Linking Learning to Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border

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Story and photographs by Lisa O’Neill

Maiko Zambrano, a longtime volunteer with humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, drives south from Tucson, Arizona toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Cirrus clouds span the sky like stretched-out cotton as the landscape shifts from saguaros to acacias set against jagged mountains. The van carries a group of University of Arizona undergraduate students in Ana Cornide’s Spanish 480 course. For weeks, they’ve read articles and discussed the history and political context of the region. Now they’re learning about the politics of the borderlands firsthand.

Students walk in a line through the southern AZ desert.
Students from Ana Cornide’s Spanish 480 course embark on a delegation with Borderlinks to learn about U.S.-Mexico border issues, primarily immigration. 

I have joined them for this three-day journey, called a “delegation” and led by Borderlinks, a community organization Cornide partnered with to give her students experiential learning of border issues.

Borderlinks was founded 30 years ago as the educational arm of the Sanctuary Movement, a humanitarian undertaking started at Southside Presbyterian Church to support asylum seekers fleeing violence and civil war in Central America in the 1980s.

“Because the U.S. was supporting Central American governments, those fleeing violence by their government or by militias were not accepted here as refugees,” said Tania Garcia, Borderlinks operations manager and delegation leader. “Borderlinks was born [from] a need to share why people were migrating so people [in the U.S.] would open their houses and open their hearts to the situation.”

The primary participants in Borderlinks’ delegations come from churches, universities, and high schools, often hundreds or thousands of miles away. The students in Cornide’s class, however, live in this region. Cornide says all but two students in this delegation are heritage Spanish speakers and many have been directly impacted by border issues. Several of them crossed the border into the United States as children, or have parents or relatives who did.

On the migrant trail

We drive through Arivaca, Arizona, down the strip that marks the middle of town. Zambrano rolls down the window to shout, “Hola,” to a woman he knows. He converses with her in Spanish then turns to tell the students that the food stand she runs at lunchtime has amazing Mexican food.

We pass a small building marked by a sign: “People Helping People”—the headquarters of the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office, run by volunteers who live here.

On this day, we’ll be following a migrant trail and participating in a humanitarian water drop. Several organizations—including the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office, No More Deaths, Derechos Humanos, and the Kino Border Initiative—support migrants by providing medical assistance and shelter, water, non-perishable food, and clothing, some of which they drop regularly along migrant trails.

There are heartbreaks and risks in providing aid to migrants, Zambrano explains to the students. Sometimes on supply drops, volunteers find human remains from those who didn’t make it.

Also, volunteers have faced legal repercussions for providing aid. In early 2018 eight No More Deaths volunteers were charged with offenses, including driving in a wilderness area and “abandoning property,” which likely refers to leaving supplies for migrants. They now face federal prosecution.

After turning onto a gravel road and parking, we divvied up buckets of supplies and seven plastic gallon bottles of water to be left on the trail. The students donned their backpacks, and we headed out behind Zambrano in a single-file line.

students stand in a circle in preparation to walk a migrant trail
Students prepare to follow a migrant trail near Arivaca, Arizona.

The path cut through an expanse of fields and hills then narrowed through trees, stones, and brush. To our left, cattle gathered to drink from a retaining pond. Thorny branches clung to our clothes and scraped across exposed skin. We held back branches for one another. Some of us stumbled on loose rocks. The path was arduous, and we hadn’t been on it for even ten minutes.

“Going on a desert walk teaches you how difficult the journey is,” Garcia said. “It takes me thirty minutes to feel exhausted in the desert especially when it’s hot and uncomfortable. All the sand, not stepping on something that could hurt you. It’s exhausting. And thinking about doing that for a week or longer—it gives a sense as to what [migrants] go through.”

We climbed up and down hills, before dropping into a dry wash that Zambrano said frequently fills with water during the monsoons. When that happens, migrants must wade through murky water to continue on.

When we reached the first water drop off site, we saw that a dozen bottles had been left by other volunteers, tucked in the shady nook of a tree branch. So we continued on toward a second stop, which required scaling a rock wall ten feet high. To do this, one person climbed first, then the group formed a chain to spot and help the next along. Those of us wearing heavy backpacks handed them up to others before climbing the wall. As I looked for small footholds and cracks, grabbing the arms outstretched from above, I was reminded of the precariousness of this path—often traveled in the heat of summer or the dark of night.

A makeshift altar of Catholic symbols (crosses, roasries, prayer cards) in the desert.
Migrants leave prayers and blessing along the trail.

