The most recent illegal migrant I’ve met was named Marvín Leonel Contreras. I spotted the 22-year-old during an early morning hike in the Santa Cruz River valley below my home in Rio Rico, Ariz.
limping up the center of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. When he
spotted me, he waved and smiled. He then sat down on a rail and
wearily shrugged off his backpack. This behavior was starkly
different, because most migrants I encounter here run away to
But before I agreed to talk with him, I asked him to
empty his backpack. Fresh in my memory was an encounter I’d
had with a line of eight, very fit young men who marched north in
military cadence. At once, I knew they were "mules," employed by
drug traffickers to haul 60-pound loads of marijuana on their
backs. When that disciplined line of men saw me, they fled,
helter-skelter, to hide in the thick brush along the river. When I
returned home, I called the U.S. Border Patrol, but whether it
responded, I have no idea.
Marvin was hardly a mule. He
said he was from Honduras and gave me a big grin as he removed from
his backpack a long-sleeved sweatshirt, socks, underwear, and two,
half-liter bottles for water. He then zipped open a side pocket to
display his Colgate toothpaste, a toothbrush and a Bic
Astonished by Marvin’s trip of 3,000 miles
that had made him three times illegal during his journey through
Guatemala, Mexico and the United States, I dearly wanted to hear
more of his story. Marvín was extremely eager to talk, and
what I heard was an amazing tale of a trek of 60 days from El
Negrito, Honduras, that had finally placed him on the sizzling
railroad tracks here in southern Arizona.
me he had first had to cross -- illegally -- into and on through
Guatemala. Where, he said, he had no problems. "But how was it
crossing from Guatemala into Mexico?" I asked.
caught and sent back. The next day I tried again. But when I made
it into Mexico, I had no more money."
"What did you do?" I
"I hitched rides on northbound freight trains,"
Marvín said. "When the trains stopped, I looked for food. Some
Mexicans gave me food and a place to sleep when I did them some
work. But sometimes there was no work, and I slept on the streets
or on the ground. I went hungry often."
"How long did it
take you to reach the U.S. border at Nogales, Sonora?" I
Puzzled, Marvin asked, "What date is today?" I told
him, and he was surprised. "More than a month, I guess."
He continued: "In Nogales. Sonora, I met a nice man who let me live
with his family to cook and clean their house. But I kept telling
this man that I wanted to cross the border into Arizona. He got
tired of my complaining and finally led me to a path up through the
mountains that led into Arizona."
"Where are you going?" I
"To ‘Carolina Norte.’ My cousins work
I recoiled in disbelief. "From Rio Rico to North
Carolina is another 3,000 miles," I scolded. "You can’t ever
Marvin shook his head slowly side to side and
grinned at me. "Nada es imposible."
I left him resting on
the railroad track and went to retrieve a gallon of water from my
car. Returning, I again tried to pound some reality into
Marvín: "You can never make it to North Carolina from here." I
told him I’d drive him across the border to the bus terminal
in Nogales, Sonora, where I'd buy him a one-way ticket all the way
back to Honduras.
He looked at me as though I were a
madman as he politely refused my offer.
We then did a
farewell handshake before I headed back up to my house. When I
shook Marvin's hand goodbye, I realized I was also shaking my head
in admiration -- for his guts and his determination. For so many
people, this country is still the promised land.