It was her shoes. Bright, red and fashionable in the hot summer sun. Sparkly walkers from a journey into The American Dream. Or, rather, the journey into the mirage of The American Dream, one envisaged in Guatemala but dead-ended in a band of low hills in the Roskruge Mountains, 35 miles from downtown Tucson. A desert not designed for the comfort of human beings but for their death. This desert is now a land of death. It is where people collapse. It is where they die of thirst, or starvation, of heatstroke, of hyperthermia, of suicide, of madness. It is where babies die too. All while nearby Tucsonans sleep comfy in beds or walk their dogs or suck down designer whiskey in shiny bars or hire Latinos and Latinas for a quarter on the dollar to rebrick their driveways or trim their Palo Verde or clean their toilets.
They planted a cross on a hill and left water in plastic gallon jugs for migrants but rattlesnakes spooked them and it was time for the car and home. Walking with sticks they eyed the rocky loam, sometimes wincing in step because it is harsh, trail-less land. Alvaro spotted the shoes first and they discovered the woman in an open area of yellowy grass, rocks, prickly pear—classic ravishing splendor of the Sonoran Desert. One hand gone. Both feet missing from those fashionable walking shoes, the meat on her bones had mostly vanished. Dead for 10 days, maybe 15. Eaten by the desert.
The small-boned Guatemalan woman was a daughter, maybe a sister, wife, mother. Dead in a country she's not at war with. Dead in search of her unalienable right for the pursuit of happiness.
Alvaro remembers it was her shoes, their shiny promise of new, which expounded the horrors and sadnesses of discovering her dead body in the desert.
Inside this desert there's a secret. Artist Alvaro Enciso knows it. His sidekick map-and-GPS man, artist Ron Kovatch, knows that secret too. They've been erecting Alvaro's wooden crosses—so far 900 or so—at migrant death sites for more than five years. The art (and performance) project is called "Where Dreams Die." There is so much death in the Southern Arizona desert Alvaro's project, these silent monuments to courage, will never be completed.
Crosses few, if anyone, will ever see.
Each migrant has a deep respect for life or they wouldn't die here. Alvaro and Ron, both volunteers for the group Tucson Samaritans, whose mission is to peacefully save lives in the desert, have a deep respect for life or they wouldn't be here honoring the dead.
The systems that contribute to the death of migrants do not have a respect for life. As if the migrants and refugees are not human. As if they are not hurting. As if they are not fleeing something so unbearable and ugly their last resort is America. It is a pain most of us will never even begin to understand. There is nothing morally ambiguous about any of this.
They phoned the deputies after discovering the dead woman.
Alvaro's cheerful behind the wheel, Ron's shotgun. In back with me is Joel Elliott, a gracious Canadian podcaster (check for the Polarities podcast) and documentarian discovering borderland beauties and horrors.
We're riding in a burgundy 4Runner, courtesy of New Times founders Mike Lacey and Jim Larkins, who, back in '07, were wrongfully arrested by then-Maricopa County Sheriff and bloated immigrant terrorizer Joe Arpaio. A windfall from their settlement benefitted Tucson Samaritans. In honor, Ron and Alvaro christened the ride "Joe."
Erudite, kind and lanky with thin spiky hair—squint and Ron Kovatch could be Sam Shepard. He eats nuts and drinks water from a tube that runs into his backpack and has been married to the same woman for 45 years. This University art professor from Illinois and father of two retired to Tucson in 2013, because he "wanted to live somewhere that is beautiful." He met Alvaro at Tucson Samaritans. The Samaritans oversee Alvaro's cross project, provide the vehicles. "The Samaritans," Ron makes a point to say, "are full of pro-active, highly intelligent and kind people. Good thing because," he says, pointing out Joe's window, "this is a different reality."
