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for people who care about the West

Guts and grit will still get you to America

  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.

He was 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 hide.

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 razor.

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.

Marvín told 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.

"I was 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 asked.

"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 asked.

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 asked.

"To ‘Carolina Norte.’ My cousins work there."

I recoiled in disbelief. "From Rio Rico to North Carolina is another 3,000 miles," I scolded. "You can’t ever do that."

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.

Jack McGarvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Rio Rico, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].