Introducing: Field Studies Southwest & guest post by Raquel Gutierrez

 

FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST

The University of Arizona Creative Writing Program is pleased to announce the pilot project for its Field Studies in Writing Southwest Program made possible with support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program Environment and Social Justice and under the leadership of Alison Hawthorne Deming, Haury Chair and Regents’ Professor. Like our Field Studies Grand Manan project, yhis initiative is intended explore how the literary arts can create humane responses to climate change, environmental, social justice and border issues.

The new southwest project will be coordinated by recent MFA alum Paco Cantú; Associate Professor Susan Briante will serve as faculty facilitator. Ethnobotanist and Patagonia resident Gary Paul Nabhan also serves as consultant. Participants will spend two weeks in southern Arizona, working in collaboration with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This program, sponsored by the Borderlands Habitat Network, engages marginalized youth in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem while providing leadership and educational opportunities. In March two MFA participants joined with graduate students from the Wake Forest University School of Theology, under the leadership of Fred Bahnson, author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, to visit the Native Seeds/ Search farm in Patagonia and the Kino Border Initiative in preparation for the summer program.

2017 FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST AWARDEES

Abby Dockter is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction from Farmington, New Mexico. She spent a few years following field and lab science jobs up and down the Rockies, and has written as a science communicator for UA’s Institute of the Environment. Her most irresistible interests are (pre)history and ethnobotany, how we change our surroundings and how they in turn change us. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.

Gabriel Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona from El Paso TX. He is concerned with defining the extreme code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the culture of the borderlands.

Raquel Gutiérrez is a bilingual poet and essayist pursuing an MFA degree in poetry at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about language, history, space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014. Her work has found homes in Huizache, The Portland Review, Los Angeles Weekly, GLQ: Gay and Lesbian Quarterly and Entropy.

GUEST POST FROM RAQUEL GUTIERREZ

July 12, 2017

I Pledge Allegiance To *THIS* Flag: Arivaca Riding with Humane Borders

by Raquel Gutierrez

I have been living in Tucson for a year now. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers from near and far tell me they love the images they see on my various social media feeds of this mysterious moonscape-like desert surrounding Tucson. Many of “my followers” live along both coasts so of course it is gives me great pleasure to be able to ignite an awe for the uncontainable beauty of the Sonoran Desert even if it is from afar. For me being in this desert on any given morning or early evening means being given over to the expanse of possibility the landscape offers. It has been the way to get new perspectives when stuck on a writing project—to step out into any number of trails and parks that surround Tucson and take it all in. Whether it’s the way the light moves across the shallow valleys of Gates Pass before sunset or the way the temperature surprisingly drops ten degrees when your trail takes you into the shadowy parts that sit below Pima Canyon, the infinity of surprise that lives here is hard to deny.

But as the temperatures increase, as they have this summer with every indication of the 110-117 degrees pointing to a climate change that may not be reversible in years to come, there is another thing one cannot deny—any slight carelessness on your part and the desert will kill you. And that fact made itself clear on a recent ride-along outing with Guillermo and Stephen, two volunteer truck drivers for the Southern Arizona organization Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas. As soon as we—Abby Dockter, Gabriel Dozal and myself, a trio of Creative Writing grad students from the University of Arizona currently engaging in a Southwestern Field Studies program sponsored by UA’s Agnese Nelms Haury Program—climbed into the water replenishment truck we were told that if we broke down in Arivaca, an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson, we would be exposed to the same conditions as the Latinx migrants we were trying to help. I looked at both my comrades and shook off any doubt that we would not be okay. We were the lucky ones after all traveling with over 100 gallons of water into the harshest topographies in the Southwest. At the worst, we would be sweaty and uncomfortable, changing the imaginary flat tire in my mind’s wandering to worry—but we wouldn’t die. That’s how I made contact and peace with the privilege I carried into different parts of the valley that blanketed the infamous border town of Arivaca. If there was anything to do with the privilege it was to risk it.

According to their website, Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey to the North mostly by foot. Getting into the truck at Green Valley, we were promptly driven to the first water station situated behind a pecan orchard. The orchard looked strangely out of place and time with its trees lined up tightly towering above a few acres covered by bright green grass, an indication of the obscene amounts of water it must have consumed on a daily basis for it to look that way. But I was thankful nonetheless for its existence and hoped it was there to offer some shady respite to the men, women, and children who made the orchard a part of their journey.

As soon as we got to the water station my heart swelled with a convergence of emotions. I may have quietly gasped at sight of concrete blocks, a quartet of 2×4 wood planks, and a 55-gallon plastic blue barrel sitting stoutly but bravely above the dried out arroyo behind it where I imagined weary travelers would emerge. In the distance, I continued imagining that I could hear a chorus of sighs of relief at the sight of a purple flag whose color had been made dull by the daily solar pounding it takes while waving intrepidly in the hot summer wind.

After surveying the water station for cleanliness, potability, visibility, and instances of possible tampering, we moved on to the next water station destination in Arivaca proper, Elephant Head. But before heading out of the pecan orchard Stephen asked Guillermo, who was driving, to stop by a peripheral section of the orchard where he spotted empty water bottles and a spectrum of detritus of migrants past. Plastic bottles that were empty but still intact signaled recent passage. However, there were old, discarded backpacks that like the life they carried inside them looked as desiccated as any living creature that succumbs to the harsh conditions of a merciless desert. It was those bits of human evidence that made the area seem anachronistic—to travel by foot in a time saturated by every imaginable technology is maddening, if you think about it for too long.

