In “The Desert is Theirs,” Byrd Baylor writes, “Desert people are patient. You don’t see them rushing. You don’t hear them shouting.”
The small town where Byrd wrote many of her celebrated children’s books and non-fiction essays is Arivaca, a rural, treacherous town located 11 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. She was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1924, the same year U.S. Border Patrol was founded, at a time when the divide between the U.S. and Mexico was not yet a permanent concrete wall as it stands today.
Her adobe-brick home sits on 20 acres, divided by the Papalote wash, or arroyo, as they are better known in Spanish and by residents of the area. The wash divides her land into ten acres on both sides and is where No More Deaths/No Más Muertes has stationed “Byrd Camp” since 2004.
Washes in Arizona are harmless dry riverbeds, except from the months of July to August, when the monsoon season brings dangerous flash floods that can gravely harm whatever stands in the way. Migrants wandering the desert, trying to make their way North may be stuck on either side, like the line dividing the two countries leaves many in limbo, if they aren’t quick enough.
Trying to escape from the rising waters of Papalote wash is how I first came to meet Byrd Baylor in 2009 at her home in Arivaca. Built to not impose itself on the Sonoran desert, or to cause ecological effects to the land, her home has no electricity, a wood burning stove, a compost toilet, and no Internet. Byrd lived completely off the grid by choice in Arivaca. She has an outside shower, an outdoor “office,” and like those at Byrd Camp, uses the sunrise and sunset as an internal clock.
Although the camp “isn’t meant to be permanent,” as Maryada Vallet, a longtime NMD volunteer says, “it’s been around for more than ten years now on Byrd’s property.” The words ‘Humanitarian Aid is Not a Crime’ are painted in thick white letters on a green car door at the front entrance into Byrd Camp.
“It’s up and down country. It’s the most isolated sector in the border. They have done it intentionally to force the migration into the deadliest sectors of the border.”
I was volunteering through a community-learning program that was offered through my college and traveling in NMD’s red dodge ram, adoringly dubbed “Roja” by volunteers. A Mississippi rice farmer, whose son was one of first volunteers of Byrd Camp, donated the Roja in 2004. I rode in the single cab truck with John Heid, a Quaker pacifist who previously volunteered for Christian Peacemaker Teams, and a Hamilton College student volunteer. It was monsoon season and the rain was picking up quickly when John stopped the truck along Papalote wash.
John knew from experience it was better to wait out the rain than risk crossing the high water. We ran from the car through the wash into Byrd’s house, where she gave us towels to dry our wet clothes and told us a story about a rattlesnake that had made a habit of sneaking inside, only stopping for refuge on the cold shower tile.
Vallet remembers that Byrd would talk to the rattlesnake and say, “Ok, I’m going to shower now. You can stay or go, but either way, I’m going to take a shower,” and the snake would stay still, letting her shower, causing no harm.
The slow pace of life and retreat are what attracted Byrd to Arivaca. It is not a place people find themselves in on purpose, unless they know what they’re looking for. People only come through to get somewhere else, usually Nogales. At least, that is how Byrd first encountered it.
“If you’re going to Nogales, you go by the road that takes you to Arivaca, but usually you’re so anxious to get to Nogales that you don’t take it,” says Byrd. It was only when she stopped and spent time in the town of 700 that she realized she wanted to make it her home. The main street square is sparse—there’s a cantina, an artist co-op, a convenience store, and a taco stand.
The quiet, humble town pulled Byrd in, as it has pulled in thousands of migrants passing through to the continental United States. The wave of immigration through Arivaca is the result of policies that have driven migrants, led by coyotes, or guides, who charge thousands of dollars to direct people through the maze of dry, inhospitable desert that is Pima County.
In an essay from Brian Wolf of CUNY law, titled, “The Current State of Our Failed Border Policy,” he writes that Federal policy endorsed by the Clinton administration sought to stop immigration through a “prevention through deterrence” approach. The policy, Wolf explains, “[deterred] immigrants from crossing by cutting off the traditional crossing routes in the Southwest and funneling border-crossers into harsher terrain.”
Urban areas that were once common routes taken by migrants near port-of-entries like Nogales became impossible to cross because of border enforcement and militarization. The inhospitality of the land and added time turned crossing from an hours-long journey into days and so was considered a deterrent by policymakers, who thought no one would ever hike through a desert with no natural bodies of water.
