First Person | Local

On Migrant Trail, connecting Jewish history with modern desert crossers

Eve Rosenberg at the Bureau of Land Management campsite at Ajo Way and San Joaquin Road, before setting out for the final day of the Migrant Trail, May 31. (Deborah Mayaan)

When I joined the Migrant Trail for the last day of its 12th annual week-long solidarity walk from El Sásabe, Sonora, Mexico, to Tucson, we stepped single-file along Ajo Highway in a walking meditation. Periodically, we called out names of those who had died crossing our Sonoran Desert.

Some of us did not have names to say, because many of the bodies are not identified. In the first part of the journey, I honored the unknown, and called out “desconocida” (the feminine form of “unknown” in Spanish) to honor all the unknown women who had died, perhaps seeking to be reunited with their children. On the last leg of the journey, I was offered a cross with a name, and called out, “Osmero Rodriguez Ramirez.” The whole line responded, “Presente!” affirming in Spanish his presence with us.

Then I heard my friend John Heid call out from behind me, “desconocido-a!” to represent the people whose bodies were too decomposed for their gender to be identified and are listed on the roster of the dead as “desconocido/a,” combining both the masculine and feminine forms of the word for “unknown.”

I found it strange to carry a cross as a Jew, and wondered about all those unidentified bodies. Might some of them be Jews, who could be represented by a Magen David? It would be a way to honor the Jews who lived as Jews, and the Latinos who had some converso heritage.

While I joined the group only for the last day’s walk of 6.7 miles, Eve Rosenberg, a Jewish woman who lives in McNeal, Ariz., walked the whole 75-mile trail with fellow volunteers from the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Mexico. As a Jew, she said, she was brought up to take action for social action and humanitarian causes.

The most striking memory for her was “seeing the carpets the migrants put on their feet to erase their tracks” in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, Ariz. While younger participants on the trail sometimes stayed up late in the close quarters everyone shared, disturbing her sleep, Rosenberg said it is “the young people who are our hope.”

David Orkin of Tucson walked the last day of the trail and also drove out the evening before to bring dinner to the walkers camp. Orkin, 24,works as a program organizer for BorderLinks, an organization that provides educational programming around immigration and border issues.

“The story of my ancestors,” he said, “is one of exile. It was so important for me to connect the lessons learned by our people to current struggles of people in exile. We were once the oppressed, and now it’s our responsibility as Jews to examine the ways in which we contribute to the oppression of others. During Passover we are told to act as if we personally had walked through the desert; now I can say that I have tried to do that.”

Deborah Mayaan is an energy work and flower essence practitioner as well as a writer and artist in Tucson.