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migrant storiesI wanted to send out an update from the border. I am doing well and learning a lot from my work in the comedor (soup kitchen) and in the women’s shelter. Here’s a glimpse into my life and the lives of the people I am working with. (The first half of this is sad, so if you’re already having a day of the blues, just skip to the second half!)

Part One: Hostile Terrain

Yesterday I found myself in the middle of a group of about seven migrants huddled around a map that indicates the distance a person can travel per day walking through the desert. (It’s about a four days’ walk from here to Tucson . . . if you are lucky.) Written across the bottom in all capital letters is a warning in Spanish: “DO NOT GO, THERE IS NOT ENOUGH WATER.” 

On this map there are hundreds of red dots, apparently placed at random around the desert. The migrants asked me what the red dots meant. I told them each one represented a dead body, found and recorded by those tracking the number of people dying in the attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The group was sober as they continued to study the local topography.

It is hard to get my mind around the desperation of people who risk their lives wandering through such desolate territory—home to poisonous snakes, cougars, coyotes, and cactuses that tear into skin and clothing. Beyond the dangers of the natural environment, there are also the dangers of getting mixed up with the area’s violent drug cartels (which unfortunately happens too often). For the journey to make sense, you have to have a life-or-death reason to cross . . .

One 18-year old boy from Puebla told me he spent 10 days in the desert. His guide had abandoned his group, which then split up. So he was left alone. He went four days without food. Three days he had no water. He was hallucinating and could barely even crawl. When the border patrol found him crouched by the road, he couldn’t speak, and he could hardly make signs to ask for water.

A middle aged woman from Veracruz told me that she was also by herself in the wilderness for four days without water. She was eating cactus fruit and drinking her own urine to survive.

Today in the comedor a migrant shared that he had been attacked by a cougar, and if it hadn’t been for a rancher who shot the animal, he wouldn’t have made it.

Angel, who grew up in Los Angeles, told me one of the saddest stories yet. He saw an entire family dead in the sand: a father and his three children. With them—also dead—was a pregnant woman.

These are just a handful of the experiences I’ve become accustomed to hearing. Migration can be a fatal enterprise. The desert is a terrifying place.

Part 2: Shelter and Shade

If the desert is a terrifying place, it is also a place of beauty and hope. It’s monsoon season here, so in the afternoons, we often have torrential downpours. I wish you all could hear the cacophony of the rain beating down on the comedor’s tin roof. Twice this week I have been surprised by spectacular rainbows following the storms. There is nothing like the smell of desert rain. This week my roommate and I went for a sunrise walk after it had rained all night. The air was soft with the refreshing scent of pine and eucalyptus. Lovely.

These moments when beauty bursts through an otherwise drab and hostile environment remind me of God’s goodness—something I too quickly forget—especially when I find a tarantula in my path or an 8-inch centipede in my bathroom!

The migrants I have met are some of the most resilient people on the planet. So many of them instinctively recognize beauty in the midst of their painful circumstances. When I led morning prayer in the women’s shelter recently, we spoke about gratitude. I asked the women to jot down a list of things they were thankful for, and they filled their sheets much more quickly and completely than I did. I was struck by the fact that every one of them included on their list the gift of life. They were simply grateful to be alive! And from there, they noted one blessing after another.

I stumbled upon something in my devotional readings for July 2. I think it captures my prayer for this summer . . .  “You are a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in distress; shelter from the rain, shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4).

So in case you were wondering, no, I don’t have any proposal to resolve our nation’s immigration woes. I’m starting to get inklings of what issues are important, but I am far from understanding the complexities of this reality. For now, I simply hope to accompany the migrants in the heat and rain of the Sonoran desert. They find themselves in a situation of poverty—they are “the needy in distress”—and I hope that together we will draw closer to our Refuge. . .

Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers,


Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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Published: Jul 10, 2012
Esther Terry is a student at the University of Notre Dame, completing a masters of theological studies. She holds a B.A. in English and Spanish from Hillsdale College. Through an internship at the Kino Border Initiative in Mexico, she is pondering the significance of moral imagination in light of the complexities of migration. Funding from Notre Dame’s Common Good Initiative and the American Dream Summer Grant Program has made her summer experience possible.
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3 replies to this post
  1. Esther's comment that "I don't have any proposal to resolve our nation's immigration woes" reflects, perhaps, the messiness of real life. Real "migrants" provide perspective when contrasted to abstract "illegals," although the perspective depends on where one is standing. Country singer Larry Gatlin, who grew up in south Texas, said one day on national TV that he could stand in the shoes of either the Texas ranchers or the Mexican ("undocumented") migrants with equal sympathy. It is interesting that Esther's internship is at the Kino Border Initiative, because that very name offers us another type of perspective. Fr. Eusebio Kino was the Jesuit who explored the Sonoran/Baja/Arizona Borderlands area and founded, among other things, 24 missions. His life became part of the inspiration for the researches of Herbert Bolton, author of the "Bolton Theory" of the Spanish Borderlands, and who almost single-handedly built the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library into a major research institution. It was Bolton's conviction that the history of the United States cannot be understood fully without coming to grips with the convergence of the Anglo-Mexican-Indian cultures in what we now call the "southwest." He did for the history profession what Willa Cather did for literature in her magnificent "Death Comes for the Archbishop." I learned what a a complicated, inspiring and tragic story that convergence of cultures continues to be from John Francis Bannon, S.J., who gave me my first university teaching job at St. Louis University, and who was a Bolton student and later his biographer. Bolton, Cather and Bannon insulated me from the simple-minded debates that so often characterize our poor attempts to deal with something that requires a great generosity of spirit even to comprehend. Esther is clearly learning about some of it with her "boots on the ground." God bless you, Esther, and all the people you meet on that part of the journey.

  2. Bless you and your work, Esther. Some days the Corporal Works of Mercy are the only things that make sense. Keep going.

  3. Ms. Terry reminds us of the humanity of "illegals," which should be a the center of our discussions about this migration, whatever we argue should be done about it. This is a lesson of which we all need a reminder once in a while. We continue to pray for the migrants and for a solution to the problem; but it sounds like we could also benefit from the prayers of some of the amazing migrants Terry has met.

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