The only water for miles around comes from unsanitary cow tanks, apart from the water that NMD and other humanitarian aid groups like Humane Borders provide.
“They [Border Patrol] have forced the migration into the deadliest areas of the border and the terrain that people are crossing through now is mountains and canyons,” John Fife, longtime pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson and Co-Founder of NMD, describes. “It’s up and down country. It’s the most isolated sector in the border. They have done it intentionally to force the migration into the deadliest sectors of the border.”
Most migrants following the trails have no idea what they have to go through to get into the city of Phoenix or Tucson.
“It’s a five-day hike through an up and down terrain that one can get disoriented and lost in no matter how experienced you are out there,” Fife explains. This is where NMD acts out their mission and tries to fill what they call a life-saving niche, which is to provide food, water, and medical aid.
They become lost, straying from the group being led by a guide and may not get further than a few miles from their original location. The oppressive heat, dehydration, and monotony of the desert landscape all look the same to a disoriented person. The only way to tell some areas apart is through the discarded properties of the people who walked the trails before them. Some are lucky to come across volunteers holding gallons of water or to find the bottles sitting alone with “esperanza” and “suerte” written in permanent marker.
“The amount of garbage everywhere just breaks your heart,” tells Jesse, Byrd’s grandson.
NMD volunteers share tales of what they’ve found hidden in the caves and hills of the land—altars, prayer candles of the Virgin of Guadalupe, empty electrolyte bottles, and also condom wrappers and underwear. Denim jeans caked with dirt, embedded into the ground become a part of the desert after having been abandoned next to backpacks and dried-out shoes.
Since 1998, over 2,700 migrants have died crossing, according to Andy Adame, Arizona’s U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson in a 2014 Arizona Republic article titled, “Arizona border deaths remain highest in U.S.”.
This loss of life and lack of action taken by the government to prevent them is what prompted NMD to form in 2004.
A coalition of lawyers, professors, anarchists, and radical religious figures made up of nuns, pastors, and parishioners, many of whom were involved in the sanctuary movement of the ‘80s, came together to found the group that has become a pesky bug that won’t go away for Border Patrol.
“If Border Patrol tried to arrest her and throw her in jail, ‘She’d love that!’ Jesse laughs, ‘She would be like, ‘Whoo, die in the trenches!'”
Byrd was already doing her part to alleviate suffering in the borderlands long before No More Deaths. Partnering with the organization created “Byrd Camp”, which gave them a base for their full-time operations in the desert. Her relationship with NMD developed organically, as she was already a friend with many in the organization before it formed in 2004.
“They have a group that’s very diverse and are only brought together through that one thing, of trying to give water to people who are dying without it. Their lives, otherwise, are really different,” Byrd says.
Jesse thought that partnering with NMD on her property was a great idea. He’s grateful for the camp because it took part of the burden of caring for migrants off Byrd. It was not strange for her to offer her home or her cupboard of food to strangers who wandered up to her door.
When visiting his grandmother’s home in Arivaca, Jesse recounts that he’d, “come down and she’d have seven or eight people camped out on the mud floor.”
Her house is always unlocked, so people will sometimes help themselves to water or food inside. To Byrd, this is a welcomed gesture. In one memorable instance, Byrd says a thank-you note was left “that had about 10 centavos and a picture of a little Mexican girl about six years old and a little medal of the virgin of Guadalupe.”
She would fill boxes of food and leave them at the front and back door for any visitors who may come by while she was not at home. The Mexican Consulate advised her that the best thing to put into a food box for migrants are little cans of tuna because they have high protein and are easy to carry. Byrd has always been an activist, as far back as Jesse can remember.
“We’ve been doing this out there for 25 years before the NMD camp was there. That didn’t feel new. The only thing that felt new, especially about 10 years ago, is how many more people there were. It just got overwhelming seeing people every day almost walking around,” Jesse explains.
Volunteers at the camp have included Aviva Chomsky (Noam Chomsky’s daughter), anarchists, college students, and nuns, not counting the longtime volunteers who find themselves at the same table at Byrd Camp, swapping stories of the day and breaking bread with migrants whose lives are completely different than their own.
Both experience the dirt caked in their socks and the sweaty clothes from the steep hikes through the hills and canyons of Arivaca, but a piece of paper separates those who can freely roam the desert, and those who must hide.
