I walk the line. Well, I used to walk the line, looking for desert belly flowers, rare cacti, kangaroo rat tracks, and cryptic horny toads. I walked one side of the fence while Mexican friends stationed on the other side of the international boundary did their part, six feet to the south of me.
They were in Sonora, Mexico, and I was in Arizona, the arid-most reach of the United States, but all of us were rooted in the same Sonoran Desert, in love with its drop-dead gorgeous ancient cactus forests.
We were like brothers and sisters hitched at the hip, working collaboratively on conservation projects that spanned a dotted line on a map that has never really divided our hopes, hearts, or heritage.
Together, we saw how the roots of ironwood trees crawled below our feet and beneath a barbedwire fence. We joked about how milkweed vines climbed up one face of the fence and down the other, with no visa or passport in their pockets. We felt the breeze blow in the branches of mesquite trees that arched above us—branches that knew no borders.
The desert wind did not care much for artificial constructs. It blew them away whenever it wished to do so. As did the episodic flashfloods, the raging bulls, and wear and tear brought on by the searing sun.
But nowadays, the very same stretches of the desert where my friends and I once walked—side by side along an artificial divide—are sites awash in well drilling, cement mixing, bulldozing, cactus piling, and barrier building.
The vision we once had—one that reached across that great divide, one that expressed an unflinching interest in and affection for those on the “other” side —is being badly shattered. It is being shattered by millions of tons of solid cement, sturdy steel, and a sniveling disease called xenophobia.
While you might be prone to dismiss my interest in the bygone days of border life as some misplaced romanticism and nostalgia, I would argue that it is something other than that. I spend less time reflecting on how I came to know the Mexican frontera forty-five years ago, and more on how one particular friend of mine knew it ninety years ago.
That is because that elderly indigenous friend and mentor was the very person who strung the first strands of barbed wire from post to post along a hundred mile stretch of the Arizona–Sonora border in the 1930s. He belonged to three nations—Yankee, Mexican, and O’odham Indian— if he actually belonged to any of them. He really belonged to the desert itself, what he called the tohono, that luminous land of little rain and many hidden gifts.
That gracious man was called Pete Blaine on the northern side of the then -imaginary borderline, and Pedro Garcia on the southern side. As he would comically confide in us, “You can call me Blaine, or call me Garcia… I’m the same ol’ Pap’go Injun no matter what side of the line you put me on.”
Some historians say he was the first forest and game warden of Native American heritage on either side of the border. Others claim he was the first of his kin to go to Washington, DC, to fight for the rights of his tribe in seeking formal recognition and self-determination. While Internet sites today say that he was the second formally recognized tribal governor of the Tohono O’odham—the Desert People— what Pete himself told me was that he served as the first one ever, democratically elected by his own friends and neighbors.
I found it odd that he seldom wanted to talk about his political career on the days that I would visit him. I would call ahead and then knock on the door in his small apartment across from the railroad tracks in downtown Tucson. We would sit in chairs out on the balcony of the run-down seniors’ complex, the place that Pete called home late in his life. What he chose to recount were his adventures in the desert that both of us loved.
Without any prompting, he opened up about his participation in a landmark event that began to change the desert itself during the Great Depression. He was sent out to construct a rather flimsy fence to run between some forty metal obelisks along a seventy-five to one-hundred-mile stretch of the border between two international ports of entry.
The obelisks had been placed out in the desert between 1848 and 1853 to remind the O’odham farmers and ranchers out there which foreign country they were entering. At each obelisk, erected every two to three miles along that stretch, government workers would bring him rolls of barbed wire fencing, metal fence posts, mesquite fence posts, and hardware that he would then move with his one horse and two pack mules. Once the fence posts were aligned between the obelisks and the wire loosely strung between them, he would ratchet up the fence with a handy gadget known as a “come-along.”
Eventually there was a physical barrier—more like a modest filter—running all the way between the border crossings at the place then called Ambos Nogales and Sonoita. There had already been a short segment of fence put up in 1915 to help people distinguish the twin settlements of Nogales (Sonora) and Nogales (Arizona) and keep out American gun smugglers who were making loads of money off supplying rifles to troops on both sides of the Mexican revolution. Ironically, the governor of Sonora, Jose Maytorena, ordered its eleven strands of wire erected, but it was taken down four months later after outcries from residents and officials on both sides of the line.
Near the westernmost reaches of Pete Blaine’s fence were the ancient oases of Sonoyta and Quitobaquito, the former mostly on the Mexican side, the latter cut in half by the line. Once the fence was up, a Lebanese immigrant named Kalil put up a trading post on the U.S. side and named it after himself. Kalilville is now called Lukeville, and it is the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a wilderness park that I lived in when I walked the line.
Now, as I write, there are sections of thirty-foot high wall going up on both sides of the Lukeville Port of Entry, one in a breathtakingly beautiful ancient forest of ironwood trees and cacti that I had a chance to revisit just a couple weeks ago. Even some of the Border Patrol now working in that sector claim that no wall should ever be built there, given that illegal crossings are few and easily detectable. Surely, undocumented border crossers, few as they are, can be managed by other means.
