Letter From the Desert: Senitas and Sacrifices

It’s a completely reasonable 99°F at 3:00 pm, but I’m still sweating. I am preoccupied. I am keeping company with three species of column cacti. The long drive across the Tohono O’odham Reservation from Tucson required extra caffeine, and I am not fully in the moment. Cactus wrens sing from the rocks. A Gila woodpecker lands on the saguaro nearest the car, unleashes a cacophony. It is beautiful.

I cannot stop thinking about the Wall.

Aside from the saguaros, which are this year confusing people by sprouting flower buds from their sides rather than their tops as required by law, I am also in the company of organ pipe and senita cacti, Stenocereus thurberi and and Lophocereus schottii, respectively, and also respectively tcutcuis (Tohono O’odham) and hasahcápoj (Seri), both of which species grow wild in the United States only within a few miles of where I stand, sweating and distracted. They each are far more prevalent in the state of Sonora, south of here, south of the border, which is about five miles away.

The Wall is about five miles away.

The last time I was here, the Wall was merely a tall and flimsy fence that stretched a few hundred yards along the border on either side of the port of entry at Lukeville. Beyond that distance, there was a bollard and rail fence of heavy iron intended to keep people from driving across the desert: reasonable enough even without considering the border, given busy Highway 2 a literal stone’s throw away from the southern boundary of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. (I checked, once, long ago, after making sure no one was nearby that could possibly have been hit by my thrown stone.) That barrier was otherwise completely porous to most wildlife, as well as to people heading in either direction. (Again, I checked.)

Before that, before the Clinton administration set the most recent series of border policy atrocities in motion, the frontier was marked by a barbed wire fence, which in many places was actually not so much a fence as a series of barbed wire strands running ten inches apart on the ground.

Now, a barrier almost as flimsy as the 2006-era Lukeville fence but three stories tall runs the length of the Monument’s border with Mexico. A football-field-wide buffer has been bulldozed, scraped clear of any apparent living thing. In case any living thing decides to sneak into the dead zone under cover of darkness, a miles-long row of 40-foot floodlights ensures there will be no darkness. Here and there a line of transplanted saguaros forms a final gauntlet welcoming wall climbers to the United States of America.

The Wall poses only a little more obstacle to northward passage than does the widely spaced row of saguaros. Almost as soon as the first sections of wall went up, videos made the rounds of young people climbing the bollards as if they were ladders. For those would-be migrants without the upper body strength to pull themselves over the wall, a few minutes’ work with a reciprocating saw turned out to allow the bottom end of a cut bollard to be pushed to one side, allowing passage. This would be followed by a hasty Border Patrol repair of the cut bollard, which would then necessitate cutting of a new, nearby bollard, and so forth. I understand that the coyotes are now prominently marking the bollards they have sawed through as a way of taunting the Border Patrol.

The real barrier is what lies north of the Wall. Depending on where a person crosses between here and the Colorado River, she faces between 40 and 70 miles of plodding through extremely hot desert before getting to Interstate 8, where — with luck — a contact will pick her up and speed into Phoenix, or Tucson, or Los Angeles. Not everyone gets that far. Today, it is a completely reasonable 99°F, and I have hiking boots and a way to carry several gallons of water in only moderate discomfort and I have hiked around 200 miles in similar heat so far this year, and I would hesitate before hiking the 5.78 miles over to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and then back again, much less seven times that total distance to Sentinel or Gila Bend. So far in 2021, as of this writing, seven bodies have been found just inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Across southern Arizona from the New Mexico line to Yuma, 64 bodies have been found. So far this year. The toll since records have been kept somewhat methodically is terrifying: 3,658 deaths listed by the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants. No one knows how many deaths have gone unreported. Perhaps 11,000 along the entirety of the border.

Each one of those red dots is a dead human being that has actually been found and formally recorded. The closest red dot to where I stand, admiring the senitas and organ pipes and saguaros, memorializes Olvin Galindo Romero, who died sometime in July 2018 not 100 feet from this spot. Five years earlier and a quarter mile south, someone found the remains of 27-year-old Albaro Valente Garcia in the wash.

Those of us who grew up fed horror stories about the privations of American pioneers, who sweated and froze and drowned and hauled unwilling livestock across rivers and canyons, who on occasion ate each other’s remains as a last resort, might wonder why we hear so little — why we think so seldom — of the people making this trip. Some Border Patrol estimates have it that only one in ten migrants making the attempt makes it through the desert. Those that aren’t apprehended, or rescued, or something in between end up as a red dot in some database-driven map. Or they end up as a whirlwind of unresolved grief and longing in the hearts of their families. If they have ever ended up in any school’s fourth grade curriculum, I have not heard of it.

