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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

The Artist and The Keepers of the Law

Every Tuesday morning for almost a decade, artist Alvaro Enciso and volunteers based in Tucson have gone into the desert to plant almost 1400 handmade crosses, in bright shades of orange, purple and green, at the sites where immigrants died on their journey north.  Encisco, a 77-year-old Colombian immigrant, calls this project, “Donde Mueren los Sueños,” Where Dreams Die. 


The Artist does what he can.  On Fridays the coroner’s report comes out with the cold hard facts of who died in the desert that week.  Sometimes there is a name.  The name matters. Sometimes it is simply annotated “unknown”.  But the name still matters..

But what matters even more, for the nameless and the known, are the coordinates of where the remains were found in the desert.  It is where The Artist will travel, carrying a lovingly crafted cross to where a fellow human, just passing through, just hungering for something better, has taken his last breath.  Or her last breath.  A weak gasp of a dehydrated man, or woman, or the barely audible breath of a child.

Hiking through the ocotillo, the palo verde, the occasional saguaro, The Artist will come to rest at those coordinates, pausing where perhaps now only the dusty remnants of a rude grave remain.  Perhaps there is no longer even a trace of a life lost, for the scorching winds carry the dust and send it across the desert in the brutal summer. He will stand each time over the place where these coordinates meet and place the cross in the ground, set in hastily created concrete, to keep it upright in monsoon rain and wind.

And then The Artist will call the name out and pray, sending what story he knows to the heavens.  He will honor the name of the departed until his final cry, rest in peace, settles into the desert soil. Until the coyotes carry it through the washes and into the mountains. Until the owl at night repeats the name, and the sun declares its glory both rising and setting. .

The Keepers of the Law do what is required.  They find the searching and the lost and the frightened and the traumatized and place them in a transport vehicle to be processed.

Or not.

But before entry to be transported, they must leave their belongings behind them where they were found. 

And the desert becomes a graveyard of things.

Half full water bottles, saved perhaps for essential thirst. An unopened bag of chips held in the hand of a child, perhaps as a “not yet” until safe arrival to the night’s destination. An apple, whole and fresh, saved perhaps to savor when hope is on the wane and starvation circles like a red-tailed hawk. 

And here and there, in the desert, other remains in this graveyard of things litter the landscape.  A single shoe. A baby bottle. A well loved stuffed animal. A bright pink child’s backpack. What did it contain?  A love letter from an abuelita? A bracelet from a beloved tia who sang songs of comfort in a tiny room at night?

Quien sabe?  Who knows? 

Every memory, every sacred comfort, every holy memento, is discarded by the side of the road into an unforgiving desert.  Along with compassion. Along with their dreams.  

Along with their bones. 

But The Keepers of the Law are “just doing their job” as has been done by conquerors since the dawn of man. They do it armed and dangerous. They do it carrying thick protective shields forged in the power of their privilege. The only truth they know is birthed in soundbites and nurtured by deceit.

And the work of The Keepers of the Law

writes headlines in irresponsible ink

attributed to The Law and held sacrosanct

“for the betterment and protection of human lives”.

But not all human lives.

And The Artist is “just doing his job”.  He is turning ashes into beauty by wrapping himself in remembrance.  He does it softly, armed only with mercy and a wooden cross decorated with remnants from the graveyard of things. The only truth he knows is the truth he experiences, not the shrill voice on the street corner, not the screaming headlines, but the sound of a fading heartbeat and a struggling breath.

And the work of The Artist

echoes across the night sky 

where the stars weep

and the moon keeps vigil

and coyotes carry a funeral prayer

while The Keepers of the Law sleep.


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