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Border Nation

The Tohono O’odham people have lived on both sides of the US-Mexico border since long before either country existed. As an increasingly militarized border threatens their way of life, Ofelia Rivas journeys across the border seeking to revitalize her ancestral village.

Many Americans, I am led to believe, imagine the US-Mexico border as a dusty wasteland brimming with drug traffickers, migrant caravans, and Border Patrol agents. But experiencing the Sonoran Desert through Ofelia Rivas’s eyes, one gets the sense of a great ecological and cultural unity—an uninterrupted landscape blanketed with names and stories and songs.

The Tohono O’odham, or desert people, have called the Sonoran Desert home since time immemorial. Their reservation is in the southernmost part of what today is called Arizona. It is the third largest reservation in the United States, roughly the size of Connecticut, and shares seventy-six miles of the border with Mexico. But the reservation represents only a tenth of the O’odham homeland. Their traditional territory stretched from Phoenix south to Hermosillo, in Sonora, and from the San Pedro River west to the Sea of Cortez. Ofelia was born in the same place she lives today, a quarter mile north of the border that split O’odham land between two countries.

Standing on a ridge just east of her village, we can see a hundred miles in every direction, the basin and range country of the low desert spread before us like a map. Ofelia points to peaks and the valleys and offers their names—Baboquivari, the sacred mountain in the east; Cu:Wi I-gersk, her father’s village to the south; the Ajo Mountains to the west; and behind them and beyond sight, the Pinacate, where the O’odham emerged into this world. In all that distance, the only buildings in view are the dozen or so houses below. The only road I see is a ribbon of blacktop that curls north from the village towards the nearest gas station, an hour away. It is a remote and wild country.

But we are not alone. As my eyes adjust, I begin to notice. I see the idling Border Patrol truck tucked into a copse of paloverde, and the scars of new roads torn into the landscape by BP four-wheelers, and the unnaturally straight line of the vehicle barrier, its rust-colored posts casting a curtain of black shadows across the valley floor. It’s only after I immerse myself in this landscape that I realize we are being constantly watched. What does it feel like to live like this, not just as a visitor, but as someone who has always been here?

In making Border Nation, I tried to balance this juxtaposition: Ofelia’s generations-deep connection to the land, and the rarely seen but omnipresent eyes monitoring our nation’s porous southern border. Ofelia has experienced many overt instances of oppression as she has tried to maintain a traditional life, especially since 9/11. I hope the film captures how this wild, beautiful, sacred place can simultaneously be full of menace.

I have known Ofelia since 2008. This film is but the latest in a series of images and stories documenting the villages of Ali Jegk and Cu:Wi I-gersk. Returning to this place many times over the years, I’ve witnessed the effects of border militarization on the O’odham and their way of life. In documenting this story, I hope that you too can see how policies crafted with fear and written thousands of miles away create lasting consequences for those who live here. I hope to share, in some small way, what it means to have a home—something that few of us on this continent know in the marrow-deep way that Ofelia does.

Today, the threats to that home are growing. As I write this, construction is underway on a surveillance tower atop the same ridge from where Ofelia and I used to look out over the land. Border Patrol agents continue to surveil the village and rip new roads across the landscape. Just over the Ajo Mountains, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the federal government is detonating sacred sites to construct a thirty-foot tall wall: ecological and cultural unity are being split by a meat cleaver of law.

The desert is changing irrevocably and in our names. At the very least, we should know.