Guest commentary by Elizabeth Smith
In the current climate of fear and violence, one man in Tucson, Arizona, continues to do what he has done every week for the past two years: constructing crosses.
These crosses, constructed with simple wood and painted with whatever color has been donated, are adorned with objects found in the desert. One cross may have pieces of an old rusty tuna can. Another, an old Altoids box. One might have miscellaneous shreds of metal that have been revitalized with a little hammering and some careful painting. Though the adornments may differ, the crosses have one thing in common: They will mark the place an undocumented migrant has died in the desert.
Alvaro Enciso is an artist and humanitarian who ventures into the Sonoran Desert each week as a member of Tucson Samaritans. Rarely alone, Alvaro is joined by other volunteers who are also drawn to the act of honoring lost lives. After nearly two years, the weekly routine is almost perfected. Alvaro selects the four locations for the day, which have been organized on detailed maps and duplicated in the GPS, and then the group sets out to find them. Sometimes, they are easy to find. Often, they require driving on rough roads and hiking through cacti and washes. Once the GPS indicates that the correct spot has been located, Alvaro and the group set down their supplies. It is time to see what can be learned about the person whose remains were found at that location. Thanks to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner-Forensic Science Center, the GPS provides what few details are known about the person. One may learn the person’s name, how old he or she was and how he or she died; but sometimes, nothing more is learned than the date the remains were discovered.
Alvaro carves out the earth to make room for the cross as it is placed under the hot sun. Cement fills the hole, and water and small rocks are added. As the cement begins to set, dirt is packed around the cross and large rocks are added to give it support.
Though each person’s motivations for participating in this act may differ, it is always clear to me that this is a sacred ritual.
Many families who bid their loved ones farewell will never see them again. And sometimes, they never learn what happened to them. Many migrants are desconocido, unknown, but they are not forgotten. Thanks to Alvaro and his companions, their lives are honored in the same desert that betrayed them.
As the Christmas holiday approaches, we know we cannot linger at the manger. Soon we will leave once again with Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night as they flee violence and seek safety in a new land. And by doing so, we remember that stories of desperate migration continue to happen all around the world today. Children are lost at sea and women die in the desert.
For Alvaro, the act of placing crosses is about more than immigration. It is about dignity and respect. It is about honoring the human struggle. “These are our neighbors dying in our very own backyard. I think people want to honor those who have died, even those we know nothing about, because they want to understand,” he says.
May Alvaro’s witness challenge all of us this season to seek understanding and compassion as we cross borders with the Holy Family into Egypt.
ELIZABETH SMITH serves as parish associate at The Holy Way Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, where she lives with her husband Bart. Her love of the Southwest was solidified during her time living on the U.S./Mexico border in 2006-2007 as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV). Elizabeth enjoys volunteering with ministries that serve immigrants at various points in their journeys. She is also passionate about telling stories through images and is beginning to share that passion through her new photography ministry called Kirk and Community.