Happy Hispanic Heritage Month from here in Fayetteville. The city’s Chamber of Commerce marked the occasion with a two-parter festival. The first part yesterday brought sunshine and Argentinian dance. The second part today was cut off by blustery winds and a strong afternoon downpour, but not before its parade had a chance to circle Fayetteville’s square.
The event was officially apolitical, but celebrating Hispanic heritage almost seems like a political statement in itself these days, given the intense focus on immigration and policy and our president. I wrote up an article for today’s paper about how deferred action for childhood arrivals, the Obama-era protection from deportation given to hundreds of thousands young immigrants, stands a decent chance of becoming a law in Congress now. We’ll see what comes of it.
I looked at the millions of shells and the waves and the signs of life and of death, more and more intensely focused on the absolutely stunning detail in every inch of sand. I told time by the endless push and pull of the tides under the Sun and Moon. It was intoxicating. The Gulf of California holds tens of thousands of species, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the global ocean. I wanted to take in as much as I could.
(This is a longer post; as usual, feel free to just look at the photos.)
The four-hour drive between Tucson, Arizona, and the Gulf features some odd geography: wide, flat plains abruptly punctured by serrated mountains. Drab-green bushes and spiky ocotillos dot the plains like freckles on a face.Tiny shrines pop up every mile or so, lone crosses on steep hills or boxes big enough for a handful of people. Past the border, a low and broad volcanic shield of dark rock, the Pinacate Peaks, looms over the western horizon. Three peaks crown the shield; smaller cones poke up from the slopes like barnacles on an overturned boat. NASA thought the area resembled the Moon closely enough to train Apollo astronauts there.
The mountains and familiar saguaros of the Sonora eventually fall behind, leaving plains and dunes of cream-covered sand and barbed-wire fences. We’re approaching the water.
Puerto Peñasco is a town of around 60,000 at the tip of the long, thin Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortéz. Called Rocky Point in English, it thrives on fishing and tourism. My mom, her husband and I are headed to a strip of beach houses on the edge of town that wealthy Americans rent out for weekends. My mom’s friend Charlie and her family are coming, too.
It’s a beautiful place, and a beachfront house is a luxury I’ve never experienced. We immediately walk across the road to the beach. The tide is low, exposing a couple hundred yards of sand that’s sculpted into waves, as if the sea’s motion had been petrified just before we arrived.A horsed man with a moustache and cowboy hat ambles up and down the beach, leading a group of about half a dozen other horses. His son is perched on the last of the bunch. The horses’ fur is ruffled and their owner’s pace is slow, matching the lack of energy in his and his son’s blank faces. They offer rides to faster-paced beach-goers. One American boy, maybe 9 or so, sprints to them and insists in shouted English they follow him toward his family.
I don’t know how long it’s been since I had no Internet, no phone reception – heck, not even a clock. It’s not the life-changing purge you might expect, at least not yet. But it’s different. Losing the news is odd for a reporter. The U.S. could plunge into civil war and I wouldn’t know much about it until next day’s paper (Take that, CNN!). I make my mom laugh when I say this must be how daily life must have been a couple of decades ago. Sunrise fills the sky and windows with pink and orange.A group of brown pelicans is called a pod, but I want to call it something like a troop, because they fly together like fighter jets in formation. Ten or so glide swiftly above the water this morning with hardly a wing beat, all level and in a row. They ramp up and down together like a roller coaster train on its track. The leader swoops up before plunging straight down into the water, piercing the surface with its hefty beak. The followers trace the same arc right behind. Smaller groups split off and continue their tandem hunting. It’s mesmerizing.The water is clear and cool, taking on a glassy, bluish-green hue with more depth. The tides come in and out as if the ocean were breathing with planet-sized lungs.
On the way into town, men in cowboy hats recline beside tables holding jars of amber miel — honey. The town, or at least the touristy boardwalk, is splashed with every color, with shelves of T-shirts, hats, pants, knick-knacks, silver and beaded jewelry and bags. Primary-color signs advertise fresh fish.
