TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Alvaro Enciso plants three or four crosses each week in Arizona’s desert borderlands, amid the yellow-blossomed prickly pear and whip-like ocotillo, in honor of migrants who died on the northbound trek.
Each colorful wooden memorial denotes where a set of bones or a decomposing body was found. Over eight years, the artist has marked more than 1,000 locations across public lands dotted with empty black plastic water jugs and camouflage backpacks beneath circling turkey vultures.
“Anything out here can kill you,” Enciso said. “A blister, a snake, not enough water.”
Protecting migrants and honoring the humanity of those who died on the perilous trail is a kind of religion in southern Arizona where spiritual leaders four decades ago founded the Sanctuary Movement, a campaign to shelter Central Americans fleeing civil war, and scores of volunteers carry on their legacy today.
Faith-based groups working in migrant activism run the gamut from the Tucson Samaritans, which leaves lifesaving caches of water, food and other provisions in the remote wilderness, to Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which operates a shelter, to Methodists providing asylum-seeking families with legal aid and a place to stay, to name a few.
Enciso’s art project, “Where Dreams Die,” fits squarely in that spiritual tradition, though he believes there’s nothing overtly religious in memorializing the dead.
On a recent day he placed a golden cross where the bones of an unknown male were found Sept. 24, 2020, amid the jumping cholla cactus. The cause and approximate year of the man’s death, about a mile north of state Highway 86, are undetermined.
“Can you imagine what their families go through, not knowing what happened to them?” Enciso said.
Volunteer Michele Maggiora kissed a fist of fresh sage and faced east, south, west and north, then held the fist down for the Earth Mother and up for the Sky Father in prayer.
“I feel like we have to recognize that something happened here,” Maggiora said.
Such activism has roots in the 1981 founding of the Sanctuary Movement, which spread to a dozen Tucson churches and synagogues and more than 500 U.S. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations, drawing on the ancient tradition of protecting people inside houses of worship.
Now 81 and retired, the Rev. John Fife III was pastor at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church back then when his Quaker friend Jim Corbett told him Central Americans were fleeing to the U.S. to escape violence back home.
The men recalled the Book of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
Soon Fife and Corbett, who died in 2001, were smuggling Central American migrants into the U.S. and sheltering them in their homes, despite their wives’ protests. The church hosted some 13,000 asylum seekers in the ’80s, with up to 100 people sleeping on the floor on a given night.
“I felt that if I didn’t help, I would have to resign as pastor,” Fife said recently in Southside’s worship hall, which was modeled after an indigenous ceremonial structure known as a kiva.
Fife was convicted in 1986 of violating U.S. immigration laws and served five years’ probation, but that didn’t deter him.
In 2000 he helped create Humane Borders, which maintains water stations with 55-gallon (208-liter) plastic blue barrels accompanied by a blue flag visible from a distance. Two years later he co-founded Tucson Samaritans, a ministry of Southside, which along with partner organizations in Ajo and Green Valley-Sahuarita sends volunteers into the wilderness to leave water and food. Fife also had a hand in the 2004 creation of No More Deaths, which staffs remote aid camps for weeks at a time.
“We couldn’t stop what we were doing, because people’s lives were on the line,” Fife said.
Many of those volunteering with the groups are of retirement age, like Gail Kocourek.
Every week the Tucson Samaritan volunteer drives donations of clothes and food to Casa de la Esperanza, a new daytime migrant help center just south of the border in the Mexican town of Sasabe where about 50 migrants a day can get a meal, a shower and clothes. They usually sleep at hotels or guest houses in town.
“I don’t think anyone deserves to die for trying to make a better life for their family,” Kocourek said.