Ron told himself that if he ever got to the borderlands he wanted to contribute in meaningful ways, and to keep learning about the people and its places. The dead woman they found rattled him inside out. "It's not something I can be complacent or neutral about," he says. He talks of becoming road-rage-y and irritable, the shock and ugly awe at the cruelty of some Americans to allow this to happen. Today is his last day for a while; he's taking an extended break from Alvaro and the Tuesday missions: "I'm gonna get my head shrunk," he says flatly.
We turn off Highway 286, cross a cattle guard onto a dirt road, which narrows after several miles to a meandering cow path, and the mesquites, buckthorns and scrub scrape sides of the SUV. Bounding in and out of deep bumps, Alvaro's wooden crosses bouncing in the back. He says, "They can't imagine an old fuck like me crossing the migrant trail."
Scraping intensifies as the trail narrows and we finally stop on a soft ridge above a dry arroyo, on the outer northern edge of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, within firing range of hunter's tents and four-wheelers, and 15 or so miles from the Mexican border. The other accompanying off-roader is manned by Samaritan volunteer Andres Rivera, and with him is a Mexico City college student named Jorge Luis Carrion, who's studying at UA with Noam Chomsky. Both Ron and Alvaro step out and take in an enormous saguaro gracing a hillside top, its arms twisted around like some Vishnu confused of any direction home.
To the west, a sparrow hawk rises almost in the shadow of Baboquivari Peak. It's not easy to overlook the highest point of the Baboquivari range, the most sacred place to the Tohono O'odham people, home to I'itoli, their creator and elder brother. In so much natural beauty, the flat-faced peak is a foreboding granite massif now, like a giant tombstone for the parched human bones strewn and lost on these lands.
There's a nearby patrol tower on a smaller rise to the south, glimmering in warm January sun.
The wind moans some now. This was all Mexico once. The shin-high swales of grass, the thickets of mesquite and ocotillos, and the sweeping valley and prairie set against the blue of distant ranges. Now it's hard to imagine these "killing fields," as Tucson author Margaret Regan called it. The nod to Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide ate into Ron's heart, and now he can't shake it, not after discovering the dead woman who shouldn't be dead at all. He says, "You pull back the landscape and you could see the corridors where migrants walk up from the border, corridors that have been defined by death."
More than 3,000 men women and children dead since '01, that we know of, in Arizona between Tucson and Mexico, and 262 border miles, the Tucson sector. How many more dead went undiscovered? How many thousands? Their GPS shows locations from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner where dead bodies were recovered. Ron hands me the GPS receiver, its screen representing a three-mile radius and it's filled with frightening red dots, each one representing the exact location (with six-foot margin of error) where a migrant has died. It is a map of death on the desert floor. The device relates personal information too. Sometimes the dead person's name and cause of death is listed. Sometimes the person remains unidentified, for years. Forever.
Alvaro: "They don't go to the doctor. They don't know if they have diabetes or any other disease. A blister on your foot can be the death of you."
Ron: "If it says blunt force trauma it's a good chance he got hit in the head. Bullet wounds are strange? A vigilante? A hunter? A cartel?" And what about those found hanging upside down?
Alvaro and Ron found that human no one knew about, decomposed but not yet scattered to the arroyos and animal dens. Weeks later they found a human femur bone, which they dropped off at the Medical Examiner's office. Usually its Border Patrol who discover the bodies, or hunters, or cowboys looking for stray cattle. Not artists.
Jorge carries the bucket of concrete mix and water, Andres the cross on his shoulder. The shovel doubles as Alvaro's walking stick. We tromp across washes and mud, through a barbed-wire fence, sometimes clomping flattened grass and compressed earth, and Ron says once, "migrants went through last night."
GPS also shows different colors for private and public land, of which there are various types, and 40,000 square miles to choose from. They've a permit to be on state trust land, and that's about it. The laws say give a ride or provide a telephone and they'll throw your ass in jail. (Hell, four volunteer members of No More Deaths [No Más Muertes], a Tucson Samaritans ally offering advocacy and desert aid for migrants, were just found guilty of federal crimes stemming from efforts to leave water and food to help migrants survive the deadly desert across the U.S. border.)
