Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
For years I have felt an edgy tug, like a rip tide, drawing me closer to La Frontera, the US-Mexico border and its wall, the great divide. Last June I finally gave in. I packed my books and sourdough starter and headed two and a half hours west of Tucson to a copper mining community-gone-bust, Ajo, Arizona. It is quintessential small town America, southwestern style.
Ajo has one zip code, one stop light, one grocery store, three gas stations, and three coffee shops. Add to that a mechanic’s garage, two hardware stores, a library, and three private clubs. There is no Walmart, no McDonald’s, no local police department, no hospital, and never a traffic jam except on winter weekends when tourists travel main street—headed to the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, an hour and a half south.
Javelinas, also known as Collared Peccary or skunk pig, roam the streets at night, and coyotes stroll the sidewalks by day. We can see the Milky Way from the historic, palm tree-lined plaza, downtown. Yes, there is little light pollution and few clouds here.
Residents south of the checkpoints live in a state of low-intensity occupation, a form of psychological warfare and a strategy designed to keep people subliminally on edge. Towers equipped with rotating cameras, ground sensors, helicopter fly-overs, and the dull hum of drones remind us that we are being watched—all of us. The escalating number of military personnel and the increase in unmarked government vehicles add to the specter of surveillance.
For most people however, Ajo is, and has been, a place to pass through, or overwinter. The town is situated squarely in a region that has been an historic crossroad for indigenous peoples in a network that stretched from present day Mexico to Utah and from the Pacific coast to New Mexico. Now, as then, the year-round residents are a fraction of the number of those who pass through. Each winter our population more than doubles with the arrival of mostly retired, mostly northern US residents in their recreational vehicles or to their second home. Add to that figure the high volume of tourists we see every winter weekend bound for the beaches of Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora, Mexico.
With the ever expanding militarization of the US-Mexico border, we have also witnessed a veritable odyssey of people from the south traversing the harsh Sonoran desert terrain and walking through or around town. To one degree or another these passersby all experience “the shadow.” For northern tourists, it is a potential wrinkle in their vacation, like a long wait at the checkpoint. For our neighbors to the south, it’s another story entirely. The shadow, for many of them, is the shadow of death. Nearby Cabeza Prieta is the most lethal National Wildlife Refuge in the country, and neighboring Organ Pipe, the deadliest National Monument. The number of recovered human remains on these federal lands accounts for a significant percentage of the overall fatalities in the entire Tucson Sector of the border.
It is not uncommon for people crossing by night from the south, to slip past the public campsites of vacationing northerners at Organ Pipe. One seeking reunion, the other recreating together. Herein lies a slice of the pathos and paradox of life in the shadow.
Every wall casts a shadow. Our nation’s immigration policies and enforcement have constructed hundreds of miles of border wall, and there’s a vigorous push for more. Take warning from those of us who live on the nation’s rim: the shadow is always longer, darker, and more insidious than the object that casts it—concrete, wrought iron, or racism.
—John Heid works with the group No More Deaths in Ajo, Arizona.