The hills off to the east of Tombstone were thirsting for the summer rains. Spring had already been here and the wildflowers had come and gone. The ocotillos spread out across the hills, just sticks, nothing more than naked shadows moving across the landscape. Rain would dress them in beautiful green leaves shaped like feathers running up their spines. The water and hot summer sun would then brush each point with a kiss, leaving stunning red flowers, and only then could they dance with glee in the southern Arizona wind.
The year was 1999 and I was managing a hotel in Tombstone, Arizona. All of us in southeastern Arizona were being overrun by migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other points south. Like the great Mississippi when it floods its banks, people poured over our lowlands and into the hills, their voices oozing through our walls and into our consciousness. Thousands of these people came through the border at Douglas and Agua Prieta each month.
The residents of the county were unevenly divided. Most were against the migrants and refused to help them. Of course, it was against the law to help them so they used that as their excuse. The rest of us believed that humanitarian law trumped any federal law, and our hearts were with the migrants. If we could just keep them alive, we would say, while the governments of our countries decide how to fix this, that would work.
As with all things of such magnitude, when it happens, it invariably spawns more illegal activities to feed on other than my own minor infractions; and, for this one the ‘coyotes’ – those unsavory individuals who move people across borders illegally for huge amounts of money – rose from the sewers to prey on the people. The people in their masses washed over the Border Patrol like waves rolling onto shore, one after the other, a never ending cycle. The magnitude of it all shocked our belief systems and challenged our understanding of the difference between right or wrong.
Then the rains came.
“I had a hard time separating the liquid language of the migrants from my dreams, always questioning if I was awake or asleep.”
“Agua, agua! Mucho agua!”
The voices seeped like water through sand, before finally settling into me. Thunder and lightning ravaged the skies, the words mixed with the sound of the rain. I had a hard time separating the liquid language of the migrants from my dreams, always questioning if I was awake or asleep. I opened my eyes. I didn’t want to. I was so tired, but the voices outside my door were frantic.
“Por favor, ayudar a mi familia!”
The voices got louder, begging me to help them. I grabbed the clock, trying to focus. 2:45 AM. God, I’m tired, I thought. No one was telling me I had to get up, but yet I knew I had to. There was something inside of me, something deeper than I could understand, that lifted me into action. I threw the covers back and reached for my robe, then realized I had fallen asleep fully clothed after helping the last migrants who had come through. As I rushed down the hall I wondered about my neighbors all around me, their homes dotting this southeastern Arizona landscape. How could they just sleep through all of this, ignore the whole process, and wake up to a new tomorrow and go downtown for a cup of coffee as if nothing was happening. How could they?
I flipped on the patio light. Through the window in the door I could see several Hispanic migrants huddled inside my carport, the light settling across their darkness. One woman was holding a baby in her arms.
“Adelante! Adelante! Sal de la lluvia!”
I turned the light off and opened the door to them all. “Come in! Come in! Get out of the rain!” The hills were crawling with Border Patrol and if they were to discover that I was harboring the very people they were chasing through the night, I would not only lose my job, but also end up in jail. This I knew. I helped everyone who came, but I didn’t invite them all in. I fed some in my carport, I warmed some in my workshop, but if there were babies or pregnant moms or the elderly, then I invited them in just to make sure they were okay.
I wondered sometimes why it mattered to me, but it did. I needed to satisfy myself, in this time of chaos, that these people could continue a journey of such magnitude. I questioned my motives a lot, wondering if it was just so I would feel better about letting them go back out into the night. If I ever were questioned I wanted to be able to say I did my best. All of these poor, poor people laid heavy on me, but they exhausted me just the same, and my nerves rode right below my edge, always fearful of going to jail. How can anyone turn another human or animal away? I was torn apart with the shoulds and should nots.
After these encounters, I would soak in the tub trying to calm down. When the hot water swallowed me up, protecting me from all the cold outside, I started noticing an unsettling feeling, something deep inside trying to unearth itself, something I couldn’t seem to reach, most times I was too tired to even try. There were so many migrants, some of them refused to come in and I didn’t question them. I would go outside, into the blackness, and render whatever aid I could. But, tonight, the people were ready to come inside and get warm.
