Not just a story

“El hambre viene, el hombre se va, sin más razón.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      El Viento, Manu Chao

A few weeks ago, I took a solo trip to Bisbee, AZ. I had had my first complete day off in a couple of months, where I had volunteers covering the whole day at the house, and I didn’t even have to be on call. I had planned to go on a trip with the Tucson Samaritans to do a desert hike and water drop, but they weren’t able to find an experienced volunteer to lead the trip for me and the other newbie that signed up, so the night before, the trip was cancelled. All (3) of my friends were busy the next day, so I hopped in my car by myself for a little day trip to the old mining town. The drive was one of the most beautiful I’d ever taken. Huge thunderheads rose behind picturesque mountains and wildflowers lined the highway. 

Unfortunately, those beautiful thunderheads inevitably meant rain, and by the time I made it to Bisbee, it was raining too hard to walk around the historic downtown and browse the shops and art galleries. Instead, I found a bookstore attached to a coffee shop. I browsed the books, and came upon The Death of Josseline by Margaret Regan. That had been on my to-read list ever since it had been mentioned at the Samaritans orientation, and since I had already managed to get myself in some hot water with the Pima County Public Library over some books that had been sucked into one of the many black holes that hide in Casa Alitas, I decided to buy it rather than borrowing it. 

I took my new purchase over to the coffee shop, settled in to a little table in the corner, and began to read. I opened first to a map of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands. I scanned the names of the border cities – Agua Prieta, Douglas, Naco, Nogales –  which 3 months ago I had never heard of, but which were now so familiar to me after, time and time again, I had written them down as the point of entry on the family intake forms at Casa Alitas. 

I turned to the prologue, which told of Josseline. From the title of the book, I already knew her fate, but I was not so aware of the way hearing her story would hit me. The author tells of the 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who was traveling with her 10-year-old brother to be reunited with their mother in Los Angeles. They had made it through Guatemala and Mexico, over the U.S. border, and were crossing the desert through Arizona when Josseline began to feel sick and weak and couldn’t go on. The coyote decided to leave her behind, and Josseline insisted her brother go on with the group. Days later, a volunteer from No More Deaths found her lying dead under a bush. 

As I sat in the crowded coffee shop, taking in the details of her journey, the description of the scene that the volunteer came upon, the mourning of her family, I tried hard to relax my brow, swallow the lump in my throat, and hold back the tears enough so that they wouldn’t pool over. 

If I had been reading that same passage a few months prior, I don’t think my reaction would have been the same. My brain would have known it was sad. I would have understood that it was a tragedy, what happened to this girl, but I don’t think I would have felt it. I don’t think I would have felt my heart ache for her, and I don’t think that same heaviness would have settled in the pit of my stomach and stayed there. A few months ago it would have seemed so far removed from me. Just a story. But now it was all too real. 

In Josseline, I saw every little girl that I had welcomed safe and sound into Casa Alitas. The one who followed me around, wanting to be my helper. The one who drew a picture, and then glowed with pride when we hung it up on the wall with the rest of the artwork from the kiddos. The shy one who sat still and quiet, staring with her big brown eyes at the other kids running and screaming through the house. The one who proudly listed to me about all the things her mommy could do. The 15-year-old who asked if I could take her to the store to buy a Coke at 9 pm because she was craving one so bad, and then when we were in the van alone, started giggling, embarrassed, and admitted she just wanted to borrow my phone to call a boy that she didn’t want her mom to know she was calling. 

I saw all these little girls lying face down in the desert, alone. 

And I wonder… what if Donald Trump sat down for dinner with a woman and her daughter, and the woman, in her soft and quiet voice, calmly began to tell him about her husband who used to beat her and the gang members who attacked her and raped her back in her home country. Would he still be so eager to send her back there? What if he held a sleeping baby in his arms while he listened to its mother talk about how she had struggled to keep food on the table in a village where there were no jobs that paid living wages. Would he still want to spend ridiculous amounts of money deporting thousands of people, building walls, and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents to make sure food doesn’t go into that baby’s stomach?

What if Chris Christie got to know the young pregnant woman who fled to another city to escape death threats, only to find that the threats would follow her wherever she went until finally fleeing the country was her only option. Would he still want to track her like a FedEx package, or would he realize she was a human being and not an Amazon order?

What if all those people with the “This is America – Speak English” bumper stickers listened in on the after-dinner conversation of 3 Guatemalan mothers, who were already bilingual – speaking Mam and Spanish – talking about their children’s future in America. They hoped their children would grow up trilingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Mam, but admitted that English would be the priority and they were willing to let Mam, their native language and such an integral connection to their culture and roots, fall to the wayside if their children weren’t able to learn all three. Would these people still chastise them for not immediately being able to speak a language that they had never had the resources or time to learn, or would they respect them for already knowing more languages than most (non-immigrant) Americans?

What if Border Patrol was trained to use the term people instead of bodies? Would they start treating them like it?

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