Several people have told me over the years that I am too suggestible. In time, I came to agree with them. And so I must admit that the wording of a National Park Service warning sign, one placed at regular intervals throughout Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, has my nerves on edge. One of them is a few feet from where I parked. It reads:

Smuggling and illegal immigration are common in this area due to the proximity to the international border. Please be aware of your surroundings at all times and do not travel alone to remote areas. Dial 911 to report suspicious activity.

Out of detached curiosity, I pull out first my personal phone and then my work phone to see if either one offers the capability of making the call suggested by the sign. The first has no signal. The other has a new text message on it. It reads:

I put both phones back in my pocket.

I find myself simultaneously offended by the sign and made wary by it. The majority of people coming across the border not only mean me no harm, they would take extreme measures to avoid having me even know they were anywhere nearby. The minority, for instance the armed smugglers of drugs or migrants who might reasonably be expected to pose a greater threat? Even barring any character judgements? Desperate conditions make for desperate acts. Here I am standing around innocently and alone with an all wheel drive vehicle nearby full of gas and drinking water. A simple target of opportunity. Still, objectively speaking, there is nothing to worry about. I probably ran more of a risk of being assaulted by strangers in downtown Phoenix the other day.

Logic and common sense don’t make the hairs on the back of my neck relax. Nor does indignant offense at being told not to travel alone in remote areas. Do they even know me? What would I do instead, watch television?

I turn away from the sign and look at the senitas.

They are beautiful. How tempting it is to focus on them alone, to ignore the Wall entirely. How tempting to think about anything other than the agony Olvin Galindo must have felt just a short distance from here, how his skin must have blackened and his lips fissured, how he must have felt fear and then panic and then dull confusion and grinding pain and fever dreams as he succumbed to thirst and hyperthermia.

It would be interesting, I think, to craft an essay composed entirely of other people’s rigorously cited words, a series of warring quotations, lyrical evocations of desert magic and purpling twilight sky and white people’s inspiration interspersed with surviving migrants’ first-hand accounts of their jornadas, their excruciating journeys across the desert, the loved ones they abandoned to the vultures, running out of water 30 miles from a point where a confederate might be there with a van. Stories of ice water in insulated stainless steel thermoses interspersed with stories of drinking urine out of a gallon plastic jug. It would be a ham-handed and unsubtle piece of writing, to be sure. Here I am instead, writing a field guide to the spring wildflowers of the Warsaw ghetto circa 1942.


The Gila woodpeckers are still chattering. The temperature crosses the 100°F line without seeking permission from the authorities. An interesting thing about senitas: the story people usually tell about how they got their common name seems not to be based on anything real. The common story is that “senita” is the Spanish for “old woman,” which I guess it could be, technically, if you ignore every Spanish-speaking country’s actual usage over the last couple centuries, and that the tufts of gray hairs at the ends of the plants’ older stems look like old people’s whiskers, and therefore. A more likely explanation is that a local indigenous word for the cacti is “sina,” which was mispronounced in Spanish and then even more so in English. One can find people correcting the spelling to “sinita” in some sources.

So much is lost in translation. Desert writing is an established genre now, and yet the number of desert writers who pay any attention to the decades-long, completely avoidable atrocity on the southern border can be counted on the stiff-curled, blackened fingers of Olvin Galindo’s left hand. Our collective blindness is staggering here. Along with the desert’s original sin — the removal of most of the place’s original inhabitants by successive waves of colonizers, still in progress to this day — our disregard for the welfare of migrants in the desert is a blind spot the size of the big red one on Jupiter.

One might reasonably point out that the migrants are violating the law by entering the country over the Wall. This is true. Base jumping is also illegal, at least in national parks, and the death of one base jumper in Yosemite in 1999 spurred national conversation. If a dozen base jumpers a year were dying in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, would the illegality of their actions be the main thing we’d be talking about? Especially if those deaths were part of more than 200 annually throughout southern Arizona? And if it seems blithe to compare migration across the desert to an extreme sport, all I can ask is what would you call hiking across 70 miles of desert in blistering heat with two gallons of water, and insufficient shoes? Maybe if Americans started thinking of the migrants as athletes we’d offer them more compassion.

Besides which, the only reason people are coming here to the Arizona-Sonora border is that the obvious points of entry — San Diego, Nogales, El Paso — were deliberately closed off in the 1990s. The fact that the only alternative not mired in bureaucracy is a perilous trek through the desert is not mere chance. The idea was that the crossing, especially during the first weeks of harvest season, when most migrants arrive, would be so damn dangerous that no one would do it. That policy has been spectacularly not working for thirty years now, even as we’ve doubled down on it more than twice.

