Part 2 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.
Saturday, November 7th. It’s the eve of our Border trip. I am flying into Tucson a day early in order to attend service at the UU Church of Tucson and speak with some of the people there who run No More Deaths. Ever since I first heard of the arrest of Walt Staton for leaving bottles of water in the desert, I have been enamored with the organization and its volunteers. It is one of many reasons why I wanted make this journey to the Border. Regardless of one’s feelings about undocumented immigration, the idea that someone could be arrested for humanitarian aid is unfathomable.
But that is tomorrow. Today on the eve, I am excited and also a little apprehensive. It’s not that I think anything will go wrong per se. It’s just that I’ve invested a lot personally into this trip, and I’m worried that it may not be what I expect… although I’m not even sure what it is that I expect. Already I have realized a disconnect between my perspective and the realities of the Border. Being the daughter of non-Euro immigrants myself, I had been approaching the trip as an opportunity to explore identity – the “border” identity of someone who lives in more than one culture. Growing up in California, I have felt some affinity with Mexican-Americans – we are both often overlooked as the national discussion on race focuses on black and white. And when we are noticed, it is often as “foreign invaders.” As a kid and even a few times as an adult I have been told to “go back to where you came from.” I thought this put me in the position to better empathize with people whom our country is rounding up and deporting. That may still be the case. However, in reflections with our group in preparation for the trip, I’m also aware that there are many differences between the experiences of the migrants who cross the Mexico/U.S. border and my Chinese middle-class family.
For one thing, the border is right there, an artificial boundary between two nations sharing the same continent. Mexican immigrants can travel back and forth between their county of origin and their adopted country. In contrast, my parents had only their memories to compare to their new homeland, and I can count on two hands the total number of visits I’ve made to Taiwan and China – a divide so wide that it was another world to me. I’ve been proud to hail from California, a “border state” with a large Mexican-American population. But now I realize that San Francisco is a world away from the border compared to Los Angeles, which is a world away compared to San Diego, which is a world away compared to San Ysidro. I do not know what it’s like to physically live on the Border. How different it must be to see every day the difference in wealth. How could one not wonder why?
Second, while my parents lacked money when they first arrived in the U.S. and some my earliest memories are of Mom calculating how much food we could afford, we were never truly poor nor really desperate. Education is a kind of wealth and my parents had the security of knowing that there would be better days ahead. Of course, I have always known that my family is middle-class while the people who brave the desert are driven, not just by a desire for a better life for their families but often by a dire need. It’s just that, it’s one thing to know this difference intellectually and another to know it experientially. This point was made clear to me while our group read a poem about crossing the desert at night.
I love the desert. To me it is a place of calm and stark yet delicate beauty. Yes, water is scarce and life is fragile, but that only makes more real the sense of being alive. Some of my most spiritual, mystical experiences have been in the desert – watching the lizards sunbathe, staring up at night skies creamy with stars. The quiet. The promise of being in the desert again was yet another enticement for me to make this trip. But I have always been in the desert as a tourist, with plenty of water, and food, access to shade in the day and to warm clothing and shelter at night. A car never far away, and with the security of knowing that I could call for help. Reading the poem, “La Ruta de Mujeres,” by Rev. Delle McCormick, which talked of furtive crossings at night, snakes and coyotes, rape and death… I was reminded of how dangerous and terrifying the desert actually can be. Again, I knew this intellectually – why else would it be necessary for the volunteers of No More Deaths to place water bottles in the desert? Why else is the death count so high? But there was a disconnect between the facts that I have learned and even repeated to others in arguing for more compassionate immigration policies, and my own middle-class sheltered experiences. It was a humbling realization.
And so here I sit on the eve of the trip, excited and yet apprehensive. Did I remember to pack my passport and proof of insurance? Check. Digital camera and cell phone charger? Check. I had been (and still am) excited to blog about our experiences and share them with you. Only a few days ago did it occur to me that we might not have internet access for much of the trip. Another disconnect. Oh well. No matter what I am here to learn and grow. I can already tell that it will be more than I imagined.