countless more were labeled with the Spanish word “desconocid@,” unknown. The unidentifiable human remains don’t account for those who have died in the desert and whose remains have not been encountered and likely won’t be. At the end of the walk the crosses were laid in front of the San Xavier Mission. The mission is an important part of the history of this region, and is still an important site of worship for many people. It’s also worth noting that the Mission is on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Reservation and was built by Spanish colonizers as an appendage of Catholic Church that served to change, and effectively eliminate, much of the ceremonies and practices of the first indigenous nations in this region and others in contemporary Mexico and the United States. The use of this site in the pilgrimage has spiritual significance in this contradictory region.

The desert has been constructed to be an additional barrier to entry into the United States alongside the massive border wall that has been built by the US Department of Homeland Security. The ACLU estimates that 6,000 people have died in the desert during their migration journey north into the United States from countless countries south of the US/Mexico border, and beyond. The presence of the wall forces migrants to cross through the treacherous desert on foot. Some have dubbed this process as “death by deterrence,” a play on the official plan by the government “prevention through deterrence“). To start to gain some understanding of what it means to be crossing the desert in the summer, when most people migrate, the temperatures reach up to 120° and the only shade is provided by saguaros and small shrubby plants. When crossing the desert takes around 3 days for migrants, the effects of extreme dehydration and heat are not easily remedied. While people migrating have to navigate the desert they are also in constant fear that they will be apprehended by Border Patrol, and later detained and deported.

The wall not only forces people migrating to cross the treacherous desert, but also creates countless divisions that are having huge impacts in many communities. This includes indigenous people who lived on the land now called Arizona, or Mexico before that, who existed on these lands long before Spanish colonization or the later influx of Anglo people capitalizing off the land by building copper mines and developing cities. The Tohono O’odham, an active indigenous nation in this region, has their nation divided by the border. The land that their ancestors have lived on for time immemorial is now highly policed and freedom of movement within the whole O’odham nation is highly regulated and limited, not to mention the ways it stymies the sharing of language, culture, and history among the O’odham on both sides of the border. There are also countless ways in which the physical US/Mexico border wall is disrupting the ecological landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This includes habitat fragmentation, greater negative effects on threatened/endangered species, and harmful effects of constant artificial night lighting that surveillance technology requires. The roll back of government support for conservation efforts accompanies these very real ecological impacts. Check out this University of Texas analysis on the wall’s ecological impact.

A few weeks ago on our way home from the twin border cities Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, we stopped in Tombstone, AZ. The tiny strip of stores and restaurants looked like something straight out of an old Western movie. And this was exactly the point. People reenacting old gunfights, shops selling fudge and “wild west” garb seemed to be there to memorialize a version of the history of the Southwest that in no way acknowledged the violent appropriation of indigenous land, not to mention the way that violence was romanticized as a fun reality of the “good old days.” The seemingly oblivious consumers of the “old Wild West” certainly didn’t seem to care about confronting the very real, contemporary violence facing people in the highly militarized border region that Tombstone exists in, and it felt like a physical representation of insidious white supremacy implicit in the consumption of some culture and history in Arizona.


Even in Tucson, there is a feeling of being separate from the desert and the border. The 60 miles between Tucson and Mexico are not insignificant, and I have to remember that just because I have been here for 3 months I haven’t even scratched the surface of what being in this place means. I’ve seen the way wealth manifests in the geographic makeup of Tucson, the gentrifying downtown starkly different from the more low-income Latino neighborhood of South Tucson where I lay my head at night. The border region is full of contradictions that I am still reeling over. The desert mirrored by the beautiful mountains. The beauty of the desert with the simultaneous utilization of its danger by the DHS and Border Patrol. The hyper-patriotism and national pride that bolsters anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona and the simultaneous erasure of some of the first nations. I am here observing and looking, but I do not live here, I am not crossing the desert through here. And at the end of the day I get to leave and maybe never think about the border again. But I’ve been captivated, in love with, and disgusted by this region and don’t think I’ll quite be able to get it off my mind anytime soon.


-Mavis C.



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