Crossing – What if people die in your backyard

Kat Rodriguez has one of the toughest jobs along the U.S.-Mexican border. She helps Central American families find relatives who have disappeared on their journey to the United States. All too often, their bodies are found in the Sonoran Desert behind Kat’s house. On her mission to stop the deaths, Kat crossed the desert on foot with 70 women, men, teenagers, and me. Join us in my radio feature.

broadcasted on German public radio SWR on November 7 and 8, 2016, and again on August 14, 2018 >

Please scroll down for the radio script >>
Every year, hundreds of corpses are found in the Tucson Sector – men, women and children who died from heat, cold or mysterious head injuries. Kat Rodriguez is the one who compares their clothing and DNA with descriptions of missing relatives from far-off Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico. Each match is a tragedy.

It is an experience that can feel lonely, says Kat. No topic for family celebrations, no job she could show her little twins. Gail Kocourek, who regularly puts out water in the desert, agrees. As does Flor who crossed the desert on her father’s shoulders as an infant – until a Border Patrol agent kicked both to the ground.

To raise awareness for the migrants’ plight Kat has been walking in their footsteps for 13 years. In June 2016, 70 women, men, children and I joined her from Sonora, Mexico to Tucson, Arizona for seven days and 70 miles at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Each of us held the cross of a migrant who did not make it.

We later learnt that six migrants died not far from our camp. Ten more were arrested by the border police. We think about the ten young men from Honduras whom we met in Sasabe, just before our departure. They did not have any map or idea where to cross exactly; they could only cling to their rosaries and their firm conviction to make it. In the United States.

Join us by listening to my radio feature here at the German public radio >>

(The feature is in German but the testimonies can partly be understood in English and Spanish.)

A migrant’s torn backpack in the Sonoran desert between the US and Mexico

A migrant’s torn backpack in the Sonoran Desert between the US and Mexico

This cross is a reminder of 14-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros from El Salvador, who died while crossing the desert.

This cross is a reminder of 14-year-old Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros from El Salvador, who died while crossing the desert.


Donald Trump wants to fortify this border fence even further if he is elected president.

Donald Trump wants to fortify this border fence even further if he is elected president.

Unstoppable: A dove flies over the US-Mexican border that was built after 9-11.

Unstoppable: A dove flies over the US-Mexican border that was built after 9-11. When George W. Bush militarized the border after 9-11 – to fend off terrorists, as he claimed – immigrants had to leave safer routes for other more dangerous ones, like the desert south of Tucson. Since then, Kat has been called to the morgue more and more often – until she could no longer stand it. In 2003, she and other local residents decided to walk the migrants’ way in solidarity. Every year, until the deaths in the desert end.

Radio script (translation)


Anchor: Tomorrow, US Americans are going to elect their next president. Donald Trump kicked off his campaign with the promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. Activists say that such a wall would not keep migrants from coming but make their journey even more perilous. Thousands already die every year while trying to cross the deserts into the US. Christina Felschen joined activists who walk the same way to commemorate those who died. They will only stop once the migrants’ plight has been stopped.

TAPE – Estimated time: 25 min

[AMB: Speaking choir: Name – presente! Name – presente! Name – presente!]

70 women and men trudge through the desert on the US-Mexican border. The heat is suffocating and each step swirls up sand. Many of them have pulled their bandanas over mouth and nose.

[AMB continues]

“We walk for life” is written on their banners, at every exclamation they stretch white wooden crosses into the air.  From a distance one could mistake them for anti-abortionists: predominantly white Americans, many over 60, marching in a procession along the roadside.

[AMB continues]

But then these chants in Spanish: “Adan Perez Lopez – present! Mister or Miss Unidentified – is with us!” These are the names of the dead who were recovered right and left of the road. 240 alone last year who had died as a result of heat, cold or bullet wounds.

[AMB: bring down]

For each corpse found in the desert there are ten more which are never found, estimates Kat Rodriguez, who organized the protest march. She works for the organization Colibrí in Tucson/ Arizona where she helps Central American families find missing relatives.

