The Crossing

Ruben Martinez is the author of "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail" and "The New Americans: Seven Families Journey to Another Country." This adapted excerpt is from Ruben Martinez's upcoming book, "Burning Sand" (Metropolitan Books). Copyright 2006 by Ruben Martinez.

I am, again, on the line.

I’ve been drawn to it my entire life, beginning with frequent childhood jaunts across it to Tijuana and back--that leap from the monochrome suburban grids of Southern California to the Technicolor swirl of urban Baja California and back. I am an American today because of that line--and my parents’ will to erase it with their desire. I return to it again and again because I am from both sides. So for me, son of a mother who emigrated from El Salvador and a Mexican American father who spent his own childhood leaping back and forth, the line is a sieve. And it is a brick wall. It defines me even as I defy it. It is a book without a clear beginning or end, and despite the fact that we refer to it as a “line,” it is not even linear; to compare it to an actual book I’d have to invoke Cortazar’s “Hopscotch.” This line does and does not exist. It is a historical, political, economic and cultural fact. It is a laughable, puny, meaningless thing. It is a matter of life and death.And it is a matter of representation. It is a very productive trope in both American and Mexican pop. The cowboy crosses the line to evade the law, because he imagines there is no law in the South. The immigrant crosses the line to embrace the future because he imagines there is no past in the North. Usually rendered by the River (the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo--its name changes from one shore to the other), the line appears again and again in film and literature and music from both sides. Just a few: Cormac McCarthy and Carlos Fuentes, Marty Robbins and Los Tigres del Norte, Sam Peckinpah and Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez, Charles Bowden and Gloria Anzaldua.

In the Western, the moment of the crossing (the lawless gang fleeing the lawmen, their horses’ hooves muddying the muddy waters all the more) is heralded by a stirring musical figure, brassy and percussive, leaping several tonal steps with each note. Once we’re safely on the other side, the melodic strings of Mexico take over. The swaggering American will have his way with a Mexican senorita. The post-colonial representations of borderlands literature--produced by Mexicans and Americans alike--have yet to soften the edges of this Spring Break syndrome. The whorehouse-across-the-river is there for a spurned Jake Gyllenhaal to get off with smooth-skinned brown boys in an otherwise liberatory “Brokeback Mountain.” Americans fictional and real always fantasize remaining in that racy, lazy South, but business or vengeance or a respectable marriage (the senorita is a puta, and you can’t marry a puto on either side of the border) usually call the cowboy back home.

The Mexican or Chicano production is an inverted mirror of the same. The climax of Cheech Marin’s “Born in East L.A.” (and dozens of Mexican B-movies) fulfills every migrant’s fantasy of a joyous rush of brown humanity breaching a hapless Border Patrol, the victory of simple desire over military technology that occurs thousands of times a day on the border and feeds the paranoid vision of a reconquista (which, a handful of crackpot Chicano nationalists notwithstanding, has been largely invented by the likes of the Minutemen, white dudes with real economic insecurities unfortunately marinated in traditional borderlands racism).


Every step across the line is a breach of one code or another. Some of these laws are on the books; some have never been written down; some are matters more private than public.

I’ve been drawn to that line my whole life. Sometimes it’s a metaphor. Sometimes it’s not.

This time, I am close to the line on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. It is a late August afternoon, a day that will not make headlines because there are no Minuteman patrols out hunting migrants, no Samaritans out seeking to save them. Nor is there, for the moment, any Border Patrol in the immediate vicinity. The land is as its public designation intended: a unique Sonoran desert habitat bizarrely and beautifully traversed by grasslands that are home to hundreds of unique species, including the endangered pronghorn antelope; it is also an outstanding birding location. But there are no birders in the dead of summer. The birders and the Minutemen have no wish to be out in temperatures that often rise to more than 110 degrees. (Some Samaritans who belong to a group called No More Deaths are indeed in the area, but the day’s final patrol is probably heading back to the church-based group’s campground near the town of Arivaca, which borders the refuge.)

