Most college students want to spend their spring breaks someplace warm, usually somewhere on a beach in Florida or a Caribbean island holding a red solo cup working on their tan as they drink themselves into oblivion. I do not mind the warm and sunny part, but the excessive drinking and loud crowds were never my thing and I could not think of a less fun way to spend my vacation. I wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary that involved traveling somewhere I had never been, and that’s how I ended up at a Native American reservation in the Arizona desert with Alternative Spring Break for a week. I alluded to the difficult living conditions on the reservation in my introductory post about Arizona, but I did not get into the nitty gritty. I said in my last post the experience was eye-opening. And it was, but it was rather depressing. After reading this, you will probably agree with me.

From the pictures in my last post, it is a safe assumption to say living in the desert is no picnic. It is almost impossible to cultivate the land. Only very specific hardy plants can grow and survive in the desert.

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Think you can grow some vegetables here? Even the horse (which I think is wild) thinks it is hopeless.

This is obvious, but it is almost always hot. I was there in March and during the day temperatures would soar into the 80s. In addition to the heat, you have the somewhat unnerving presence of US border patrol because the Mexican border is so close. Many Mexicans attempt to cross this section of the US-Mexico border, either because they are hoping for a better life in the US or because they are smuggling drugs. In any case, anybody willing to brave the Sonora desert is desperate. Many die in the process due to dehydration and heat exposure. Others are usually caught by border patrol and sent back to Mexico. The illegal immigrant situation is rather controversial; some tribe members believe they should be helped, others believe they should have nothing to do with them. Some people have been robbed and are afraid to leave their houses, for fear of illegal immigrants stealing from them. For more about this subject, you can read this article “Clash on the Border of the Tohono O’odham Nation” (from February 2013). Nightline also did a segment just this past June which you can watch here.

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In fact, while I was there, we spotted an illegal immigrant from Mexico who ended up in Pisinemo (the community I stayed at for the week). He only spoke Spanish and he was given food and water by our hosts but then sent on his way. A few days later, our group witnessed him being arrested by border patrol (though I was not one of the ones who saw this happen). The Native American reservation seems to have an uneasy relationship with the US border patrol and probably does not want to be seen as fostering illegal immigrants.

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Uh-oh! Someone being pulled over by border patrol.

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I know this picture looks super sketchy. At one point, the van transporting us ran out of gas. We were nearly at the pump when it just died. So we had to get out and push it partway. The US border patrol agents wanted to know if we needed help, they weren’t trying to arrest us, promise! I also wasn’t much help pushing because I was laughing so hard.

The US-Mexico border is not only a contentious issue on the reservation because of illegal immigrants making their way onto US soil. The border is meant to show the physical divide between the US and Mexico. Unfortunately, the border does not take into account that technically a small part of the Tohono O’odham Nation extends into Mexico. (You can read the reservation’s take on this at its official website.) Before the white man came along, the tribal lands of the O’odham were much larger than what they are today, reaching as far as Phoenix, Arizona. With the presence of the white man, tribal lands were sold, borders were erected, and the old way of life was disrupted. In recent years, immigration laws have become more stringent, which means tribe members living in Mexico must present passports and necessary ID to border patrol before crossing the border. Some people have family living on the US side and can’t see them because they don’t have the proper documentation. With all the illegal immigrants trying to make it into the US unnoticed, the US government has so far not been very sympathetic.

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A section of the fence separating the US and Mexico on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

If you were expecting the US-Mexico border to have high, barbed wire fences with a heavy border patrol surveillance, you thought wrong. This is really what that section of the border looks like. It is no wonder illegal immigrants are easily making their way through the border onto the reservation. That fence might keep out cars, but it certainly won’t keep out people.

The recreation center I stayed at in Pisinemo was surrounded by tall chain-link fences which I thought was a bit odd at the time but I didn’t question it. Only now do I realize that the community was most likely deterring illegal immigrants from taking up residence and breaking in.

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arizona 200Ta-da! Standing in two places at once at the US-Mexican border.

Despite all the issues arising from the US-Mexican border, our group was still fascinated by the concept of being in two places at once and we asked our Tohono O’odham hosts if we could go look at it (this detour is what caused our van to run out of gas, by the way!). We were just planning on getting our pictures taken in front of the border, but the sole border patrol agent manning the gateway to Mexico said it would be fine for us to actually walk through it and take a few steps into Mexico. (I know this sounds ridiculous but I felt like such a rebel by entering another country without showing my passport, even if it was only for five feet).

He told us he wasn’t trying to let people from the American side from driving through. It was the people from the Mexican side he had to stop and ask for id. Hmm, okay–shouldn’t you be checking passports and ID from anyone crossing the border? (Just ask anyone who has been through the New York State-Canadian border, you can’t just waltz into Canada!) He probably didn’t see the need to ask for ID from 6 white girls and 2 black guys or maybe we were a welcome diversion from what I am sure is a super boring job. In any case, he was friendly to us but that is probably because we didn’t fit the racial profile of a Mexican, as terrible as it is to admit.

At least I can say I’ve been to Mexico! (Sort of?)

Stay tuned for more about Arizona!

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