Calls of “Amigos!” and “Almost free!” come from every side as smiling men and women try to steer us into their restaurants or shops. Mexican radio plays from passing cars. Lots of Americans drink beers and tote cameras (I only do one of those things). Almost all of the first-floor windows are barred with twirled metal. Every block or two stands a demolished or abandoned building.
Later we spend a couple of hours walking to and from Estero Morúa, the Morúa Estuary, home of thousands of birds and their food. The beach on the way is a place of stark, almost desolate beauty. By the time we reach the cove, the small waves in the exposed sand near the house become dips several feet wide.
A pale, marble-sized object sits on the sand among shattered shells: an urchin skeleton, hollow and delicate as an empty robin’s egg. Tiny pinpoints etch a 5-pointed star pattern on its surface. It’s light enough for the wind to blow it out of my mom’s hand; it breaks. Beautiful and temporary, that’s the beach. Amazingly, we later find a second, even smaller one. She nests it in a palm-sized scallop shell with a bed of sand. We don’t drop that one.
The exquisite swirls and curves of millions of shells are stained with every shade: mossy green, magenta, sky blue, rusty orange. To me they seem finer and more precious than gems.
Few people can be seen in any direction. A massive dune crossed by tire tracks looms behind a towering hotel or condo building of beige concrete and green glass, easily the tallest thing for miles and completely out of place. It looks empty.
(Our work at the estuary’s edge.)
As we walk back to home base along the surf, the sand’s surface reminds me of parts of Mars. Tiny craters surrounded by little mounds hint at unseen worms and look like miniature volcanoes. The worms, or whatever they are, leave curving, twisting tracks a few millimeters wide, like tiny, dried-up river beds.
As the sun sets and the tide comes in, a pod of hundreds of pelicans recreate the morning’s tandem flying, following each other up and down as the leader swoops toward the water’s surface. I haven’t seen many flocks as big.
In the night, half a dozen shrimp boats glint in the distance like stars set on the water.
Lots of wind on the last morning, as if the sea is trying to blast us back home.
Troops of pelicans, flocks of sea gulls and individual ospreys hover almost in place in the wind, tipping their wings up and down occasionally to edge forward. They then angle themselves to the side and zoom backward before turning back to their original angle, halting and starting again. High waves toss below, with translucent green water curling into tubes that tumble into the sand.
(That’s a contrail’s shadow, something I’d never seen before.)
On the road back to the States, everyone’s in a hurry; trucks speed past on the left every minute. A sign helpfully says respeta los límites velocidades – respect the speed limits.
Crossing the border, on the other hand, takes at least an hour, probably longer. Women, children and men walked between the two stationary lanes of traffic, hoisting up tamales, tortillas, jewelry, wreaths, cotton candy, brushes for cleaning windshields or statues of turtles and monkeys holding cans of beer. Merry Christmas, I suppose.
I came across a bagpipes rehearsal near my office after the solar eclipse this week, maybe for someone’s homecoming parade. Some family visited this weekend and went with me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art up in Bentonville yesterday. Today, we went to Eureka Springs, a small town to the northeast that’s home to hundreds of artists and shops.
And tonight, I went to see “The Book of Life,” a beautifully animated romance and adventure story based around the Mexican holiday called el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.The observance, which is coming up this weekend, is a celebration of loved ones who have died, a way to remember them while enjoying food and color and light and taking away the sting and dread of death.
In the movie, the dead inhabit two realms: Those who have living descendants to remember them dwell in the boisterously colorful and fun Land of the Remembered, while those who have no such legacy wither away in the cold, gray Land of the Forgotten.
It’s a family film, but like the holiday it celebrates, it dives into some of my deepest, most fearful questions: What happens when I die, and will I be remembered? I don’t think I’m alone with these thoughts.
Art, I think, is at least partly an attempt to answer those questions: to make something to remember, and to reach past the boundaries of a lifetime.
We have sculptures and buildings and paintings and books, but a lot of humanity’s art is temporary, like a group’s playing of the bagpipes for a crowd or an interaction on a sidewalk. Other art doesn’t come from us at all, like a sunset or solar eclipse. I like to think of photography as a way to record this art, to say, yes, you existed, and you did or made or were something worth seeing.
