by Kimi Eisele
One evening in early March, two dozen people logged into Zoom to pray, sing, light candles, and share virtual space in honor of migrants who have died crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States.
Since 2004, nearly 3,400 migrants—though likely more–have died in Southern Arizona alone. That’s 3,400 human beings, each with name, a body, a story, a family, a home, hopes, and dreams. Those who gather say remembering them is a way to honor their journeys and communicate a message of radical hospitality.
“In the midst of this horrific militarization, separation of families, and death, we remain committed to the concept of radical hospitality—a hospitality that costs less than the militarization and other measures to demonize and keep people out,” said Isabel Garcia, who founded the vigil 21 years ago with Jon Miles.
Both Garcia and Miles were active in Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based grassroots organization promoting human and civil rights of all migrants regardless of their immigration status.
The first vigil, in June 2000, commemorated the life of 18-year-old Ezekiel Hernandez, an American high school student killed by US Marines while he was herding goats on the Texas border. The vigil was also a response to the increasing number of migrant deaths happening in the desert, said Miles.
In 1994, the US Border Patrol, under President Bill Clinton, adopted a “prevention through deterrence policy.” This policy increased security in urban ports of entry, forcing migrants into remote areas where natural barriers such as mountains, heat, and lack of water would deter them. The policy resulted in increased apprehensions and increased deaths—migrants died from dehydration and overexposure in the vast, rugged stretches of desert they attempted to cross. From 1994 to 2000, deaths handled by Pima County alone went from 11 to 74 cases, though again the numbers were likely higher given that not all remains may have been found.
“We were yelling about these deaths and these policies that were systematically killing migrants,” Garcia said.
These deaths and policies were reminiscent of those in the 1980s, Garcia said, when Central Americans fleeing war in their home countries risked—and sometimes lost—their lives while traveling to the United States to seek asylum. Those circumstances gave rise to Tucson’s Sanctuary Movement, an underground movement organized largely by faith leaders to aid and shelter asylum seekers.
A shrine for the migrants
In 2000, Garcia and Miles approached Father Ricardo Elford, a Redemptorist priest who had supported the Sanctuary Movement, asking him to lead a vigil for migrants’ lives.
“We started showing up every Thursday at seven o’clock at El Tiradito shrine,” Miles said. “We didn’t know how long we’d do it, but we said as long as the deaths keep mounting, we’ll stay here. And then it became a tradition, ever Thursday like clockwork we showed up.”
El Tiradito is a public shrine in one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods. “Really, it’s a poor person’s shrine, a shrine for the alleged sinner, the castaway. It lets us stay grounded right here in the real center of the old Tucson,” Garcia said.
The shrine also offers a tangible place for remembrance for people who often go either unnamed or unfound.
“I know where to grieve my father and my mother,” Garcia said. “But all of these people don’t know where to grieve those they’ve lost—that’s the worst crime of all, that we disappear them.”
Garcia and Miles kept up the weekly vigils until 2017, when Miles became sick with cancer, and Father Ricardo was pulled away by his duties at Clinica Amistad, a free health clinic serving Tucson’s low-income, uninsured community, Garcia said.
“We always had a presence there regardless of the whether it was 105 degrees, 35 degrees, or raining. We kept this going,” Miles said.
Alba Jaramillo, a human rights lawyer and now the executive director of Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, stepped in to take over the vigil, which went from a weekly to a monthly gathering.
The tradition allows people to gather in support of migrants who’ve lost their lives, Jaramillo said, but also offers a place to share information about current or changing policies and calls to action.
“Every time something big happens in the community, we gather at that space for solidarity,” Jaramillo says. For example, when Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, a 27-year-old Tucson resident who died after being restrained by the Tucson police, the group held a vigil to honor his life, she said.
Virtual vigils via Zoom
In 2020, the pandemic forced the monthly vigil into a virtual space. “We miss being together,” Jaramillo said, “But we have elders who come so even though the gatherings happened outside, we want to be mindful of their health.”
Zoom gatherings also allowed people from outside of Tucson to join the vigil. In March, attendees logged on from Tucson, Ciudad Obregón, the Pacific Northwest, Maryland and Massachusetts. Some had as their background images of El Tiradito shrine.
The March vigil coincided with International Women’s Day. “The face of the immigrant is a woman,” Jaramillo said. “Over the last 10 years, the majority of immigrants to the US are women.”
The program began with the singing of La Llorona, a Mexican folk song about the wailing woman looking for her two children who’ve drowned in the river.
“We want to remember all of the sacrifices that immigrant women make in their journey to the US,” Jaramillo said, adding that one out of three women experience sexual assault along their journey. “Gender-based violence and lack of reproductive rights are often the reasons women leave countries to come to the US.”
A man from Boston shared his appreciation for those working locally to address immigrants’ rights every day. “You’re facing the hard reality of the border. I just want to thank everyone in Tucson for helping immigrants,” he said.
Attendees lit candles, and Rebeca Cartes, a Tucson resident originally from Chile, sang a folk song written by Violeta Parra, “Volver a los diecisiete,” about a woman wishing to return to age 17 to live again.
Energy and focus
Jaramillo said gathering in community for the vigils is energizing. “Of course, it’s solemn because we’re talking about people who have lost their lives, but at the same time there’s a warmth to it. For those who work in immigration it’s really grounding. We’re not just working to change immigration laws, we’re here creating space for people who’ve lost their lives.”
Miles, who came to immigrant rights work after working with the steelworkers’ union, said he has always looked out for “the underdog.” “Growing up, I saw my parents had a strong moral compass. I learned early on about the evils of racism and anti-Semitism.” He was also active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the movement to free Palestine.
“I have compassion for my fellow humans,” he said.
Given the current immigration system, Jaramillo said she’s not sure there will ever be a time when the vigil isn’t needed. “When we have these strict policies where people can’t come through, people have no choice but to resort to coming through the desert. And our desert is deadly. Until the conditions in all the Latin American countries improve, this path of migration between ports of entry is going to continue.”
But Garcia is more hopeful, seeing the vigils as a place that allows activists, lawyers, and others, to remember “a singular focus.”
“It’s our prayer for the family members and communities of those we are honoring, that they will somehow know that some people here dissented,” Garcia said. “Dissents, if they’re righteous, eventually become the law.”
In addition to attending vigils, Garcia and others have also painted crosses for nearly all the migrants found in the desert. “We have over 3,330 crosses so far. That’s a huge endeavor. We’re looking for a place to put them, to remember. We have to commemorate these individuals who were extremely brave. What would it take for you to brave that journey?”
Vigils for migrants happen the first Thursday of every month at 7 pm at El Tiradito shrine, 418 S Main Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701.
Cover photo: Lori Atkinson