Javier Zamora and Francisco Cantú met at a literary event devoted to the US–Mexico border in the winter of 2018. The two writers struck up a friendship that was at first tentative and uncertain. They soon discovered that, from 2008 to 2012, Francisco had worked as a Border Patrol agent in the same areas where Javier had crossed and been apprehended in 1999.
In 2019, Javier began writing a memoir about his childhood migration from El Salvador to Tucson, Arizona, where he was finally reunited with his parents after an eight-week journey. From the time he left El Salvador, Javier was accompanied by three men, Chele, Marcelo and Chino, and a woman, Patricia, traveling with her twelve-year-old daughter, Carla. During their first attempt to enter the US, his original group was subsumed by much larger groups of immigrants led by a human guide, known as a coyote. In the desert, Marcelo and Chele went missing. After being detained by the Border Patrol, the remaining members of his group were deported back to Nogales, Mexico. It would take them two more trips through the desert during the brutal June heat before they finally succeeded in reaching Tucson – the first American city Javier, Chino, Patricia and Carla had ever set foot in.
In September 2019, Javier contacted Francisco for help finding the exact locations of his three border crossings. These letters recount their subsequent trips along the Arizona–Sonora border.
I was trying to remember which album it was that we listened to first as we drove north toward the border – was it Harvest Moon, or was it Graceland? I remember that it was late in the afternoon, and that we had woken up that morning at the foothills of the Sierra Madre in central Sonora, just after sunrise. We began the day by climbing with Roberto to the top of Rancho Tepúa’s highest butte, hunching over to make our way through the overgrown brush, our shoes filling with dirt and sand as we trudged up the steep hillside, loosening the soil behind us. When we finally arrived at the top we looked out across the landscape – west to the river valley and east into the high sierra, a stark topography forced up by tectonic plates and carved away by waterways snaking into the distance. As we surveyed the surroundings, you broke open unfamiliar fruits for us to taste and captured strange beetles, letting them crawl across your hands. Roberto identified far-off landmarks for us and pointed out that we were high enough to look down upon the backs of the vultures and hawks circling below. It was then that you asked me to take your picture, your arms outstretched like you were the king of the mountain, king of that entire landscape, as far as the eye could see.
It was the middle of September and the desert was still green and humid with monsoon rain – so green that it was hard to think of it as a desert at all. We had arrived at Roberto’s ranch the day before, late in the afternoon, and spent the last hours of daylight helping him to clear maguey fields and plant dozens of agaves that would eventually, after six years or more, be harvested and roasted deep underground to make bacanora, the Sonoran mezcal that Roberto’s forebears had been distilling for five generations on this very same ranch. After handing me a pickaxe, Roberto showed me how to place the young plants in the ground, telling me how far apart to place them, how deep to dig. You volunteered for a more difficult task, picking up a machete and following him to a part of the field overgrown with chaparral and adolescent mesquite. You watched and listened as he demonstrated the best way to hack away at the brush and the weeds, but you soon revealed you didn’t need to be shown – this was the same work you had watched your grandfather do year after year in El Salvador. Later that night, after dinner, we sat with Roberto and his father beneath the sky, watching the moon, the stars and the clouds as if seated in a theater, drinking bacanora and speaking of the infinity of living things that made their home in the desert.
Driving north back to Arizona the next day, listening to Harvest Moon and Graceland, I assured you not to worry about the bacanora we were carrying with us, despite it being far over the legal amount. We rolled the windows down as Neil Young blared out from the speakers, singing along with the whine of the steel guitar. Our bellies were heavy with food and beer we had consumed a few towns back after visiting with a friend of Roberto, a cowboy who ended up selling us three gallons of sotol distilled that very same morning. The man was dressed, you told me later, just like the coyotes who smuggled you north almost two decades ago – the same boots, the same hat, even the same belt buckle. When Graceland began to play through the speakers, I recalled all the times I had listened to the album during the years I spent working for the Border Patrol, convincing myself that the lyrics were somehow about the story of migration: lasers in the jungle, sand falling on children and mothers and fathers, cameras following us in slow motion, a constellation dying in a corner of the sky. After learning about the album’s recording in apartheid South Africa during the international cultural boycott, it had also become impossible for me to listen to those songs without considering the appropriation and political disregard that marred their creation. Nevertheless, as we listened to the album I remember how you turned to me – maybe it was during the song ‘Homeless’ as Ladysmith Black Mambazo called forth the image of wind blowing over a countryside marred by destruction, reminding the listener that here, death might come for them, too – and you said, fuck man, these lyrics are good. I remember wondering in that moment if that’s what you felt here in this desert, homeless.
