Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bust on the US-Mexican border - the end of a dream

Mark Abel

My friend, composer Mark Abel from San Diego (my former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle), witnessed a bust by the U.S. Border Patrol of a group of Mexican “illegals” in the desert a few days ago.  He saw their surrender - the end of their dream of a better life and everything they had risked for it. He thought of how many times this scenario has been repeated in the past 150 years… Here is his account: 

“Deciding that I needed to “get out of Dodge” (i.e., San Diego) for a while and clear my head, I pointed my 22-year-old Mazda down a road I’ve never  been on – California Route 98, which drops south of Interstate 8 in hardscrabble Imperial County toward the Mexican border from the impoverished hamlet of Ocotillo and continues on into the Imperial Valley and the city of Calexico.  The area is known as the Yuha Basin and it is definitely a desert, made up mostly of sand, loose dirt and scrub vegetation. A few forbidding-looking, lunar-like mountains dot the plain here and there.  

I had only driven a few miles when I started to notice a spread-out presence of Border Patrol squad cars and SUV-type vehicles. This didn’t surprise me, since we were probably within five miles or so of the frontier, which lay beyond to the south. 
Yuha desert, near the border
I got about halfway to Calexico before deciding that there was really nothing scenic about the area and that I might as well head back toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of my favorite places and one that always touches the soul in some way. I braked to turn around after shooting past a pair of flower-laden crosses by the side of the lonely road. I wanted to see who was being memorialized and assumed it was some migrants who died in the desert (nothing unusual in these parts). 

Not thirty seconds after I turned off the engine, a Border Patrol helicopter came screaming in from out of nowhere – zooming directly over my car and not far off the ground. I was startled but quickly deduced that I was probably being surveilled to determine if my car was big enough to ferry a group of migrants out of the area (the answer to that is no.) 

I started back toward Ocotillo. But a few minutes later I spotted the chopper again, hovering over an area about 50 yards off the highway. As I drew closer, I saw a Border Patrol officer striding forward with a bullhorn. Cowering ahead and herded by the chopper, with their hands raised behind their heads, was a group of five or six Mexican men who had apparently been lying prone on the ground, hoping to escape detection. No such luck.

 I kept on driving (knowing the Border Patrol would probably shoo me away if I pulled over) but had slowed just enough to catch a rather heartbreaking tableaux – the end of a common and fiercely held dream of a better life. The image that stayed with me was their “surrender,” with their hands up; it reminded me of an iconic photo from the Holocaust that just about everyone has seen – a Polish Jewish boy marching fearfully with his hands raised, surrounded by grinning Nazi soldiers with guns. This is, of course, unfair to the Border Patrolmen, who are simply doing a job politicians have ordered them to do. But I felt I was somehow experiencing the agony of the Mexicans, whose ambitions in America probably did not encompass anything beyond a life of manual labor – labor that we consider “beneath” us.   

As I drove on, I thought primarily of two things – that these men had walked for god-knows-how-many miles into alien territory, apparently not knowing where they were going, and that they most likely had been led in that direction by a coyote guide who took all the money they had and then pointed them toward an area far from civilization and crawling with Border Patrol, giving them virtually no chance of making it to San Diego or the Imperial Valley, where they might melt into the Hispanic population. Very tough.   

I moved on into Anza-Borrego, whose stark, arid, majestic beauty belies the fact that it was once a place where wooly mammoths, a bird with a 17-foot wingspan, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed tigers roamed, and whales swam in vast inland seas. One’s sense of time slows down very quickly in this place. But sure enough, even here, after about 8 miles there was a Border Patrol checkpoint – in case any “aliens” had made it past the gauntlet in the Yuha Basin. I was waved through with a “Have a nice day” after my white skin and small car were duly noted. … I soon passed a place called Canon sin Nombre (Canyon Without a Name), where I have actually hiked. But all I could think of was the thousands of Mexicans who have perished in our deserts over the decades and how many of them were “sin nombre” – though they most certainly had family somewhere.

Later, I pulled over once more and watched as wispy clouds slowly drifted and broke up high over the Sawtooth Mountains. The late afternoon light silhouetted on the steep slopes the yearning sharp fronds of the ocotillo plants, the solitary stalks of the tall agave, the yellow-green new growth on the cholla cactus. The scene was draped with the silence of the ages. … I thought again of the Mexicans and the deportation that awaited them, and how many times the scenario has been repeated in the past 150 years – despite the fact that their labor has played such an important part in the building of America and the maintenance of our standard of living, faced as it is with possibly insurmountable challenges from the rest of the less fortunate world, which asks, “When will it be our turn?”   

And (though I wished I hadn’t), I thought of the phony, dishonest Mitt Romney and the 11,000-square-foot mansion he is building in not-far-away La Jolla and of the serial liar and attack dog Gingrich – he of the higher moral standard than those folks “on food stamps.” Not to mention Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. 

In our lifetimes, I suspect, America will get what’s coming to it – what is coming to it already – and the wispy clouds will continue their timeless procession over the mountains, as they always have. And the ocotillos will sprout red flowers in the springtime. 

Composer Mark Abel's orchestral song cycle "The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits" will be released on the Delos label in March