For the last week, I’ve been living out of my suitcase again while out on the ground reporting on the desert border between Arizona and Mexico. In one of my free moments, I FaceTimed my son. He asked how I was holding up.
“I’m sad,” I told him. “I had a rough night…”
“I bet you are,” he said to me. “What you’re witnessing is sad.”
And then I broke down in tears and turned the phone away so he wouldn't have to see me cry, once again, while I'm doing my job.
“But mom,” he said. “Remember how Frederick Douglass wrote about all of the horrible things he lived through and saw? He felt sad, like you, but he put it all down on the page. And he documented history. That's what you’re doing, and you’re doing it for all of us. I’m proud of you, mom.”
Of course, there were more tears after that.
I’ve felt haunted by the things I’ve seen on this trip.
The day before my son and I talked, I was taken to the Medical Examiner’s office where the body of a 32-year-old Mexican woman was being held. She died from asphyxiation earlier this month after she got tangled in the ropes and pulleys that were used to get her over the 30-foot menacing horror and symbol of exclusion that people call “the wall”. Dying from heat exposure is a horrible death. You can lose your mind because of the heat. But dying, dangling from a wall built by the U.S. government? It’s tragic.
The truth was that this border was more deadly than I ever imagined.
We were there to interview Dr. Gregory Hess, Chief Medical Examiner for Pima County, about deaths in the desert. It’s the first story produced by the new investigative unit that I launched at Futuro Media. Dr. Hess is widely respected in the Tucson sector, and he made it clear to me that the deaths happening along the border could absolutely be avoided.
“It didn't use to be this way,” Dr. Hess said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Since 2000, the recorded number of deaths along the border continues to rise. The actual number is likely much higher but it's impossible to verify over the several thousands of square miles of desert. The reason behind these continued and unnecessary deaths is something our unit is currently investigating.
After our interview, Dr. Hess took my team and me outside to a large unrefrigerated trailer. I wasn’t expecting this to happen. Inside the trailer, there were stacks of brown cardboard boxes that stored the bones of hundreds of people lost in the desert. The hope is that one day, these remains would be identified and returned home to their loved ones.
I saw the bones of a woman who died of heat exposure in the desert while trying to get to the US. All along her journey, she was carrying an Estée Lauder makeup palette.
She wanted to look beautiful when she got to the other side.
Instead, she died in the desert, probably minutes away by car from a place to get water.
I never want to forget.
I realize I have been haunted for decades by the needless loss of life in the desert. This week the haunting loomed close. When you are with the bones of so many innocent people who didn't need to die, you feel absolutely helpless. At the Medical Examiner’s office, people like you and me are reduced to a box with a number on it, waiting for someone to claim them.
I am, as a local writer said to my team, haunted by these deaths. And you should be too.
It’s going to take every single one of us haunted human beings to make this stop.
Thanks to my team, Julieta Martinelli and Roxanne Scott, for the fearless reporting we did together on this trip.
Gracias for reading Malu & You, a space where I share my uncensored and intimate ways of living life on the front lines as a journalist, mother, and compañera.