Dignity for Desconocidos

After 16 years, a border vigil continues to honor those who’ve died in our desert

A white-haired man pulls a cart full of crosses. Three crosses safely cradle against his chest, uniform and white. Two of them read names. A man's name, a woman's name, the third reads "desconocido," unknown. The first two have birth dates. The third, only the date their remains were found in the desert.

Behind Jack Knox are a dozen people holding crosses. Many white faces, a few Hispanic, mostly retirement age, a couple younger adults and my 11-year-old son, Adan Gómez.

"Some of these people have my name," Adan says, looking at the cross he holds in his hands.

A line of cars heads into Mexico—people on their way home from work, to see their families, to do some shopping. One of the cross-bearers faces them and calls out the name on their cross. They raise the cross high. The group's response: "Presente!" We remember you. We pray for you.

The Healing Our Border Vigil has been doing this ritual every Tuesday for the last 16 years. They honor the thousands of migrants who died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by carrying crosses that bear the names of the dead.

The cross-bearer sets their cross on the curb. They move to the back of the line, choosing another cross on their way. By the time we get to the border, 300 crosses line the path. Five blocks from the only McDonalds in Douglas, Arizona, to the Mexico port of entry.

The group, many of whom are Catholic and Protestant, formed after six undocumented migrants crossing the border got caught in a flooding storm-drain and died. The drain was right in town.

The year 2001 marked the beginning of a humanitarian crisis in the border region, fueled by changing border policies and resulting in the death of more than a hundred migrants yearly. In that time, the Pima County Medical Examiner received over 2,500 sets of human remains found in the desert. The death count kept by many humanitarian groups is now over 6,000 men, women and children, along the entire U.S.-Mexico border . About 36 percent of the remains are still unidentified.

Many at the vigil this evening are part of the core group, started by the cross-border Presbyterian ministry Frontera de Cristo.

"Doing the vigil, calling the names, that does more than anything to remind me that these are human beings. It's not just statistics," says Knox.

Knox remembers growing up in Douglas and sneaking under the barb-wire fence into Mexico to play with the kids on the other side. That was when Border Patrol only looked for drug smugglers, he says. Another time.

The vigil is prayer, not protest, says one of the group's core-members Judy Bourg of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Douglas.

"It's not a political thing," she said. "This is just honoring somebody who died in your backyard."

The nun and social worker with a master's in theology started the Pilgrimage of Remembrance project. Once a week, a small group goes into the Cochise County desert to where human remains were found. They take a hand-made cross of metal and wood, red ones for males, white for females.

Last week, they planted a white cross where a 37-year-old woman's body was found. Later this month, they'll plant a red cross where a man was found alive on Geronimo Trail. He died from hyperthermia on the way to the hospital.People of varied religions participate in the cross-planting ceremony. Bourg sees the cross in this context as a symbol of torture and suffering. At the ceremonies, while the symbol they use to mark the graves is usually a cross, it is not always. There are local Quaker participants who don't use the cross.

In August 2016, members of the Quaker community made a symbol of remembrance for 24-year-old Felipe Rodriguez Vega whose remains were found in 2011. Rather than a cross, it's a sign with the man's name, hand painted, surrounded by leaves, frogs, hearts and angels It doesn't matter what the symbol is, Bourg says.

"We know it comes from the heart, and that's what they want to remember the person with," she says.

There are also Native American participants who bring in elements of local indigenous tradition. A Catholic Deacon whose Yaqui sometimes leads the cross-planting ceremonies. He smudges the area with sage, prays to the four direction and blows the conch shell. The participants play Native American drums, read passages from the bible and bless participants' hands with holy water.

They dig a post hole and fill it with quick-drying cement where the cross is placed.

Bourg was inspired to do the cross-plantings by the work of Alvaro Enciso, who volunteers with the Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian group that hikes migrant trails with food, water and medical supplies.

Enciso places four crosses a week where human remains were found in the Tucson Sector desert, an area that stretches from the New Mexico-Arizona border to Yuma County. The project for him is an artistic expression of social injustice. He incorporates remnants of discarded belongings found on the migrant trails.

"I put them on a cross and mark the spot where a tragedy occurred to someone looking for the American dream," he says. "All these people are dying just because they were looking for a better life for themselves and their families."

He marks these tragedies the cross because it's something everyone can understand, and it's less likely to be vandalized.

"It's a project that I'll never finish," he says. "People come from all over the world to visit the Sonoran Desert, but this beautiful desert has a secret. Very few people know that 4,000 people have died and 2,000 have disappeared."

Knox says most of the people who've died in the desert were Catholic, but they don't consider the Tuesday night vigils a Christian ceremony. Knox, who was a Mennonite pastor for nine years in Salem, Oregon, does the vigil and a lot of other humanitarian work. He and his wife, Linda, cook at a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, Douglas' sister city in Mexico. The couple also shelter people in their home, whether they be visitors, migrants, homeless people or recently released convicts.

He tells me they are not afraid.

"My understanding of Christ's challenge to us is that we are supposed to love our neighbors, all of them, including enemies," he says. "When I see so many people being unloved, I think that's part of what touches me and makes me want to step up and be part of loving them and caring for them."

The last rays of sunlight glare off the Border Mart gas station where people hurry to get gas before getting in the line of cars to Mexico. We gather in a circle under a tree by the port of entry. Its dead leaves rattle in the biting wind. White crosses line the curb, disappearing out of sight.

Knox looks down at the three crosses in his arms. He reads the first name. A man born on Feb. 4, 1974. His body was found on Sept. 20, 2003.

"He was someone's beloved son," Knox says to the group. "He was possibly someone's brother. Possibly a husband. Possibly a father. Created in God's image and loved by God."

One of the women in the group is crying. Others bow their heads or hug the crosses to their chests. Most of the people in their cars don't pay attention to our small group. A few cross themselves. One woman wipes away tears then looks beyond us to the setting sun and the Chiricahua Mountains.

"Santos de Jesús Mazariego Sánchez. Twenty-nine years old. Risked his life seeking a better life. Lost his life in the desert," Knox says, looking down at the cross in his hands. He turns to the mountains, to the setting sun, to the place where so many searching souls are lost. He yells Jesús' name into the wind.

"Presente!" responds the group.