The problem at the center of Graceland, I realize now, is the same problem embedded all across the landscape of the borderlands: there is irreconcilable discord in the way it contains both violence and freedom, a defining tension that must be held on to even as upbeat rhythms propel us across it. We’ve both been part of that violence, you and I – but there we were, singing together as we drove across the desert, the residue of its cruelty still hanging unequally between us. What might we be able to reclaim here, I wondered as we continued north, what might be undone, what might be remade?
Since our trip I’ve been dreaming, recalling and telling stories to anyone who asked about our time on both sides of the border. I showed strangers and friends pictures of us at Rancho Tepúa, Naco and Agua Prieta. Remember meeting that guy who said he knew Mexican citizens building the border wall? Remember learning Pancho Villa’s horse chipped the third marble step of that fancy haunted hotel in Douglas, the Gadsden?
I hadn’t been back to Sonora since I was nine years old, in 1999, when my coyote used it as our launching point into the United States. The first American city we stopped at after crossing the Sonoran Desert was Tucson, where I was reunited with my parents on 11 June. Since 1999, I’d only been back to Tucson once, in September 2017, and that was before I had a green card. I had just published my first book of poems and I naively, but sincerely, thought that I was healed or very close to being healed. Of course I wasn’t; I’m still not. I don’t think I will ever be completely ‘healed’. That first visit back was very difficult because everything seemed to retraumatize me. The heat, the landscape, the helicopters flying over the city, the immigration trucks, everything sparked flashbacks and nightmares. I was a Temporary Protected Status holder at that time, but with the Trump presidency, I feared immigration or local police were going to stop me and ask if I was a legal citizen.
You know what I think really retraumatized me? The fucking helicopters. The first night, from my friend’s warehouse roof, I saw helicopters in the distance with their searchlights. I kept thinking they were wormholes to a jail cell and that the helicopters were out to get me, like they were in some patch of desert back when I was nine years old.
My body remembered the anguish, my heart beat faster, my legs ached like they did back then, my back felt like I was still carrying that black backpack with water inside it. I could feel my hand being pulled by Chino – one of the individuals with me since El Salvador – through the cacti and the cattle fields. Knowing exactly where that took place, exactly what patch of desert, was my ‘excuse’ for returning to Tucson a third time in 2019 – by then, as a legal resident, without fear of being deported.
Paco, that 2019 ‘research trip’, our road trip, was the complete opposite of my first return to Tucson in 2017. Maybe what made the difference was the green card, or maybe it was the safety of being inside a car with you, an ex-Border-Patrol agent who knows the border like the back of his hand. I don’t know. But those few September days on both sides of the border made me feel ‘safe’, or safer than I felt the last time I was in the Sonoran Desert.
From the first moment after you picked me up at the airport and asked if I wanted to help make mezcal, the trip took an unexpected turn, one toward joy. I still cherish that bottle we made together in Tucson – reserving it for very special occasions. The next day, we drove an hour north from Tucson to the Eloy Detention Center, where migrants are detained at a privately run center behind three different types of fence: electric, chain-link and concertina wire. You volunteer at the site, helping migrants with their immigration cases, and that week you were helping a Cuban mother, who’d been in detention for months, reach bail. When the security officers refused to let me enter the facility because I didn’t have ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) clearance, I returned to your car and drew what I saw in front of me: people wearing bright orange, dark blue or dark brown jumpsuits behind three different fences. After taking the image in, I wrote a poem I’ve yet to publish and still haven’t gotten right. How can anyone get the images right? I was shocked to see how much the immigration machine had changed since I crossed in 1999; now, it’s a more violent monster.
I crossed during the last year of the Clinton administration, when a child below the age of sixteen could not legally be detained for more than forty-eight hours. Year after year, policies have changed and by the time of the Obama administration, children were being detained at private centers like the one at Eloy for much longer than two days. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d immigrated ten or twenty years later, I could’ve been one of the adults wearing uniforms, waiting to hear whether I had been granted refugee status or faced deportation back to El Salvador. Both adults and children are detained for weeks, months, sometimes years, waiting to hear something from the ever-slower immigration system. Helpless, in your car, with the AC at full blast, I couldn’t stop crying as I watched adults and teenagers line up to walk from building to building in ninety-degree heat, or playing in the yard during the short time that they were allowed outside. That was a heavy day. I don’t remember if we left for Sonora right after that, or early the next day, but we drove through rainstorms to Naco to see if that was where I’d crossed. I’d told you that I remembered two lights on each side of a valley. Two towns, you said, and immediately suspected those lights were Douglas/Agua Prieta and Naco. We drove your 4×4 Nissan Pathfinder on both sides of the border, looking for the corridor my coyotes had used. Naco and Agua Prieta seemed so familiar to me. What clicked in my memory was the plaza in Agua Prieta – the gazebo in the middle of it was still painted white like it was twenty years ago.