There is a 100-mile wide radius of what the American Civil Liberties Union calls a “constitution-free” militarized border zone where the Border Patrol has the authority to enter any home without a search warrant. Byrd’s twenty-acre ranch lies in one of these zones and is no stranger to the law enforcement agency.
She had an encounter with a severely dehydrated woman who wandered up to her house and was so ill she couldn’t keep walking. Byrd felt compelled to help and called Border Patrol, telling them to come and pick her up because she needed medical attention.
As Byrd recalls, they asked her, “Do you have her where you can see her?” Byrd answered, “Yes, she’s laying on my bed,” and they replied, “Well, she can’t lay on your bed, get her out of the house.”
Byrd refused. Border Patrol told her that what she was doing was illegal, to which she responded, “You better get somebody to come and arrest me too because I’m not putting her out of the house.” She wanted them to realize this was a medical concern, not a political one.
“Byrd didn’t just pick up the muckraking stick over this issue,” Jesse describes. She’s been kicking up dust since the ‘40s, the ‘50s, and even marched for Civil Rights with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ‘60s. If Border Patrol tried to arrest her and throw her in jail, “She’d love that!” Jesse laughs, “She would be like, ‘Whoo, die in the trenches!’”
“. . . another critic writes that while her work is ‘culturally accurate, it should never have been printed. No Anglo should be allowed to write anything about any Native. Period.’”
Byrd finds potential story ideas for her children’s books and non-fiction essays from the coyotes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes of the land that people risk their lives crossing. While she may look the part of a polite, mild-mannered elderly woman,there’s a devious charm that comes out when she talks about her activism and writing.
She does not believe that art should cater to one specific audience. Her first publisher tried to dissuade her from sticking to southwestern themes. When she wrote her first book, Amigo, her publisher suggested she change one of the main characters, a prairie dog, because “no one knows what you’re writing about. If you could change that to a ground squirrel or something, we might be interested.”
“No,” she told the NY-based publisher, “Because that is what it is, it’s a prairie dog,” and the book went on to become a best seller.
Before moving to Arivaca, Byrd lived in Tucson where she worked for the Association for Papago Affairs, an organization instituted by the federal government to combat economic and health issues within the tribe. Her experience working on the Tohono O’odham (formerly known as Papago) reservation is fictionalized in her novel, Yes is Better Than No.
She married Arizona-politician and former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s administrative assistant who, after leaving Washington to come back to Arizona, helped secure her a job at the organization.
While employed there, Byrd interacted with social workers that would come by to check on O’odham living on the reservation. They would ask questions, enforcing regulations stating many people could legally live in their homes and that children must have separate sleeping quarters. Byrd, as she recalls it, would try to ease the tensions between the two groups by, “letting the people know what the social workers wanted to hear so they knew what to say.”
“The tribe just loves the book,” she says, referring to Yes is Better Than No and the O’odham, who hosted a book signing for her on their reservation.
Byrd’s work, like most authors, hasn’t been free from controversy.
She has been critiqued for her depictions of Native people and “how these depictions relate to the long history of non-Natives representing Native Americans,” as Sandra Norberg Beecher writes in “A study of Native American images and representations in the words of Byrd Baylor,” published through the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona.
On Buffalo Medicine’s website, a New Mexico-based retailer of specialty books, another critic writes that while her work is “culturally accurate, it should never have been printed. No Anglo should be allowed to write anything about any Native. Period,”—a sentiment not uncommon in debates concerning Native literature.
The tension between Native Americans and Anglo-Americans in her novel, Yes is Better Than No, is the same issue that scholars and other writers have with her work.
In the novel, she presents white social workers as culturally insensitive towards the Tohono O’odham and as people who are “suffering from professional astigmatism, ask ludicrous questions and misinterpret everything,” as it states on Kirkus Reviews.
Ironically, Byrd becomes the polarizing figure of a non-native with a foreign perspective trying to gain access to native communities, while criticizing that very perspective in her storytelling.
When asked if she’s received any criticism for writing about Native Americans, Byrd answers, “probably, but not from Indians. Can’t say that nobody has been critical because I might not know it,” as she lights a cigarette. According to Byrd, she “knew” what she was writing about from time spent on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Yes is Better Than No was named one of the Arizona 100: Essential Books for the Centennial by The Journal of Arizona History and University of Arizona. It was long out-of-print, but recently republished by Silvercloud Books.