I park at the Arivaca Creek trailhead. The interpretive sign tells of the possibility of hearing the “snap of vermilion flycatchers snatching insects on the wing.” It also tells of another species, a relative newcomer to this “riparian ribbon”:


Visitors to BANWR are advised to remain alert for illegal activity associated with the presence of undocumented aliens (UDAs). There is also increased law enforcement activity by several agencies & organizations.

The bulleted visitor guidelines advise not to let the “UDAs approach you or your vehicle,” a Homeland Security variation of “do not feed the wildlife.”

The humidity from recent monsoonal deluges is stifling, making 100 degrees feel much hotter--and wetter. The reed-like branches of ocotillos have sprouted their tiny lime-green leaves, hiding their terrifically sharp thorns. Moss flourishes on arroyo stones. Mosquitoes zip and whine through the thick air. The desert jungle.

I tell myself that I’ll take a short stroll; it’s getting late. I climb the trail from the creek bed, which is dominated by mammoth cottonwood trees, south toward the red dirt hills--a trail used by birders and “UDAs” alike. I can imagine an Audubon guide leading a gaggle of khaki-clad tourists peering through binoculars, first at a vermilion flycatcher and then at a Mexican rushing through a mesquite thicket, Profugus mexicanus. On the line everything seems to attract its opposite or, more accurately, everything seems to attract a thing that seems to have no relation to it, not parallel universes but saw-toothed eruptions, the crumpled metal of a collision. These pairings occur not just near the political border--I am about 11 miles from the boundary between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico--but throughout the West. The border is no longer a line. Its ink has diffused, an ambiguous veil across the entire territory.


Take the microcosm of the BANWR and its immediate vicinity. The birders and the migrants, the Samaritans and the Minutemen. Hunters and stoners. A “dude ranch” that charges city slickers up to $2,500 a week. Retirees of modest means. Hellfire Protestants and Catholic penitents and New Age vortex-seekers. Living here or passing through are Americans and Native Americans and Mexicans and Mexican Americans and Mexican Indians, all of varying shades and accents, and there are Iranians and Guatemalans and Chinese. This kind of situation was once affectionately referred to as the Melting Pot. But no, it is more like speaking in tongues, speaking in Babel. The tower is crumbling. Melting pot meltdown.

I climb into the red hills as the sun nears the horizon. The sky at the zenith is a stunning true blue. Reaching a saddle, I stumble on to a huge migrant encampment--water jugs and backpacks and soiled underwear and tubes of toothpaste and a brand-new denim jacket finely embroidered with the name of a car club, opened cans of refried beans, bottles of men’s cologne, Tampax, tortillas curled hard in the heat. The things they carried and left behind because 11 miles into the 50-mile hike they’d begun to realize the weight of those things, and they’d resolved to travel lighter. If something was to go wrong and they got lost and hyperthermic, they might even begin stripping the clothes off their backs.

It is possible, too, that they’ve just broken camp; it is possible that they saw me coming and are hiding behind one of the saddle’s humps. I call out: ¡No soy migra! This is a line from the script of the Samaritan Patrol, who, like the activists of No More Deaths, scour the desert searching for migrants in distress. They call out so that the fearful migrants might reveal themselves to receive food and water. It is a good line in the borderlands; I can’t think of a better one. The real problem is, what am I going to say if someone actually responds? Buenas tardes senoras y senores, soy periodista y queria entervistarles, si es que no les es mucha molestia . . . the journalist’s lame introduction. Of course, they would have no reason to stop and speak to me--just the opposite. Indeed, why would they believe that I am not migra? And what if the smugglers are hauling a load of narcotics instead of humans? What if they are carrying weapons? This is not idle paranoia--this desert is armed with Mexican and American government-issue sidearms and the assault rifles of the paramilitary brigades on both sides. It is no surprise that there is bloodshed. Assault, rape, torture and murder are common.

