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The Southwest Border Strategy, which was implemented beginning in the early 1990s, was a “prevention through deterrence” approach to illegal immigration. The goal was to crack down on the flow of migrants (and drugs) at popular urban crossing areas like Tijuana–San Diego and Juarez–El Paso, and thereby funnel the illicit traffic to the remote, rugged desert, where temperatures reach 110 degrees in summer. Border Patrol believed the maneuver would give it a tactical advantage, and at the same time “make it so difficult and so costly to enter this country illegally that fewer individuals try.”
However, they underestimated the resolve — and desperation — of migrants in search of economic opportunities. Despite the number of border agents in the Tucson sector skyrocketing from 280 to 1,770 between 1993 and 2004, Tohono O’odham tribal officials estimated that up to 1,500 undocumented migrants per day were crossing through the reservation.
For the O’odham, crossing the border anywhere but official points became illegal. Garcia says the fortified border further isolated the Sonoran O’odham.
“In Mexico the government has this mindset that the O’odham people that are living along the border are more Americans than Mexican citizens,'' he said. "And O’odham on this side have that same mind concept — that they’re in Mexico, so let Mexico take care of them. So we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
All members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, whether U.S. or Mexican citizens, are entitled to access the reservation clinic overseen by the U.S. government. In practice, border policies prevent this.
According to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Resolution 98-063, passed in 1998, “enforcement of U.S. immigration laws has made it extremely difficult for all Tohono O’odham to continue their sovereign right to pass and re-pass the United States-Mexico border as we have done for centuries as our members are routinely stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol, while others have been actually ‘returned’ to Mexico even though enrolled.”
Many O’odham in Mexico do not have the proper documentation now required to cross legally, whether birth certificates (lacking due to home births) or tribal IDs (because they lack the paperwork or witnesses required for enrollment).
Plus, with the Sonoran desert being used as a backyard for criminal organizations, O’odham families in the U.S. have largely halted visits to their Mexican O’odham kin.
The fear is not unfounded.
“In my village [Wo’osan] you can’t even go out to the wooded area because you would never know who’s there,” said Garcia. Other areas of O’odham villages have been abandoned, he added, and turned into campsites by criminal organizations.
But for Garcia, the issue facing O’odham in Mexico is not just access to resources but representation. “There isn’t any representation in the [tribal] council that comes from Sonora,” he said.
Even among those O’odham in Mexico who are officially enrolled in the Nation, very few are registered to one of the 12 districts on the reservation. Most Sonoran O’odham IDs state N.D., no district, Garcia said. This means that even though the tribe includes its Mexican members in the annual count that determines federal funds, those funds get divvied up between the districts and don’t reach the O’odham in Mexico.
If the tribe would allow it, he said, representation would give O’odham in Mexico a say in the tribal government.
“They would have a voice in representing the housing needs, the road needs, the education, the health issue — all those things would be voiced here on the Nation if we had representation.”
Garcia believes it’s vital to the economic improvement of O’odham in Mexico as well as their ability to keep their culture and identity intact.
“If the O’odham in Mexico don’t get organized, if they don’t get a unity going, they’re always going to be in the same boat,” he said.
David Ortega agrees. The self-described warrior with long salt-and-pepper hair was born in the U.S. but moved to Mexico where he lives with his wife, Patty. “We have lost that oneness,” he said. “We as native people have always supported each other. We’ve always lived together as one throughout history and culture.”
“I feel we have to unify first, bring ourselves back from the dominant culture’s way, relearn what we are as O’odham people.”
To that end, he’s spent the last year traveling from village to village in Sonora, Mexico, teaching O’odham language classes so that O’odham in Mexico don’t completely lose touch with their traditions and "him dag,'' or way of life.
But it’s a race against time.
Just a few generations go, almost every O’odham, whether in the U.S. or Mexico, spoke O’odham.
In 2012, researchers from the Center of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) classified 143 indigenous languages in Mexico that are facing extinction. The O’odham language (still called Pápago in Mexico) falls into the most vulnerable, or “critically endangered,” group, with only 116 speakers. Jacob Franco Hernández, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sonora, says even this count is not accurate. Since 2008 he’s worked with the Sonoran O’odham, and in his 2010 master’s thesis determined there are only 24 fluent speakers in Mexico.
While O’odham on both sides of the border have adopted the dominant language (whether English or Spanish), those on the U.S. side have maintained a much stronger grip on their indigenous language, history and traditions.
“There are O’odham descendants [in Mexico] that say, ‘We know we’re O’odham, but we don’t have anyone to show us what it is to be O’odham,’” said Garcia, the former lieutenant governor. “And most of our elders in Mexico that did know something about ‘him dag’ are gone. They say there’s a lot of elders still there, but what I see is a lot of elders who don’t have any interest in teaching. And we’re trying to revive and restore some of the traditional things that have been forgotten in Mexico.”
Outside Jesús Manuel’s uncle’s home, eight family members gathered under a tree adorned with rusting horseshoes and other metal tools and trinkets. After a hearty breakfast of tortillas, beans, and fresh chicharrones cooked over an outdoor fire, a handful of O’odham youth from the reservation said goodbye to Jesús Manuel’s family.
Alex Soto, of the hip-hop duo Shining Soul shared a rap from his new album critiquing U.S. immigration policy.
Amy Juan wanted to leave the family with a traditional song. In the O’odham culture, songs are also prayers. She chose a song in ñiok that’s been passed down through the generations and was taught to her by a now-deceased elder. (To see a photo of Juan and to listen to her sing, see below.) It’s about a young man’s journey to the ocean. On the shore he dances the i:dahiwan, the cleansing dance, asking for blessings for everyone.
“I wanted to leave the family with something that would connect them to their O’odham roots,” Juan said. “I left it not only with the family but with the land, to remind it and them of our presence and to remind them that it is still O’odham land and our ancestors still remain there.”