At the second drop off site, a grotto had been formed in a wall of mud and stone. Tucked inside, layered with dirt and dust, were a dozen rosaries, prayer cards, and devotional scapulars bearing the image of Saints and Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Many migrants view this as a pilgrimage and a spiritual journey,” Zambrano said.

These paths, though well-tread, can be treacherous because of increased border patrol presence. Zambrano told us many migrants have been forced into more dangerous paths in the mountain, ones where there is no water waiting for them.

But even when migrants find water left by humanitarians, sometimes they do not drink it, he said, because coyotes told them not to or other travelers warned the water is poisoned, a trick of the U.S. Border Patrol.

To counter these rumors, volunteers leave messages of support they hope migrants will read. Zambrano distributed permanent markers and invited students to use symbols and language to signify safety. They drew crosses and rosaries on the bottles. Dios te bendiga, they wrote. Often, volunteers find scraps of paper or food wrappers where migrants write messages back: Gracias, muchas gracias.

While we rested, Sara Luois read aloud to the group from a poem distributed by leaders, by Yosimar Reyes, an undocumented American poet and activist–“A Poem so that the Weight of this Country does not Crush You.”

“… just know that there are people like me / picking up the load when you can’t / there are people like me pushing / so the weight of this country does not crush you/that there are people like you/who will fight when I can’t / we will take turns / pushing against these walls…”

It was Luois’ second time on the delegation. She herself crossed the border with her family when she was seven years old. In Brazil, her family had been victims of violence that forced them to migrate.

Students on the Borderlinks delegation leave messages on supply buckets and water bottles for migrants
Students on the Borderlinks delegation leave messages on supply buckets and water bottles for migrants.

“Walking on the shale, you hear these clinks and for me it sounded a lot like shackles,” she said. “I kept thinking about that over and over again. I kept thinking about all the sacrifices that had been made on these trails. People are giving up everything just to get a better life, a better future.”

On today’s journey, Luois brought feminine hygiene products to leave for migrants. She said crossing the border can be particularly treacherous for women. Many are sexually assaulted during their journey. On the orange bucket containing the supplies, she drew a flurry of hearts.

Learning outside the classroom

This Borderlinks trip is the fruition of a dream years in the making for Cornide, an assistant professor of cultural studies and critical service learning in the Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of Arizona. Not your typical Spanish class, Spanish 480 starts in the classroom, moves to the delegation, and continues with students being placed in service roles with community partners. The goal, Cornide says, is to “integrate civic engagement back into the humanities.”

After the first trip she organized, some students said their parents had never before discussed their experience crossing, but that they’d opened up after their kids shared their experiences on the delegation. Other students who crossed the border while very young told her they hadn’t realized how much that passage had formed their identity.

In addition to walking in the desert, students in Cornide’s class witness and document Operation Streamline, wherein migrants are convicted and sentenced for border crossing; visit immigrants already sentenced who are being held in detention facilities in Florence, Arizona; and hear from community organizations working on issues that result from border criminalization.

Water jugs for migrants share messages of encouragement
Throughout the course, students learn about how humanitarian groups and community organizations support migrants at various stages of their journeys. Here, water bottles for migrants share messages of encouragement.

During the delegation, students eat meals prepared by members of Mariposas Sin Fronteras, a Tucson-based grassroots organization offering legal, practical, and emotional support specifically to LGBTQ people in detention. They also hear from Mariposas staff, like Karolina López, a transgender woman who migrated to the United States to escape discrimination in Mexico.

López, who spent three years at Eloy Detention Center, spoke to the students about her experience and offered guidelines for their scheduled visit, explaining dos and don’ts and what questions students should focus on so they could later write letters of support for detainees’ asylum cases.

Many migrants are sent to a detention center in Florence, Arizona after going through Operation Streamline, a zero-tolerance federal initiative that prosecutes migrants entering the country illegally. Initiated in Texas in 2005, the program is now only carried out in Tucson and Del Rio and Laredo, Texas. Cornide’s students witness Operation Streamline proceedings at Tucson’s Federal courthouse, where they happen most weekdays. It often takes as little as a half hour to hour for judges to convict and sentence seventy people for crossing the border illegally.

On my final day with the delegation, I joined the students and we set off from Tucson for the detention center in Florence at dawn, the students quiet and still inside the van. After a little over an hour, we arrived at a cluster of mud-brown buildings behind a chain-link fence surrounded by the desert.

The previous week a group had been denied entrance, López had told us, so there was a chance we wouldn’t be allowed in. We stood in the parking lot, shifting our shoes on the gravel, and filled out paperwork until a uniformed guard brought over a book and told us to sign our names in it.

