We left before the sun came up to meet Alvaro. It had snowed the night before and the roads were slow and icy.
“Meet us in Amado,” he said. “By the big cow horns…you’ll see.”
Alvaro Enciso is a 75-year old Colombian immigrant. He is an artist. He builds crosses and installs them in the Sonoran Desert where migrants have died trying to make the crossing into the United States. He has a list of more than 3,000 sites and he has placed nearly 1,000 crosses so far.
He’s not particularly religious. He’s not particularly political. But he has a heart for those who have given up everything in search of a better life and feels compelled to acknowledge their loss. In his words, he seeks to make the invisible, visible.
Until that day, I had known the name of precisely one immigrant who had died in the desert. Her name was Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros, a 14-year old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert in 2008 when she became ill on the trail and could not keep up with the coyote who guided her and others across the border.
We had listened to Margaret Regan’s book, The Death of Josseline, on the drive to Arizona. The book shares Josseline’s story and delves into the challenges and tragedies that unfold along the border.
Alvaro puts up crosses in the desert every Tuesday. When he invited us to join him the next week, I asked, “Where will you be going?” and he replied, “We are going to put up a cross for a little girl named Josseline.”
As we drove out toward the small town of Arivaca, we stopped at an intersection to meet one more Samaritan, and at the gravel pull off on the side of the road, two border patrol vehicles were parked, with two cold migrants in the back of the truck.
“There were twelve,” the border patrol explained. “They scattered when they saw us, but these two gave up.” They were cold. They had slept outside in the snow, on the ground, the night before. Charlie, the Samaritan we met there had given them granola bars and water. I made eye contact and gave a nod. There was nothing else to offer but a moment of humanity.
It was late January when Josseline died on her journey. The temperature had dropped to near freezing. The night these two migrant men had just experienced had been even colder.
“Probably some people died last night,” Alvaro said.
“Keep an eye out for people as we drive,” Charlie added.
“Will we stop?” I asked.
“We’re just trying to keep people from dying,” he replied.
The roads were too snowy that day to make it back to Cedar Canyon where Josseline’s body had been found. So we visited three sites that were closer to the road we were on.
The process was simple and quiet. Identify the location with GPS coordinates. Dig a small hole. Dump a bit of concrete mix and water into the hole and stand the cross up straight. Pack in some dirt. Pile rocks at the base. And then Alvaro took a picture.
One of the Samaritans sprinkled sage at the base of the cross. Others looked out across the forbidding landscape. I took my pictures and stood quietly, bearing witness to a simple gesture of humanity.
“They die of cold in the winter,” Alvaro said. “And they die of heat in the summer.”
I was trying to imagine what would make me take such a risk when Alvaro added, “They died trying.”
Alvaro said they would visit Cedar Canyon the next week and even though Karen and I had planned to move on by then, we decided to stay. We met the small group again and drove the rugged tracks back toward Cedar Canyon.
The Samaritans staged gallon jugs of water along the trail and we walked back to the wash where Josseline’s body was found. She died trying to get to her mother in Los Angeles. Had she lived, she would have been the same age as our son, Jordan.
As the border wall was built in some of the urban centers, it pushed migrants and migration routes farther into the wilderness and into more deadly conditions. “They used the desert as a weapon,” Alvaro explained. “They thought the harsh terrain would be a deterrent…but they didn’t consider the determination of desperate people.”
We stood under the vast desert sky. Quiet. There was nothing remarkable about that particular corner of wilderness. But it was the spot where Josseline’s journey had ended thirteen years ago…a young girl alone in the desert, on her way to meet her mom. Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros was the one name I knew who had been lost in the human story that unfolds along the border…and it felt important to be there.