David Bacon Stories & Photographs
In the Mexican Desert, a Sanctuary for Border-Crossers
by David Bacon

ALTAR, SONORA, MEXICO (12/11/01) - Desperation is growing on the border.

Many Mexicans thinking of crossing to look for work in the US know the current recession will make it harder to find a job. In the winter, the demand for farm labor, the first avenue of employment for many, is at its lowest point. And the risks are higher. Increased border enforcement in the wake of September 11 means having to cross through the desert even further from population centers to avoid getting caught.

"I know it's getting harder on the border," says Eloy Camacho, who's decided to put off his trip with his brothers from San Quintin in Baja California until later this spring. In addition, he's planning to stay longer next time, instead of crossing back and forth every year. "I'm going to bring my wife and baby, and we'll stay four or five years," he thinks.

But the Mexican economy lost over half a million jobs last year. For some migrants, there is no alternative to going north.

A group of young men from Chiapas congregate in the church plaza in Altar, just south of the Sonora/Arizona border, waiting for a coyote to guide them across. They all agree that there's no work in the hills of southern Mexico. "We have families to feed," one says simply. A young man from Guerrero agrees that "you just can't make a living in the countryside. Why won't you [meaning the US] just let us cross and look for a better opportunity there?" he asks.

Workers are philosophical about the obstacles they face. Some, like Manuel Orozco, who's come from Michoacan in central Mexico, are aware of the increased patrols on the US side in the wake of September 11. "But there's no other way," he says. This will be his first trip across, and he doesn't quite know what awaits him.

Victor Aleman, from Queretaro, also in central Mexico, says it's the promise of work that's brought him to Altar. "In Mexico, you have to work like a dog just to maintain yourself. On the other side, there are much better jobs. That's what we're all going for -- looking for a life on the other side," he says.

All along the border, on Mexico's Route 2, a string of towns have become jumping-off places for migrants heading north to the US. Altar is one of them, in the Sonoran desert, halfway between Mexicali and Nogales.

It's not a big place -- beyond a few blocks on either side of the main highway, the dust and chamisa scrub take over. Across from the Pemex gas station is Nuestra Seņora de Guadalupe, one of the ancient Spanish churches built by Padre Kino in the 1700s. Every day, in the plaza beside the church, dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of would-be immigrants sit and talk, or walk back and forth aimlessly. Townspeople have taken advantage of their presence, and put up booths in the plaza. Some sell toys and soccer balls -- gifts for whatever family awaits in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Fresno or any of the many Mexican barrios which are their hoped-for destinations to the north. Other booths display more practical supplies. Gloves and hats, needed during the winter to meet the desert's biting cold, are popular items.

Migrants here are waiting for a ride towards the border. Altar is about 70 miles south of la linea, and people gather to find a ride or a coyote to get them closer, and eventually guide them over.

In front of the parish office, across the street from the church, a group of vans have pulled into the curb. Most bear placards describing their route as "Altar-Sasabe." Sasabe is a tiny hamlet on the border itself, and the vans make a daily run through the desert hills and small farming villages along the way.

They also pass one of the dozens of Mexican Army checkpoints scattered just south of the border from Tijuana to Matamoros. It's not likely that a van carrying a dozen migrants from the Altar church is going to make it through -- the migrants are almost all much darker and shorter than the local residents, even though they, too, are largely people of mixed indigenous heritage -- mostly Papago, Opota or Mayo.

Ramon Pino, a nineteen-year old taxi driver from the nearby city of Caborca, lost his job not long ago, when he tried to help a young woman pass the checkpoint and get to Sasabe. With just a driver and one passenger, they made it through. "But when she got out, she said she had no money to pay me, and the ride took two hours," Pino says regretfully. The woman ran away, probably across the border. When Pino reported back to the taxi rank, the other drivers laughed at him for not asking for the fare in advance. With no money to make up the loss, he was fired.

Most workers need some help to get across. It's not enough to just get up to the line, evading the army patrols. Getting around both the Mexican military, and then the US Border Patrol, requires walking out into the desert for a couple of days or more. And then, once across, someone has to be there with a ride past more checkpoints, to the cities just to the north -- Tucson or LA -- where they can disappear in an ocean of immigrant laborers.

So the migrants look for guides or coyotes, to help them navigate the obstacles. And in the Altar church plaza they come together. Every few minutes throughout the morning, a group assembles and walks off, led by their experienced commander. In the popular slang, they are the pollos, the chickens, and their shepherd the pollero.

Most townspeople say the number of migrants in the church plaza has fallen quite a bit since September 11 and the US recession. In the winter last year, the plaza was full of people. As a result, the price charged by a coyote for a guide across the desert, and a car for a ride on the other side, has fallen. Workers expect to pay about $400, down from the $1000 coyotes charged two years ago.

Antonio Macias, a bus driver on the Sasabe route, says that townspeople generally don't resent the influx of migrants. "They're a source of work for us," he explains. "Besides, they're not really doing anything wrong -- just looking for work themselves."

The church has begun a pastorate to minister to the needs of the workers in the plaza. Other churches along the border have done the same. At the behest of Father Rene Castaņeda, the parish has set up a dining hall where volunteers from the town serve dinner every night. Castaņeda eventually intends to build a dormitory as well, so that the migrants won't have to sleep out in the open, as most do now.

This Christmas, the parish joined with others on both sides of the border to celebrate the posada, which remembers the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Simultaneous celebrations took place next to the border fence in Nogales, Tijuana, and other cities on the frontera. "The posada has great meaning for us in Altar these days," Castaņeda says. "It celebrates the migrants, the people who have no place of their own."

While the music of the posada is meant to inspire spiritual reflection, it is also a reminder of something more painful. As increased US immigration enforcement has forced migrants out of the border cities like Tijuana and Nogales, into the mountains and deserts, the trip across has become much more dangerous. In the Altar desert people die every year, trying to make it across. While the wave of migration has brought a new population and work to Altar, it has had a human cost.

In an empty lot next to the migrant dining hall, three tall crosses have been erected in memory of those who've perished. But the plaza next to the church is never empty of those who will still risk the journey north.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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