I get homesick when I look at pictures of the Sonoran desert. The gray-green Saguaro cacti, reaching their limbs past the distant, jagged mountain peaks toward a radiant blue sky, feel like family. Home is a white and gray tent, small enough to look natural among the desert brush and stones.

I was born in Tucson, Arizona, but by the time I was old enough to know what a home was, I had already moved to Washington, D.C., where I grew up. So proud was I of the camping I’d done as a toddler that I used to tell my elementary school friends I was born in a tent so close to the Mexican border that my parents never knew for sure which country I was actually born in.

When I was five or six, my father taught me, while reading me a book about the desert, that the only place in the world Saguaro cacti grow is Arizona, California and Mexico. I thought, for a long time, that meant the cacti grew in clusters, that they stopped at the border and restarted a few miles away. I figured that Arizona’s border was sealed off, like a hockey arena; that on one side of the plexiglass was Arizona and all its wonders and on the other was the rest of the world. Needless to say, I was wrong. The place where Saguaro cacti grow is really just one big area, similar in shape to Florida. The main concentration of cacti is divided up pretty evenly between Arizona and Mexico so that if one were to walk through the Sonoran desert and let their mind wander, they might accidentally walk from the United States to Mexico.

The first time my family went back to visit Arizona after the big move was when I was in second grade. We stayed a few days with friends in Tucson and then headed to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for a few days of hiking and camping under the huge desert sky. The monument is a compelling spot: It’s nestled right up against the Mexican border, in some of the most rugged desert in the United States. It glows orange in the morning and a deep magenta in the evening as the sun rises and sets, reflecting off the grays and browns and greens of the landscape.

We went in the spring, the best time of year to camp in Arizona, and pitched a tent amid a blanket of orangey wildflowers that dotted the desert floor. After our first night under the stars, my dad woke up early to take one of his usual long, desert walks. This particular morning, my older sister Olivia and I decided to tag along too. I padded carelessly across the desert sand, my lime green sneakers crunching against the gravelly desert floor. It was a perfect Arizona morning, exactly like how I’d “remembered” based on the stories and pictures in my head from family lore and memories. The jagged mountains looked like they had been etched into the sky and the air felt so clean and clear, it was like a sip of water.

Much to my delight, my dad let us wander slightly off the path until we discovered a small ravine that had been eroded out of the rock and dust by water some hundreds of years before. Ever the explorers, Olivia and I were intrigued. Attracted to the terrain and intriguing depression we climbed carefully down it, examining the rough boulders and rock faces as we went. Olivia took the lead and I followed, my dad helping me find firm footing amid the grit.

“Hey! Someone littered here!” Olivia suddenly called out, once she had reached the bottom. My dad and I looked up to find her squatting close to the ground, prodding at what looked like a candy wrapper. My dad looked surprised. Most of the people that camped in a location this hard to find loved and respected the Earth enough to bring their trash with them when they left. So when Dad and I reached the bottom too, we went over to investigate. It seemed that whoever had been there had used the ravine as their personal trash can. There were several pieces of paper and some empty plastic bottles of orange juice thrown haphazardly onto the ground under a Palo Verde tree.

“It’s in another language,” Olivia reported, with a piece of paper with funny looking words on it in her hands.

My dad peered at it curiously, before deducing the language was Spanish. “It’s likely that this trash was left here by Mexican immigrants that were probably walking across the border from Mexico,” he said.

“Why don’t they take a plane, or drive?” my nine year-old sister asked, not missing a beat.

“Well, these people aren’t allowed to come into our country because they haven’t gotten permission,” my dad explained, not mincing his words. “But they probably can’t find a job in Mexico. A lot of the people that come here illegally would rather stay at home with their families, but need some way to make money and they can’t do that in Mexico, so they come here.”

“So it’s not allowed?” Olivia probed.

“No, it’s not.”

“Is it against the law?”

“It is.”

“So the trash was left by bad guys?”

My dad paused a second. Olivia and I stared at him, and then at the pile of trash at our feet, in wonder. “Well, it’s complicated,” my dad said.

Many parents would have left the conversation here, leaving the discussion about illegal immigrants for another day, but my dad went on, “Yes, it is technically illegal for them to come into the U.S. this way, but they are not bad people. They want a better life in America, for themselves and for their families, just like so many people that are already here do. So you can understand why they walk. They are not doing anything bad or hurting anyone.”