Kat Rodriguez: We have space with the medical examiner, so I see people who come into the morgue on a weekly basis, in different states. It might be a few bones, highly decomposed or somebody who died over the weekend. Often their identification is really difficult because there is not much left of people after being out here for a very short time.

[bring AMB up again]

For the last 13 years, Kat has been taking interested people like me along on the migrant trail. It takes seven days on foot from the last city in Mexico, Sasabe [Sásabee], to the first in the US, Tucson [Túson] – seventy miles [one hundred twelve kilometers] through the desert, at more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit [40 degrees Celsius]. People from all parts of the US and all wakes of society join her this year: teachers and social workers, Franciscan monks and college professors.

[AMB: “Josseline Hernandez Quinteros – presente!”]

Gail Kocourek: When I picked her cross, I was so surprised that I recognized the name that was on it. Her name was Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros and she was 14 years old.

[AMB: Footsteps through sand]

Gail Kocourek has covered her long white hair with a huge hat. She drives into the desert every week to set up water tanks for migrants. This is where she learnt about Josseline’s story.

Gail Kocourek: She was coming across the border from El Salvador with her 10-year-old brother. When she got sick in the desert, the coyote who was taking her refused to stay with her. She only weighed 100 pounds, she was just a little slip of a thing. He said: “We’ll leave you hear, the Migra (Border Patrol) will find you.” Her brother was crying and didn’t want to leave her, but Josseline said: “No go, go to momma, she wants to see you in Los Angeles.”

Kat Rodriguez: Her mother told me Josseline was very mature, a very serious young woman, she was almost like a second mother to her brothers. She would cook for them, clean, get them ready, a big sister almost to a motherly degree. And so when they were crossing, she felt her duty to get her brother to their mother.

Gail Kocourek: So the brother went on and a few days later the report was issued that Josseline was missing. In winter, it is nice during the day, but that February night in the mountains of Southern Arizona the temperature had dropped to 29 degrees Fahrenheit [below zero degrees Celsius].

[music: Song “Josseline” by Pablo Peregrina: “In the tropical country of El Salvador a journey is about to begin…”]

Kat Rodriguez: At work we received a missing person report for a young woman, fourteen, which described her clothing: She was wearing bright green shoes. One day I got a call from a friend who said that a friend of ours had found a body.

Gail Rodriguez: He was walking up an arroyo, came around a corner, saw these green tennis shoes and thought: “Oh, that is interesting!” He went further and saw legs and realized that there was a person. He didn’t associate her with Josseline because she had on jeans and this body had on sweatpants.

Kat Rodriguez: So I called her uncle to verify the clothing. In between the brother had made it to L.A. and he was with the family. He remembered a pair of sweatpants that she had pulled over the jeans, which said Hollywood on the behind. So I called my friend and I asked if the pants said Hollywood and he said he couldn’t see. As she was lying face up he couldn’t see her pants. So I went back to class. A few hours later I got a text: The pants say Hollywood.

[abrupt stop of the song]

Kat Rodriguez: I had to call her uncle and I didn’t know what to tell him, I just said: “The pants say Hollywood.” He sighed and it was the saddest sigh I have ever heard, it sounded like hope leaving his body.

Josseline’s corpse was among the first that Kat had to examine.

Kat Rodriguez: It is sometimes really overwhelming and sad and heart-breaking. I have a family and I have my toddlers that help me keep some sanity, but it is sometimes hard to balance that. But I just do my best for the families because I feel so guilty that our government has done this.

[AMB camp ground, people talking, organizer: “Good morning everyone, hope that everyone slept well. – No, no. – We’ll have team announcements, anyone from safety? – Yeah! – Great.”]

Kat Rodriguez: Being on the border can feel very isolated. It feels like nobody cares. You turn on national TV and you don’t see anything about the deaths, about the human cost of militarization and you hear very xenophobic racist ideological rants, but they don’t have any basis in the border that we know. To have people experience this and know that they are going to talk about it in their communities – that gives me hope.