“Each one of them, except the woman with the baby, had shreds of black plastic hanging from them like a web in the night.”
One of the older men came first, his head down. He appeared to be the leader and I knew if he didn’t feel comfortable doing this, the others wouldn’t come either. The other men followed his lead one by one. No one looked at me. The woman with the baby was next, then more women, then some young teen boys. The kitchen filled with that air of wet, organic bodies. Puddles of water gathered around their worn boots. Their smallness nudged at my maternal instincts. The men may have reached five feet, and the women were smaller.
They were all so wet, and dressed in black so they could move undetected through the night. Each one of them, except the woman with the baby, had shreds of black plastic hanging from them like a web in the night. All the migrants it seemed were wearing black garbage bags over them to protect themselves from the rain, and this group was no different. But the wind had taken the plastic and shredded it, exposing them to the elements. I looked at the wet plastic shreds stuck to their clothing, their faces. The mother and baby had extra dark blankets over them, but no plastic.
Other migrants had passed through my life and my kitchen before from the highlands of western Oaxaca and it was easy to see these were from the same region. Their faces were so soft and round, their eyes so expressive, a people that moved through the region like a gentle rain. Their language was a mix of Mixtecan, Spanish, and the young teens seemed to have a little understanding of my English.
One, two…, one…, two, three…damn. I was trying to count the people, but they kept moving around and they all looked so much alike I couldn’t tell who I had counted before. It’s a structure thing, I kept telling myself. Organization in the heat of chaos. Gotta find some structure, but it seemed the people were intent on confusion. Maybe structure was not what the moment needed.
Then all desire for structure slipped from me when my eyes connected with the older woman carrying the infant. A reboza held the child tight against the woman’s chest. She was older than the other women who had come by with their babies and in her simple darkness her eyes radiated a wisdom that the younger women hadn’t yet acquired. Her baby had molded itself to her breasts. I put my hands out, offering to hold the baby. The woman pulled back with hesitation. Her husband nudged her towards me.
For a moment I wondered if the child was alive, but then she handed me the warm bundle and as I dug into the blankets, I first saw a mass of black matted hair, then a little face appeared and lashes lifted and the big black eyes looked up into me. What a precious little soul. At that moment, as tired as I was, I knew this was thanks enough for all my work. This is why I do these things, I thought.
They all moved towards the fireplace, the smoldering coals burning themselves out, flames clinging to the edges. With the baby in my arms, I watched one of the teens stir the coals and I reached over and opened the wood box. He grabbed some logs and threw them on. The flames lit up their faces, their hands reached out to grab the warmth. They moved in close to each other. I motioned for whoever wanted to follow me. I showed them where the two bathrooms and showers were, pulled out towels and soaps and shampoos for all of them, and told them to help themselves. I then showed the teens where the stacks of clothes were in the other bedroom and they understood they were for their use.
“‘Celestia,’ she responded as she shyly pointed towards the sky, smiling. ‘Ella vino desde los cielos a me.'”
With the baby still in my arms and the mother following close on my heels, we went into my bedroom, laid the baby girl on my bed and began to unwrap her. The dark reboza gave way to a dark blanket, then as the old utilitarian blankets fell away, I saw her mother’s prize reboza wrapped snuggly around the infant’s chubby little body. The shawl was exquisite in its simple way. The flowers had been bright once; intricately hand painted, but now were worn like the cotton fabric they were growing on. I knew in that instant this baby girl would grow up to know color and music and festivals, the life of the Oaxacans; and, these journeys north, they, too, will be a part of her. In the fall they all return home, then start the trek north again in the early spring. These journeys are so deeply ingrained in the people. They have been migrating for lifetimes like hunters and gathers from centuries past, not understanding borders.
“Muy bonita,” I said as my fingers played with the texture of the cloth. “Muy bonita.”
“Gracias,” the woman’s eyes dropped down to her little girl.
“Cuantos anos tiene la nina?” I asked.
“Cuatro meses,” she responded. Her eyes warmed, her voice so soft.