That was enough of an explanation for Olivia and she seemed to be out of questions, but she, like I, seemed to be having trouble wrapping her mind around how much it must take to leave one’s home and family. This is something that I now, years of experience and education later, realize I will never be able to understand. I had listened to the whole conversation, wide-eyed and now couldn’t stop myself from gawking at what the immigrants had left behind. Whose hands had touched those pieces of paper? Whose mouths had sipped the last bit of orange juice out of the plastic bottles?

For the first time, I was able to see the desert around me as a barrier or a challenge, rather than just as a vacation sanctuary. I thought about how hot the desert gets during the day, about the rattlesnakes and scorpions that scared me so much I had to have my mom shake out my shoes for me in the morning. I wondered if the immigrants had a tent, and pictured them sleeping out in the open, at the mercy of the dry lightning strikes and howling coyotes. I wondered what could possibly be so bad about their home to make them want to leave everything and everyone to come to the United States. Where were their families? How far had they walked? Didn’t their feet hurt?

We continued puttering around among the cacti and scrubby trees, but these new thoughts stuck in my head. When we got back to the campsite, my sister and I tripped over our sentences, each wanting to be the one to explain to our mom what we had seen and what we had learned. There was excitement in our voices and wonderment in our eyes, but in the back of my throat, there was a tightening of concern for these people and the loved ones they’d left behind. I never forgot that scene in the arroyo and those candy wrappers — evidence of other lives doing the best they could.

A couple mornings later it was time to head home. With the sun getting warm again, we packed up camp and my sister and I climbed back up into the rental car to head back to civilization.

I was half asleep against the window when my sister squawked, “LOOK!” My eyes flew open and I craned my neck out the window to see a big army-green tinted bus along the side of the road. Sitting in the dirt next to it was a group of men, with brown, dark hair and dirty clothes. My parents exchanged a look.

“What are those people doing there?” Olivia asked.

“Remember that trash we saw in the desert?” my dad said gently. My sister and I nodded, wordlessly. “It’s possible that the men who left it there are the same ones sitting right there. If it’s not those same people, it is probably people like them, who have also crossed the border to try to make money to send back to their families. It seems like they are getting picked up by Border Patrol and they will likely be sent back to Mexico.”

My sister and I sat in silence, twisting ourselves around to stare out the back window until the men and the bus faded into the distance. I still remember some of their faces. They looked tired like they hadn’t slept in days and maybe hadn’t slept well in years. None of them seemed particularly surprised. Rather, they looked blank. It was like what they had been running from had finally, inevitably caught up to them. It was very apparent to me: They were simply waiting.

For the first time, I saw the faces attached to the statistics. I had seen the evidence of their journey, had even tried to imagine what it might be like to walk all day under the blistering sun. I had caught a glimpse of the end of the first leg of their journey. I imagined them being picked up like pawns on a chessboard and placed back in Mexico, right back at the starting line. I wondered if they’d try again and if they did, if they’d be caught once more and stuck in an endless cycle. And while I’d seen enough to think of the immigrants as human, I knew that I’d only seen snapshots, that I didn’t know the full extent of their suffering and didn’t know any other pieces of their lives. I wondered if I would do the same thing if I hadn’t been born in this country, if I’d walk the world for myself and the people I love, even if it was breaking the laws, to find a place I could call home.

My parents have always taught me that laws are to be followed. Even today as I near my twenties, I am still told to only cross at crosswalks, to stop at all stop signs and red lights and to read every legal document completely and follow it to a T. So it took me a long time to figure out how my parents could excuse these people for breaking the law.

The pursuit of comfort, happiness and safety for one’s family is a universal pursuit. Before there were countries and states, there were just territories, and before that, there was just land. And while of course, it’s not as simple anymore as letting people come and go between countries as they please, this idea, of one Earth, home to anyone and anything grown from it, is one that in some cases comes before politics and legislation. For me, this was a beginning to an understanding that not everything is black and white. There is a vast and complicated gray area involved with almost every issue.

My dad had told me, back at the ravine in Organ Pipe National Monument that the immigrants were not bad people, but he didn’t have to. I saw it on their faces as we drove by. I didn’t see, the way some people seem to see malice, greed or laziness. All I saw were humans, walking from one side of the Sonoran desert to the other, in the search of a home.


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