[AMB: group prays in Spanish: “Creador, lleno de amor y misericordia, quiero pedirte por mis hermanos migrantes. Ten piedad de ellos y protégelos, pues sufren maltratos y humillaciones en su caminar, son señalados por la mayoría como peligrosos, y marginados por ser extranjeros. Haz que les servantes and valoremos su dignidad. Toca con tu bondad el corazón de cuantos les vemos pasar. Cuida a sus casas, no con el corazón roto sino con sus esperanzas calmadas. Así sea.”]

[AMB: group walking in the desert, chirping of crickets]

Before we know it, we are in Sasabe, Mexico. Nobody asked to see our passports, the border apparently only works in one direction.

[AMB: bring walking ambience down, keep crickets]

Carmen Valenzuela stands slightly away from the group and looks down the abandoned village street. With sunglasses and a giant hat, she looks like a stray tourist, one from the other side. But she was born in Sasabe 65 years ago.

Carmen Valenzuela: It’s probably been about 30 years since I have been to my stamping grounds of Sasabe, it’s changed quite a bit. This is really emotional for me to come back and see the changes that have occurred. It used to be such a free and open space, and now it’s fenced and guarded. It’s different. 

There are only ruins left of many houses in Sasabe – especially those close to the border which rises five meters above the village. Every now and then a helicopter of the US Border Patrol is passing by. As if their surveillance cameras did not see each movement anyway.

Carmen Valenzuela: It was fun, I have lovely memories of those times. We were running around barefooted and carefree. We didn’t have a worry in the world, just fun.

Carmens sister Natividad Cano joins us. She also walks the migrant trail, she also holds the cross of a Mexican woman who has not survived the desert.

Natividad Cano: There was a border at that time, it was sort of like a cattle gate which was locked at midnight. If we were late, we could always jump over the gate without any problems from either side, US or Mexican.

Christina Felschen: You never showed your passport?

Natividad Cano: I don’t think I had a passport. (laughs) When we got our post or delivery in the US, the officer would just wave us because he knew us. When we were teenagers they had dances on the other side. My grandmother would be our chaperon. She was in her late 60ies and she would jump the gate too.

[AMB shop music, Christina: ” ¿Puedo pagar en dólares?”, checkout]

“Super Coyote” is the name of the only shop in the town – “super smuggler”. The shelves are empty except for tinned food and bread. In the back room, on the other hand, the actual goods are stacked: camouflage pants, water cans, torches for a few pesos.

[AMB: Christina: “¿Qué es lo más popular que ellos compran, los migrantes? Saleswoman: Llevan las gorras, la ropa esa de pinta, la camuflage verde…”]

Base-caps and camouflage clothing are most popular, the saleswoman explains. In a few days I will remember the goods on display in this room as we will see them again – torn and eaten away in the Sonoran Desert.

[AMB: tune down shop music abruptly, cut to the front of the shop]

Only the church tower rises even higher above Sasabe than the border fence.

[AMB: bring down music completely]

Ten young men kneel in front of the altar. A priest draws an ash cross on everyone’s forehead. Their clothes appear baggy on their meager bodies.

Miguel: Cayó una plaga que nunca se había visto. Decidimos tomar este camino bien complicado, en muchos lugares no nos tratan muy bien. Tenemos un mes ocho días de viaje desde Honduras.

Voice-over: Our fields suffered from a pest like never before. That’s why we chose this difficult path, although we aren’t treated well in many places. Up to now we’ve been traveling for a month and eight days from Honduras.

Miguel is the group’s unofficial spokesman. He gives his full name and asks to be photographed with his friends. But that would be too risky. After all, he is no longer Miguel, the young men from the parish known by everyone, but a migrant without a visa. A man who has to keep his anonymity.

His friend shyly joins us.

Friend: Migramos por la pobreza, en nuestro país no sabe cómo mantener la familia, por eso uno migra para superar un poquito, si uno se va con mal crecer o con un peligro pues bien muere por el camino. No sabemos, solo Dios sabe.