I hope my photography also qualifies as art, because I’m trying to make something to remember, too. We all want to keep the party going in the Land of the Remembered.
So when I say thanks for looking, I mean it. I hope you have a good week.
The United States’ wall splitting the border town Nogales stands as an inescapable fact, cleaving through the hills like a knife slash scabbed over. Streets on both sides run straight up to its rusted beams. On the Mexican side a woman washed a car’s tires beneath the fence’s 30-foot height in the morning sun, Nogales’ American twin visible between the bars. Signs for Burger King and Ed’s Border Parking (“Safe and Convenient!”) poked up from the other side.
Dozens of people lined up to go north through one of the wall’s gates. They silently ignored a thin man with a worn face and worn baseball hat who thrust the hat through the vertical aluminum bars around the line. Farther down the line another man in a black vaquero outfit sang a mariachi ballad with a guitar. When he finished his song, no one clapped.
Across the street, men with blue and red bandanas covering their faces picked through the burning wreckage of several stores. Smoke drifted from heaps of blackened wood through intact plaster walls and doorways. The men squinted at us. Someone repeatedly wolf-whistled in the distance. I turned around. Cauliflower storm clouds piled on the northern horizon.
When I first approached the border that day, I was struck by the oddity that I had never before seen the wall around my own country. I was like a child first encountering the fence around my backyard, where home abruptly halts. On the other side waited a new world, the front porch of a country where the conflicting urges to stay, to go, to invite, and to push away grappled in every street and restaurant and market.
We crossed the fence with little more than a wave and a bienvenidos from two Mexican officers in bulletproof vests, who ushered us into a garish avenue of dentist and doctor and pharmacy offices. Their owners had painted them in vivid blues and oranges and purples and topped them with English ads. A couple of women and their daughters walked among the stream of visitors, two of them clutching purple Disney princess tents folded flat against their legs. Overheard conversations in English were suddenly out of place.
Along streets filled with white busses and honking traffic, a father with a round belly helped his tiny daughter in a pink dress scale a curb. Two sisters and their brother teased each other in English while trailing their mother, who jabbered excitedly into a phone in Spanish. Hills rose on all sides, brightly painted houses planted into their faces. People went about their business, and the city seemed fairly relaxed.
But the day’s newspaper headline, trumpeting that a Nogales lawyer had been arrested with several pounds of methamphetamine, pierced this mellow routine. In a leather shop, past the luggage sewn with NFL mascots and fake designer logos, the shopkeeper had pictures of his wife and three children displayed in a glass case above dozens of gun holsters. A vendor displayed several ceramic figures of Jesús Malverde, a well-groomed and mustachioed Robin Hood-like bandit from the early 1900s — the so-called patron saint of drug traffickers — mixed among other figurines of frogs, crucifixes and the alien from Predator.
Near the visitor entrance to town, fenced in by three streets, stood a maze of twisted iron suns, brightly painted lamps and boxes, wooden wolves and lizards, cheap replicas of Aztec calendars and hundreds of cow skulls piled in huge cones like bleak Christmas trees. Smiling shopkeepers beckoned me from booth to booth.
One, a man in his 20s named Israel, waved me into his shop exclaiming, “I’ve been waiting for you all year.” I relented and he said, “God bless the U.S.A. – and Canada.” While I looked around, he lightheartedly accused a couple of customers, dubbed Papá and Mamá, of ripping him off (but he’d sell for that price anyway). He edged around his cramped shop, his frizzy hair tied back in a puffball ponytail.
Israel said he had worked there for seven years with a good friend, a man with graying hair and moustache who I mistook for his father. Business had slowed in the past several years for this market, he said; the paths between its piles were almost empty. Israel said tourism was fickle. Other shopkeepers blamed the economy.
“Want a little hat?” he asked, showing his knack for deflecting personal questions into sales pitches by pointing to a small pile of tiny red and blue sombreros with silver threads. “They can be for dogs, cats, Pépe,” he added, stringing a red specimen onto his only slightly larger black Chihuahua. Pépe recalled a certain cartoon skunk of the same name with his unceasingly amorous behavior toward a larger, mellower black dog that kept trying to lie down in a corner.
