This is a story from From Larry Trent’s memories … It didn’t happen this year. Wait! I am pretty sure it did. Maybe it was a different name.
I arrived back from Nogales on Monday afternoon only to find an email with the title, “California father of 5 dies in desert after being deported and Border Patrol refuses to look for him.” As I read, I felt a knot in my stomach. The story was too familiar. A man in San Diego County was picked up, detained and deported after going to the Mini-Mart to buy a gallon of milk for his kids. I had heard that story in Nogales a few weeks before.
The article in the North County Times described the death of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, age 39. I felt sick. The man in Nogales was named Alfonso – I never ask their last names, but rarely forget their first. Oh, Dear God – I may know this man!
The article said –– “On the afternoon of April 20 Martinez began his fatal journey to return to his wife and children. He agreed to pay a “coyote,” a smuggler, more than $3,000 to help him cross the border through Arizona. He paid $250 worth of Mexican pesos before the trip and agreed to pay $2,900 when he arrived in the U.S., his wife said.
After a full day of walking through the desert, Martinez began to feel sick and fell behind. The group of about 20 people, including the smuggler, kept going. One man, Isaac Jimenez Hernandez, tried to help. Jimenez asked the smuggler to wait, but he didn’t, and the group left. Jimenez found a cellphone in Martinez’s pocket and tried to call 911 but there was no signal. He walked two hours before he was able to find a cell signal and call for help.
When Border Patrol agents arrived, they arrested Jimenez. He told them that there was a sick man and offered to lead them back to him but they told him that other agents would look for him. Two days later, when Jimenez was released in Mexicali, Mexico, he called Martinez’s family and told them the story.
Martinez came to the United States from his native San Luis Potosi in central Mexico more than 20 years ago. He worked at a Vista supermarket as a butcher for many years before he was laid off two years ago because of his immigration status.
Days after he was released in Mexico, Jimenez was asked by the Border Patrol to help them locate Martinez’s body. On April 26, Jimenez led them to the body, at the base of a mountain on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation.
The body was in an advanced stage of decomposition, said Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner of the Pima County Forensic Science Center in Tucson, Ariz. The body was recovered by the Tohono O’odham Police Department on April 27, Hess said.
A wallet found on the body had no photo IDs or other documents to help identify the body. Medical examiners were unable to get proper fingerprints because of the condition of the body. Hess said his office is working with the Martinez family and the Mexican Consulate to help positively identify the body. The cause of death was determined to be hypothermia due to exposure to the elements.”
Every single time I read of another death in the desert, I feel sick, sad beyond words, guilty because there must be more I can do. Maybe I should sign up for another run in the desert. I know people die out there. I go to memorial services remembering them. I walked from Tucson to San Xavier del Bac as a Vigil for Day of the Dead. But, here, for the first time, I could put a face, a name, and the story of someone’s death all together. This was not just a news item about someone who died trying to cross the harsh, inhospitable desert that we all love. This was Alfonso. I talked with him, listened to his story, shared his pain. I tried to find a pair of shoes for him. He used my telephone to call his wife and children. I helped him out of El Comedor into the orange truck of Grupo Beta to take him back to the shelter. This man told me he would try again to cross though he had failed twice. This was real! This was a man I knew.
God, how am I supposed to bear this?
I was not very functional the rest of Monday evening. I kept telling myself that I could not keep doing this ministry. The newspaper article listed an account number at Wells Fargo that one could make a donation to help the family claim Alfonso and return him home. I went to the bank and made a donation. I sat out the rest of Tuesday thinking. Maybe I need a break. But when I got a text message from my Thursday No More Deaths traveling companion asking if I planned to go, I texted back, “See you at 7.”
I know that Alfonso’s family can use the money I sent, but the real way for me to honor and remember him is to not give up.
To get in the car and head back down to Nogales.
To sign more petitions.
To write Congress.
To share his story.
To work to change our system.
To make sure that Alfonso did not die in vain.