Reflections of Immigration from a Graveyard

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(Although I am currently in Miami, I’ve written this by jogging the memory of my last visit home)

This could have been me. This could have been you.

I am standing in front of a dirt grave that is sloppily marked with a brick-sized piece of cement with the engravings “John Doe 15-20.” These are the plots of the anonymous. The first number marks the row and the second number marks the column where the brick belongs. The only thing known about them is that they came across daunting desert terrain from Mexico, Central, and South America in hopes of some better life with an adequate amount of food, shelter, and clothing for their family and that they didn’t make it. I look to my left then I look to my right and I see these rows and columns of soft dirt marked only with the blocks that any punk kid could kick over to the next grave in a nonchalant act of boredom.

This is the resting ground of the unsuccessful immigrant. The name: Potter’s Field.

The setting is in a simple graveyard, naked of any afterthought of the dead. The border of the place is un-kept desert land filled with tumbleweeds and un-kept farmland filled with broken down farm equipment. Down the dirt pathway outside of the graveyard, you come across a wall of poisonous oleanders. Just beyond this wall is a quaint, small-town cemetery filled with ornate headstones and freshly placed flowers. A well-manicured lawn and a large American flag justly decorate the place. As you walk out you see the sign “Terrace Park Cemetery.” Then it is a desert agricultural paradise all around you.

The town is called Holtville, CA. It is located 120 miles east of San Diego in the Imperial County. It was once dubbed the “Carrot Capital of the World” and celebrates the orange vegetable each year with a Carrot festival that is complete with a fair, carrot recipe competitions, and a parade highlighting the year’s adorned Carrot Queen. The population is a hefty 6,000 of which mostly comprise of Mexicans and Farmers. The distinct line between the two is now slowly becoming analogous. I’ve spent 15 of my 22 years of life in this small town. Every week headlines in the local paper keep track of the dead bodies of immigrants found in the desert. From the driveway of my house I can be in Mexico within 15 minutes. Once you cross that borderline into the border town of Mexicali, the capitol of Baja California, you notice not only that there are different letters on the stop signs, but a distinct difference in lifestyle. The impoverished flee to this city from all over Mexico, Central, and South America to get the next chance to cross the barbed wire fence, the men with uniforms and guns, and the vicious extremity of the desert.

I will not discuss how the militarization of the U.S. Mexico border became during the Prohibition era to reduce the smuggling of alcohol or of the Texas Revolution in 1836 and the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. I will not discuss the importance of population control or the need for cheap labor in the United States. No. I am simply telling you a story from a basic human point of view. A point of view without borders or economic systems. A point of view that stems from knowing the importance of life and the will to strive to make things better for those closest to us and to not succeed. Something we can all understand and relate to. A point of view from a twenty-two year old woman, myself, reflecting upon these fallen and forgotten. This topic strikes close to home.

My internal dialogue is in English. I am of the first generation of my family to experience such a thing.

As Americans, we are mostly immigrants or our family had immigrated here generations ago that many can keep track of. Somewhere someone in our family has or had a story of their quest for the American Dream of opportunities.

Both of my parents were born in Mexico. My mother came in a melon truck and my father remembers joining the masses in immigration from Mexico to the U.S. in the 1940’s and jumping on a train to Northern California. Both came through Mexicali.

I remember my father speaking before of the evolution of families. Each generation must do their part to step up in the ladder of life to give the next generation a boost. That is how real revolutions in history become, he says. Each person must build a rung on the ladder. His mother brought him and his brothers to the United States and he has given himself an education and created a stable life for his children so that we may build even higher from that point. And we must go on…

We all must go on. The immigrants south of the border dare to go on to cross a bold line where the terrain is the same on both sides. They don’t come because they want to leave their home, their family, and their friends. They come because they have to…as a matter of survival. And they know they will probably live a hard life here even if they are lucky enough to find a job raising somebody’s kids or doing the dishes where the swankiest dine.

The desert is a land of extremes. On the stinging cold still nights of winter an ice tray filled with water will freeze. The searing, blinding, ruthless, and omnipotent heat of the summer days allows for great sidewalk fried eggs. At night, coyote’s howls breaks perfect silence – almost like a tear in the universe. Daytime creatures blend with the landscape so that their movements seem like mirages in the corner of your eyes. When you gaze up at the skies you’re entranced by the feeling of infinity and the lights of possibilities that make you think of days so long past and what could possibly be.
Here, the San Andreas Fault is a bold erratic line on topographical maps. Igneous rocks create a dark contrast to the beige sands of the desert. Plutonic rocks slowly emerge over decades to create mountains with boulders the size of Bel-Air mansions. It is as if giants played Legos with rocks, the Imperial Valley their playground.