Crossing on public or private land and sometimes skirting geographic legalities could be problematic, and Alvaro offers a sheepish chuckle. "So far I've not been prosecuted."
He quotes Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie": To live outside the law you must be honest.
Ron and Alvaro say their experiences with Border Patrol officers have been mostly cordial. They tell of intimidation once by two helicopters that "were not cordial at all." Other times agents hid in bushes and behind saguaros, in Walker or Chimney canyons. That was a few years ago. Now patrol takes to sitting in vans along paved roads and highways, just waiting for suffering border-crossers who survive the terrain. Vans are preferable to hunting on gnarly terrain. We spotted one earlier slanted off the roadside. Alvaro called it "the van of tears."
More than a mile sloping up we arrive at our destination per the GPS. "We are at the sacred site where a migrant fell," Alvaro says. It's up a rise and the view of the valley is panoramic. "You couldn't find a more beautiful place to die," he says. There is that.
Another red dot pruned from the list of the dead. Nine hundred down, thousands to go. They'll never catch up. The list keeps growing and Alvaro is now an old man. Every Tuesday he's out here, rain, shine, cold, insufferable heat, erecting up to four crosses in the frontera. He's a trails-man now; you might say a migrant trail whisperer erecting powerful silent monuments to courage.
Alvaro points out a rainbow, a stunner stretching the edges of the Baboquivari range. "It's our lucky day," he says.
A blotch of sapphire colors the gray above Alvaro's left temple. A hint of the whimsical upheld with self-effacement: "I learned I was really good at making bad art but there are people who like bad art and buy my art."
There's a halting quality to his Spanish-inflected lilt, because he thinks faster than he can speak English words, though his English is fine. There's interlanguage, slight pidgin, and he sometimes backs up to correct his verb tense, hyper aware of being learned. He sounds more textbook English, so he can truly be himself speaking Spanish.
I say this because such linguistics are reflected in his work; his circles and lines are fractured, like he's referencing the inherent flaw of everything, including the people of the borderlands, their fractured lives.
His work, equally colorful, poppy and dark, speaks volumes from that point of truth. One piece, all sunset reds and burnt orange, shows, in graphite and paper on board, a dark-skinned shirtless man without a face, the word frijolero (beaner) written on his back among bullet holes. It startles. He's faceless in America.
This art is also a reaction against artists "who think they're important people. You have to ask questions," he says. "It's about the ethnography of life." He doesn't enjoy talking shop about art and therefore he doesn't hang around much, if at all, with other artists. Not his scene. But he'll talk at length about his love for Tucson-based Swiss artist Olivier Mosset and his monochromes.
Like his crosses, Alvaro's collages are often made from pieces collected in the desert, the tin cans and water jugs and footies migrants toss away. "It's a way of collecting the DNA from the person who used them and combining that with my DNA," he says. For him it's so very personal. For him that makes a full circle. He transforms the material, partner Ron says, and once his crosses get erected, the dynamics of the landscape change drastically.
The erection of crosses in the desert, which began more than five years ago, rose from a willingness to gracefully and peacefully communicate the horrors of innocent people needlessly dying. His art is anti-meme, anti-neutral, anti-sit-on-your-ass. It's earned work, and reactionary.
All crosses are different in some way, painted in bright pastels, muted earth tones, singsong mauves. And they aren't about Jesus dying for our sins. Where the two pieces of wood meet represents the center of compassion. ("Try and understand the tragedy of the borderlands," Alvaro says.) The central red dot represents the red dot on the GPS map. He needed to do something with the cross that wasn't weighed down by Christian baggage; to subtly thwart that narrative. "Look," he says. "I hate when people say that this person who died is in a better place. No, he's not in a better place. He's dead. He or she is dead because our government closed the gates." It gets personal, too. A chance for him to grieve his own life, two failed marriages, his grandmother. He doesn't like to talk about action he saw in Vietnam, the horrors, only that this work is part of his atonement.
