Bajo La Misma Luna: My Trip to Tucson, Arizona Part 3

Friday, May 20th

It was a still morning, even warmer than the day before. I ran by two coyotes crossing the street. As I sat on the deck eating breakfast, I listened to the different bird songs and felt my grandmother with me. She had a big bay window in the kitchen that we used to watch all the birds through. Every morning she would fill the bird feeders and as the birds came to eat, she would tell us about the different birds. I remember the bushes so tight together just beyond the bird feeders, my cousins and I would clamber through them on our adventures. We would build forts around her house, using the trees and rocks and boundaries. Once she woke us all up early and told us a pirate had hidden treasure nearby and left us a map. We set out on an all day adventure, following the clues. The pirate had been running from some rival pirates and hidden the treasure in a place they would never find. My grandmother had always wanted to be an archaeologist, so I believed her. When we finally dug up the chest, buried at least a foot underground underneath her deck, we donned our plastic gold necklaces and eye patches and yelled “arrrrr!” One of the aunts filmed us. It was only several years later when I hid behind a chair my grandmother sat in to talk on the phone with someone that I heard the truth, she had planned the whole thing.

Half of our group ventured to Casa Maria this Friday morning, while the rest of us stayed behind to journal and leave for Jumah prayers at the Islamic Center of Tucson. Karin and I searched for parking and smirked- the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center had similar issues. We eventually parked and though we made it to the prayer almost on time, we soon went in search of some new sandals for Karin (no broken sandals in Tucson!). Finally we witnessed the last part of the prayer and met the rest of our group for a discussion with some of the Center’s leaders.

The first thing I learned was that at least two of the leaders were converts to Islam. Many of us commented on how diverse and organized the Center seemed. They noted that the Center served over 5000 people and hosted a variety of classes, activities and gatherings for children and adults. One particular issue we learned about was the high rise apartment building next door. Tenants throw glass bottles toward the Center and a few times, these bottles have almost hit people. Once, a bottle landed less than a foot from a child’s head.

This discussion arose out of a broader thematic question for our group: why does it seem that mainly Christian organizations engage in border justice activities, like water bottle drops? One of our hosts answered that in the first place, combating Islamophobia tends to be the main focus in Islamic Centers. This Center had tried to work with a church to do water bottle drops, but faced intense legal trouble for it. The church they worked with simply received a warning. The idea of “justice” alone is distinct for different faith communities- this also means that responses to injustices will be different. What I see is a type of privilege in this instance- an ability for one faith institution to engage in justice activities that may push legal limits while another is strictly prohibited. Perhaps this is an example of how privilege can be utilized to do good. Would we rather no one drop water bottles?

After our hosts provided us a fantastic and gracious lunch, we returned to the minivans to drive 90 miles to the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center on the Reservation. The reservation sprawls over the southwest of Arizona and continues across the border- and of course, this land belonged to the O’odham long before there was any border. The moment we entered the Reservation, our cell phone service plummeted. All around us was green- treetops, the distant mountain ranges, and crops. We passed a border checkpoint and continued on toward Sells, where we would turn off. Along the way, we noticed a slow procession of cars to our right. A ranger vehicle led, followed by a white pickup with a tall white cross along the back window and a coffin in the bed, and finally another ranger SUV. It seemed as though we drove for hours. After passing through Sells, we turned left onto a tiny dirt road where we followed the directions from the Cultural Center’s representative: head south and the road will curve east, go past a white landmark on your right, and turn on to Rt. 19. Follow the road 12 miles and when you see the water tower on your left, make a left. Miraculously, we made it to the Cultural Center and yet again, our hosts were so gracious to keep the Center open for us past closing time. Jeannette led us through the museum and outside, where we learned about some historic architectural buildings made from cacti ribs. One of us asked why the migra were crawling around the Reservation. “The cartels are big through here”, she said. “You don’t see it through the bushes and trees, but they’re there, and at night, they’re very active.” Some of our group shuddered. We learned further that the Tohono O’odham have experienced much trouble with the border patrol searching their homes and stifling their cultural gatherings. What’s more, the US Mexico border runs right through the Reservation, causing issues within the community as some members are documented US Citizens and some are not, and the divide between those with documents and those without has put great strain on their ability to preserve cultural competency. Jeannette also talked about the hierarchy of family lines within the O’odham. She said, “you see all these plaques with young people who have represented the tribe in DC and other places? They’re always the same kids, same families. Many of the young people would never dream of getting to do these things.”

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On our way back after taking two hours of Jeanette’s time, we began our drive back to Tucson. I wrote this in the car:

We start our drive on a familiar road, Old Ajo Way. It runs all the way through Tucson to the border with the Tohono O’odham nation. As we inch closer the road becomes less populated with gas stations and stores. At one point, I wonder what would happen to us if we got a flat tire. We see a funeral procession crawling on the right shoulder, a small wooden white cross in a pickup truck surrounded by Rangers. All along the road, the Border Patrol zoom past us in white SUVs with green stripes. La Migra. I look to my left at the vast cacti and creosote and notice dust kicked up in the distance. Mountains surround us at various distances. We are quiet, nervous- I hope I can follow the cryptic directions the man on the phone told me. We finally turn left off the highway and see a town. Small haphazard houses sit along the road. We pass a modest mall, a high school, and a district office, all mixed with more nothing. We see a cow and feel lifted. We see the water tower, our land marker- we turn left. Our car shuffles along the dirt road and we arrive at our destination, the cultural center and museum. I’m amazed that we made it, and grateful. On the way back we stop at the border checkpoint and the migra jokes with us. I feel like an invader, a mindless soldier behind the general. We have so many questions. How do the natives feel about the migrants? How dangerous is it- really? Why isn’t their more violence between the migrants and the natives? I can’t answer these questions. I know I’m feeling uneasy. I wonder if this will ever change. The desert is a blessing and a curse depending on who you are and where you are going, or not going. I feel love for the students in the car as I feel their emotions rise. We pass dollar general. We are back in Tucson, no passport necessary. 

After reaching Tucson we drove into town and picked up Ethiopian lentils and stew at Cafe Desta for dinner. Two students led us in a reflection on the last three days, and we slept.

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