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Thirst

You May Never See the People Who Bring the Season's Bounty From a California Desert, or How Many Die Trying.

November 17, 2002|Susan Straight | Susan Straight's last piece for the magazine was about raising kids without risk. Her novel "Highwire Moon" was recently released in paperback by Anchor Books.

I went to the desert recently, to the bottom of California, to a world most Americans never see, though they eat the grapes, lemons, grapefruit, fish and dates grown in Riverside and Imperial counties. I have been coming here all my life, to camp as a child in the Anza-Borrego, to visit family, or just to see all the food that comes from this naturally barren landscape. I drove south toward Indio, the same route I follow every year, leaving Riverside behind and entering the desert. I always linger in the date groves of Indio and Thermal, then the vineyards of Mecca, skirting the Salton Sea, and finally head for Calexico, the last place in California. I come to remember where this bounty is grown and touched, and always, every year, I marvel at our ability to defer the truth, which is all around me, around us.

We face each other here, Mexico and California, in the expanse of sand and cactus and mountains that migrants cross to enter the richest nation on earth. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, more than 519 illegal immigrants died in the San Diego and El Centro sectors between October 1997 and September 2002. They died of dehydration or they froze, they drowned or died in vehicle accidents. Operation Gatekeeper, begun in 1994 to seal off the area around Tijuana and San Ysidro, has forced migrants toward this desert.

Often abandoned by their smugglers in the canyons and arroyos of remote mountains, or in the vast expanse of land around the Salton Sea, they wander the hot sand, shelter under mesquite trees and drink their own urine in desperation. Between October 1998 and September of this year, 1,447 migrants were rescued in those two sectors, most by Border Patrol agents and some by Americans and Mexican Americans searching for lost souls on their own. Those rescued are sent back across the border, of course. But they always try to cross again. In fall heat reaching more than 100 degrees, they head here to harvest the ripening lemons, grapefruit and dates. They sometimes find the water tanks concerned Americans have placed in strategic locations to save them. Or they sometimes find the tanks empty, since other Americans, angry at the migrants, may have vandalized the tanks.

Some don't die of thirst--they drown in the All-American Canal, a wide blue-gray rush in cement banks on which it is impossible to gain a handhold. The canal, which parallels the Mexican border from Calexico into Arizona, brings water to the crops the migrants are trying to pick, to load onto pallets and trucks, then to unload at warehouses, or maybe to cook in restaurants.

In the desert, almost every face along the highway was brown: vanloads of pickers, truckers moving tomatoes and grapes and citrus, and men driving dusty old American cars. The date palm groves outside Indio were as serene as cathedrals, the dangling golden fruit protected by paper bags attached by men in cherry-pickers. Along the grapevines near Mecca, where the harvest was on, hundreds of bandannaed faces and baseball caps moved up and down the rows. At Niland, tilapia grew in ponds tended by workers feeding the fish and cleaning the water.

I passed the brackish expanse of the Salton Sea, where my former husband's relatives used to fish for corvina. His people, refugees themselves from the economic deprivation of Mississippi, settled in Calexico in 1950 because that's where their car broke down, as family legend goes. They laughed at the primary crop there back then: cotton. Some of their descendants were among the first black U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Near the border, I stared out at the shimmering sand and ghostly smoke trees. Before 1994, hundreds of people scaled fences and walls nightly in Tijuana and San Ysidro, all around San Diego and in other cities along the border. Now, hundreds move through the mirages hovering above the asphalt and creosote. I looked at the canal and thought, "Water is inexorable, and will find another way."

Americans don't see the migrants. I have heard people react to migrant deaths, or numbers of migrant crossings, or reports of Mexicans returning home to vote, by saying, "Where do these people hide? I never see them." They haven't seen the hills outside Riverside, where my mother will move into a new development, where Mexican men pour the concrete, nail the drywall, and crawl on the roofs to lay tile. My children, with their brown skin and long black hair, always notice Mexican immigrants. They are often mistaken for Mexican children, admired in Spanish by female hotel workers when we stay overnight, smiled at tenderly by restaurant workers when we are standing in a parking lot where cooks and buspeople are taking a break.

I can speak Spanish, not well but politely, and they tell me they are from Zacatecas and Michoacan and Nayarit. They tell me about their kids, or where their families live now. We talk about the weather. Then they go back inside.

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