We slept at the Gadsden that night, a haunted hotel on the American side of Douglas. The next day we woke up at dawn because you said we would be able to see the lights I saw in 1999. I did. We did. Check. There were also fields on either side of the highway. Check. These two things were the confirmation that I, that you, I don’t know who, needed. It felt right. It finally felt like my memories, my flashbacks, were based in reality and not my imagination. Then, we headed to Aconchi, to the Rancho Tepúa mezcal ranch, to the better part of the trip, the part I like to tell people about.
I think that’s what I needed out of the desert – a new memory. A memory outside of immigration, outside of my time there. Lately, in poetry and in everything literary, I ask the question: where is the joy? Why can’t brown and black bodies exist outside of trauma? Bacanora became an alternative answer to my own trauma, and I’m not talking about drinking as a coping mechanism – which I’m far too familiar with. As Roberto Sr and Jr reminded us at their ranch, when we drunk their favorite-ever batch of bacanora, ‘Bacanora needs to be respected and not abused.’ I already loved mezcal, loved sotol, but I’d never drank bacanora, the special variety of mezcal made only in Sonora, the state I was deported to twice before successfully crossing into the United States. There is something special, almost romantic, about drinking alcohol made from a plant grown in the same landscape that almost took my life as a child. I immediately understood what Roberto Sr and Jr meant when they said respect.
When we drove through a shallow ford on the way back to Tucson, I saw a white egret, and I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I consider egrets a good omen. I like that you remember the machete. I’d forgotten the specifics. In El Salvador, some communities call them corvos, which reminds me of my favorite quote by Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta, from One Day of Life translated by Bill Brow: ‘Men are accustomed not to part with their corvos.’ It’s true. Every morning and afternoon, I watched people – mostly men, but also the few women who worked the fields – walk in front of our house with a corvo strapped around their shoulder. People took their corvos to the market, to church, everywhere. That was lesson number one. Grandpa, to this day, still has a corvo he likes to use for everything: cutting coconuts, slicing pipes, trimming leaves, cutting grass. Lesson two came from Dad, a landscaper, who taught me how to clear fields with a weed whacker and a machete, or hoe, or whatever sharp tool he carried in the back of his black Nissan Frontier.
Experiencing Sonora like this, without urgency, reminded me so much of El Salvador, of the timelessness of work, of the world depicted in Argueta’s novels. Of waking up, eating, working, taking a break, eating, napping, working and eating again. It was life. A life I knew in El Salvador – or watched the grown-ups perform – and a life that the headlines, research papers, novels and news-clips don’t highlight. From Sonora or El Salvador we hear migration, gangs, narcos, violence. But these places are so much more than that. It’s work. It’s joy. It’s drinking under the stars after a big meal. It’s drinking bacanora where it was grown and distilled. No TV. No internet. No phone service. Surrounded by mountains, mosquitoes and bats. It was magical. It’s perhaps why I’m a pseudo-brand ambassador for Rancho Tepúa bacanora wherever I go.
One night! One night in the Sierras, under the stars with a father and his son, Roberto Sr and Jr, was all it took. I saw so much love, tenderness and care in their relationship. So much dedication to the work, but also a level of communication between them that I think you and I both yearn for from the men in our lives. These men have stayed and worked the land that is theirs instead of migrating. They believe in the land their family has lived on since the 1800s, and believe in the craft their forebears taught them. They believe in it so much that they kept making bacanora when it was illegal to do so in Mexico. They’re a model of what life could’ve looked like had my father, mother, neighbors, friends and I not left our hometown.
From there, you took me to another moonshiner. And he did dress like the coyotes in 1999. I’d forgotten what people wore. It was like he was stuck in time. That outfit, the boots, the belt, the hat . . . Even his thick black mustache. You brought the Sonoran cowboy an alcohol-content measuring tool he had asked for the last time you were there. Transporting goods like that reminded me so much of the coyotes who carried packages, food and letters between El Salvador and the US. Which is probably why I was freaking out about the bacanora once we got to the border. I didn’t want any little thing to come between my new green card and the government, not even my favorite mezcal.
