Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
"If I traveled to one of these distant Americas, I had to reimagine them"
The following is an excerpt from Teju Cole’s essay collection Known and Strange Things, a finalist for the 2017 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.
A Piece of the Wall
I hear the sound of faint bells in the distance. It is like a sound in a dream, or the jingling at the beginning of a Christmas song. Jingle, jingle, jingle. The sound comes closer. Jingle, jingle, jingle. And then they come in, seventy of them, all men, chained together, bound wrist and waist and foot. They shuffle bright-sounding into the courtroom, a large bright room that is, for them, a chasm of hopelessness.
What you think is true of the country in which you have arrived is often true only of where in it you are. I immigrated to small towns in Michigan. Later on, I went to New York City. These places became my America, and their landscapes and ways of life became natural to me. Other Americas—Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Honolulu—I knew by name only, and considered part of my America only through the imagination. If I traveled to one of these distant Americas, I had to reimagine them. I understood only slowly how I was connected to life there.
This was my experience of Tucson, and of the Sonoran desert in Arizona, which goes all the way up to and beyond the border with Mexico. This dry and severely beautiful region, alive with traces of the old Spanish missions, is the home of the Tohono O’odham. Their land preceded Mexico or the United States and stretches across the current border. And the border is incessantly crossed, by various people for various reasons, a matter of commerce, culture, law, and unhappiness.
The program, called Operation Streamline, is about to jail and then deport these men. Most of them are indigenous people from Mexico or farther south, here in search of work, arrested in the desert or in town. Seventy small dark men. For most of them, Spanish is a second language. The brightness of the courtroom is like an assault, and the men have been coached to say yes, to say no. They are charged with illegal entry, reentry, or false claim to citizenship. Soon—each gets less than a minute in front of the judge—they’ll be taken back to detention. They will be imprisoned for weeks or months, then put on a bus or plane to Mexico City, hundreds of miles away from home. For now, as I watch them in the courtroom, they are like animals in a pen, fastened to one another, a shimmer of sound each time one moves. The security officers are imposing, white, and impassive. The judge is named Bernie. Afterward, I speak with him, and ask if he, himself, is from a Mexican family.
“My father didn’t fight for this country in World War Two so that people could call me Mexican.”
“But the chains: these men are not dangerous. Why the chains?”
“It’s more convenient.”
* * * *
I’m writing in the restaurant of the lodge. The server asks me about my computer. She’s thinking of buying a similar one, but not right away. She has just bought a mobile phone. She paid quite a lot for it, six hundred dollars. Well, it’s because she didn’t want to be tied to a contract, her boyfriend paid, she isn’t ready to buy a computer yet. The drift of talk.
Her name is Aurora. She is Peruvian, and in her thirties, and she has been in Tucson for nine years.
“What are you doing here, vacation?”
“No, I’m a writer. Here to find out more about the border and immigration.”
It has been a season of trouble, and it has gotten worse since 9/11. This is why I’ve come. This grief, this unsteadiness, is everywhere. I ask Aurora if she knows anyone who got into trouble.
“Many. I was working in a hotel about six years ago. The owners were Indian. In one morning, twelve Mexican girls, maids, were taken away. They never returned.”
“You were a maid?”
“Me? No, I’ve always worked in banquets.”
She glances at the counter. It’s mid-morning. The restaurant is quiet.
“But I’ve had trouble. I get stopped all the time while driving. Two years ago, a policeman stopped me, and I didn’t have my resident card. I’m not afraid, but the policeman is so angry. He starts to shout. I look at him directly”—she raises her hand to her face and makes a V with her fingers, pointing at each eye—“I look at him and say, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I’m legal. I have all my papers at home.’ I know if he arrests me, he will be in trouble, because I have done nothing wrong.” She speaks low but with a holy intensity. “But now I carry my card with me all the time.”
* * * *
Drive an hour directly south of Tucson, and you come to the small town of Nogales, Arizona, at which there is a wall eighteen feet high. On the other side of the wall is the town of Nogales, Sonora. The wall goes on, with gaps, for more than six hundred miles, in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Most of it is in Arizona. Like a river, it takes different forms along its course. More closely guarded here, lower there, deadlier elsewhere. In Nogales, it is great vertiginous rust-colored iron bars spaced just close enough to prevent even a child’s head from getting through.
Looking through the fence, I see two kids in white and green school uniforms waiting for the bus. They are standing in front of a freshly painted house. Nogales, Sonora, looks, if not prosperous, not desperately poor. The bus arrives. They get on. It leaves. At my feet is a small bar of rusted iron, a heavy rectangular ingot about a half inch square and seven inches long: a piece of the wall. I pick it up and put it in my bag. The wall is not extensive in Texas, and it stops short of the most inhospitable parts of the desert in Arizona. Those who wish to cross on foot are compelled to walk around the wall. Many do. It’s a quick two- or three-day trek in ideal circumstances. It is much longer for those who get lost. Hundreds of people each year die attempting to cross, killed by heatstroke, cold, dehydration, Border Patrol agents, or wild animals. Some of the lost, the “lucky” ones, are found alive. If they are not arrested, they are simply dropped off, with neither money nor help, on the Mexican side of the border.
