Mystery language on a border sign

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The photo that accompanied an article Saturday about deaths of illegal immigrants in the Arizona desert showed a sign that carried instructions in three languages. The sign was posted on a solar-powered emergency beacon, from which illegal immigrants in distress could summon help.

In English, the sign read: “If you need help push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.”


The warning was also posted in Spanish, but what was the third language? The caption did not say, and readers were curious.

“The third is a language that is a mystery to me and perhaps to some of your other readers. It has a degree of importance if it suggests the nationality of a group, other than Mexican, traversing that dangerous stretch of America,” wrote Godfrey Harris of Los Angeles.

The photo was taken by Scott Olson of Getty Images, and he did not address the language question in the caption information he supplied. After readers inquired, a Times photo editor contacted Olson, who in turn checked with the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol to get the answer:

Tohono O’odham.

The language is a dialect of the O’odham language and is spoken by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

According to the tribe’s website, the federally recognized Tohono O’odham reservation ends at the U.S.-Mexican border and its eastern boundary is near the Sasabe, Ariz., port of entry. However, the tribe considers its land to extend farther south to include nine communities in Mexico. The tribe’s website says increased enforcement of immigration law at the U.S.-Mexico border has “prevented the O’odham from crossing it freely.”

That may be driving tribal members to cross illegally – which could put them in the position of needing an emergency beacon such as the one pictured in Saturday’s Times. Hence the inclusion of Tohono O’odham on the beacon’s sign.


--Deirdre Edgar