Voice-over: We migrate because of poverty. In our country, you do not know how to feed your family. If you travel with bad faith or encounter a danger, you will die on the way. We don’t know what our future brings, only God knows.

Christina: ¿Qué tipo de trabajo tenían Uds., todos trabajaban la tierra?

Migrants: Sí.

Christina: ¿Cuánto ganaban por día?

Migrants: Vía ciento cincuenta lempiras, nada más. Siete dólares por día.

They are all field workers and earn less than seven dollars a day. Since the free trade agreement NAFTA, small farmers like Miguel are forced to compete with US farmers growing grains on thousands of hectares. Therefore, the shops in Central America have replaced Central American products with US ones, many locals lost their jobs – and move North where they still find work.

Miguel: Subimos en un tráiler. Fuimos encerrados por treintaiuno horas sin ventilación, casi no respirábamos, algunas se desmayaban, como que somos animales.

Voice-over: We got into a truck. For 31 hours, we were locked inside, without air supply. We could hardly breathe, some of us fainted. We felt treated like animals.

Miguel: Casi no podemos ver noticias de los Estados Unidos, pero dicen que hay un personaje que ahora está en política – ¡Donald Trump!

Voice-over: We can only occasionally watch news about the US, but they say that there is that, that person who entered politics…

“Donald Trump!” shouts his friend from the background.

Miguel: Si gana pues los Centroamericanos, los migrantes, van a ser los primeros que tienen que salir. Pero la voluntad de Dios no es esa, ¿no? Él quiere que todos nos llevemos como hermanos, que trabajamos por la paz, por la unidad de los pueblos. Dios va a hacer lo que convenga a todos.

Voice-over: If he wins, migrants from Central America will be the first ones to be pushed out of the country. But we know that this is not God’s will, don’t we? He wants us to be like brothers, to work for peace and unity of all peoples. God will do what is best for all of us.

[AMB: farewell to migrants in Sasabe]

Miguel and his friends need their faith. They don’t have anything else. They are young and strong, but they look into the void. They have no map and no idea how vast the desert ahead of them is.

The Mexican priest honks with the engine running; he wants to take me back to my group, which is already crossing the border into the US. I hastily say farewell to the Hondurans and cannot hide that the thought of staying behind in this village makes me nervous. In five minutes, I will be on the other side. The men here would give everything for the privilege of my passport. Once again I turn around: They cling to their rosaries, like soldiers who are sent into their final battle.

[AMB, organizer: “Please, you should have drunk already a quart or a liter of water. And if you haven’t on this first stretch – I know this is health team – keep drinking water. You don’t wanna get behind. Cause we’ll do a lot of walking today. Start drinking!”]

Day four of our solidarity march: It is five o’clock in the morning. Dan Abbott from the security team reminds us again and again to drink enough. We should already have drunk at least one liter. We have a long road ahead today – at forty-three degrees Celsius.

[AMB: filling water bottles]

Jana Kreofsky: When I joined for the first time I got really ill. It hit me that I would have been dead within the first twenty-four hours if nobody had been around. I realized how fast this can happen if you cannot get water or move from one place to another or take care of yourself.

[AMB: Kat Rodriguez organizing next stop via walkie-talkie]

Every few miles, our support vans wait on the roadside so that we can fill up our water bottles. A health team sticks blister plasters on feet, cools wasp stings and pulls cactus needles from palms. Partner organizations even bring salads and pasta dishes into the desert. It is almost shameful how well equipped we are.

But the walkers never planned to imitate the migrant experience. They are aware of how naïve it would be to believe that privileged US citizens could understand the fear that people like Miguel are going through.

All they can do is draw attention to their plight.

Magda Mankel: It’s almost like a summer camp for grown-ups who have come together for a very specific issue. But it’s not a very happy summer camp. It’s sad but we have to turn that into something positive.