“I mean, what are you going to do, are you going to throw a 90-year-old beloved children’s author in jail over this?”
Currently, Byrd is working on a collection of essays with the working title “Desert Druid.”
“I’m an atheist myself,” she giggles, chain-smoking cigarettes with an unsteady hand. “Somebody asked me my religion, and I said ‘desert druid,’ but actually I have no religion. I was lying.”
In an essay for the Arivaca Connection titled, “True Confessions of a Desert Druid”, Byrd recalls that at the age of 11, while attending a Catholic school, she boldly admitted to one of the nun schoolteachers that she was a “pantheist,” a word undoubtedly unfamiliar to most 11 year olds.
Her home in Arivaca is filled with Catholic artifacts. She does not take spiritual comfort in the religious icons that decorate her Adobe-brick home, but instead her spirit finds a home in the quiet, rustling desert where she’s sighted the coyotes and washes that she writes about poetically in her books.
“My house occasionally looks like a nice Catholic woman is living there,” she remarks, when her grandson Jesse interjects and adds, “You’re in love with the ritual, not the theory behind it.”
Did Byrd ever get lonely while living out by herself in the desert? If she did, she wouldn’t admit it.
“I feel good walking, not knowing exactly how far I’m going to go, what I’m going to do, but just take off,” she intimates. She knew that building a home in the middle of nowhere meant it would give her the time she wanted to be by herself to write and read and think. Her favorite place to write is at her home in Arivaca, where she can sit at her desk in the house or under the ramada outside where she keeps a typewriter.
At 90 years old, Byrd’s been troubled by health complications, which have kept her in Tucson where she’s lived for the last five years with her grandson, Jesse. She no longer takes walks in the desert, roaming, finding her way by the wash and the hills on her land.
She has never used the Internet before. Even if she wanted to, her home in Arivaca has no electricity, but Byrd is not a Luddite; she owns a cell phone. She loves yellow pads, where she will write first before going to her “old, wonderful typewriter” that she puts it out on a picnic table in her backyard in Arivaca.
As for the legal ramifications of taking in and caring for migrants, Byrd has gotten a “little wobbly” says Jesse, “but this also puts the Border Patrol in an awkward situation.” Smiling and gesturing at Byrd, he adds, “I mean, what are you going to do, are you going to throw a 90-year-old beloved children’s author in jail over this?”
“Taking people in, sheltering them, giving them food? It’s against the law and it’s a law I’m proud to break,” she boldly laughs.
“We all write about ourselves or things that define ourselves. It’s more fun to write about things you care about.”
Byrd’s choice to live in Arivaca has had unintended political consequences because of it’s geographical location, but she says, “You can live somewhere where you never see people who are really in need, but if you put yourself where you see them, you don’t have much choice . . . you either leave or you start helping.”
To her, this is not a hindrance. The “viajeros” as she calls the people she’s encountered in this desert are people who she wants to present with a humane perspective in her stories.
According to Byrd, a writer should follow their heart. “You tend to write about things that you care about, otherwise why else would you do it?” she explains. In her view, she isn’t writing about the camp itself in her essays or stories. The problem the border presents in the lives of thousands, however, is a story that she is interested in.
Is Byrd an activist? Not by the technical sense, at least she doesn’t see it that way. “I’m not crazy about the word, but it’s clearly what I do,” she says.
She shows no signs of wavering and has been working on a new essay collection for the last decade, compiling stories, waiting to catch the next one to add. Jesse wants her to release the collection and a series of books, calling the first one the “City Magazine Collection,” to include her essays published in the now defunct City Magazine, where she worked alongside investigative journalist Charles Bowden, who covered Mexico and border issues for many years before his passing earlier this year.
Byrd doesn’t worry about what people say in regards to her association with No More Deaths. “People will say that I’m breaking a law,” she says, “Well, okay, it’s a choice I’ve made to do it and that’s all there is to it.”
Her grandson is quick to add, “There’s no law against the humanitarian, giving somebody [help]… Byrd likes to shake the tree.” Both Jesse and Byrd smile and giggle in agreement.
As Byrd reflects on the question of her being a writer-activist, she answers, “We all write about ourselves or things that define ourselves. It’s more fun to write about things you care about.”
Yezmin Villarreal is an Editorial Assistant at the Los Angeles Times. She has previously written for Phoenix New Times and BuzzFeed. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org