In any event, I have nothing to offer the trekkers; they have not run out of water yet (though by tomorrow, after 15 or 20 miles, they well might). I am suddenly ashamed, as if I’ve intruded on a tremendously private moment, as if I’ve stumbled upon a couple in erotic embrace, bodies vulnerable to the harshness of the landscape and my gaze.


The sun sets, a funnel of gold joining cerulean canopy to blood-red earth. The land is completely still. I hold my breath. I realize that I want them to appear. I want to join them on the journey. The Audubon birder needs the vermilion flycatcher; right now, the writer needs a mojado.

The migrant stumbles through the desert and I after him--he’s on a pilgrimage and I’m in pursuit of him. Thus I am the literary migra: I will trap the mojado within the distorting borders of representation--a problem no writer has ever resolved. But aren’t I also representing the origins of my own family’s journey? Don’t I also return to the line because it was upon my parents and grandparents’ crossing it that I became possible?

¡No soy migra! I call out again.

There is no response. I sweat profusely, soaking through my UNM Lobos T-shirt. Even my jeans hang heavy with moisture. Swatting mosquitoes, I retrace my footsteps back to the car.


I drive west in the dimming light. There is no one on this road but me.

Suddenly, a flutter in my peripheral vision. And now a figure stumbles out of the desert green to remind me that the border is, above all else, a moral line. He crawls from the brush and waves to me from the south side of the road. I stop the truck and roll down my window. He is a plaintive-looking fellow in his 30s, with thick black curls, a sweaty and smudged moon of a face. He has large brown eyes ringed by reddened whites. He is wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes. He carries a small blue vinyl bag.

¿Que paso? I ask. What happened?

With the first syllables of his response I can tell that he is from El Salvador. It is an accent that splits the difference between the typically muted tones of the Latin American provinces and the urgent desire of urban speech. It is the accent of my mother and her family; it is the Spanish accent I associate most with my childhood.


He says his name is Victor and that he had hiked about 12 miles into U.S. territory and could not make it any farther. His migrant crew had traveled all night and started up again late in the afternoon--just a couple of hours ago--but he’d become extremely fatigued and his vision began to blur.

Soy diabetico, says Victor.

Immediately I grab my phone to dial 911. It chirps a complaint: There is no signal. I think: Hypoglycemia, he needs something sweet. I think this because of the hundreds of plot lines in television dramas I’ve watched since I was a kid. In the backseat I have enough supplies to keep a dozen hikers going for at least a day in the desert--power bars, fruit cups, tins of Vienna sausages, peanut butter crackers, bags of trail mix, several bottles of Gatorade and gallon-jugs of drinking water. I expect him to tear ravenously into the strawberry-flavored bar I give him, but he eats it very slowly, taking modest sips of water between bites.

I flip open the cellphone again. Still no signal.


The particulars of a problem begin to form in my mind. Although I am not a medical expert, it is apparent that Victor needs urgent attention. But there is no way to contact medical personnel. The only option is to drive Victor to the nearest town, which is Arivaca, about 10 miles away. I become aware that by doing so, both Victor and I will be risking apprehension by the Border Patrol. More than one border denizen has told me that merely giving a migrant a ride can place one in a tenuous legal situation.

U.S. Code (Title 8, Chapter 12, Subchapter II, Part VIII, Section 1324) stipulates that an American citizen breaks the law when “knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, transports, or moves or attempts to transport or move such alien within the United States by means of transportation or otherwise, in furtherance of such violation of law.”

The ethical calculation is simple enough. The law might contradict my moral impulse, but the right thing to do is obvious. I also tell myself that in the event of apprehension by the Border Patrol, the truth of the situation will suffice. I am a Samaritan, after all, not a coyote. The truth will suffice at least for me, that is: I will go free, and Victor will be deported.

I tell Victor to get in the car.


