Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2018-19
“And the resistance actually has roots that stretch to the beginning of the human race. In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.” —Anne Braden
Finding Another America
More and more these days I wonder what difference it would make if each of us in the US could see firsthand the human face of immigration—without media lenses, without political agendas, without ideological spins—simply eye-to-eye.
Last month while replenishing Humane Borders water tanks along remote desert roads, several of us humanitarian aid workers encountered Luis, a young man who had mired his 4-wheel drive pickup in an arroyo near a dilapidated windmill. After freeing the vehicle we talked with Luis about the risks of traveling solo in the desert. I asked, “Why are you out here alone anyway?” He replied that he was looking for his father who left Mexico for Phoenix on foot weeks ago and had not shown up. In his father’s last phone call 10 days earlier, he said that he was alone near an old windmill and nearly out of water. All this young man, an only son, wanted was to bring his dad back home to Phoenix where he had resided for decades. So he drove on and off road, in a place he had never been before, hoping against hope to find his father.
Last week I accompanied several members of the Tucson-based humanitarian aid organization Samaritans to a rugged mountainside 30 miles north of the US-Mexico border, where the desiccated remains of 25-year-old Jesús Lopez Villa were found last October. He too was simply trying to get home to his mother. At her request we planted a cross at the site of his death.
These stories are innumerable, and growing. The Pima County coroner’s office reported that another 122 bodies were recovered in the Tucson sector of the border between Sept. 2017 and Sept. 30, 2018. Each story is uniquely tragic. The accumulated weight becomes unbearable. The numbers begin to blur and numb my senses. After all, thousands have died. And yet, what are families to do? We are hard driven, or better said, heart driven, to be together. What can we as witnesses and allies do? The landscape around our borderland communities is an expanding graveyard. There is no end in sight.
Community in Borderlands
The US-Mexico borderlands region has been characterized by government and mainstream media as dangerous terrain, overrun by criminals and otherwise non-desirables. Our face-to-face reality on the ground tells a markedly different story.
On Sept. 21, the city of Ajo, AZ celebrated the International Day of Peace with a lively parade and communal gathering in the town plaza. The holiday was established in 1981 by a unanimous decision of the United Nations “to commit to Peace above cultural differences and to contribute to building a culture of Peace.” The Sierra Club reported that Ajo was the only community in North America known to have a tri-national event. People from Mexico, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the US came together.
The circle of local residents and visitors at the No More Deaths’ monthly memorial vigil in the plaza is widening. In song, silence, and story we commemorate the lives of those who perished while crossing the desert around Ajo. A community aid center is now opening here. This office will offer information to local residents on their legal rights and hands-on ways to respond to the humanitarian crisis we are witnessing. People in the borderlands are finding deeper ethical and practical traction to provide humanitarian relief in the face of formidable odds including federal government efforts to criminalise such aid.
As I write these lines, the first wave of US troops has just arrived in Ajo. We are told that hundreds more will follow. Ironically an invasion is coming from the north, not from the South as anti-immigrant rhetoric had predicted. Out-of-state bands of armed vigilantes too have escalated their anti-immigrant activity along the Arizona-Mexico border. We are under siege by men with guns. A Border Patrol spokesperson said at a recent community meeting that the arrival of the army will be “good for our local economy.” Haven’t we heard that line before?
While this escalated militarization is disruptive to our border communities, it is lethal for the thousands of people—the refugee caravan and others—who are currently walking north from Central America; men, women, children, entire families armed only with hope. I believe these refugees are the current generation of people that civil rights activist Anne Braden was thinking of when she wrote of “those who struggled for a different world … those who can envision a world that has never existed.”
What a ludicrous mismatch: An army and militia vs. asylum seekers. Fear faces off with hope. Is our national security at risk? What is really at risk?
Immigration has a human face, as does fear. No army can stop, nor wall protect us from our fears, anymore than we can derail the hope in the face of others who like many of our ancestors sought refuge on this hallowed land.
As Anne Braden wrote, “Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come.” I believe it already is.