Lingering Melody

Tucson activists lose one of their own

When Sali Eiler sang her heart out at fundraisers for the poor, it was music for a cause. And when she strummed her banjo for exhausted migrants sent back across the border, there was a purpose behind that, too.

But then the melody of her life came to a vicious and pointless end. In September, Sali Eiler was murdered near the brooding city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. She was just shy of her 21st birthday.

Yet some people pack more into their abrupt lives--more drive and goodwill and charity--than most of us manage over a generation. People such as Sali Eiler.

That's one of many things on the mind of Josh Banno, who sprawls across a patchwork chair inside the Dry River Collective, a rambling, alternative community center filling a onetime pool hall on North Main Avenue. Banno met Eiler in 2005. They'd been friends and intermittent lovers ever since. Last spring, she joined his punk band as a singer, and a tour took them to a half-dozen Mexican cities.

One night, the band stopped and partied at an empty beach. The image of Eiler joyously dancing on the sand--her brown hair shimmering in moonlight--lingers like an unfinished dream.

"As a person, she was really animated and strong and beautiful, and inspiring in a lot of ways," Banno says quietly. "Her being so young and having done all the things that she'd done ... for being only 20, she really had it together."

Eiler lived in Tucson for a few months each year, where she volunteered with the immigrant-assistance group No More Deaths. She spent the rest of her time in politically troubled Oaxaca, working as a teacher and human-rights activist. From Oaxaca, she also filed poignant stories and photos with Arizona Indymedia.

On Sept. 24, her body was found inside a deserted shack on the outskirts of San Jose del Pacifico, a small town some 80 miles south of Oaxaca City. She'd traveled there to dance in a fundraiser for indigenous communities.

A few days later, police took custody of 32-year-old Omar Yoguez Singu. The man was turned over by friends after he confessed to killing Eiler with a machete. He claimed to have had consensual sex with the young woman; others believe she was raped and then killed. Due to her work, there's also speculation about murkier political motives behind the death.

This murder is an ugly stain on the notions of justice and human dignity, which friends say Eiler held close to her heart. Now those friends are struggling to comprehend their loss.

"Sali was really dedicated to making things happen," says Sarah Roberts, who worked closely with Eiler in No More Deaths. "You know, some of us kind of lose our focus sometimes, but she was always able to bring us back into getting refocused and re-energized.

Steve Johnston is another No More Deaths volunteer. He says the group usually establishes desert-assistance camps in the hot summer months. But this year, aid was extended through the winter and spring. And though organizers often rely upon college students, "in April, it was impossible to get people to help. Except for Sali. She got all her buddies together, and they just came out and did it."

Of course, the camp was provisioned in a decidedly alternative, Sali Eiler kind of way. "She and her friends went Dumpster-diving," Johnston says. "That's how we did all the shopping. All I had to provide was the transportation to and from (the camp). She was really the catalyst."

Shloka Mangharam was another friend. "Sali was the only person I knew who was constantly doing something to help other people," Mangharam says. "She was down in Nogales (at an immigrant-aid station) four days out of the week, and then she'd spend weekends at the No More Deaths camp."

This was not glamorous work. "She'd be clipping people's toenails and cleaning the fungus between their toes. And whenever she had a free moment, she was Dumpster-diving on her bike, which is kind of ridiculous. She was baking cookies to take to these people and always making sure they had enough food. It was unbelievable how much energy she had."

Energy seems a steady theme. "Sali's constant movement, activity, vibrancy and motivation was always an inspiration to be around," writes friend Nell Barrows in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "She was so tirelessly devoted to helping others, to addressing the inequalities our world has created around arbitrary borders. Her dedication has strengthened my commitment to addressing injustice, to struggling for freedom and self-determination for everyone."

But for all her commitment, Eiler was no stranger to fun. "I met her maybe a half-dozen times," says Brian Hullfish, a writing instructor at Pima Community College. "And she was either dancing, she had just danced, or she was getting ready to dance."

Eiler steadily traveled to and from Mexico, and feverishly organized the Oaxaca Solidarity Benefit fundraiser just before her last trip, says Mangharam. "She was always at Kinko's photocopying something or the other for it, and trying to get bands to play. And the night before the benefit, she and the people she was staying with spent all night making food."

Sali Eiler's fundraiser was held at Dry River in May. By all accounts, it was a bang-up success.

Back at the collective, Josh Banno slinks into the overstuffed chair. He remembers going with Eiler to the Sonoran city of Magdalena, for a gathering to honor the Zapatista rebels. "A Zapatista delegation from Chiapas came through to talk to the indigenous people in Sonora," he says. "We camped out, and there was a meteor shower that night. It was really romantic. We really started getting close to each other ... ."

Banno falls silent. After awhile, he pulls himself up, and his eyes clear. "The world is a lesser place without her in it," he says slowly, deliberately. "What she brought to our community, and to me as a person, is not replaceable."

Then he glances through the window, toward traffic whizzing past on Main Avenue. He thinks about unfinished dreams, and songs left half-sung.

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