* * * *
In Nogales, Sonora, in a simple shed-like building close to the checkpoint, Father Martin talks about his organization, the Samaritans. The Samaritans provide shoes and some emergency care for those who have been brought in from the desert. Father Martin speaks of the sorrow of the rescued, and of their wounds (terrible pictures of blistered and burned feet have been put up). Some of the rescued migrants, particularly those who have been separated from their families, will attempt to cross again.
One of the volunteers at Samaritans is Peggy, a blond American woman in her late fifties or early sixties. She drives down from her ranch in Arizona weekly to work here. She is a retiree and had worked as a nurse in Oregon. She more closely fits the profile of those who fear undocumented immigrants: white people, old people, retired people. What she says when I ask her to describe Arizona’s situation surprises me.
“It’s a race war. They just don’t like the Mexicans.”
“Is that true? Most people would hesitate to say that.”
“What else could it be?”
* * * *
Through narrow darkness, through scrub forests and rocky cliffs, our Elder Brother brought us across, his name was I’itio. On our setting out from the other side, he turned us into ants. He brought us through narrow darkness and out at Baboquivari Peak into this land. Here we became human again, and our Elder Brother rested in a cave on Baboquivari, and there he rests till this day, helping us.
The land is a maze. You have to be guided through, right from the beginning you had to be guided. The first story in the world is about safe passage.
* * * *
This, too, is my America: people wandering in the desert in fear of their lives. At this very moment they are there. There are people in the desert, a never-ending migration. They die out there because the policy is to let them die (the wall is strategically incomplete) to discourage others from crossing. In their thousands they have died, for the crime of wishing to be in America or the crime of wishing to return.
* * * *
In Tucson I go out to dinner with Roberto Bedoya, an eloquent and thoughtful man who runs the city’s arts council. “There are three ways of making a space,” he says, in the middle of our multifaceted conversation. “Through systems, through arguments, and through poetics.” After dinner, he drives me out to the parking lot of the Casas Adobes supermarket. Here, less than a year earlier, a young man had shot eighteen people and killed six. The U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head, and reported dead, but she had lived. The parking lot is quiet. What do we miss unless we are told? What do we fail to see? Roberto drives me back across the city to the lodge. In spite of the city’s lights, I can see the stars near the horizon.
* * * *
If you go down from Tucson by a southwesterly route, you come to the border at Sasabe. To our right is Tohono O’odham land. The sacred peak of Baboquivari has a changing profile with each passing minute as we go down the narrow road, like a face turning around to look at you. I am with a group of artists brought down by an organization called CultureStrike. The land is dry, covered with small hardy trees, shrubs, brown grass, and the saguaro cactus. (The saguaro, native to the Sonoran Desert, has always been for me a shorthand for the Southwest.) There is an element of “come and see what is being done in your name” in this journey.
At Sasabe, under the high brown wall that rises and falls with the variegated terrain, officers have set up targets for shooting practice. Their M16s shatter the air of the quiet crossing point. We present our passports, and cross the border from Sasabe into the small Mexican community of El Sasabe. There are kids playing here (the gunfire of the M16s from the American side still audible), and a pair of thin horses graze in a field. We are taken to a small bungalow to listen to Grupos Beta give a presentation. Grupos Beta is a sort of Mexican cognate of the U.S. Border Patrol: a federally funded uniformed service, mandated to work along the border. But Grupos Beta does not prevent people from migrating; it aims only to help them. It provides medical help, search and rescue services, water stations on the Mexican side, and up to three days of temporary housing. And this is what they talk about during the presentation, sidestepping any questions about the drug trade. In the office is a large map of the border and the Sonoran Desert. One red dot for each death, the officer says. The map is a field of proliferating color, like something growing out of control in a petri dish.
When we return to the border point, the shooting has stopped. The wall spins away into the distance like an unspooling length of ribbon. In the grass near the inspection post, on the Mexican side, someone has planted two white crosses. The large one lists at a forty-five-degree angle. On the smaller one, I can make out the word “mujeres.” The man who takes my passport has on a tag that reads “OFFICER BAXTER.” I ask him about the work of the Border Patrol. He has a ready answer: “The Mexican government doesn’t care. They are not doing their share of enforcement. They need to make their country good so that people don’t need to come over here.”
