MISSION, TX - JULY 24: Central American immigrants await transportation to a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the Texas on July 24, 2014 near Mission, Texas. Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, many of them families or unaccompanied minors, have crossed illegally into the United States this year and presented themselves to federal agents, causing a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Rio Grande Sector of the border has the heaviest traffic of illegal crossings of the entire U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

These 24 Poems May Help Women Survive The Border Crossing

Over the next few weeks, Truthdig will be publishing twenty-four different poems to highlight the The Desert Survival Series / La Serie de Sobrevivencia del Desierto, a free cellphone tool designed to aid migrants in their border-crossing journeys. The 24 poems are meant to accompany migrants through every hour of the day, offering life-saving advice for those navigating the Sonoran Desert. The poems, written by University of Michigan professor and poet Amy Sara Carroll, range from how to build a signal fire in the sand, to what to do if a tarantula bites you, how to survive a sandstorm or flashflood, and the best times of the day to climb or walk. The poetry series helps reimagine the border region—a place marked by death and immense loss the past few months —as a space where hope exists and beauty can be found.

As I have written about before, following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. adopted a policy of “prevention through deterrence,” a strategy that increased border militarization and pushed migrants to cross at more dangerous areas such as deserts and mountains. The southern Arizona desert became known as “the devil’s highway,” a graveyard for thousands of border crossers who died of exposure to heat, cold, dehydration, hypothermia, infection, falls, or other reasons. Framed by an 800-mile long wall, drone technology, and border patrol machinery, the desert itself, Caroll suggests, became the “active agent in border enforcement.”

Carroll’s work is guided by the belief that “a desert is not just a desert.” The first poem in the series expresses her belief in the desert’s agency:

The desert is an ecosystem with a logic of sustainability, of orientation, unique unto itself. For example, if the barrel cactus—known otherwise as the compass cactus—stockpiles moisture, it also affords direction. As clear as an arrow or a constellation, it leans south. Orient yourself by this mainstay or by flowering plants that, growing toward the sun, face south in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Survival Series shifts focus from motion sensors and security towers where men with machine guns are on patrol 24/7 to noticing an “ecosystem with a logic of sustainability, of orientation, unique unto itself.”The poems serve as maps, explaining that all of the necessary tools for survival are part of the ecosystem’s natural rhythm and within reach. Unlike border patrolmen or agents of the security state, the ecosystem can protect border-crossers. The desert can help migrants survive.

Immigration and border enforcement is undoubtedly gendered. Female border crossers are doubly vulnerable to physical and psychological harm. A 2014 Fusion report revealed that 80% of Central American women and girls crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped. Trans women are targeted when held in migrant detention centers and face harassment by guards and other detainees. Women traveling with their children are especially vulnerable to femicide and sexual assault, and run the risk of being left behind by their travel companions. Looking at these facts, it would be hard to imagine the desert as anything other dangerous for women and other border-crossers. It’s nearly impossible to see any glimmer of beauty or hope in these facts.

For migrants who are left behind or traversing the desert on their own, the poetry tool series then can be a major lifeline, and possibly the only chance at survival. The poems can help keep people alive. They can help keep them wanting to stay alive. And they can also restore an element of beauty in their perilous journeys:

Do not panic. Do not panic. If you are too tired or disoriented to continue, realize that you probably will not be thinking clearly. Heat scrambles the brain like eggs. “It is perfectly noble to come out of a pose.” Know your own limitations. Turn your phone on. Search for a signal. (Walk only if you are not in range. Then, power the phone down to save the battery life to save your own. Walk, retest. Walk, retest, until you secure reception.) Call 9-1-1 or 0-6-6. Reason—it’s better to live to cross the desert tomorrow than to let the desert cross you today.

It may seem strange for me to label the poetry series an act of resistance to the U.S. border regime. The series itself does not explicitly challenge enforcement strategies nor does it explicitly call for open borders or changes to immigration policies. But to find strategy in dead cacti and mesquite, in dehydration, in desert ecologies where “heat scrambles the brain like eggs,” and to share it as poetry with the most vulnerable is an act of disruption. It is, as Carroll describes it, “useful art.” It is what Chela Sandoval terms a “methodology of the oppressed.”  It is survival art that shouldn’t have to exist, but now it does to support the very people the U.S. border regime has deemed disposable and unworthy of protection. 

Header image via HuffPost

Durham, NC

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, transnational social movements, & intersectional feminism.

Barbara writes for Latinxs, immigrants, and brown girls. She is not here for white tears, white feminism, or white guilt.

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