Kristy: I am feeling that parts of the story of the border are hidden to most Americans, as if these sagas have been made “invisible” even to those of us who come to the borderlands attempting to understand it.
Gary: I think you are right about that Kristy. That’s why I am so glad that you met Enrique Madrid in Redford Texas today. A giant of a man, with his long, gray-haired ponytail and his huge heart, he is an independent scholar in the best sense of that word. He is also one of those community historians who helps us “daylight” both the tragic and the miraculous events that have shaped border cultures.
Kristy: Give me an example of what you mean by that.
Gary: Well, do you remember how he mentioned the May 1997 death in Redford of an 18 year old boy named Esequiel Hernández Jr.. The boy had been a student at the school where Enrique’s mother, Chita, had taught for decades. Esequiel was shot and killed by Marines who had been deployed by the President at the border to control drug runners. Well, to this day, Enrique will not let anyone forget the wrongful killing of that boy as a consequence of the militarization of the border. In fact, the protests and trips to Washington made by Enrique and his allies ultimately led Secretary of Defense William Cohen to suspend of the use of armed troops at the border.
Kristy: What happened?
Gary: In essence, four young Marines camouflaged in ghillie suits saw a young male herding goats not far from the Madrid home on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Because they saw that Esequiel was carrying a .22 caliber rifle that he used to scare away coyotes, they stalked the boy for nearly 20 minutes. Somehow they jumped to the conclusion that he was an armed drug runner, so one or more of them fired at Esequiel, killing him with a shot that entered his chest and heart through his armpit. Thanks to the outcry of Enrique and many others, the murder created a national uproar, for Esequiel had become the first American civilian to be killed by soldiers on duty within our border since the shootings of student protesters at Kent State University a quarter century earlier.
Kristy: But that was not the last shooting or killing of young people at or near the U.S./Mexico border, was it?
Gary: Sadly, such tragic incidents continue to occur. Just this May, an unarmed 2o year old Guatemalan girl named Patricia Claudia Gonzalez Gomez was shot and killed by a Border Patrolman minutes after taking her first steps on U.S. soil. And just 20 miles from my home in Arizona, a Border Patrol officer shot an an unarmed 16 year old named Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez ten times in 2012, killing him with bullets that blasted through a border fence in Nogales. The officer, Lonnie Swartz, should have known better to shoot into another nation, but claims that youth on the other side of the fence were throwing rocks at him while he pursued two drug smugglers. He became the first Border Patrolman ever prosecuted in a cross-border killing, but he was nevertheless acquitted of that crime by a jury in 2018.
Kristy: And yet, you sense that such tragic losses of young people will not be forgotten, because Enrique and others are ensuring that these lives are remembered?
Gary: Well, Enrique’s efforts to pay homage to Esequiel Hernández inspired two widely disseminated films based on the incident. The first, a fictionalized version called The Three Burials of Melquiades Ochoa, was written by Mexican author Guillermo Arriaga and featured Tommy Lee Jones. It was released in 2005 and has been seen by millions. Jones then produced an award-winning documentary about the incident called The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, which won awards at three film festivals before it was aired on public televison in 2008.
Kristy: And what about that eerie black-and-white photo that Enrique Madrid held up for us at the little house along the Rio Grande where he and his wife Ruby have hosted hundreds of visitors coming to the border?
Gary: That was the unforgettable image of one of the camouflaged Marines who had been deployed to the border in 1977, his face hidden from sight by hundreds of strips of brown and gray cloth. And yet, when armed patrolmen overstep their legal authority, their actions are no longer be hidden from the world. In the case of Claudia’s killing in May, a woman named Marta Martinez recorded its bloody aftermath on her cell phone, and immediately posted it on Facebook Live. Thanks to diligent work of Enrique Madrid and many others, lives of wonderful young people like Esequiel’s are celebrated as reminders that we all need to protect border cultures from further violence.
Kristy: I look forward to learning more about Enrique’s dogged efforts to “daylight” border issues of immense significance. He is featured in a chapter of the book by Rubén Martinez, Desert America: A Journey Through America’s Most Divided Landscape.
Keep informed by and contribute lavishly to the Colibri Center for Human Rights, founded by Gary’s colleague at the Southwest Center, Dr. Robin Reineke: http://www.colibricenter.org/team/
Written by: Gary Nabhan and Kristy Nabhan-Warren