As for the music choices, I have to admit I’m new to Paul Simon and Neil Young. Weird, funny or just perfect that you happened to have Graceland and Harvest Moon in your truck. And yes, the lyrics are fucking good. The sounds too. And to answer your question: as I was walking through the desert, the cloudless sky, the heat, the cold at night, the cacti and brush, the occasional tree, I didn’t feel ‘homeless’. I felt like I did sitting under the clouds at Rancho Tepúa: part of something bigger. I know that this is romantic. But at nine years old, I didn’t register the danger in my logical brain; instead I buried it deep in my body. What was bigger than myself back then were the forty adults and three children risking their lives, and the desert itself. I walked past giant saguaros, yuccas and agaves that I now know are used to make bacanora and sotol. I didn’t understand what ‘homeless’ was. I knew that I was walking toward my home. Home being my parents, who I had longed for since the moment each left me: Dad at one, Mom at four years old. Thirst, hunger, none of it mattered, until we ran out of water. But even then, I don’t know how to explain it, but I knew I wasn’t going to die. I guess this is what I now call hope. But maybe it was love for my parents. I was so sure that I was going to see them again. So sure that we were all going to make it across the border. It’s scary. Because now I know how close I was to death. I’m aware of how fast the beauty of the desert can turn on you. Here, I turn to one of my favorite sentences in your letter: ‘The problem at the center of Graceland, I realize now, is the same problem embedded all across the landscape of the borderlands: there is irreconcilable discord in the way it contains both violence and freedom.’ You’re absolutely right. I will go farther and say that our friendship has pushed those two things. You as the ‘freedom keeper’ and me as the ‘freedom seeker’. We’re so much more than those things. Citizen or undocumented. Border Patrol or immigrant. These are just a few of the uniforms we’ve put on. But when we’re born, or when we die, it doesn’t matter what we have on. And now you and I have another uniform, that of friends.
When the alarm went off that morning in the Gadsden Hotel, the haunted place on the Arizona border where Pancho Villa rode his horse up the staircase, I remember that it was still dark out. We each switched on our tableside lamps and sat up in our separate beds, trying to keep ourselves from falling back to sleep. You asked me if I had dreamed in the night, and I thought for a moment, unable to remember. I became frustrated, because I had wanted to pay attention to my dreams in that place. When I told you I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed, you told me that you had been jolted awake at 2 a.m. You dreamed that you were screaming in the night, you said, that a figure was standing beside your bed, and that I had shaken you awake. I hadn’t, of course, and you awoke to find yourself alone in the dark hotel room, with me still breathing in a dreamless sleep on the other side of the room. I’ve often wondered what it might mean when we dream of our own body dreaming. Maybe by hiding our fear, our screams, inside of a dream, our body is seeking to offer us some kind of protection, to place us at a distance from something that might otherwise be too terrifying to behold.
We wanted to get up before sunrise that morning so that we could see the adjacent valley in the dark, so that you might remember the placement of the lights, the orientation of the towns you would have seen as a child walking north from Douglas and Agua Prieta through the night. We drove out along the train tracks as the first glow hovered at the eastern horizon, and you said that you remembered that too – the tracks. Throughout our trip, I remember being struck again and again by the way you had come to see the landscape, by the things you had been made to look for – the situation of mountains and roads, the thickness or sparseness of brush. You remembered cholla and mesquite and paloverde, you remembered the far-off sound of passing cars, you remembered how many times you crossed pavement and fence lines. You had walked for three nights, you told me, and you asked how many miles that would have been, and why the coyotes would have made you travel so far by foot. I tried to explain the effect of highway checkpoints, the staggering growth of enforcement in towns and cities all along the border, where fortifications and patrols ballooned in the 80s and 90s, forcing crossers to make longer and more dangerous treks through the desert to avoid detection. I was describing, in vague terms, the consequences of ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’, which, of course, you knew far better than I, because you had lived them, suffered them.
Reading your letter reminded me of certain details I had completely forgotten from our trip. Like the Mexican American man at the hotel bar, for example, who knew Mexicanos making their living by building the wall. I remember how casually he talked about it, like it was a simple fact of life, an issue of work, not politics. He had a union job, he told us proudly, helping to build a new water treatment plant right on the border, right next to the wall. Do you remember how he leaned over to show us a video he had taken with his phone at the site? In it, he zoomed in on a man climbing up and over the top of the fence before losing his grip and falling through several rows of coiled razor wire recently installed by the National Guard. I remember recoiling from the screen as the man in the video fell to the ground and then crawled back to his feet to run north, before finally slowing down and falling to his knees, obviously hurt. I can’t remember if the man in the bar showed us that video because he found it funny, or sad, or why he might have been compelled to share it with us at all.
