Rural Resistance

While Trump sees the southern U.S. border as dangerous, folks in Arivaca see the area differently

I pull into Gadsden Coffee Co. on the outskirts of Arivaca, a rural town, 11 miles from the Mexico border. The little cafe overlooks the desert below, surrounded by dark mountains with snow haloes. A row of Harleys are parked outside.

Bradley Knaub is behind the counter, making coffee. He runs the place these days, a position he earned from 20 years of serving great coffee. He roasts it himself and he lives in a little house in the back.

A woman takes my order. She's pretty. She's young. And she's serious. I tell her I write for a paper, but she's not interested in talking about life in this cowpoke border-town.

Knaub tells me later that the waitress works with No More Deaths, the humanitarian group that fights for migrants' rights and lives. They maintain a presence in Arivaca due to migrants dying by the hundreds while attempting the desert border-crossing.

In the late '90s, an influx of migrants from Mexico and Central America began crossing the Southern Arizona desert. The desert corridor was one of the few places for undocumented people to cross after a change in border policy blocked off urban points of entry.

Many humanitarians live in and frequent this little town at the crossroads of treacherous migrant trails and heightened border security. And as President Donald Trump espouses the dangers of the southern U.S. border, the people of Arivaca see a different reality.

Knaub's been in Arivaca since 1981, and like many other residents, he loves the solitude. On Friday nights, he plays at the only bar, La Gitana—"the gypsy" in Spanish—playing originals like "White Guys on Food Stamps." And every Tuesday he plays poker with a group that's had a 30-year run.

Both Knaub and his poker buddy Ed Marshall agree that Arivaca is interesting because people move here from all over the world. A lot of the population are retirees, keeping the town financially afloat. And even if there's no supermarket, the only grocery store, nicknamed "The Merc" carries a lot of daily items.

But Knaub's not crazy about the heavy Border Patrol presence.

"When I went to town last week, I had to go through two checkpoints, and I was photographed six times," he says. "That's a little intimidating. It's kind of Orwellian."

They don't stop him though. One Border Patrol checkpoint is on the road leaving Arivaca and another is just south, on the I-19. The internal checkpoints, both around 30 miles from the border, have been a continued point of controversy, making some feel safe and others apprehensive.

Marshall, age 76, has the sleeves of his blue flannel rolled up just enough to see the tattoos on his arms. On his hand is a chunky ring of turquoise and silver. He was born and raised in the U.S. province of Panama, where he worked as a marine machinist and salvage diver.

He retired to Arivaca because it's affordable and people are friendly. He says he could care less about the Border Patrol presence or the idea of a new and extended border wall. Nonetheless, he thinks Trump is crazy.

In the 15 years Marshal and his wife have lived in Arivaca, they had a border crosser come onto their 5-acre property once. They gave him shoes, a jacket, food and pointed him north.

Knaub recently had a desert crosser knock on his door at 11 p.m. He says the migrants are harmless. He adds that drug smugglers come across too, but they mind their own business.

During the 2016 Fiscal Year, Border Patrol made almost 65,000 apprehensions in the Tucson Sector, which stretches from New Mexico to Yuma County. They wouldn't say how many were related to drug smuggling, but government data shows they seized 728,000 pounds of marijuana and 174 pounds of cocaine.

Knaub says he sees Border Patrol driving up and down the streets of Arivaca, and it all seems so pointless—and don't even get him started on a border wall.

"The terrain is too rough to even consider, and the amount of damage to environment and endangered animals—it's just not going to happen," he says.

I head into the heart of town. The few store fronts have their doors open. The sun is shining and people walk the streets, unperturbed by the cool wind.

Two women sit out front of People Helping People, under a large hand-painted sign that reads "office of humanitarian aid" in Spanish. The volunteer-run center stocks water, food, clothes and first-aid supplies and has an emergency phone line to assist migrants that just made the desert crossing.

One of the women is Carlota Wray. Wearing a straw cowboy hat, glasses and dangling turquoise earrings, she has kind eyes and exudes strength. Originally from Durango, Mexico, she's lived in Arivaca for over 30 years. She raised her kids here, and they had a great childhood, riding bikes and climbing trees. Now she's raising her grandkids.

Wray loves Arivaca, but she says it's not peaceful like it was.

"People that are not from here don't understand how it is to live in this border community," she says. "You don't know until they build the wall behind your property or they put cameras in front of you."

She keeps a sign in her yard that says Border Patrol may not enter without a warrant. She goes through the checkpoint daily and says she and her family deal with racial profiling.

She's had border crossers come to her door many times. She opens her door and heart, she says, giving them food and rest and tending to their wounded feet.

"Humanitarian aid is not a crime, and anyone who comes to my door and knocks on my door is welcome," she says. "I don't look at it as a problem. The only thing I see right there is a need of another human being just like me. They have needs just like you and me."

Next to PHP is the Arivaca Artists' Co-op Gallery. Children play on the stoop next to a colorful table and chairs painted with flowers. Inside, women inspect the treasure trove of hand-crafted art and goodies.

Diana MacDonell works the register. A potter, she's one of 13 local artists that make up the co-op. She been an Arivaca snowbird for 15 years, spending her summers in Alaska. Her husband has lived here since the '70s. They've seen the increased Border Patrol, and she sees no reason for it.

"All the people making decisions, they don't live on the border," she says. "We live here. We are doing just fine."

MacDonell sees border-crossers on her property. She gives them directions, but says she could get imprisoned for giving them a ride or shelter.

I buy some handmade soap and a sandwich bag full of sage and walk across the street to La Gitana.

At 4 p.m., the place is packed, and there's barely a head without a cowboy hat. Albeit dark and reeking of beer, the room is alive with cheer and vitality. Cowboys – Hispanic and white—clink beers with bikers and retired snowbirds.

I missed the band, Way Out West, but they give me their CDs. The genre is "border-grass," says band member Tom Poley, a mix of bluegrass, Mexican music and the old cowboy stuff. I put it with Knaub's CD, also a gift.

By the time I pay my check, I know half the bar. On the way out, I stop down a dirt road to watch the sunset over the Baboquivari Mountains, overlooking the unforgiving desert where the deer and javelina run. The land is pulsing with history, struggle and ghosts.

It feels like a turning point. And this little border town sits on the axle of it all.

When I drive through the checkpoint, I open my window, but there is no need. The Border Patrol agent smiles and waves me through.

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