[AMB: food steps and chants along a busy highway]

We are walking in silence along the white line that separates the highway from the desert. For seven days. Much time to reflect. About Claudia Yadira Mote Ruiz whose cross I am carrying. The only thing I know about her is that she died in this desert when she was my sister’s age: thirty-two. I hold the holm of her cross as tight as if it were her hand. As if I could bring Claudia to the destination that she never reached.

[AMB: “presente” chant]

Every now and then we see black water canisters and tattered backpacks on the roadside. They look like the goods from the “Super Coyote” store in Sasabe.

[AMB: Saulo Padilla: „Noel Madrid Sanchez! Presente!”]

The highway is busy in the morning, drivers are honking and waving at us – the Migrant Trail is well known in the area. The man in front of me stretches his cross to each passing car.

Saulo Padilla: My name is Saulo Padilla, I have lived 15 years of my life in Guatemala, 16 years in Canada and 15 years in the United States. I belong to all these places and all these places have a special place in my life. Yet I am not recognized in any of these countries as if I belong there. When I go “home” to Guatemala people notice a foreign accent and ask me: “Are you from Mexico, are you from Colombia?” It is sad that even in my own country I am not recognized as a Guatemalan. We have a saying in Spanish: “Ni de aquí, ni de allá.” I belong to all these places and I belong to none of them.

[AMB: Saulo playing the guitar and singing “Todo Cambia”, Mercedes Sosa]

In the eighties, Saulo’s family escaped from the military dictatorship in Guatemala, but only his father was granted asylum in Canada. Years passed until Saulo, his mother and his siblings were allowed to join him in Canada. But after the long separation his family members hardly knew each other any more. His parents separated and the family lives scattered across different countries.

[AMB: Saulo’s song continues until “de mi pueblo de mi gente”.]

The US-Mexican border separates tens of thousands of families every year when parents are deported to the South or leave to the North alone to earn money.

Saulo Padilla: My mom suffers a deep depression after this separation and I barely know my brothers. I know a lot about separations of families, it is very painful and traumatic and I am absolutely against it. 

[AMB: end of Saulo’s song: “…de mi gente.”]

[AMB: Nightly silence apart from crickets chirping. Suddenly coyotes howl.]

One night, coyotes howl in the desert – in a persistent, excited way. I think about Miguel and his friends. “The day after tomorrow is my birthday”, Miguel had said when I left. “We want to be in the US by then.” That should have been today. Did they take enough water? And how do they find their way in the dark?

The next morning, a dozen Border Patrol vans pass us on the highway, some of them prisoner vans. Later we learn that ten migrants had been caught while we slept. Was it Miguel and his friends?

[AMB: group walking and talking]

I often walk next to Flor Chuc from Oregon. She talks about her studies, her children, her sport injury – everyday life. On the last day, the surprise:

Flor Chuc: I was four years old when my parents migrated with me to the United States; we crossed the border illegally just like the migrants today.

We eventually made it across the border at the third attempt and we have been living in the United States for over twenty-seven years now.

When we got caught the second time, my mom screamed because they had pulled her from behind. When my Dad turned around with me on his shoulders, a border patrol kicked him and we fell to the ground together.

I remember seeing stone piles in a volcano shape where flowers were left. I remember asking my Dad what were they, and he said: “That’s someone who didn’t make it, someone like us who wanted to go to El Norte, the US, to have a better life. I am hoping that we can cross that border and live our lives and give you the opportunities that they didn’t get the chance to have.”

I was afraid, but I saw my Dad as a hero, my person who was there to save me. I didn’t capture the significance what he was trying to tell me, but believed that nothing was going to happen as he was there to protect me.

Flor had a hero on her side – and she was lucky. Josseline wasn’t. Claudia Yadira wasn’t. And many others aren’t. A few days after we return home, Kat Rodriguez sends us a message:

[AMB: pling, message arrives]

Kat Rodriguez: I was looking up the numbers of migrant remains that came into the Office of the Medical Examiner. While we walked, six migrants lost their lives on the real migrant trail. Hermanas y hermanos migrantes, presente!