Your letter also reminded me of the rainstorms we passed through as we drove to Naco. I remember how the clouds seemed to grow darker as we approached, sprouting legs that reached down to the horizon. I also remember the rainbows. One of them seemed to stretch across the border, lengthening its arms as we drove closer. And then there was the rainbow we saw just after crossing into Mexico. It was only half formed, and it grew up alongside one of those rainstorms that seem to happen only in the desert – the ones that unleash just a small pocket of precipitation, raining here but not there, the kind of storm that can be driven through in a split second.
My mother used to tell me about chasing storms like these with her mom, the grandmother who died just before I was born. They would drive out together along a desert highway toward the monsoon clouds and pull over as soon as they hit the rain, leaping out of the car at the storm’s edge to jump in and out of the falling water – wet on this side, dry on the other. Her mom came from the Midwest, from German and Irish stock, and over time she taught my mother to be ashamed of the Mexican-ness she had inherited from her father, but she also taught my mother to love the desert and find profound joy there. In this way, she helped her daughter to develop a deep sense of place even as she irreparably upended her sense of self.
Just last month, you and I saw each other again after the passage of a year that has been almost entirely incomprehensible, and we traveled, once more, to the border. This time we drove in separate vehicles, we stayed outdoors and we wore masks each time we came within six feet of one another. On the first day of our trip, you followed me as I drove west from Tucson and then turned south toward the tiny border town of Sasabe, nestled in between the rolling hills of the Sonoran grasslands. We stopped and got out of the car each time you signaled that you might recognize something, and again I marveled at the details you were able to reconstruct from that long-ago crossing. As we drove toward Sasabe we stopped again and again, and stood at the road’s edge looking for clues – the prevalence or scarcity of saguaros, the rise and fall of the terrain and the distance between mountains, the ridge lines dotted with yucca and crowned by shade-giving mesquite.
That night we camped in the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, surrounded, paradoxically, by big game hunters spread out across the desert, camped like us in the dirt pull-offs along the adjacent web of roads. I remembered, without telling you, the first time I camped in this corner of the desert more than a decade ago, during those strange months of limbo after I had decided to apply to the Border Patrol, but before I had yet been accepted into its ranks. I was determinedly hopeful in those days, allowing myself to believe that I might find subtle ways of helping people in this new job, that I might slowly learn to change a system from within. I was filled with a very American kind of naivety then, one flowing from a mythology in which the individual is powerful enough to change long-standing structures through sheer force of will, in which any single one of us is capable of introducing humanity into entirely inhumane systems before we, instead, are left misshapen by them, barely recognizable even to our former selves.
After dark settled over the valley, we stood around a small fire drinking sotol and bacanora from the Río Sonora valley. Your partner, Joey, was with us, and your friend Gerardo, a film-maker from Guatemala, and we all laughed together and drank and sang out loud to music blaring from a portable speaker – music from Mexico, from El Salvador, from the Texas borderlands. The moon was bright that night, and at one point after the fire died down, you told us you wanted to walk out into the desert to look across the landscape in the darkness. We followed you down the dirt road and up a hill, then out across the knee-high grass until you stopped to look at the shadows of the distant trees and bushes. It was impossible to be certain, you told us, but you were almost sure that one of your unsuccessful crossings had happened right here. That was when you mentioned the animal you had seen crossing the road as we arrived at the campsite, a wild coyote whose sighting confirmed to you that this had been the place.
In your letter you mentioned the helicopters you had heard during those first nights you spent in Tucson as an adult. When we woke up around the campsite the next morning, we didn’t talk about our dreams, but joked instead about our hangovers as we packed, and then, just after we began to drive back toward the highway, you pulled over and jumped out of your truck, pointing into the distance at a Border Patrol helicopter swooping low to the ground, circling a group of unseen migrants. We could hear the faint whipping of its blades and we watched as a silent cloud rose beneath it, the same color as the desert floor. We each found ourselves dumbfounded in our own particular way, grappling with varying degrees of privilege as we watched the helicopter spreading its violence upon the desert below. There was, I think, a certain kind of helplessness that bubbled up from us in that moment, an insidious kind of resignation to the fact that, despite how far we had each come to arrive here, we now stood at an impossible distance from everything before us. The artificial wind, the blinding dust – it was no longer ours to suffer or to make, but it lingered there nevertheless, a cloud worrying the horizon.
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