“Cual es su nombre?” I was still marveling at how warm and healthy the child was. One of my hands still holding the cloth, and the other playing with the baby’s fingers.
“Celestia,” she responded as she shyly pointed towards the sky, smiling. “Ella vino desde los cielos a me.”
Her baby came from the heavens, she said, so she named her for them. I loved it. I unwrapped Celestia from the cloth. She was so chunky and cute. Her little legs and arms stretched out as she kicked and gurgled. A sound so dear, but I am sure they worried about her tiny voice being heard on the trail.
The mother reached up under her shirt and pulled out a plastic bag filled with a couple of dry diapers.
“No, no, no es necessario,” I explained as I pulled out a box of diapers from the closet. The woman looked at me. I couldn’t tell her in my limited Spanish that I kept an ongoing stock of diapers and clothes because people had been coming by nightly for over a year. In that year, I had discovered second hand stores, and the people there knew me well. It wasn’t just clothes for the migrants I was picking up, but my own as well. There was no need any longer for the fancy things. My life had changed and I was fine with the same clothing I was offering the others.
We took little Celestia into the kitchen and as I started cooking, her mother bathed her in the sink. I was mesmerized with her gentleness, knowing how tired she must have been. I could only imagine this child had not come easy for her, but this baby was not a burden. She was her mother’s guiding light, the light that only a mother can see through the darkness. These people were on a dangerous journey. She trusted her husband to know the back trails and to keep them safe, but still there was something indefinable in her eyes. It is what it is. It was so obvious in her mannerisms that she never would have stayed behind and let him shoulder the load alone, nor would he have allowed her to do so.
The father came into the kitchen, all clean and dry. His eyes, like pure obsidian rising up through the leathery texture of his dark skin. Deep creases spread from the corner of his eyes then flowed into those gathered around his mouth. He took little Celestia from her mother’s arms so she could shower, and walked over by the fire. I watched him as he sat there holding the baby. He was their leader and the people’s safety depended on him. He was burdened, but seasoned in guiding the family north and I felt nobody could keep this baby safer than this man. As the other men came out, they drifted towards the fireplace. I poured coffee for each of them. They took the hot cups into their small, wide hands. They were talking in low Mixtecan. It was ‘man talk’ and as the women came from the showers, they stood in the corner of the kitchen.
“Por favor, sientate!” I said, motioning towards the dining room chairs. They did. I offered them hot coffee or hot chocolate while they waited.
The teens emerged one at a time, sparkling clean, their young faces filled with gratitude for the hot shower and the hot food they saw on the stove. Now they were ready for the next part of their journey. They helped me dish up the foods, then stood back until the elders had fixed their plates, then the boys fixed their own. They all gathered by the fire to eat. Dinner, breakfast, what is it that is served at 3:30 in the morning? I wondered about this as the people slowly and ever so politely ate all there was.
I prepared some foods for them to carry with them and asked the kids if they wanted candy bars for the trail, but they said no, they preferred fruit if I had it. I did. I tried to talk them into staying one more day, just to rest, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They had to go. They cut holes in the bottoms of the new garbage bags and then pulled them over their heads, all but mother and baby. No plastic around the baby. I marveled at the woman’s smartness. It was still an hour before dawn. They said their thank yous and walked out my back door and onto the trail. The rain had slowed some, now coming in short spurts and I watched them until the blackness swallowed them up.
The house felt so empty, just so empty. Could I ever explain the wonders of these brief encounters in my life? I stood at my bedroom door, the wetness of the people still lingered in the air. All the towels and clothes no longer being used were folded in a neat pile in the corner of the room. They had picked new clothes sparingly and left the old and wet for me to give to another.
An earlier version of Susan Nunn’s “Crystal Threads” originally appeared in Pilgrimage Journal: Vol 37, Issue 2
Susan’s novel “Song of the Earth” was recently published through Tehom Books of Branch Hill Publications. Her work has also been published in Pilgrimage Journal and High Country News. She worked for twelve years as an inkeeper on the US-Mexican Border. Visit her website to learn more.