A few others were also waiting to visit detainees. A middle-aged woman told us she was there to visit her nephew, who had traveled north from Guerrero, Mexico. She was with an older couple, her nephew’s grandparents, also there to see him. Her nephew left Mexico, she said, after his father had been killed, and the family feared that he, as the eldest son, would be next. He had been picked up by the border patrol, she told us. He was injured.

We were given red plastic visitor badges, and two at a time, we entered a gated, chain-link area, where we had to take off our shoes and get patted down by a detention officer wearing blue gloves. We then walked across a parking lot, into a building and through a metal detector to finally arrive at the visitation area. The inmates, dressed in royal blue scrubs, were already spread out at the tables, waiting.

The woman and the couple from the parking lot greeted their relative. A large cast covered the man’s hand, wrist and forearm. As they hugged, his grandmother wiped away tears.

Cornide’s students divided into groups to meet with individuals. We were allowed a golf pencil and one sheet of paper to take notes. I sat with a group visiting a man who’d fled his home country because he was a religious minority.

One student, smiling brightly, asked how he was doing. He felt depressed, he said, as he showed us a thick manila envelope and scrolled through the papers inside—stacks of legal documents and articles written about his case and the political situation surrounding it.

Later, once after we re-assembled outside for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, one of the Borderlinks delegation leaders told us that asylum cases are hard to win, even when those applying for have good reasons. Many detainees have very few financial resources and do not speak English, which can make it challenging to navigate the legal system.

This was Luois’s fourth trip to the detention facility. “Every time I go, the air is very heavy and people are crying,” she said. “Especially between family and their loved ones.”

Integrating real-life lessons

Students sitting on couches, discussing what they witnessed.
Students debrief after the delegation, sharing ways they can integrate their experience and transform it into action.

On the last afternoon of the delegation, the group gathered at the Borderlinks office, sitting on the carpeted floor or lounging on couches, some resting their heads on one another’s shoulders.

Delegation leaders handed out a worksheet—“Understand Your Role in Social Change”—that detailed different roles in social justice movements: Helper, Advocate, Organizer, Rebel. Students were prompted to think about their own roles and how they might use the knowledge they had gained through this experience to take action.

Part of experiential learning, Cornide says, is giving students the opportunity to join community networks of change. After five weeks of coursework and the Borderlinks delegation, students in Spanish 480 then work with community partners, taking on leadership roles and carrying out a culminating project that serves both the organization and the broader community.

“We are trying to provide students with leadership opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities, hands-on learning opportunities, and reflection opportunities,” Cornide said. “The purpose is to allow them to become leaders in their own communities. But also to become the next generation of critics and cultural leaders.”

For a final communal reflection, we piled into the vans one more time and headed to Gates Pass, a desert recreation area on Tucson’s west side. As the light from the sunset covered the mountains, the group gathered in a circle on stone benches.

One student, Ruth, said her church is involved in serving undocumented individuals, but that she never understood the depth of their experience. “It’s a totally different experience to know about this. I know a lot of undocumented people—but then to go through it.” She repeated “I’m sorry” as her eyes filled with tears. Others in the group assured her that her apologies were not necessary.

Kate, a film major who wants produce films that change the way people think about marginalized groups, said, “I just keep thinking: the person I have become from being changed from this experience, what is that person going to do?”

That question is exactly what Borderlinks—and Cornide—hope participants will ask after these experiences.

Borderlinks staff member Garcia said, “I believe that knowledge is power and I believe that after you have seen and heard stories of people coming here, the way you think changes and you are forced to create action. And that leads you to create action and hope to achieve a world where there is social justice for everyone.”

For Cornide’s students who have border crossing stories as part of their history or ancestry, the journey seemed to invite an even more profound discovery.

One student told her, “I’ve been suffering for a long time, and I realized through being on the delegation that I didn’t need to be suffering on my own, that healing is a communal process.”

Hearing this affirmed Cornide’s efforts. “For me this is not just not just about investment but healing,” Cornide said. “Because what you have is a national trauma. It’s a community trauma. So [hearing about it being] healing is one of the best things I heard.”

Lisa M. O’Neill is an essayist and journalist who writes about social justice issues, politics, and popular culture with an intersectional lens. She is from New Orleans and lives in Tucson, where she teaches community nonfiction courses and poetry workshops with youth in juvenile detention.

3 thoughts on “Linking Learning to Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border”

  1. Excellent introduction to the power inherent in authentic, integrated educational experiences. Gratitude and admiration all around– to Borderlinks for its decades of amazing work, to Ana Cornide for her dedication to transformational education, to her students for their willingness to open themselves to the discomforting process of that pedagogical journey, to Lisa M. O’Neill for a beautifully written piece, and to the wonderful staff at Borderlore for publishing this.


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