The night falls fast. Soon the only things we can see through the bug-splattered windshield are the grainy blacktop ahead and the tangle of mesquites lining the road. I keep expecting more migrants to appear in the headlights and wave us down. At any given moment on this stretch of borderland there may be hundreds of migrants attempting passage.

It is a winding road and I’m a conservative driver, so there’s time for small talk. Victor is much more animated now. He says he is feeling better.

He is from Soyapango, a working-class suburb of San Salvador that I remember well from my time in the country during the civil war, when it had the reputation of being a rebel stronghold. Right now, Victor is 1,800 miles from Soyapango.

¿Y a que se dedica usted? He asks what I do for a living.


I reply that I am a writer, and then there is silence for about a quarter of a mile.

The Border Patrol will appear any minute now, I think to myself.

His large round eyes glisten, reflecting the light from my dashboard. More questions. ¿Como se llama el pueblo al que vamos? ¿Que lejos queda Phoenix? ¿Que lejos queda Los Angeles? What’s the name of the town we’re heading to? How far is Phoenix? How far is Los Angeles? Phoenix: where the coyote told him he’d be dropped off at a safe house. Los Angeles: where his sister lives. He has memorized a phone number. It begins with the area code 818. Yes, he is feeling quite fine now, Victor says, and he realizes that I can’t drive him all the way to L.A. But Phoenix is only 100 miles away. That’s like from San Salvador to Guatemala City.

There is still no Border Patrol in sight. This does not make any sense. There are hundreds of agents on duty in what is called the Tucson Sector, the busiest and deadliest crossing along the U.S.-Mexico line. Is it the changing of the guard? Are the agents on dinner break? Are they tracking down Osama bin Laden, disguised as a Mexican day laborer?


Now, I realize, the problem is a bit different. Victor is apparently no longer experiencing a medical emergency, although I cannot be absolutely certain of this. The law is ambiguous on the matter of Samaritan aid. I am aware of a pending federal court case against two young No More Deaths activists, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, who recently attempted to conduct a “medical evacuation” by taking two apparently ailing migrants directly to a hospital rather than handing them over to the BP. Federal prosecutors decided that the activists were transporting the migrants “in furtherance” of their illegal presence in the U.S. and indicted the pair on several felony charges. The activists and their supporters say that the ethical imperative of offering aid in the context of a medical emergency supersedes the letter of immigration law--a moral argument without juridical precedent on the border. The activists are clearly hoping to set one.

But the law is decidedly less ambiguous about what Victor is now asking me to do. If I drive him to Phoenix and put him in touch with his sister, I will clearly have provided transportation “in furtherance of” his illegal presence. He is no longer asking for medical aid.

The air-conditioning chills the sweat on the wet rag that my Lobos T-shirt has become. It seems that there are now several possibilities, several problems. It seems that there are many right and wrong things to do. The scenarios tumble through my mind.

Risk the trip to Phoenix. (Where is that BP checkpoint on I-19? Is it north or south of Arivaca Junction? I look into the sky--are there thunderheads? Checkpoints often close when it rains.) What if Victor is actually still sick and on the verge of a seizure--shouldn’t I turn him over to the BP? But will the BP give him the medical care he needs? And, not least of all, what of Victor’s human right to escape the living hell that is Soyapango (poverty and crime there today are taking nearly as much a toll as the civil war did)? If Victor has that essential human right to seek a better life for himself and his family, what is my moral duty when he literally stumbles into my life on the border? Am I willing to risk federal charges to fulfill an ethical responsibility that I decide trumps the laws of my country?


I slow down to a crawl as we near the outskirts of Arivaca, a town famed for a ‘60s-era commune and the weed-growing hippies that hung on long past the Summer of Love. It will all end here in Arivaca, I tell myself. The BP trucks will be lined up outside the one small grocery store in town, or maybe up at the Grubsteak, which is presided over by a gregarious Mexican who waits on the graying hippies and handful of outsider artists who arrived years ago thinking they’d found the grail of Western living, long before chaos came to the border.

