I had the opportunity to volunteer for a day in a shelter for migrants in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. El Comedor provides two meals a day at 9 AM and 4 PM to hundreds of migrants who have reached the Mexican side of the border, often after months of hard traveling. Hoping for a chance to present their cases for asylum they sometimes wait for months sleeping in shelters, rooming houses, or on the streets.
El Comedor is run by a Catholic organization, the Kino Border Initiative. The day-to-day workload is managed by four Mexican nuns. The routine for feeding people is extremely efficient. Children are served different foods than adults but the foundation for most meals is rice and beans. I was warned not to give people a second glass of watered-down juice before they had eaten. People are dehydrated and too often will fill up on liquid and then not eat as much food as they otherwise might. Their next meals are uncertain; they generally need all they can eat and more.
El Comedor can feed 75 people at a time in their 1,000-square-foot building and people line up at least an hour before each meal, hoping to get inside. While the first group eats a second group waits in the 100-degree heat for their turn. The budget is tight. While I was handing out buttered toast during the first sitting, Sister Maribel grabbed my arm and whispered that I had to cut the remaining toast in half so there would be enough for the second sitting.
Every Tuesday between the morning and afternoon meal migrants line up for a chance to pick through clothing and shoe donations. Before we let people in the door we sort clothes by sex and age and place them on the otherwise empty dining tables. People are allowed in ten at a time and can pick una cosa – one thing – a pair of pants, a pair of shoe, a shirt, or a jacket. I was embarrassed by most of the clothing we put out on the tables. Strapless party dresses, blouses and shirts with stains, high heels, worn-out dress shoes and sneakers. Too few pants for men and women. Donations from people who were cleaning out their closets.
The children’s shoe table was piled high with worn-out and impractical shoes: distressed patent leather shoes with bows, permanently stained or torn sneakers, dozens of pairs of flip flops. For families who would soon give up on the months-long wait to apply for asylum and take their chances crossing illegally through the desert, there were few practical choices. I helped a six-year-old girl and her mother try to find a pair of shoes. Her mother and I kept looking for sneakers or something sturdy for the daughter, but she kept eyeing a lavender pair of ballet shoes on top of the pile. With una cosa in her ears, the mother pulled her daughter close and whispered wistfully.
We found a pair of relatively new purple and red sneakers that looked like they might fit. The daughter tried them on and in my best impression of an old-time shoe salesman I felt the space between her toes and the end of the shoes. “Perfecto.” Dancing lessons would wait.
Since January 2001 more than 3000 migrants have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert. Most die from dehydration in the Summer or hypothermia in the Winter. Many are lost in the desert and remain lost for weeks, months, often for years. Remains lie here and there on the migrant trails – a skull, a femur, vestiges of a pair of jeans, a rusty necklace. Many relatives never learn the fate of their loved ones and never have a body to bury.
Thanks to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office and the Humane Borders group, some relatives are “lucky.” The remains of their loved ones will be identified, they will be notified, and their country’s consulate will send their remains home for a proper burial. The ME’s office is genuinely committed to doing everything in its power to identify the remains. They even employ a forensic anthropologist to search for clues about identity. About 65% of bodies found in the desert will be identified and returned to their families. “We want to give them their name back,” the Pima County coroner says.
Alvaro Enciso is a Tucson artist who has taken upon himself the task of identifying the location of those who have died and planting a cross where their remains are found. Through a partnership with the Medical Examiner’s office and Humane Borders, the GPS coordinates of each death are noted in a project called Migrant Death Mapping. The map is searchable on a website. A few times a week Alvaro hikes through the desert to place a cross in memory.
To-date he has planted 900 crosses. “I needed to do something to point the finger that someone has died here. Someone looking for the American Dream has died,” he says.