The Remains That Tell a Story

By Keith Kloor | September 21, 2010 12:00 am

The movie El Norte has stayed with me a long time. Anyone who has seen it will likely remember one horrifying scene when the two Mayan peasants from Guatemala–a brother and sister–cross the U.S.-Mexico border through a sewer pipe. It’s 1984. California is the border battlefront. And Guatemala, torn asunder by a long civil war and a succession of brutal military dictatorships, is terrorizing the indigenous Mayan population.

Towards the end of the film, the sister says to the brother:

In our homeland there’s no place for us, they want to kill us. In Mexico, there’s only poverty. And in the north, we aren’t accepted. When are we going to find a home, maybe only in death?

If that film was made today, there would have to be at least one horrifying scene set somewhere in the remote desert of southern Arizona, where hundreds of illegal border crossers succumb every year to the harsh elements. Thus far, the most vivid rendering of this tragic (and little known) annal of American history is Luis Alberto Urrea’s book, The Devil’s Highway.

Now comes a powerful story in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, by Andi McDaniel, that will make your heart ache. It’s an understated, beautifully written piece that also showcases the best of humanity. Here’s one passage that chronicles, through a border patrol agent’s voice, how dead bodies are found all too often in the Arizona desert:

Some days, Guerrero is out on rescues, like the one I tagged along on today. Other days he stalks around like a crime detective, following trails of footsteps and bits of torn clothing on barbed wire fences, trying to find migrants whose compañeros had to leave them behind. The father or friend of the person will finally make it to a road, flag down an agent, explain where they left the person, and ask for help.

“Picture this,” Guerrero explains. “You finally make it to the point where the person is supposed to be. And now you see this set of footprints that’s walking away from that spot. They’ve told you everything””’The person is under a tree, we laid a blue shirt on top, they have an orange backpack'””and you confirm that this is the spot because you see the orange backpack and you see the blue shirt up on a tree and you see that the person started walking, and you’re like, okay, this isn’t good.

“You start seeing the person is going left and then a hard right, and then left, and then you see them kind of make a circle. And you know exactly what’s going on. And you keep walking and now you’ve found a belt. And you keep walking and you find a wallet and…shoes. I mean, you’re starting to picture this person””they’re, they’re…they’ve lost it. Their mind is gone. And they’re just aimlessly…just walking. And you know that when you get to them, they’re going to be dead.”

Guerrero’s gaze is still fixed on the road.

“And sure enough, once you find them, they have cholla [cactus] all over their mouth and hands. And they’re already on the ground, and rigor mortis has set in. They’re starting to balloon up and decompose because of the heat. And you can only imagine how much these people suffered. How much they suffered.”

Yesterday I was talking to Kevin Jones, Utah’s state archaeologist, about an unrelated article I’m working on, when he mentioned that “human remains tell a story.” What’s especially poignant about the Mother Jones piece by Andi McDaniel is that she’s telling the story about people who are trying to figure out the identity of each person that dies in the U.S. while crossing the Sonoran desert. (Many of the border crossers are found without any identification documents.) So she profiles people like Chelsey Juarez, a physical anthropologist, who says:

I believe in doing science for the people””breaking out of academia and doing work that’s useful. And even if you don’t think undocumented people should be here, you can agree that dying in a strange country, and losing touch with your family, that’s a tragedy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arizona, borderlands
  • paulina

    Thanks for highlighting this Keith.
    I’ve got friends in Tucson, and in conversation (over the summer)  it was remarkable how quickly
    the discussion gravitated
    toward the (f)utility of aid efforts, such as placing drinking water along known and likely paths.

    Some in the conversation expressed a kind of … concern …, calling into question the value of placing drinking water along known and likely paths:

    What if people poison the water (as if anyone wanting to poison water couldn’t provide the water themselves)?
    What if word of water spreads and some people come to rely on this possibility of water but it’s not there… (as if the people were birds at a bird feeder) ?
    But how do you know that it’s really making a difference? (how do you know…)
    Don’t you think that people who do this kind of volunteering are less likely to do other stuff that might be more helpful? (single action stuff)
    Don’t you think you’re just doing it to make yourself feel better and you could spend your time doing something that might actually help?
    Relatedly, see: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2016513,00.html
    My guess is that concerns along these lines (the five questions above) but directed at Dr. Juarez’ efforts don’t come to mind very readily. I think McDaniel’s writing style serves to hush such stuff a bit, the skeletons help, too, and, possibly, the fact that we still treat each other with a bit of dignity in death, if not in life.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Your last line strikes me as especially true: “…possibly, the fact that we still treat each other with a bit of dignity in death, if not life.”

    On a related note, in the mid-2000s, I wrote a small piece on this issue, and I remember the park ranger at Organ Pipe National Monument, who, after showing me one of the migrant routes through the park, said she could see it being a historically designated trail in 50 years.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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