And the migrants persist for what? For the promise of sub-minimum wage jobs picking crops, cleaning homes, mowing lawns. They trudge miles across this desert to clean up the sweat after Anglos put in a few air-conditioned miles on gym treadmills. Who deserves more to be here? Who has sacrificed more to join the community of people in our country? Those who risk becoming that eternal skeletal gape at wheeling desert stars in order to work among us, or others born here who whine at a jury duty summons?

Senitas, which bloom at night, are pollinated by Senita moths, Upiga virescens, centimeter-long night fliers whose closest moth relatives are mainly pests of cereal crops. The female moths will gather pollen deliberately by rubbing a scaly abdominal brush on the flowers’ stamens, then transferring that pollen to the stigmas of another flower. The moths lay an egg in each flower, which then develops a fruit. Most of the larvae don’t survive, and those fruit produce seeds to keep the cactus population going. Enough larvae do survive, and consume the seeds in their host fruit, to keep the moth population going. Thus the senita and its moth are in a partnership ecologists describe as “obligate pollination with seed consumption,” a rather exclusive club of which the only other members are figs (with fig wasps) and yuccas (with yucca moths). Though senitas do occasionally enjoy successful pollination from native bees, suggesting that the partnership with senita moths is still evolving.

I’m standing in a forest of trees with an exclusive (almost) partnership with moths, whose common name’s origin everyone gets wrong, and I suddenly feel right at home.

It lasts a full four minutes. Then I remember the Wall. I have gotten too far from the car for my liking, what with the sign-inspired wariness. I return, get in, and drive to the oasis at Quitobaquito Spring.

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I’ve been worried about Quitobaquito Spring since reports of Homeland Security drawing down the aquifer to make concrete for the Wall raised questions as to the viability of the wetland. The spring is important habitat for endangered Quitobaquito pupfish, the Quitobaquito spring snail, the Sonoyta mud turtle, and the desert caper plant and its associated caper butterfly. On my first visit to the spring, back before the gates were figuratively welded shut in San Diego and El Paso, it was affected by its proximity to the border mainly in that local kids would sneak across the line to go swimming. Now, the Wall overshadows the spring. I walk to the shore, and am relieved to see what appears to be an unimpaired pond. I am no hydrologist, and it may be that damage from construction has yet to manifest. But it looks good.

Frustratingly mindful of the warning on the ubiquitous signs, I decide that I have left my car out of view long enough. And there is a six-hour drive home to think about. I start the engine and head eastward along Puerto Blanco Road. The road sweeps north around a low hill and away from the Wall for a mile or so. Then it turns south again to rejoin the Wall.

A pair of green and white Border Patrol SUVs are parked against the Wall, their lights flashing, their doors open. Two Border Patrol agents slouch, bored, against one of the vehicles. There are three people with them not in uniform. Two are women, maybe five feet tall with long, straight black hair, carrying garbage bags that look full of sweaters and afghans and such. They might be in their twenties, though they look much younger. The third is a somewhat taller young man, wavy dark brown hair cropped a few inches long, with the beginnings of a mustache. He looks 15 or 16. I slow a little so as not to choke them all with dust. The young man notices me, makes eye contact, grins. The women move their bags of belongings into one of the SUVs.

I feel a wash of embarrassment. So these are the threatening people the signs had me fretting about. The only threat any of them seem to pose is the threat of making me want to feed them soup. In a better world I might stop, tell the Border Patrol I’d make sure they got where they’re headed safely, buy them shakes at Dateland. In the real world that would get me arrested, cost me the car for aiding and abetting.

I drive on. Most of the way back to the pavement, I pass a Border Patrol van heading toward the group. At least they will have water to drink tonight.

Three thousand, six hundred fifty eight dead who have actually been found in Arizona. Likely double that number as yet unfound, people who simply vanished, people who no one knows to they need to look for. We regard graveyards as sacred land. Sites of slaughter in battle are hallowed ground. This Sonoran Desert has been sanctified by too many sacrifices. At some point we will need to honor this landscape in appropriate fashion.

But first we need to open the borders to those who merely seek honest work, or to join their families. Let them walk through the gates in San Diego and El Paso. Let them go back home as they see fit. Let us become neighbors. Let the unnecessary desert deaths come to an end.

The group Border Angels is one of several doing concrete work to reduce the danger to migrants entering the United States from Mexico. Support them, or find a group closer to home.

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