Years ago, a man died in the mountains near Huachuca City.
By the time his bones were discovered in December 2017, too much time had passed for medical examiners to know how old he was, where he was from, or what had caused his death. They only knew his gender, and that he was one of the thousands of people who did not survive crossing the Arizona-Mexico border.
A Douglas-based organization is ensuring that the man is remembered as more than a number in a coroner’s office.
For three years, the Border Advocates for Justice, which includes members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and local volunteers, have been leading bimonthly trips to plant handmade crosses near the sites of migrant deaths in Cochise County. It is a way to both educate people about the U.S.-Mexico border and to honor the lives of the departed, even if their names were lost to the desert, said volunteer Karen Fasimpaur.
“We’re a combination of people who live in the area, and we often have visitors from around the world,” said Fasimpaur. “A lot of people who don’t live on the border have a different perception of the reality here.”
That reality is reflected in the numbers.
The group met on Friday to plant a cross for the man who died near Huachuca City, the 80th cross-planting ceremony they have carried out in Cochise County. They work with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, as well as other organizations, to get information about the remains found in Cochise County.
There is a backlog of hundreds of people that the group plans to plant crosses for, said Fasimpaur.
While Cochise County doesn’t experience the influx of migrants that other border counties do, deaths still occur every year. The bodies of two migrants have been found in 2018. One was an unidentified person whose remains were discovered near North High Knoll Road in May, according to data from Tucson-based organization Humane Borders. The other was 28-year-old Omar Garcia-Herrera of Guatemala, whose body was found off Dragoon Road east of Benson on June 26.
He was thought to have died of environmental causes, according to a press release from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.
“Although border traffic is down, deaths are not down,” said Fasimpaur. “Crossings are happening in more rural and rugged areas. We’ve done cross-plantings in every corner of the county.”
Friday’s ceremony took place in a wind-swept patch of grass off of Highway 82 in Huachuca City, near the spot where the man’s remains were found. Out-of-state visitors were in attendance: a group of Catholic students and alumni from California State University, East Bay, all of who were the daughters of immigrants, and had traveled to Southern Arizona to learn about the border first-hand.
The ceremony was particularly emotional for student Anahi Mejia, whose father had a close call during a border crossing years before, she said.
“That’s what really hit home for me,” she said. “Some do it in the night, some do it in the day, but they all try, and it’s not an easy thing to do, physically or mentally.”
As cars rushed by on the nearby highway, the students and volunteers gathered in a circle around a hand-made red cross bearing the legend No Identificado (“not identified”).
With the sharp brown grass blowing against their legs, they prayed for the deceased man and his family, placing offerings on the altar before the cross: a card, a string necklace, a strand of barbed wire looped to resemble a crown of thorns.
The prayer had elements of Native American ceremonies, as a way to honor the earth where the cross was planted. Including aspects of multiple faiths is an essential part of the cross-plantings, said Brother Sam Nasada, a member of the Franciscan friars of the Province of St. Barbara.
“We try to incorporate different traditions,” said Nasada, who led the ceremony. “It’s a privilege to be trusted with this kind of responsibility, to remember a person’s life.”
For student Aurora Ramos, the ceremony changed the way she looks at border and migration issues, she said.
“In California, we live very sheltered lives, and we hear about border deaths on the news, and in classes, but it’s detached,” she said, looking off for a moment at the recently planted cross, stark red in the pale desert brush.
“Driving down here, and seeing the landscape, that just made it even more real,” she said.
The next cross-planting ceremony will be held on July 25. For more information, visit crossplanting.wordpress.com.