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Tally of dead rises on Mexican border


His name is Elían Gonzalez. Her name was Elizama Gonzalez.

Both had mothers who died taking harrowing journeys from their homelands to the United States.

Elían, as we all know, is from Cuba.

Elizama is from Mexico.

Whereas Elían’s mother was engulfed in water, Elizama’s mother died for lack of it. On Memorial Day, Yolanda Gonzalez’s lifeless body was found under a palo verde tree in the Arizona desert, about 14 miles north of the border on the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation.

A few ounces of water rolled around in the bottle of Elizama who -- in diapers and a T-shirt -- was badly sunburned. The 18-month-old survived. Her mother had heaved plastic water containers through triple-digit desert heat and, as she began to fail from dehydration, she insisted on giving the last of the water to the little girl. This according to a desperate travel companion who sought out reservation police in hopes of saving the pair.

Elizama was sent to a local hospital for treatment. Originally from the state of Oaxaca, she was to be whisked back to relatives in Mexico. Her father, an undocumented worker in the United States, is afraid of stepping forward, according to press reports. If he claims his daughter, this will mean automatic deportation for the both of them.

Whereas Elían is a symbol, Elizama is a number.

Every day brings a fresh tally of the living and the dead found this side of the border. Every day the U.S. border patrol wails about the heat and crows about how many folks it has rescued, omitting the fact that its policy of sealing off urban areas has forced hungry Mexican families into lethal desert terrain.

The number of people found dead since Oct. 1, 1999, (the start of the immigration service’s fiscal year) is rapidly approaching 60, already setting a record. Drought has only worsened matters; cattle troughs people count on for water are empty.

In the first weeks of June, a man watched his wife expire, a woman lost a child in a premature birth and a decomposed body was discovered. One can only imagine how many travelers have quietly buried their dead and moved on.

Meanwhile, politicians argue for a more beefed-up border. And a handful of extremist ranchers circulate a brochure inviting vacationers to camp out and round up “illegals” as part of a Neighborhood Ranch Watch. (Bring your own night vision goggles, and so on.)

In Tucson June 2, hundreds of people and international media joined together for a peace vigil in downtown Armory Park, sponsored by the Derechos Humanos Coalition of the Arizona Border Rights Project. There were crosses and candles, Our Lady of Guadalupe banners and a U.S. flag draped over a large Mexican flag in a symbol of unity.

The vigil opened with a prayer to the four directions by a Tohono O’odham elder. (The tribe’s land mass extends from the United States into Mexico; it technically has no border.) The vigil closed with a prayer by Fr. Bob Carney of Douglas, Ariz. -- whose naming of Mexicans’ stories as “sacred stories” has ruffled a few feathers in his parish.

Rudy Acuna of Northridge, Calif., author of the definitive textbook on Mexican-American history, Occupied America, assured Arizonans that they were not alone in this struggle. Arizona labor leaders weighed in as did Tucson resident Leslie Marmon Silko, a Pulitzer Prize recipient in literature.

The Tucson diocese issued a statement, and the Rev. John Fife (whose Southside Presbyterian Church was first to declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees) proclaimed the beginning of a new movement. Indeed, the Arizona Daily Star recently wrote of a “new underground railroad”: residents of Bisbee, Ariz., who are extending various forms of hospitality to undocumented travelers.

Speakers at the vigil called for mercy and compassion, for an end to vigilantism and border militarization, and called on Mexico and the United States to seek long-term solutions to the crisis.

The event went off without a hitch. Thank goodness, because white supremacist groups did their damnedest to advertise opposition to the vigil on Web sites.

A Derechos Humanos staff member downloaded material from the Web site of a group calling itself American Patrol. It charged the coalition with scheming to “reconquer” the Southwest -- an allegation one might pooh-pooh except that the Web site had a full color photograph of a Derechos Humanos attorney and detailed map of downtown Tucson, with a red cross marking Armory Park.

Of course, one needn’t look to cross burners to foster hatred and fear. The well-heeled and unhooded types showed up for a May conference in Sierra Vista, Ariz., to talk about Mexicans. Many represented California-based anti-immigrant groups with nothing better to do ever since the courts struck down Proposition 187, designed to strip immigrants of the most basic rights.

At the meeting, one of the organizers showed a video. It featured traditional Mexican dancers. “Do you want to see an America like this?” he warned in an apocalyptic tone of voice.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000