On those who live and die along the border

Two new books look at the ever-changing face of the U.S.-Mexico border.


The Mexican-American border has inspired its own literary genre, unleashing a flood of poetry, reportage, nature writing, crime fiction, novels, essays and even coffee-table photo books. Together, words and pictures paint a sharp portrait of a landscape caught between delicate light and terrifying darkness.

Two recent books bring unique perspectives to this invisible slash across cultures, and to the dreams of the people who yearn to be on the other side of it.

Jason de León’s The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail is a disturbing book about an immense human tragedy. But somehow it’s the pigs I can’t get out of my head — and not just the pigs, actually, but the horrible reality of what they represent. De León buys a pig and hires someone to kill it. Shot in the head, the animal struggles mightily as the author rubs its belly, mumbling, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” The dead pig is then dressed in underwear, jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes and dumped beneath a mesquite. The researchers step back to record, with scientific precision, exactly what happens to it over the next two weeks.

The pig represents the body of an undocumented immigrant, de León writes, part of an experiment to understand what happens to those who die and disappear in the Sonoran Desert. He repeats this violent process four more times and writes a scientific paper about it. The conclusion is stark and inevitable: The desert eats poor people. As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, de León is conducting a long-term study using the tools and methods of anthropology to understand undocumented migration between Mexico and the U.S.

Vultures scavenge a pig carcass five days into a post-mortem decomposition experiment in the Sonoran Desert.
Courtesy Jason de León

A couple hundred thousand or more migrants are apprehended each year at the border. But some of those who cross into the U.S. perish in the desert thanks to “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy in which the Border Patrol clamped down on major immigration corridors to force would-be crossers into parched and dangerous lands, deputizing Nature as a tool of law enforcement and sidestepping any responsibility for what happens to people out there.

Between October 2010 and September 2014, the bodies of almost 3,000 dead migrants were recovered in southern Arizona alone. Hundreds remain unidentified. Countless others vanish entirely, consumed and scattered by animals and the elements. Those who succeed are frequently scarred — physically as well as psychologically — by the experience. Most have been subjected to rape, robbery, and other unimaginable forms of cruelty, violence and suffering on the journey. All this in order to take dangerous, crappy jobs no one in this country wants.

De León uses science to expose this federal policy for what it is, “a killing-machine that simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.” It has created a hugely profitable “border industrial complex” where everyone involved — lobbyists, contractors, law enforcement, private prisons, smugglers, and vendors of “crossing supplies” — makes money, with the notable exception of the immigrants themselves.

A man with bandages on his feet at the Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, Mexico.
Michael Wells

A very different border tale unfolds in Linda Valdez’s thoughtful, important new memoir Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders. She has written a love story about immigration, and it is a well-crafted antidote to de León’s border-induced despair.

Valdez was an asthmatic 11-year old middle-class German-Irish girl from Ohio’s Rust Belt when her mother brought her to Tucson seeking a desert cure. After a bumpy transition to adulthood, Valdez became a newspaper reporter. A chance trip to Mexico after a boyfriend’s suicide resulted in a storybook romance when she met the man of her dreams, Sixto Valdez.

They could not have come from more different backgrounds. He grew up in a house made of cactus ribs, mud, and corrugated tin in Sinaloa. He was kind, decent, a rock-solid partner. But as a poor Mexican man, he couldn’t get a visa. So one day in 1988, he simply popped through a hole in the fence and safely reached the other side. It was, of course, a very different border in those days than the one so painfully documented in de León’s book.

Later, after Sixto finally received his papers, the couple returned to Sinaloa to visit his family. Valdez describes a luminous day at the beach:

“Right now, in the water, in the sun, there was only this moment — and it would remain warm and joyful years later, even in the dark of winter, even when getting along was hard work instead of child’s play.

“We sparkled in the water. Sea jewels.”-

The book describes Sixto’s crossing, their marriage, their families, the challenges of dealing with immigration bureaucracy and how they created a happy bicultural life together on both sides of the border. Sixto eventually earned a master’s degree and became a teacher.

Valdez, now an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written a humane cross-cultural odyssey of love, family, commitment and devotion that revels in the tenacity of the human spirit.

These books show us two opposing realities of the border: Where Valdez celebrates life, de León’s work is mired in death. He graphically bears witness that not everyone makes it, and that even for those who do, the fairy-tale ending all too often is a desert mirage.

The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail
Jason de León
384 pages, softcover: $29.95.
University of California Press, 2015.

Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders
Linda Valdez
192 pages, softcover: $22.95.
Texas Christian University Press, 2015.

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