But at the time when Pete worked there as a forest guardian, the border was wide open, and he was still a young man. He found himself called into action to build a four-foot-high fence—not to keep people from crossing the line, but to discourage free-ranging cattle originating further south in the Altar Valley from spreading hoof-and-mouth disease northward into herds born and branded in the United States. Most of his other concerns were focused on curbing illegal woodcutting by workers from the copper mine in Ajo, thirty-five miles to the north, and stopping hunters from poaching desert bighorn sheep or pronghorn antelope.
At that time, his own O’odham people (also called Papago) came and went across the line at will, since roughly half of them lived south of the Gadsden Purchase demarcation line drawn in 1853, and the other half lived north.
Neither the Tohono O’odham nor their seasonally mobile cousins the Hia C-eḍ O’odham were yet to be recognized as distinctive and sovereign indigenous nations by the U.S. government or by the Mexican government.
But in that same decade, Pete was among those who helped them shape a reservation the size of Connecticut on the northern side of the international boundary. Today, about nine out of ten Tohono O’odham live north of the border on that reservation, while another 2,300 O’odham remain south of the border, but retain rights to use tribal services north of the line.
And so, the first division and enclosure of those lands in the heart of the Sonoran Desert began as a way of restricting the movements of livestock, not humans. The O’odham and their neighbors still moved freely across the line, dropping a line of barbed wire here or there, then picking it up and attaching it to a post again, on their way to celebrate Catholic saints’ days or hold Indian ceremonies on one or the other side of the flimsy fence.
Those movements for religious purposes are documented in written records as far back as 1698 at Quitobaquito Springs—a small, oasis-like village later cut in half by the theoretical international boundary. I witnessed both native and Catholic religious rites and spiritual expressions at Quitobaquito that continued to use the sacred waters and ceremonial plants there well into the 1980s and 1990s.
To my knowledge, no O’odham person has ever ceded his or her constitutionally guaranteed right to practice his or her place-based religious expressions there, and during my time living in Organ Pipe, the National Park Service superintendent explicitly sanctioned continuing O’odham spiritual uses there. The current superintendent welcomes O’odham traditional practices as well, including the harvesting of cactus fruit used for making a sacramental wine necessary for rain-bringing ceremonies. The rights of the O’odham to harvest fruits off the giant, columnar cacti in the Monument were written into its enabling legislation by Congress in 1937.
In the near future, any attempt to exercise those cultural and spiritual expressions at Quitobaquito — within portions of their former village now found within a hundred yards on both sides of the border—will be obstructed by a towering wall of steel slats, and twenty-four-hour-a day lighting seven days a week. The local people I know who have visited that area since wall construction ensued were distraught by the dust and the noise, and by the sight of sacred saguaro cactus being toppled and piled up by construction crews.
One O’odham woman stood over the mangled carcasses of three giant saguaros and moaned, “They are killing our ancestors… for what? To put up metal where these lives once stood?”
Nearly every other O’odham individual I have spoken with over the last few months expresses traumatic stress over knowing that their ancestral home of the last eight thousand years has been cut in half by abusive border policy made incarnate in a brazen barrier.
They are suffering the grief that comes with witnessing their sacred lands and waters sliced up by a large razor blade of steel slats towering twenty-five feet over them in terrain where you can otherwise look out over dozens of miles of desert and sky in every direction.
Grief comes from the shock that anyone would dare drill well after well—each one just five miles apart from the others—merely for mixing concrete with water that is both precious and sacred. The pumping is destabilizing an artesian aquifer that is not likely to be naturally replenished for centuries, and certainly not during our own lifetimes.
Grief comes from the sickening feeling of not knowing whether their relatives in Mexico will be allowed to cross the line in time to participate in seasonal ceremonies, and not knowing whether they themselves can travel, unrestricted, to attend the most sacred ceremony of their people held thirty-five miles south of the line.
Grief comes from the disrupted access to sacred, ceremonial, and medicinal plants used and honored by their people since time immemorial.
Far worse, there is the fear of breaking the ties with all their relations, with the living and the deceased, with the human and other-than-human worlds. As I sometimes chant or wail to myself as I walk the line:
Those bonds of kinship
have made them who they are:
—a people like no other—
but in other ways,
one like all others—
for all of us suffer from
the ultimate consequences
of the severing of the ties
that bind us to our Beloved Mother,
this battered, blasted, and bull-dozed planet
that we still have the guts and guile
to call our home.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, a desert ecologist and conservation biologist who lives within 12 miles of the U.S./Mexico border line. See his other border essays at www.garynabhan.com, and recently launched website, Halting and Healing the Border Disorder. His most recent book, Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair is recipient of the Southwest Book Award.
This article was first published at Minding Nature. Winter Edition, 2020.