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The Border Crossed Us 

Native Americans are working to make it easier for tribal members in Mexico to cross the border

Jose Matus worries about the future of the Pascua Yaqui people—not just those in Arizona, but also the members of the tribe who live in Mexico.

Matus, program director for Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, or the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, said most of the young people in his tribe who live in the Tucson area speak only English. His generation grew up trilingual—first speaking Spanish and the Yaqui language, and then learning English in school.

"Ceremony is very important. In my community, the Yaqui put a lot of our faith in the deer dancer and the importance of the pascolas dance," he said, pointing to a painting of a pascola dancer hanging in the Yoemen Tekia Cultural Center and Museum on the Yaqui reservation, not far from Valencia Road and Camino de Oeste.

"These are blessings we offer to people and community. We have all-night ceremonies that help our mind and body, nourished with prayer and dancing. It's important. Otherwise, we would just be lost. But what needs to be maintained isn't just language; it's the connection we have to our people on the other side of the border. It's always more meaningful when those prayers and dances go into the night with family who live on the other side."

However, border-crossing restrictions have increased over the past decades, and especially since Sept. 11, 2001. Matus said connecting with Yaquis who live in villages between Guaymas and Cuidad Obregon can be difficult, despite agreements between border tribes and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Stronger agreements need to be in place, he said, because the restrictions ultimately conflict with what he considers to be tribal members' indigenous rights.

On Saturday, May 26, a benefit for Alianza will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. The benefit will include Native American writers Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko and Ofelia Zepeda.

Matus said Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras was formed in 1997 to create a voice for native people along the border whose tribal ceremonial lands and/or tribal members' homes extend into Mexico. Those tribes include the Pascua Yaqui as well as the Tohono O'odham, Kickapoo, Gila River, Kumeyaay, Lipan Apache, Jumano-Apache, Quechan, Tigua, Mescalero Apache, Hualapai, Paipai, Pima and others.

One of the challenges the Yaqui and other tribes face is bringing elders north for ceremonies. Extended visits are often impossible.

"One of the things the tribe has done is continue to negotiate with Homeland Security, and they do have an original agreement for ceremonial purposes," Matus said.

Ultimately, what Matus and others want is an agreement similar to the one the Mohawk tribe has negotiated. Mohawks who live in Canada are allowed to cross the U.S. border for ceremonies with Mohawks on the American side, as well as look for work, without the need to apply for a visa.

If Matus wanted to bring in Yaquis from a pueblo in Mexico to do work on or off the reservation, each person coming over would need to apply for a visa. That would require the applicants to show they are financially solvent by proving they have the equivalent of at least $200 in a bank. They also must prove they are fit to work, that they have had a job in Mexico, and that they have a skill that's needed in the U.S.

"But most of our indigenous people work in the field, and work their own land, herd goats, cattle," Matus said. "Most are self-employed. It would be hard to get a letter from their own self, let alone someone else. Looking at brothers along the northern border, they have a different system. The Mohawk can come and go, but if you are coming from Mexico, you have to apply for a work visa."

Rosemary Tona-Aguirre, of the Yoeman Tekia Cultural Center, said she remembers a different border while growing up in Tucson. She crossed over easily to visit her great-grandmother in Nogales, Sonora, bringing her medicine, cheese and meats. She could also easily visit her grandmother—a curandera, or folk healer—who rarely left her home.

"We went over every week. I remember those visits being very important for my family," she said.

Now, because most Yaquis in Mexico can't cross over for extended visits into the U.S., Tona-Aguirre said she continues the tradition of going into Mexico, and brings her granddaughters.

Tona-Aguirre said she "grew up in Barrio Libre, where we didn't get indoor plumbing until 1964. We had an outhouse and grew up differently than the way kids grow up now. But that's still how they live in some of the pueblos in Mexico.

"Maintaining a connection from the southern border in Mexico has become very important," she said. "Our family connections are still there. A way of life is still there, and our traditions are still there."

Besides the human connection, she thinks of a musical one. Songs are passed down through oral tradition, as well as flute- and drum-making skills and traditions. She said only a few people know when and how to harvest the bamboo used to make flutes. It has to be done at night during a full moon. If not, the flute won't sound right to Yaquis.

Matus said the benefit on May 26 is also meant to educate Tucsonans on border-crossing challenges and indigenous rights.

"They should tell their elected officials to allow a type of mechanism that allows members of different tribes from across the border to come in," Matus said. "We are not saying without documents, but have some type of mechanism that allows us to bring in our elders more easily and allows others to cross more easily."

Matus again emphasized that tribes along the U.S.-Mexico border should have the same rights as those along the U.S.-Canada border.

"After all, we are recognized tribes. We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us. We're not immigrants, not aliens. We are indigenous to this land from here down to Mexico."

More by Mari Herreras

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