 

Over the course of the next nine hours I would be mad and quite maddened. It is this affective drive that impels volunteers like Guillermo and Stephen to make this trip every 2-3 weeks for the last two years. When we arrived at Elephant Head I noticed something that wasn’t on the first blue container.

La Virgen de Guadalupe. I should clarify that it was just a glossy sticker with her likeness.

All of my twelve-years’-worth of nostalgic Catholic School hackles went up at the sight of the feminine deity that made her debut on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico. An apparition that only an indigenous man re-christened Juan Diego could witness. Stephen noticed me noticing her and said it’s hopefully a way migrants can understand that the water station is there to help. I nodded approvingly, but behind my sunglasses and smile I bit my lip and pinched the muffin top peeking over my belt loop to keep from crying.

Time seemed to be marked by how close or far we were to the curious mountain peak known as Baboquivari, a sacred place for the Tohono O’odham nation as the home of the creator, I’itoi resides in a cave at the base of the mountain peak. For the Tohono O’odham Baboquivari is where it all begins. Throughout our ride-along Guillermo would stop for all of us to take in the scenery, snap photos and stretch our legs. It felt like Baboquivari was looking out for us as we did our best looking out for others.

Gabe asked what would we do if we encountered a migrant to which Stephen quickly replied we’d give them food, first aid, and water.

As the morning progressed and the sun’s rays intensified, I felt the sweat pooling in and around my body’s various concaves and then disappear. The desert was taking its rightful tithe of moisture from me. We snacked on sweet baby peppers and threw the ends out the window to which Guillermo would say it would be a few hours tops before the desert consumed our biodegradable trash. We could all be untraceable. It would be so easy here traversing Arivaca’s desert veins and arteries.

I started thinking about the ways in which the untraceable is made evident. Or how the migrant’s journey has been represented to me throughout my life as both reader and writer as well as the 1980s child of Latinx immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico and the one in the here and now—the adult child. In prose we have writers like Rubén Martínez and Reyna Grande rendering the experience of crossing over, their portraits of others or selves desperate to reunite with family in the North, all of whom in various pursuits of better economic stability. As a reader, these literary voices have meant to me finding the language to illustrate the ways these migratory traumas continue to haunt families both constituted by and torn apart by inhumane border policies. But my parents’ migration took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s—they were essentially crossing an imaginary wall with nary an agent policing those boundaries. Dare I say they came to the North in the innocent hey-day of border crossing on par with episodes of The Brady Bunch? Or the golden age of border law breaking when detention centers meant nothing more than a bus ride to Ciudad Júarez or Tijuana while Los Tigres del Norte sang earnestly about contraband and betrayal in a drug deal between lovers gone wrong.

But here in the desert the migrant’s journey is represented to itself and to strangers like me who witness that representation, making the experience of being here that much more urgent. Take the work of Alvaro Enciso’s monuments to fallen migrants for example. These are colorful crosses affixed to coordinates that mark where a migrant lost their life during the journey through Arivaca and other parts of Southern Arizona. Seeing these crucifixes made unique in color and metal details in complimentary colors in their intended habitat allows the spectator—whether another migrant, a border agent, or someone engaged in humanitarian aid—a profound empathic encounter that enables a communing with the recently deceased while bringing to the mind’s fore the realistic circumstance of future migrants dying in the desert nearby.

It is these kinds of artistic representations that operate as both homage and reminder that we need each other to get by. We need each other to remember. We need each other to witness.

 

Being out in Arivaca—as we traveled at 3mph towards the water stations at Rocky Road, Cemetery Hill, Soberanes, and the last station closest to the Mexican border at Martinez Well—as the mesquite trees like night sky constellations took every shape possible in each of the landings where we stopped, I kept thinking of the work by Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora. Javier’s poetry focuses on his own experiences as a child who bears witness in his poetry to what it means to endure passage in the desert and what it means to be one of the lucky ones. As we checked for the frayed flags and water levels at each stop, I thought about the young man named Chino remembered and made flesh again in Zamora’s poem “Second Attempt Crossing.”

For Chino

In the middle of that desert that didn’t look like sand

          and sand only,

in the middle of those acacias, whiptails, and coyotes, someone yelled

          “¡La Migra!” and everyone ran.

In that dried creek where 40 of us slept, we turned to each other

            and you flew from my side in the dirt.

Black-throated sparrows and dawn

            hitting the tops of mesquites,

beautifully. Against the herd of legs,

            you sprinted back toward me,

I jumped on your shoulders,

            and we ran from the white trucks. It was then the gun

ready to press its index.

            I said, “freeze, Chino, ¡pará por favor!”

So I wouldn’t touch their legs that kicked you,

            you pushed me under your chest,

and I’ve never thanked you.

Beautiful Chino — 

the only name I know to call you by — 

            farewell your tattooed chest:

the M, the S, the 13. Farewell

            the phone number you gave me

when you went east to Virginia,

            and I went west to San Francisco.

You called twice a month,

            then your cousin said the gang you ran from

in San Salvador

            found you in Alexandria. Farewell

your brown arms that shielded me then,

            that shield me now, from La Migra.

 

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