The immigrants cross those lines in hope. Many do not make it. In 2005 the official number of immigrants found dead in the desert was 464. That’s 464 people missing in the lives of their friends and family back home. Most of the time these individuals do not carry any form of identification with them to make it harder for the border patrol to identify them as illegal. When they cross into the United States through the arid desert they face dramatic environmental challenges. Sometimes the migrants will cross the border through the New River which starts in Mexico and dumps into the Salton Sea in California. The New River has been dubbed by many to be the “the most polluted river in North America.” It bolsters about one hundred biological contaminants like PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals such as selenium and mercury.

The pioneers place foot in front of foot and do not look back on the print they’ve made on the sands. Walking in the desert heat one needs to consume about 1 liter of water per hour. And although we can learn to adapt to life in the desert and survive very well, most people are not informed about the skills required and do not have the equipment they need. Dehydration begins with an extreme thirst, a dry mouth, and thick saliva followed by cramps in the arms and legs. In misery, the person might try to cry but there will be no tears. The skin and lips begin to crack as the tongue swells. Blood begins dripping out of the nose as the mucous membranes dry out and break down. Hands and feet become cold as the remaining fluids go to the vital organs in the body’s attempt to stay alive. The brain shrinks from lack of fluids and sometimes one will experience hallucinations and seizures as their body chemistry becomes more and more imbalanced. Then the body becomes comatose and as the blood pressure becomes almost undetectable a major heart arrhythmia occurs and the heart stops.

And they end up right where I am standing. John Doe “34-16”. I wonder why they don’t at least put “Juan Doe” instead.

There are over 400 graves here. Obviously not all found are buried. Furthermore, it’s a long process before the bodies are able to be properly buried. They are the forgotten. They are the cast aside. It is obvious as I walk around this unkept cemetery. We humans normally have a great deal of respect for the dead. We’ve built temples and pyramids and go through elaborate ceremonies to give respects to those passed. Even elephants have been known to bow down before a fallen family member or friend and cover the body with dirt and large tree leaves.

I repine at the thought of dying in complete anonymity. What does it really mean to die alone? To not have even one friend to bury me. To have friends and family never know of my fate. To never know whether I had made it across the border and made anything of myself…..or had fallen to the sands that I am made of.

I slowly walk around the maze of graves and wonder what their names were and what kinds of lives they lead in Mexico or wherever they might have been from. “John Doe 12-13.” I wonder if any of them could be family members I’ve never met. “John Doe 11-27.” I wonder if somewhere down the line their family knew my family. “John Doe 3-19.” Who’s sons or daughters were these? “John Doe 12-36.” How many of these individuals were called Mama or Papa? “John Doe 9-8” Would some of them have made me laugh? “John Doe “1-9” Could I have fallen in love with one of the young men? “John Doe 9-20” The reality of how likely a John Doe could have been placed on my own mother’s or father’s grave and left here uncared for and separated from the nicer part of the cemetery angers me.

As I sit down in an empty lot in the cemetery where someone laughing or crying at this instant might one day lay, I look to the dirt and see a group of ants scurrying in pandemonium and as I lean down to take a closer look I watch two ants grab a motionless ant, obviously dead, and begin to carry it down the pre-ordained trail of ants while the others follow.

It is lonely out here.

These forgotten people dared to venture into what most of us could never imagine cooped up in our apartments and office buildings.

Growing up in the Imperial Valley and now living in Miami I have always been around immigrants and have heard their stories. When I travel and speak of such things I’m surprised at how much people are unaware of the immigration situation. It is one thing to turn on the television or the radio and hear of a new immigration bill or debates on immigration reform but it is another thing to have those immigrants be the people that become your most trusted friends and to know them as living, breathing, beings just like you and I. Like my mother and my father.

I bend down to replace a moved “John Doe” brick to its appropriate place.

Yes. It really could have easily been you or I in one of these plots.

I kneel down to mourn for a particular “John Doe.” “John Doe 4-12.” I feel guilty being on the side of the fence that is responsible for such misfortunes. Holtville is my home and now it is their home too. The sands they are buried in are the sands my brown-bared feet have imprinted with childish play. These sands have no borders. These are the same sands that create grounds for lives of different passports.

I once drew a line in the middle of the room my brother and I shared. I didn’t want him to touch my Candyland board game or to enjoy my rock and shell collection. It was a matter of resources. We grew out of it eventually.

I wish the maturity of a whole world of conflicts was just as easy.

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