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Life on the border: A Nation divided

The concept of borders has always fascinated me. The tendency to create a separate space for people, places and things based on perceived differences of what they are is so characteristic of being human. It can start as early as childhood – the peas can’t touch the carrots. A “keep out sign” must be boldly displayed on the bedroom door. And heaven help us should the Rose Art crayons somehow get mixed in with the Crayola.

But as we get older, and our minds expand, the border concept is also expanded. It is complicated, with legal connotations and complex social implications. It is much more than an intermingling of vegetables on the dinner plate. For some, it is the difference between life and death, a line of demarcation between injustice and opportunity, or even a division between families.

Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation experienced that last divide quite distinctly. The Nation is an American Indian Reservation located about an hour outside of Tucson, Arizona. When the land (which was originally taken from the Nation), was “gifted” back to them by the United States, it was within the borders of that country. However, as borders shifted and Manifest Destiny unfolded, the Tohono O’odham land soon existed on part of the United States and part of Mexico. An indigenous Nation soon found itself facing yet another border crisis – one that would sharply divide its own land.

Today, a long fence supported by wooden posts and connected by thin wires, stretches as far as the eye can see on the Tohono O’odham Nation land. It signifies the spot where the United States ends and Mexico begins. The only individuals who can pass through that fence freely are the animals who slip through the wires. Everyone else must endure a rough journey through the Baboquivari Valley, without a guarantee that they’ll make it out alive.

While visiting that spot on the U.S. and Mexico border on the O’odham land, we were introduced to U.S. Border Patrol agents, as well as a high-ranking member of the Tohono O’odham tribal council for the 11th district – the one along that border. He explained to us the safety and logistics of their circumstances: leaving water stations out was unsafe for the environment, leading to wasted water and dangerous environmental conditions. He also suggested a question of motivation: if these people were so desperate to get into the United States, it may have been possible that they were coming in to bring drugs or weapons. Therefore, the Nation’s Council was hesitant to make that journey more smooth, should those migrants have ulterior motives.

After a very delicious lunch at a restaurant – where the proceeds went toward education initiatives on the reservation – we experienced a very thorough and informative presentation on the history and culture of the O’odham, in a beautifully renovated cultural center. Then, after touring the exhibits in the museum section, we hopped in our vans for the final stop of the day – somewhere that would provide us with an alternative look at what we had learned throughout the day.

Mike Wilson lived about thirty-minutes out from the reservation in a quaint ranch-style home, with his wife, Susan, and an adorable friendly tiny dog whose name in O’odham means “ear.” They greeted us with handshakes and plates of tortilla chips and salsa – some much needed sustenance after a long day of listening and learning. In Mike’s words, he gave us “the real story.”

For years, Mike had tried to put out water stations for migrants on the border on O’odham land. He informed us that the most migrant deaths – people crossing from Mexico to the United States – happened in the Baboquivari Valley, where we had stood just hours earlier. Because of his activism, Mike was somewhat alienated from his own Nation. He passed around photos of the countless migrant families he had hosted over the years in his home. These were families that had made it past the border, but were unable to stay in the safe houses already at capacity. Many were extremely thin and malnourished. Some were very new mothers – others were very young children. Mike and Susan hosted them all, especially those individuals with children. They saw all people as deserving a chance at humanity.

Mike had his own conclusions as to why the Tribal Council did not want to provide migrants with water at the border – one reason being a somewhat cozy financial relationship with the American government that could only be maintained through complying with U.S. Border patrol. He was disappointed in his people for not providing the humanitarian aid he knew they had the resources to provide.

At the end of the talk, one of the members on our trip, asked Mike: what can we do as media makers to change this situation? He told us to never lose sight of the fact that we are all immigrants (to which his wife interjected, “except for you, honey!”), and that we must make that narrative very clear in the media and amongst our social circles.

In the rancher with the small dog, Mike, and Susan, we experienced another aspect of “borders.” We experienced a couple who saw borders not as a legal boundary, but as a simple line that could be crossed in the name of humanity. As we drove off under the Arizona sunset, passing border patrol checkpoints and Saguaros waving good-bye, I wondered, maybe it wasn't the end of the world if the peas and the carrots mixed -- when they had been mixed the entire time.

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