Alvaro (and a sister) were born in Colombia to his father's mistress, and into poverty. Where his mother would send him to cockfights to get the dead bird, all bloody and mangled, for the family dinner. Where she'd send him to the slaughter house for the blood to eat with the rice. ("You cook it and it turns hard.") Mom would discourage optimism: "Don't waste your time, poor people can't dream of getting out of poverty." He went shoeless his first five years of school. At one point his grandmother took over.
His coming of age was chaotic. A move to America and fighting for said country in Nam. He left Colombia to live with an aunt in New York City, not knowing a lick of English. Got legal resident status, much easier in those days. Drafted early—impoverished brown skins went first—saw action, lots of death. No fan of war, he still chose it over a return to Colombian poverty. Out in '68 after more than a year of infantry. His dream was always to go to school, and eventually the GI Bill helped. ("I arrived in America thinking it was an easy way to get into college!")
Drove a cab in NYC in '69 and '70, which, even after 'Nam, "was an education." Worked in a peep-show in Times Square cleaning jizz from floors. ("Those days the mop didn't have a squeegee so I had to ring the mop out with my hands.") He was homeless sometimes: "$220 a month from the GI Bill. It doesn't go far in New York City." Things improved. He raced road bikes (trained in Central Park) and ran marathons. "Running is more democratic," he says, because the bike racer with the most expensive bike has an advantage. He wound up with three Masters degrees (including one in Latin-American lit, his first love), a cultural anthropologist working for the Government in Washington D.C., the Department of Health and Human Services. Took an early out, and a beating on his pension, and moved to the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe where he lived with his second wife, herself a successful artist, and began working in the arts. (His first marriage was to a jazz singer.) It was an idyllic life but not. He soon began to "miss the dopers and the hipsters."
During our hike, Alvaro and Ron explain some basics. Cartels control everything: the borders, the migrants crossing over, the scouts and money paid to cross. The cartel control is another counterproductive byproduct of the border action and poor immigration policy. Migrants walk at night and if they are dying they go close to the road to be discovered by someone who can save their life. That's why there are several Alvaro crosses along roadsides. One cross that marks the site of a dead baby was even vandalized. Sometimes it takes years, if ever, for medical examiners to identify dead bodies. It begins with DNA sampling—missing family members, but if no one is in the system, it's futile. Undocumented migrants don't carry ID. "What the hell do you need a Guatemalan ID for in America?" Alvaro says.
Ron eyes the GPS until he knows for sure he is on the spot where a migrant died, in 2002, still unidentified. "Froze to death." Jorge and Alvaro dig the hole about a foot deep. They mix water with concrete, place the cross in and pour. They collect rocks and place them around the base of the cross. Alvaro steps back, eyes it. The cross gets straightened to the right. "This is not just a simple death," Alvaro says. "This is a death that will impact people here and in Latin America."
They place rocks at the foot of the cross to make it difficult for cattle to knock over, the effect is old cemetery, and they work to make sure the cross doesn't lean.
Andre reads a prayer from the Migrants Way of the Cross. He reads in Spanish and English.
Minutes later, Alvaro stands with hands in his pockets. "I was part of the same migration," he says. "I was lucky. I came by plane."
Alvaro's deaf bull terrier Otto greats me at the gate. No bark. He resembles his owner: a slow if prideful, unpretentious lumber, dark eyes, a don't-give-a-shit cheerfulness, quiet. Inside Alvaro's airy westside house, yellow light streams in at afternoon angles, gives the house's sleek, symmetrical modern surfaces a harsh edge, and strident cellos of Yo Yo Ma soothe. His work loads walls and rooms, as well as art he traded for over the years. Interior bookcases are crammed with art, architecture and photography tomes, Mapplethorpe, Antoine Predock, Joan Mitchell, John Coplins and so on. He works here, lives here, isolates here. There's some juju amongst the blonde wood, stainless steel and granite.
