By Curtis Prendergast
(This story was originally published on October 7, 2009 on BorderBeat. It also appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of Native Perspectives.)
The sun is burning my skin. I can feel the heat coming from my forehead as I shade my eyes with my hand. On the Mexican side of the border, two men lounge in the shade of a tree. They seem to be in no particular hurry. We look at each other for a few minutes, but I’m too far away to see their faces. I lower my gaze and take a better look at my surroundings.
Unlike in Nogales, the major port of entry in the Tucson Sector of the U.S. – Mexico border, there is no wall to block my vision. Out here I can see across the border into Mexico.
I am standing on the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation. A few feet to my left is the San Miguel Gate, a rare opening in the international border. As I lean on the fence, a red sedan trundles over the cattle guard and slowly disappears into Mexico.
I can see Mexico, but I can’t get into Mexico. The gate is wide open in front of me and I could walk across the border in just a few short steps. There is just one problem- I can’t come back through the gate without a Tohono O’odham ID card.
If I cross the border, I will have a long walk to Sasabe to the southeast or Lukeville to the northwest. On such a hot afternoon neither walk would be a pleasant one, especially in sandals. In the past three years I have come to appreciate the seemingly endless summers of southern Arizona. I have also felt the headaches and nausea of heat exhaustion. No way I’m crossing that border.
So I wait for something to happen. Instead, the Sonoran Desert reminds me of its presence as a hot breeze whips the dust behind me into a column that stretches 50 feet into the air. The dust swirls around me and gets behind my sunglasses and into my eyes. The column eventually dissolves and the dust floats to the ground, coming to rest on both sides of the gate.
The wall stretches across the valley like a rusted spine. A dirt road, blindingly white against the green of the creosote trees, accompanies the wall into the distance.
Metal tubes filled with concrete stand shoulder to shoulder in front of me. These vehicle barriers extend into the distance towards the Baboquivari Mountains to the east and Horse Peak to the west.
Out here, the border is two-fold. A person heading southward would hit a barbed wire fence before the vehicle barriers. The ground between the two walls is littered with Coca-Cola, Tecate and Gatorade bottles. Empty water jugs are strewn everywhere, whitening and warping in the sun.
As we take photographs and film the gate, the lone Border Patrol agent guarding the San Miguel Gate descends from an enormous F-250 truck and approaches us.
The guard looks us over and asks as what our business is here. The sleek, black gun strapped across his chest is not looking for sarcasm or attitude. He is a young man, probably in his mid-20s. He seems nice enough, although he won’t agree to an interview and quickly disentangles himself from our group.
He walks back to his truck and watches us from a distance until we leave.
It’s an odd feeling not being able to come and go as I please. The passport in my pocket has my picture, strings of numbers and a bar code so that computers will recognize me. I have seen this little blue booklet get me across the border in Nogales a number of times. I guess out here bar codes don’t matter much.
We drive away and it strikes me that in Tucson, and just about anywhere else in the U.S., I don’t have to think too much about belonging.
In the national debate over immigration, white people like myself are frequently cast in the role of “native.” But out here in the middle of what appears to be nowhere, I am the foreigner. I am the one who doesn’t have a free pass. Nobody I have encountered today has done anything to make me think this, but it occurs to me that maybe I’m not even welcome here. It can be kind of a cold feeling. As hot as it is, the thought still makes me shiver.