I stared down at the bones. Whether covered under centuries of sand or exposed to sun, the body was claimed by the desert in life and afterlife. Even though it had been uncovered decades earlier, the dust of the desert never released it from its grip.
Father Francisco Eusebio Kino died far from his Italian home. Migrants along the way had told me of the crypt of the Jesuit priest who had missionized the Sonoran Desert 300 years prior. He first entered this desert on a mission in 1687 and it swallowed him in 1711.
Early on, Kino saw the arid desert as fertile ground for the harvest of souls. His errand into the far reaches of the Spanish empire seemed to confirm his convictions.
Kino was not the first to connect a Christian mission to the desert. Thomas Merton called fourth century Christian hermits “Desert Fathers” and claimed that they had entered the harsh environment in an effort to seek authentic Christian truth. In their time, “the fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve,” to venture into the desert. For them, the fusion of Christianity with political power — what some might call a Christian state — sullied the spirit and destroyed faith. They abandoned society in favor of the desert to walk “the untrodden paths of invisible spirits.”
But Merton was writing about fourth century hermits from the context of the 1960s. The fears of an industrial society that needed neither individuals or faith filled many with fears of anomie or existential crisis. Some resolved that if individuals didn’t matter then nothing did. The answer was to abandon social expectations and comforts. The answer was to wander into the wilderness once again. In this way, Merton in his search for a connection with early Christian ascetics found common ground with the likes of writers such as J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, and Edward Abbey.
Abbey, especially, discovered in his foray into the desert a pilgrimage of sorts. In the desert, there was something philosophical to be revealed, but technology, luxury, and security needed to be abandoned. “You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus.” Only then might you find a fleeting moment of insight, but not always. “When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not,” he wrote.
The desert across time and space, in the cultural and spiritual imagination, has drawn humans to it. Barren and dry, it can seemingly hide nothing on its surface. Without artifice, it is perceived as authentic, the kind of place you might find souls, salvation, or self.
In the U.S. the desert has served as a metaphor for escapist tendencies. An unsettled, ancient space where freedom was still attainable. But the desert was never empty, and it was never disconnected. The distaste for authorized Christian power compelled hermits to leave for the desert. The demands of a growing global empire sent Kino into Sonora. American abundance and postwar affluence allowed Abbey to venture into the U.S. West. For the last three decades, U.S. policy has forced hundreds of thousands of migrants through one of the most extreme landscapes on the continent. If desert fathers walked untrodden paths of invisible sprits, unauthorized migrants walk the well-worn paths of invisible people.
U.S. immigration policy has turned the “sacred landscape into a killing field, a massive open grave,” writes anthropologist Jason De Leon in The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Beginning in the mid to late 1990s, the U.S. not only militarized the border, but weaponized the desert. A strategy called “Prevention through Deterrence,” built up Border Patrol units at urban points of entry and forced migrants into more remote areas. The Sonoran Desert was too large, isolated, and the terrain was too extreme to successfully patrol. But it would need less boots on the ground, because the desert — its temperatures, its cacti, its venomous snakes, its lack of water — would punish migrants better than any official could. The desert would kill migrants and hide the bodies. The desert was brutal and efficient in its new role. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, at least one person a day on average died in the Sonoran Desert.
Archeologists spent decades searching for the bones of Father Kino until they discovered his body in the late 1960s. They built a large crypt over his remains and painted outsized murals above his body, portraying his missionary feats. The town where his remains rest became an important stop on a corridor of mass migration in the 1990s and early 2000s. Leading northward into the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert, many migrants stopped in Magdalena to pray at the church, pay their respects to Father Kino, show their faith to the patron saint San Xavier, and continue toward Altar and Sasabe. Days of walking through the desert awaited them. For those who died in the desert, almost no one searched for them.
We often consider death the ultimate equalizer, a fate that befalls us all. But the desert belies this. Inequality follows many to their graves — indeed, it drives them to their graves prematurely. In the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico, some remains are revered and the remnants of others, just like their lives, are discarded, forgotten, or never noticed at all. The migrants who never made it through the desert were not seeking self-realization, nor revelation. They sought refuge.
I stared down at the bones surrounded by the desert. Not all migrants are marked, not all bones are buried under crypts. Dust we may all become, but not all will be forever lost in the sand.