NPR Story Inspires a Song:
Grecia Cruz and The Land That I Love
In September of 2007, I heard and was deeply moved by a story on about the loss and death of migrants in Arizona’s part of the Sonoran Desert on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. Haunted by it for months, I wrote a song: The Land That I Love.
The song subsequently carried me to the desert communities of southern Arizona to sing, walk, and work with the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans/Los Samaritanos: a humanitarian group working to save the lives of desperately poor migrants on the border between Arizona and Mexico.
In the radio story, KUAT reporter Claudine LoMonaco was walking the forbidding terrain of the Tohono O’odham Reservation in southern Arizona with Lydia Cruz, a citizen of Mexico and two members of the humanitarian group Humane Borders, Mike Wilson (a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe), and Marie Ochoa who was also translating.
The day they were searching, the temperature reached 101° F. Everyone in the party was careful to drink plenty of water. They were searching for evidence or the bodies of two members of Lydia’s family: her uncle and her sister, Grecia, who had been lost there – economic refugees, migrantes, from Mexico.
Where the wall ends on our southern border, the Sonoran Desert can be – and is regularly – deadly.
It is rugged, sparsely inhabited and waterless, populated with cholla, saguaro and barrel cacti, ocotillo, and prickly pear – all loaded with sharp spines and thorns. A simple injury from any one of these can be life-threatening.
On June 23, 2007, members of Lydia Cruz’s family – Grecia Cruz and her husband, Guadiz, and an uncle – were led with a small group of migrantes across the border and into the Sonoran Desert by the human smugglers, los coyotes. The air temperature that day was 110° F.
The temperature of the ground that time of year can be over 120° F – radiating heat up at you day and night that can burn the soles of your feet through your shoes. The coyotes tell you that Tucson is five or six miles from the border.
“Not bad,” you think.
It’s not 5 or 6 miles, but 70. Some coyotes know this; some do not.
Instead of one hard day and night in the desert, it will be six or seven days of walking.
The math is simple: you need two gallons of water a day to stay alive.
Each person in the coyote’s little group would have had to carry 12-14 gallons of water for a trip like that.
It is impossible: some migrantscross the border carrying 1 gallon of water; some, a few bottles of water, a can of Cola.
In the smuggler’s overcrowded vans, the migrantes barely have room for a handbag or small daypack. Any other possessions are abandoned on the south side of the border.
No one carries enough water. So, the moment you cross the border, you’re in mortal danger of dying from exposure.
When the realization comes, it can already be too late.
The remains of more than 6000 people have been found in the desert since the NAFTA treaty was put in place in 1994. Everyone who works the border agrees that many remains are not found.
If you run out of water – while you are still up and walking – your body slowly begins to mummify. As you get thirsty, you panic.
Then your panic subsides. You become grim and calm. You lose your ability to sweat, urinate, wet your lips, or cry. Your blood grows thick. Your kidneys begin to fail. Uneliminated toxins build up in your bloodstream. You can’t think. You can’t reason.
You are disoriented. Lost.
No matter how prepared you were, you are dying.
A dangerous calm settles in.
Your nerve endings become so sensitized and irritated that you can’t bear the touch of your clothes against your skin. You take them off.
The naked, mummified, and darkened remains of migrants have been found in the desert with a small pile of clothing neatly folded next to them on top of what remains of their shoes. For when they wake up.
For thousands of migrantes who have paid the ultimate price, the cost of America’s decision to militarize its southern border is high.
According to the radio program, Grecia and Guadiz were newly married. Grecia was pregnant. Excited. With their uncle, the couple was going to join Grecia’s parents in South Carolina.
Exhausted and out of water, Lydia and Grecia’s uncle died of exposure during their first night in the desert.
As the radio program continued, LoMonaco, Lydia Cruz, Mike Wilson and Marie Ochoa, were carefully picking their way through the ocatillo and cholla cactus on the reservation.
The terrain around them is dangerous. Every thorn could debilitate even the most experienced walker. Without help, any small injury, misstep, or twisted ankle can be a death sentence.
MIKE WILSON, a Tohono O’odham Indian points out across a sea of mesquite trees and cholla cactus and tries to retrace Grecia’s steps.
WILSON: They came across what you can’t see behind over the little hill is Vamori, the village. [Ed: Vamori is 20 miles south of Sells, AZ; 25 miles WNW of Sasabe, Mexico]. They passed the cemetery. They passed the long bridge, and they came, hopefully, to these mountains. And they spent the night here.
LoMONACO: Cruz’s uncle died that night. The next morning, the smuggler and the rest of the group continued north – leaving Grecia and her husband Guadiz behind, looking for help.
The group climbs down the mountain to search for the uncle’s body.
WILSON: Everybody: keep drinking water. Keep your eyes open. Keep your ears open. Keep your nostrils open. Because, if you’re smelling for death, it’s a sweet, pungent smell.
On their second day in the desert, Grecia’s feet had become so badly blistered that she couldn’t continue. The coyotes abandoned the couple, promising – as they always do – to find help and come back. Guadiz and Grecia never saw them again.
After a few desperate hours in the growing heat, Guadiz left Grecia in the spare shade of an abandoned shed to find help.
He had never been in this desert before. He got lost. It took him a day and a half to get back to the broken down little shed with a couple of Border Patrol Agents.
Grecia was gone.
The NPR reporter and the little crew circled the mountain and searched all day. Toward the end of the day, they found an abandoned shed, with a crumbling wooden fence, and a few coils of rusty barbed wire.
Lydia called Grecia’s husband Guadiz, who had been deported back to Mexico, to try to confirm the location. Yes to the shed, the crumbling wooden fence, the rusted coils of wire.
They found Grecia’s socks.
CRUZ: (Ochoa translating) I feel so much better. Now, I’m going to go house to house!
(Soundbite of laughter)
LoMONACO: On the way back, Marie Ochoa, another volunteer, calls out to Cruz.
OCHOA (Volunteer, Humane Border): (Spanish spoken)
CRUZ: (Spanish spoken)
LoMONACO: She found a tiny pendant of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the sand. The two women hugged and start to cry.
OCHOA: (Unintelligible) let me know that she’s with us. She’ll be helping us.
LoMONACO: The group circles the mountain with no luck. Later in the day, they searched for a shed where Grecia and her husband rested after leaving her uncle.
Grecia’s feet were blistered and she couldn’t go on. So her husband left to find help but got lost. After a day and a half, he returned with two border patrol agents, but Grecia was gone.
All they found were her socks. They followed her footprints until they disappeared under a tree. Cruz thinks her sister is still alive.
CRUZ: (Through translator Ochoa) My aunt talked to a psychic and she told her that Grecia was still alive – that an old couple had picked her up and still had her.
LoMONACO: Mike Wilson and most of the other volunteers don’t have much hope.
WILSON: But I’m out here against all odds because if it was my daughter, if it was my wife, and if it was my baby, I wouldn’t stop. And so you have to do the most you can.
Read the full transcript of the NPR Story courtesy of KUAT and All Things Considered.