Both sides

The day didn’t go quite the way we had planned.

I was with India Aubry of Voices from the Border and we were crossing into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to interview Pancho, a street nurse who cares for migrants waiting south of the border for asylum hearings.

We had directions and our plan was to meet Pancho at one of the migrant shelters to see his work and meet with some of the travelers.

We drove through the Mariposa crossing on the west side of town, and it took a little longer than expected. The immigration official spent quite a while looking through my camera gear. He called over a colleague. Then another. They said we needed a permit. With some broad hand gestures and my woeful Spanish, we thought we understood where to get the permit, but somehow wound up on a toll road heading straight south instead.

India conferred with Pancho on a bad cell connection. I drove on until we reached a toll booth where we could turn around. With no exits, the only choice was to head back into the United States and regroup. It was the shortest trip to Mexico I had ever made but we had burned up almost two hours of our afternoon. We were running out of time to visit the migrant shelter, but I still wanted to meet with Pancho.

I suggested we could interview Pancho through the wall. I could pass him a microphone and talk through the grating, but it was a windy and dusty afternoon and I worried about the sound quality.

Pancho suggested we could try the DeConcini crossing and he could park just a block away from the gate in his ambulance. We could sit inside, masked, and be out of the wind. So we did. We walked through this time. No inspection of the camera bag. No permit needed. And we sat parked next to the wall, talking about his work with people who longed to get to the other side.

I’ll share the interview in a future post, but the message that stuck with me was Pancho’s determination to change the moment of the migrants. Some of the issues were so big, he said, that it was hard to imagine how to solve them. He couldn’t change the laws. He couldn’t change the migrant’s circumstances. So instead, he worked to change their moment, in hopes that it would ripple out. And that was enough.

As we finished the interview and stepped out of the ambulance, a crowd was coming down the street toward us. They held signs. They chanted. Pancho explained it was a migrant protest. We hadn’t made it to the shelter, but the migrants had made it to us.

“Can we go look?” I asked?

“You are free here,” Pancho said. “They want you to see them. They want you to take their pictures.”

It was Tuesday, January 19, the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration, and the migrants wanted to be heard. They held signs telling how many days they had been waiting for an asylum hearing to enter the United States. 320 days. 409 days. 425. 511. 706 days waiting.

We followed the protesters down the road and along the border wall, just past a memorial for Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, the teenager who was shot and killed in 2012 by U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Schwartz.

Schwartz had said he was defending himself because the boy had been throwing rocks over the wall. Schwartz fired 16 rounds. Ten of them hit Rodriguez in the back. Schwartz was charged for the killing but acquitted. A bullet hole remained in the wall above the wrought iron cross that marked the spot where Rodriguez died.

Pancho knew several of the migrants in the protest and we had a few moments to talk, to hear their stories, to take their portraits.

The wall on the American side was raw metal. Dark rusted slats jutting toward the sky, concertina wire circling the tops. Stark. Functional. Institutional. On the southern side, art softened the edges. Graffiti. Protest messages. Wooden crosses leaned against the metal. Sculptures challenged the foreboding structure and the institutions that had built it.

“Our dreams of justice,” one message read, “No wall can stop it.”

It all unfolded quickly, and then it was time to go. I had made a portrait of Pancho in his ambulance, but I wanted to shoot a second version of him, through the wall. So India and I walked back to the gate. The return line was short, but slow. A woman with her young daughter pleaded for entry, but she was told they had the wrong papers. There were tears. Distress. Confusion. I thought about my own (much smaller) challenge at the Mariposa crossing, trying to navigate a system I didn’t understand, through a language I didn’t know. The little bit of this woman’s story I could gather, her husband was in the states. She had visited before. She had always used these papers but for some reason today, they didn’t work.

We held up our passports and passed through the turnstyle. The woman and her daughter did not.

We went to the U.S. side of the wall, opposite of where the ambulance had parked, to look for Pancho, but he had gone. Our crossing had taken too long. His phone had been misplaced and we had no way to let him know.

And then, just before we left, a teenage boy approached the wall and called through to the other side. A teenage girl appeared and they both pressed up to the wire grate between the posts to visit.

“Is she your girlfriend?” I asked. “Sister?”

“Cousin,” the boy replied.

“Can I take a few pictures of your visit?”


I gave them a card with my website and told them if they sent me an email I would send them the image.

Each face a story. A human. A drama in the midst of unfolding. What a difference a human drawn line on the ground can make. What a difference the geography of your birth can impose.

There are more stories coming. I’ll need to process. I’ll need to edit. But while I am here, I mostly want to take time to listen. There’s much to learn.

6 thoughts on “Both sides

  1. Beautifully written, John. And the images, poignant. So sad. Some stories you absorb and carry with you more than others, I’m sure. You’ve put yourself in the midst of some big ones in the last year. Thank you for helping us understand.

  2. “What a difference the geography of your birth can impose.”
    This is so true. Thanks, John, for reminding us all of the blessings of birth in the U.S. May we all learn more grace and tolerance.

  3. Thank you for taking the time from your listening to share with those of us who can’t get there to hear for ourselves.

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