His art, agency in metals, acrylic, wood and many other materials, is often undiluted, bright. Filled of active themes, abstract and literal. Themes that circle around ideas of the mythology of the American Dream, ideas of linguistics ("how I'm a completely different person when I speak Spanish"), ideas of outsiderism ("even in the Army, with the rednecks, blacks and Mexicans, I hung with the one Jewish kid.") It can stun.
He didn't begin in art until 1999, after more than half a lifetime of living and experience, that which he used to create a container to hold the ideas from which to draw, the emotional means to inform the work. These decades of study, of training, in art, in work, in living. He quotes Kierkegaard about life needing to be understood backwards.
A conceptual process to the end, he says, sitting across a table in his alcove, wearing a Marmot Republic trucker hat and glasses. "The 'idea' is the important thing, not the object. And, if it's pretty, then that's a bonus!"
The work is not about God, or any religion. Sometimes it is as simple as screwing with evangelical fucks. "Appropriating images and icons for my own use and flipping the images on their heads."
He's well aware his works are sold in galleries, and interpreted far differently. This art—often fashioned from elements involving migrant suffering in the desert, sometimes transmitting a true sense of grief—is sold as decorative pieces to folks the world over. Like, say, buyers in New York seeking crosses made by an authentic Southwestern artist!
"Like a cross will finish their room above a blue couch," he says, and punctuates a laugh with, "despite all my kicking and screaming, it's decorative."
Art versus commerce versus interpretation versus sentimentality. His garbage can is filled of failure. But it's how this 73-year-old man says he finds reasons to exist, to stay in the moment, his moment, and remain relevant. To keep, as he says, "a sexy brain."
"I trained as a social scientist—knowledge is communication." He'll talk about adding his particular discipline, the work, to that canon of communication: "You don't reinvent the wheel. What do you do with the thing you know? Do you pass it on? Well, I make an object."
It's putting order to a world so it's understood, he adds, and laughs, "Everything is about me when all is said and done." He's shocked too that some of his work will be in a collection on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Alvaro has come full circle, one might say.
He warns, "for a while I did a lot of cocks and vaginas. But I'm familiar with my cock, and pussies." If Alvaro reinforces any Latin American stereotypes it's in that caballerismo way; he's smart, curious, more apt to praise women than hit on them. Whatever machismo he worked through years ago. Even divorces taught him that he "never wants another person to heal my toxicity."
He continues, "Everything important I learned in life I learned from women. They showed me how to commit, how to be honest, how the simple things are most important. And," he adds, "they always surprise me."
He moved to Tucson in 2011 from that place near Albuquerque, hoping a geographic shift would help reinvent his failing marriage. It didn't. The end, he says, was traumatic.
"So I met a poet!" Says his younger girlfriend keeps him from total isolation, takes him out. He can even joke about his mortality. "I say to my girlfriend, you better enjoy this fuck, it may be the last."
Mortality means working seven days a week. "I try to use every minute of light." His art sells, supports the work he does in the desert, the costs, all of it. He does well enough. Fame, fortune are no longer life goals, if ever they were. And doing well certainly doesn't stop any deaths in the desert. Doesn't even help to stop racism. Alvaro frames the latter this way: "Even after I became a successful artist, people hear I paint and I get asked to 'trim their houses.' "When I came to America," he continues, "we were ruled in Colombia by the American dream found in American movies, and everything had good endings. Well, if you're lucky at all you have a compromised ending."
Go see Alvaro Enciso's show, "The Constant Presence of Absence" at Galeria Senita (inside Arte de la Vida), 37 N. Tucson Blvd. 520-398-6720. Show runs through Saturday, Feb. 16.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.