Hugo Rodriguez Ramirez - 41 years old, died 04 - 05
That’s all I know about Hugo, He was 41 years old when he died in the desert about a year ago – sometime between October 2004 and September 2005. I just turned 42 in mid-May, so we were the same age when Hugo died last year. The differences between us probably could not have been more pronounced, and as a result, I am hiking seventy-five miles through the Sonoran Desert as an act of spiritual discipline and remembrance for the thousands who have died on the U.S./Mexico border over the last ten years. And I’m carrying a small, white cross with Hugo’s name on it.
I wonder about his family. As I walk along through the desert, I find myself wondering where he lived. Was he a farmer in a village in the La Condon jungle of Chiapas? Did he live on the outskirts of Mexico City where he worked as a taxi driver, or a high-school teacher, or a construction worker? Maybe he was living in Nogales or Hermosillo, Sonora, and working (like well over a million other Mexicans) in a U.S.-owned factory for about fifty dollars a week in a town where a gallon of milk costs three dollars and fifty cents.
Wherever he lived, and whatever work he was doing, Hugo felt desperate enough to head into the desert. I’ve been out here for three days now. We’ve hiked about thirty miles in temperatures that have been hovering right around one hundred degrees each day. So far, I’ve drunk eight or nine gallons of water – water I drink with the guilty knowledge that there will be a trailer with supplies to refill my water bottle and a handful of fruit or trail mix about every mile and a half or two miles. Dinner and lunch meals are being prepared in Tucson and brought to our campsite each afternoon. Five gallon plastic buckets fashioned into composting toilets and tarps for shade come out of the U-Haul each afternoon when we finish our hike, and my sleeping bag has kept me warn even as the temperatures have dropped forty degrees each night. My route is planned and I have no fear of deportation if I’m discovered. Hugo knew none of these luxuries.
Hugo’s trip is likely to have gone more like this. He is likely to have arrived in Altar, Sonora, about sixty miles south of the southwestern Arizona border, having already contracted with a coyote who committed to smuggle him across the border, probably as part of a group of fifteen or twenty people. It would have cost him between fifteen hundred and two thousand dollars, paid for by borrowing the money at thirty-five percent interest against any property he might have owned – either a house or maybe a small plot of land. If he had no collateral, he might have been fortunate enough to have a family member in the U.S. who agreed to pay for his passage. Failing either of those options, it is quite possible that he sold himself into a form of indentured servitude, committing to pay the coyote with his earnings from a job already arranged for him in the U.S.
In any case, he probably had instructions to go to a private dormitory once he got off the bus in Altar. For a few dollars a night, he might have found refuge in a hostel operated by families that have built an extra room onto their homes or filled their living rooms with crude, plywood bunk-beds (three levels high with no mattresses) in another family’s effort to create a livelihood on yet another small part of the migrant journey. Maybe, though, Hugo ended up at CCAMYN – the Community Center to Support Migrants and the Needy, run by a group of volunteers from the Catholic Church in Altar. They would have taken his basic information, offered medical care and a brief talk on surviving the desert, a hot meal, and a bed and a shower before Hugo headed off the next day.
From there, the dangerous part of Hugo’s journey probably began. He almost certainly traveled north from Altar to “The Brickyard” – a poor neighborhood a few miles south of the little, dusty town of Sasabe, Sonora, located right on the border. That trip probably took place in a van – where he was one of twenty-five to thirty men, women, children and infants who each paid twenty dollars to travel the sandy, rutted, washboard road at breakneck speeds as his van made the two-hour journey. Along the way, he would have stopped by a checkpoint, set up by the Mexican Government’s migrant support agency called “Grupo Beta,” in order to be counted and given last minute counsel about the dangers of the desert crossing. On a recent trip I made down the Sasabe/Altar road, the agents told us that they had counted more than twenty-one hundred migrants headed north that day.
And then, finally, Hugo would have begun the hike in the desert that I began three days ago. Perhaps, as happened with a young man someone in our group encountered yesterday, he couldn’t keep up with his group and eventually was abandoned – left to his own devices with a couple of gallons of water, wandering in the brutally hot, unforgiving Sonoran Desert for a couple more days till his body succumbed to the intense heat and he could no longer survive. Maybe, as often happens, his group scattered when a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead – as one just flew over my own head while I was writing these words. I have met dozens of migrants who became separated from their group in moments like that one.
Maybe Hugo actually managed to stay with his group for the fifty or eighty or one hundred mile hike until they were picked up by their driver, crammed into a Chevy Suburban or the back of a Ford pick-up. It’s quite possible that Hugo made it that far, only to be chased by the Border Patrol at high speeds until the driver rolled the vehicle, or hit someone else, or blew a worn tire. I have been called to the hospital several times over the years to provide pastoral care for the survivors of such accidents.
If Hugo had made it wherever he was going, he would likely have found work – maybe using false papers – within a week of his arrival. Perhaps he would have started out carrying shingles for a roofing crew in Denver, or washing dishes in northern Indiana, or cutting chicken parts in Western Kentucky, or maybe picking tomatoes in Central Florida. He would have moved in with ten or twelve other men where he would have paid twenty-five dollars a week toward his share in a single room with a sink fridge and stove in one corner and a toilet and shower in the other – rented to the group for a total of $800 to $1,000 per month. In any case, he would have started sending half his paycheck home to his family as quickly as possible.
As I walked today, with temperatures hovering near one hundred and five degrees, I thought about Hugo’s family. I realized that I had been thinking mostly about the emotional hole left in their lives by his death. I thought a lot about my own wife and son and how unbearably painful it would be if we were to lose any part of the whole that is our family. What I hadn’t thought much about until today, though, was the reality that Hugo’s family must have already been right on the precarious financial precipice when Hugo made the decision to head into the desert. What happens next to his family? Where will his wife turn to now in order to find the money to feed their children?
It’s been a lot to think about as I’ve walked, and I’ve certainly had plenty of time to think. I’ve tried to carry Hugo’s cross upright, with his name facing me so that I see it as I walk. Toward the end of our second day, I set the cross down next to my daypack beside the road. When I came back after filling up my water bottle, it had been picked up by someone else. Perhaps it was irrational, but I felt a deep sense of loss. There are almost one hundred of us hiking, and well over a hundred crosses – so it seemed kind of silly to try to hunt down and reclaim that particular cross. The next morning at daybreak, though, I rediscovered Hugo’s cross among the haphazard alter of crosses that folks had built as they arrived at the campsite the night before. I reclaimed it, and I find that I am much more careful about keeping an eye on it.
Somehow, it now feels like this is about honoring Hugo’s life and making a commitment to his family that I will see this through, and carry his memory with me as I do so. I’ll remember Hugo’s name long after we finish our trip this week, and that memory will be a reminder that every person who attempts to cross this desert comes with a story, and a family, and a spirit that hovers somewhere in the vague, undefined space that exists between desperation and hope.