But when I pull up to the store, there is only the heat of the night and a flickering street lamp gathering a swarm of moths. I notice a few local kids--white, shaved heads--standing by a pay phone. Now it occurs to me that there is a possible solution to this mess. In the rush of events, I’d forgotten that No More Deaths had a camp about four miles east of town. Because it is a faith-based organization, the camp was baptized “Ark of the Covenant.” Since 2004, No More Deaths had recruited student activists--like Sellz and Strauss, the pair under federal indictment--from around the country to come to southern Arizona and walk the lethal desert trails. There would be activists there with more experience than I in these matters. They could easily consult the doctors and lawyers supporting their cause to determine the right thing to do--or at least their version of the right thing.

I walk into the store. I tell Victor to stay inside the car. The clerk behind the counter is reading the newspaper, head cupped in her hands and elbows leaning on the food scale next to the cash register.

I briefly blurt out my story.


She asks me where Victor is. In the car, I say. Immediately she tells me that the BP can impound my vehicle, they can file charges. She tells me that she can call the Border Patrol for me. She seems to know exactly what the right thing to do is. The only thing to do. She places her hand on the phone.

A few seconds later I’m back in the heat of the night and I ask the first passerby, a young blond woman named Charity, for directions to the Ark of the Covenant. Do you have a map? She asks. She means a local map. No. Now she is drawing one on a page of my reporter’s notebook. She draws many lines. Here there is a hill, she says; here, a llama ranch. She says a quarter of a mile, then a couple of miles, then three-quarters of a mile and left and right and across. It is a moonless night. Good luck, she says.

I climb back in the truck, I turn the ignition. I give Victor the notebook with the map. In a minute we’re out of town and on to the first dirt road of the route. Still no BP in sight. The map is accurate. I pass by the llama ranch, barely catching the sign in the dimness.

For several minutes I ride on impulse--no thoughts at all. But as I turn left just where Charity told me to, a thought powerful enough to take my foot off the gas seizes me.


I can’t ride into the Ark of the Covenant with Victor in the truck. What I’d forgotten in my haste was the political reality of the moment: The feds had called No More Deaths’ bluff and were going after them in court. I remembered hearing from a couple of activists that before and since the arrests of Sellz and Strauss, there had been constant BP surveillance on the encampment.

If the BP were to see me dropping off Victor at the camp now, would they, could they use this as more evidence of running a de facto smuggling operation? Perhaps this could strengthen the federal case against Sellz and Strauss. And what if there was a conviction? And what if a judge ordered the camp closed?

Now I was weighing Victor’s singular rights and desire and the goals and strategy of an activist movement that had helped dozens of migrants in distress over the past two summers and that could continue to help many more. The problem was, my cellphone was dead. The problem was my desire to capture a mojado. The problem was, I didn’t have enough information to know what the “right” decision was. I had placed myself on the line, and I wasn’t ready for what it would ask of me.

I slow down, and the dust kicked up by the tires envelops the truck. Victor and I turn to each other.


Fifteen minutes later, I pull up, for the second time, to the convenience store in Arivaca. The clerk is still reading the paper. I tell her to call the Border Patrol. I tell her that Victor has diabetes and symptoms of hypoglycemia.

She picks up the phone: “We’ve got a diabetic UDA.”

I walk out to Victor, who is standing next to my truck, staring into the black desert night. He asks me again how far it is to Tucson. I tell him that he’ll die if he tries to hike.

I tell myself that Victor is probably living and working somewhere in America now. It is quite possible that he attempted to cross over again after his apprehension by the Border Patrol, and that he succeeded. This thought does and does not comfort me.


I tell myself I did the right thing. I tell myself I did the wrong thing. I tell myself that every decision on the line is like that, somewhere in between.


Copyright 2006 by Ruben Martinez