Israel’s friend took over and Israel sat down outside his shop against an adobe wall, quiet for a rare moment. He told me he was from near the Californian border and wanted to leave Nogales, but not for the U.S. It was much easier to go to Canada, he said.
I stopped for lunch at La Roca. Around noon six policía federal officers, thickly built and armed with guns and nightsticks,entered confidently in single file, their title emblazoned in silver on their black uniforms. The smoky jazz played on from the ceiling and conversations in Spanish and English continued unperturbed, restaurant patrons meticulously avoiding looking at the newcomers. The police made no angry word or gesture but scanned the room impassively from their table, murmuring to each other. The dark blue walls and deep orange window curtains gave the room an oddly dusky feel for the middle of a bright August day.
Richard Grant, the travel writer and author who was leading my little expedition, had warned me to stay away from police, who in Mexico are notorious for colluding with the drug cartels they’re meant to fight.
Most of the waiting staff abandoned their other tables and clustered around the police three or four at a time, whisking away empty plates, bringing drinks, setting out napkins. After about half an hour the federales finished their meal and filed out. A waiter held the door open for them, bumped fists with the last man before following the group out and closing the door. In the restaurant’s courtyard outside, women in pastel skirts posed with balloons for pictures in front of a chattering fountain.
Near the market, teachers stood along the curved curb holding sheets of white paper that declared their holders to be against education reforms in the state. A young woman protesting said the government blames teachers for the country’s education problems but government corruption is really to blame. An SUV with a deep bass system and a van for a local radio station dueled for our eardrums, blasting music and advertisements over each other. A man with a straw hat as broad as his shoulders sold orange pinwheel confections from a cart. At this intersection, fewer people than usual looked at me out of the corners of their eyes.
The noise pushed me into a church of pale, rough-hewn rock. Police sirens and screeching car horns, flying through doors flung wide to the streets, echoed inside as if in a cave. The handful of men and women scattered among the smooth wooden pews were quiet. The men wore plaid shirts and cowboy hats.
One man leaned on a wooden cane with a blood-red tip at the end of a pew and prayed to the statue of Maria at the front of the room, reaching with thick fingers that appeared to have been broken several times. Maria stood against a turquoise wall beneath small fluorescent-bulb chandeliers. Her feet met the top of Jesus’ cross carved below her. Light blue light filtered through tinted windows 20 feet up. A bronze plaque outside declared the building had reached its centenario, its 100th year, in 1991.
Walking toward the door, the man turned back, framed against glaring sunlight. Drowned out by traffic he made a final plea, crossed himself gravely and left, putting back on his brown hat. A mariachi song wafted in from a passing bus.
Outside the church, boys played with toy trucks, sending them clattering down the steps that led down to a row of shops. One of the town’s many lime-green “natural stores,” promising all-natural cures, stood at one end.
As I sat down on the steps a woman named Nora in front of another shop asked with a warm smile if I would buy the packaged round lemon cake in her hands. I demurred, taking off my sunglasses. She complimented my eyes and jokingly lamented that I was so young: 22 years to her 34. She often pulled her light yellow shirt to her eyes, wiping away sweat almost apologetically.
“It sucks here,” Nora said, smiling bashfully after being so blunt. It was the mountains she disliked, Nora said. Almost as an afterthought she added that her parents and five children were in the U.S. Her children had been born there and she had been studying in Tucson, she said. But Nora had been deported about six months before. She said it was because of a paperwork problem or mix-up, which struck me as all too plausible.
Nora wanted to rejoin her family. She didn’t know when this would happen. I wished her buena suerte, good luck, and since I wouldn’t buy the lemon cake, I bought a lemonade from her. With a tinge of melancholy she handed back the 2-peso change and said goodbye.
I went back to the U.S. shortly afterward, my admission costing a 20-minute wait and a quick passport inspection by a young, tan U.S. border officer who said, “Hi, how’s it going?” Other officers chatted past the checkpoint. It was a relaxing notion that I could once again trust uniforms. Thunderheads still climbed in the distance, fanning out across the sky.