Notes from el Mundo Nuevo


We are not talking about border policy here. This is about Planet Desert.

The hungers grow. Fewer crumbs reach the global economy’s bottom-dwellers, so they abandon the slums and failing campos to take their best shots at something more. For this, they must be hunted. I am in the Altar Valley to look at the tracks.

The Altar Valley south of Tucson is one of those places where Latin America and the United States have stopped remembering their own names. “The border” has become an inadequate term for such Homeland Security hotspots. They are el mundo nuevo, the new world.

Here on this militarized edge, with its checkposts and spy towers and aerial surveillance, much is revealed. Old notions crumble. The might of the U.S. security state is rendered irrelevant by poor people in sneakers. The shrill debate over immigration is drowned out—by helicopter traffic and by the silence of mourning. Instead there are mere facts: a $500 million-dollar wall and triple-digit temperatures; human desperation licking at finite resources; cartels, coyotes, and luckless poor people dying on the rocks.

It is late March, just before the killing heat arrives. The truck bounces along in 4-wheel-drive. The woman at the wheel is with a gringo humanitarian group that puts out plastic jugs of water on the migrant trails. The jugs are dated, and bear messages scrawled in Spanish with black markers: “Good Luck Amigo!” and “Be Strong!" The jugs are often found empty, slashed with knives.

Twenty miles to the west, across the valley, sunrise flares pink on a huge stump of old volcanic rock called Baboquivari Peak. A few miles to the south, the Las Guijas Mountains are sprayed with dusty gold. The woman says there is a place in the Las Guijas that I must see. 

Nobody goes to the Las Guijas to bag peaks. The range rises less than a thousand feet from the surrounding desert and contains no named summits. Nor is it especially photogenic. Still, the visitors come. Situated a night’s march north of the U.S.-Mexico line, the range is a way station—a place where migrants stop to shade up, take some deep breaths, and hope the Border Patrol is somewhere else right now.

We park the truck and head up a sandy wash. The morning air is cool and alive with birdsong. Six-foot stalks of ocotillo stab at the blue sky with red blooms that sizzle like match-heads.

The wash is full of footprints, all headed north. Plastic jugs dot the ground. Some are spray-painted black. I pick up one: a small hole in the bottom is plugged with a twig. Soon we enter a corridor of dark, slabby rock. Stunted junipers and catclaws climb the grassy slopes above the rock walls.

At a shady twist in the canyon, the woman puts her hand on my arm: “We’re here,” she says. “It’s right around the corner.”

We take a few more steps. El mundo nuevo spreads out before us.

It looks like airplane wreckage:

Scores of cheap nylon backpacks, heaps of abandoned clothes, empty tins of chilies, sun-bleached plastic jugs, dirty socks hanging from tree branches. Dainty lace brassieres. Stick deodorants, lipsticks, plastic combs, and half-used tubes of toothpaste. A pair of blue satin panties with rose appliqués. Wads of black plastic garbage bags piled against boulders, partly buried by storm-washed gravel. A child's tiny toy boat.

The woman surveys the ocean of trash and says,  “This has been cleaned up since the last time I was here. It was knee-deep then.”

She explains the dump this way. Just before the final push to the pick-up vehicle, the coyotes give the migrants an order: make yourselves look like you have not crossed the desert. They put on clean shirts, brush their teeth, comb their hair, apply deodorant. Everything stays behind—especially the backpacks. No brown-skinned person wants to be seen in el mundo nuevo wearing a backpack.

I look at the packs and know that, for each one, a person has walked away. Who got lost? Who got raped? Who has been deported and is, right now, buying another backpack?

Many of the backpacks, I notice, are identical—black trimmed with grey, good for night travel. I can’t help thinking of the migrants in their matching packs as some amateur athletic team, suited up to take on the pros in a rigged game. Here, in el mundo nuevo, it is impossible not to root for the underdog.