The majority of migrant deaths happen in the Tucson sector, around two hundred each year. Arizona’s legislature and its law enforcement are notorious—or, to some, admirable—for their aggression toward recent immigrants. Racial profiling is legal, and there are initiatives to expunge Mexican-American studies from public high schools. This aggression is also there on the federal level. President Obama has deported people at a greater rate than any of his predecessors. The deportation rate has been kept up, even after the president offered amnesty to undocumented residents who came to the United States as children. The horror of sudden familial division is something experienced by thousands of people in the United States every month. Human rights activists in Tucson organize on several fronts.
The organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos serves as a local focal point for some of these acts of resistance. They work on gathering information, organizing protests, documenting abuse, doing legal work, and offering direct aid to migrants. They also work in partnership with other organizations. CultureStrike, which involves creative people in immigration policy, is one. The faith-based group No More Deaths, which provides humanitarian assistance, is another. I attend a meeting of No More Deaths one evening in the basement of Tucson’s St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. It is a group of about fifteen, most of them white, and most middle-aged or older. It feels like a classic church missions group, with an air of welcome to visitors. After a moment of silence in memory of the dead, they discuss a strategy to replenish drinking stations on the American side of the border.
At the Tucson office of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, I speak with Kat Rodriguez and Isabel Garcia, two of its leaders. Isabel is also a Pima County public defender, and has been prominent for decades in the fight against inhumane immigration policies. She tells me about one of the men who died in the desert, a man named René Torres Carvajal, a father of five. His body was never found. Many of those most desperate to return after deportation are people whose lives are here, whose entire families are here. Kat shows me the storeroom, with a large pile of white crosses made by volunteers, for use in a memorial procession on Día de los Muertos. The crosses are marked either with the name of someone who died or “desconocida,” “desconocido,” unknown. Desconocido, desconocido, desconocida, desconocido, desconocida, desconocida, desconocido, desconocido, desconocido: to infinity, it seems.
“The visibility of groups like No More Deaths is important for our work,” Isabel says. “In 2005, two young white men were arrested for rescuing a migrant, and it was a big story. Because they look like the people who consider themselves the real Americans. We need a lot of education in this country. People have opinions, but they are ignorant of what’s going on.”
“Ignorant and maybe also desensitized?”
“People have to be desensitized,” Kat says, “to allow the kind of horrible death that happens to someone like René. If you really confronted it, it would be unbearable. If a dog died like that, there would be an uproar.”
“Our friends—the unions, the churches, the politicians—have let us down, they’re the ones who make this happen,” Isabel says. “They are afraid and don’t want to deal with root cause. They don’t want to deal with the six million jobs NAFTA took. They don’t want to think about American intervention in Central America and all the refugees that caused. We paid for that army to be persecuting its own people. And our ‘war on drugs’ is going to cause more refugees.”
I ask them to tell me about the penalties for those who are arrested.
Kat says, “Illegal entry is up to 180 days, and they are the more fortunate ones.”
Isabel says, “It’s two to twenty years in prison for reentry: reentry is a felony. All these people are relabeled as criminals. Definition of criminal: drug dealers, violent offenders, and ‘repeat immigration offenders.’ So they sweep them up with a few actual criminals, send them to prison, and the prisons make money. Obama gives this speech in El Paso: ‘We have to enforce the law.’ How come they don’t enforce the law on Wall Street?”
“And once you get branded as a criminal,” Kat says, “no one is going to want to defend you. The American people just think: well, they are drug barons and rapists. They don’t know ‘criminal’ more often means someone who committed immigration offenses.”
I wonder if, for the 11 million who are undocumented now, amnesty would be the answer.
“It wouldn’t be the answer,” Kat says. “It would be a start. People want to go home: those conditions have to be addressed.”
“These neoliberal trade agreements that are creating poverty have to stop,” Isabel says. “What we want is comprehensive reform. We’ve got to address root cause, and we have to recognize these people who are already working in this country. And a third thing, just as important: we have to demilitarize the border.”
“And the bodies that are found in the desert: can you tell me your role in getting those bodies identified?”
“Kat gets these calls. ‘My brother crossed here five weeks ago, can you help me find him?’”
“And I have to ask them difficult questions,” Kat says, nodding. “Did he have any broken bones? Birthmarks? When he laughed, did you notice metals? A silver filling? And I can feel them imagining their lost brother laughing. When I speak to people, I never use the past tense. I say, ‘What color are his eyes?’ not ‘What color were his eyes?’”
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office depends on the information Coalición de Derechos Humanos provides. They have a relationship of trust with the community. The government doesn’t. Kat shows me René’s cross and tells me that his sister comes here to visit it.
“You said some of these crosses are for people of unknown gender. How come?”
“Sometimes the remains are too dispersed,” she says. “The men can be small. In the absence of a pelvis, it’s hard to tell man from woman.”
“But people keep looking.”
“Who do you know who would ever stop looking for their loved ones?”
