Borders/Embargoes, I


“When you tell a story no one else tells anymore , you say: ‘I invented this, it’s mine.’ But what you’re really doing is remembering…what the memory of your forefathers left in your blood….”

Ariel Dorfman, “Myth as Time and Language [in Miguel Angel Asturias’ Men of Maize]”


In the moonlight what appeared first were the empty shoes, which seemed to have walked across the hot shifting sands alone. Then the tattered clothes, draped across the broad, bristling arms of the cacti like charred garlands, appeared.  Behind the cacti was the low tree under which a girl and her father discovered the incinerated bodies of three men who had paused to rest in the shade, grown lethargic from lack of water, then delusional, and died. The girl could not look away from the bones gleaming in the moonlight, or the figure in the middle, reaching out to her, offering her something in the palm of his hand.

The girl felt her father emerging from the darkness, his arms wrapping protectively around her, pulling her away from the strange tableau. He pulled, and she followed, watching through her child eyes as the sands under her feet shifted, forming hills, then dunes she had to cross quickly, as quickly as her father demanded. She imagined sinking into the hot sand, disappearing, emerging again and always near the base of the tree, where the three men had come to rest. Hurry, her father said. They had to catch up with the others. He knew it was difficult, but she had to try harder.

Sometime after the girl and her father crossed the moonlit landscape, the three incinerated men were discovered by a few good Samaritans, the sort of fools who left plastic gallon jugs of water along the northward passage from Mexico. Before calling the authorities, the Samaritans knelt before the bodies in prayer. As one of them explained in far too much detail to the local television news reporter, there were no words to express the injustice of dying in pursuit of a better life.

Tell us how you feel, the reporter prodded. The Samaritan hesitated and then explained how he had recoiled in horror, how he had approached the bodies, how he had found in the mummified hands of one of the men, hands that reminded him of his own father’s, a perfectly intact photograph of a little girl in a white dress with a blue ribbon sash and the smiling woman who held her. The reporter flashed her saddest, most knowing look at the camera.

After the edited version of the interview ran on the local news, the public responded with what some described as an understandable degree of shock and awe. The Samaritans, who had been interrogated for hours by the authorities, were rounded up and placed in custody. Hearing of their arrest, the same television reporter did a piece on religious fanatics, running the Samaritans’ mug shots repeatedly on the six- and eleven-o’clock news, and generously helping the viewing community to formalize the terms of the debate: “What do you think?” the reporter asked, her brow studiously furrowed for the camera. “Was it okay to help illegals break the law? We want to hear from you, our viewing public.” Eventually that public reached a consensus, as the polling data clearly showed: providing water to illegals did not constitute humanitarian relief. Everyone had their own problems. The Samaritans had aided and abetted a criminal. It was a matter of law, and the law was clear.

After their release, the Samaritans started receiving death threats. Eventually, they had to stop a practice deemed blatantly unpatriotic by a well-known local radio personality. “Those people!” he sputtered. “They shouldn’t be trespassing out there anyway.” His argument (that real Americans were tired of hearing about illegals, that those men who had died in the desert had made a choice, however foolish) was indisputable—not that too many people with microphones tried.

No one seemed to remember the fact that the terrain those men died crossing had once been their ancestral lands, theirs before an illegal war of aggression against Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. Though if those historical facts had been brought up, the local radio personality would have had a ready response: whatever happened that long ago was history—a matter of no consequence. He might have recalled the illegal Atlantic crossing of his maternal great-grandfather, who was known to have killed the man whose wife he coveted and eventually married. He might have, but he didn’t.