As I leave, a woman in a green shirt comes into the office, and Kat says: “That is René’s sister.” A woman returning again and again to the only place she can, worrying a grief bare.
* * * *
Later that day, I make a visit to the Tucson Sector Border Patrol headquarters. It is a complex of new buildings on Swan Road, just outside of the city. After I put in my request and after a short wait at the Public Information office, Officer Escalante comes out. “Everybody is interested in what we do here,” he says. “We get a lot of requests.”
“There’s no one I could talk to, even briefly?”
A wasted visit. The taxi driver who takes me back into town from Swan Road is named Al. He is jovial and bearded, and looks like Dumbledore.
“We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us. We’ve always been here. This business of trying to keep people out: in the end it’s futile.”
“What do you think the government should do?”
“I think every border in the world should be knocked down, and let people go wherever the hell they want. If people want to come here and be respectful of our ways, then we should be welcoming. It’s not poor people coming through the border. You have to pay the coyote, what, six thousand dollars? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have six thousand dollars in my pocket I can pay somebody.”
“We are talking about extremely courageous, extremely hardworking people here.”
“People say: they’re taking our jobs. Let me see: the non-English-speaking, undereducated person came here and took your job? Don’t be telling people that. It’s embarrassing.”
“In your view, what’s really going on here?”
“Our policies have created the narco situation down there. Our policies have created the poverty.”
* * * *
Citizenship is an act of the imagination. I was born American, but I also had to learn to become American. I have had to think for myself about “the systems, the arguments, and the poetics” of this complicated country. These thoughts took me deep into the history of the Black Atlantic. My understanding of American experience has mostly been from the point of view of a recent African immigrant. I tried to understand the interconnected networks of trade and atrocities that formed the histories of the cities I’ve known and visited. I’ve brooded on New York City and Lagos, but also New Orleans, Ouidah, Cape Town, Port of Spain, and Rio de Janeiro. In Tucson, witnessing the ongoing crisis in the borderlands, I have to revise my understanding of my country to include this, too.
* * * *
We wander out to the intake area. It is like an emergency room’s loading bay, but simpler. Inside is a small morgue unit; outside, a larger one. Dr. Hess says, “This can take up to 142 bodies.” Greg Hess is the chief medical examiner for Pima County. He is about forty years old, with sandy hair and a friendly face that makes him look about ten years younger than he is. The larger morgue unit contains rows of body bags in metal shelving, stacked in a regular array like a card catalogue, five levels high.
“They are mostly John Does. It’s worse in summer. Border Patrol brings them in, and we work with the folks at Derechos Humanos to try to identify them. We do our best, whether we think the person is American or not. We try to treat them as we would our own family. We mostly fail. People cross the desert without identification, or their personal effects are scattered by coyotes or birds.”
He takes me into the property room, where unclaimed personal effects are kept. The clear plastic bag I examine has typical contents: a red comb, pesos, dollars, a bank card, a damaged birth certificate. Hess points to a locked metal cabinet. It is empty for now, set aside for next year’s unknowns. These deaths will continue.
On my way out, he shows me the anthropology department of the County Medical Examiner’s Office. There are skeletal remains on the table. But this is not a migrant from the desert. It’s from a murder in Pima County itself. There is a bullet hole in the skull, and parts of the skeleton are charred black where someone tried to burn it. The remains of some argument.
“What happens to the unknowns,” I ask, “after every effort to identify them is exhausted?”
“Cremation, and then interment at the county cemetery.”
On the table on which I write this is the piece of iron I took from the base of the wall at Nogales more than two years ago. The officers at Tucson Airport gave me trouble (it was in my hand luggage, and came up strange and solid on the X-ray). I told them it was a memento. They took it out of the bag and examined it, puzzled. Then they let me go, with my piece of the wall.
* * * *
Tucson’s Evergreen Mortuary and Cemetery is a good example of what Elysium might look like. Its quiet lawns and abundant shade, provided by twelve varieties of evergreens, are a tranquil setting for the beloved dead. That much green speaks of repose. But drive a little bit past the serene atmosphere of Evergreen, past some construction work, perhaps stopping to ask for directions. Leave the green behind, drive on into the dusty back section. You have come to quite a different view of the afterlife. This dusty field is the Pima County Cemetery. There is no grass here, a couple of young trees but no shade, and there are no visitors. All there is is dirt. Here and there are plastic flowers swallowed by the dust.
The headstones are sunken, overruled by dirt. There are two columbaria for urns. The wind blows trash across the graves. Some of the grave markers, particularly the older ones, have names and dates on them. Many others are simply marked JOHN DOE, JANE DOE, or UNKNOWN, though each, to someone somewhere, must once have meant the world, and more.
From Known and Strange Things, copyright © 2016 by Teju Cole. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Random House LLC.