Why Can’t We Treat Immigrants Like Redstarts?

What would you pack if you were about to set out on the most dangerous journey of your life? I was forced to think about that on my hike in Coronado National Forest, Arizona, last weekend. I had planned a birding/hiking trip before a meeting in Phoenix. Because of a freak snowstorm, I wound up at a trailhead less than three miles from the Mexican border. As I started my hike, I spotted a backpack washed up on the side of a creek and I froze.

A backpack lost by an immigrant.

This backpack had a stronger impact on me than it might for most people. You see, my dad’s parents immigrated to the US from Bolivia. I’m half-Latino, and I’ve always felt a connection to the culture. During the last three years, I’ve connected to immigrant Latino communities near me and met a lot of people who have crossed the border legally and illegally. So when I hear about deaths or abuses on the border, I think of my friends.

Although mortified by the backpack, I needed to know more about it. I looked around to make sure its owner wasn’t nearby, and up close I saw evidence that it had been in the creek for several days. So I moved it away from the water and began to look inside for clues about its owner’s identity.

So again, what would you bring on the most dangerous journey of your life? Here’s what this person did: A toothbrush, toothpaste, gum, one liter of water, two loaves of whole wheat bread, two packets of American cheese, one can of mayonnaise, one can of sliced peppers, two cans/packets of tuna fish, a hoodie, a beanie hat, a long sleeve cotton shirt, a trash bag, two packets of powdered electrolytes, and a head of garlic.

The contents of the the lost backpack.

A few of the contents in particular struck me. One liter of water??? For an arduous trek across desert and mountains where people die of dehydration every year? The electrolyte packets echoed this danger. Just a hoodie and no gloves in an area where the low last night was 20 degrees??  And garlic? Why garlic?

As I examined these items, uncomfortable questions came to me. Who was their owner? Why did his backpack end up in a creek? And where the hell was he now?

The terrain that immigrants have to cross.
The surrounding terrain that immigrants have to navigate.

The backpack also made me take a hard look at my own life and culture. It made me think about my privilege. I had packed more food for my 11-mile hike than this person had for a much longer and more dangerous journey. It made me ashamed of the millions of dollars American hikers splurge on ridiculously expensive and unnecessary outdoor clothing, equipment, and food. And I thought about mobility. I had come to this spot for pleasure. The backpack’s owner had probably been forced here by poverty or violence (which my country probably had a large role in creating).

©
My backpack (left) and the immigrant’s (right). Similar appearance, very different purposes.

As I stood there, a sweet, cheerful bird call woke me from these thoughts. I looked up, and in the tree above me was one of the most beautiful birds to grace the United States with its presence. His jet-black body flashed bright white as he flitted about. On his chest and stomach was a patch of red so vibrant that it seemed to glow. It was a Painted Redstart, which turned out to be an eerily appropriate bird for this moment.

A Painted Redstart.
A Painted Redstart.

Painted Redstarts live mostly in Mexico, but a tiny portion of their population migrates to Arizona to breed. The first time I saw one I was a 14-year-old in Arizona obsessed with seeing new bird species. The second time was 11 months ago in central Mexico, where I was visiting a friend’s family to learn about life and culture there. Now, standing above the lost backpack an immigrant, I watched this bird for a third time with an entirely different perspective.

To this bird, the border matters so little that it doesn’t even know it exists. When it gets too cold in Arizona, he can retreat into Mexico’s warmth without a thought. When it warms up, he can fly north to take advantage of abundant food sources in Arizona.

Here’s the kicker: when Painted Redstarts are found in the US, we celebrate them. Thousands of birdwatchers flock to Arizona every year to see Mexican species like the redstart. We admire their beauty, savor their exoticism, and appreciate the journey they’ve made to our country.

Why can’t we treat immigrants that way?

The terrain that immigrants have to cross.
Sunrise on Coronado National Forest.

13 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Treat Immigrants Like Redstarts?

  1. Norman Barrientos March 1, 2019 — 12:46 pm

    Very well said and I am glad you reflected on the immigrant’s plight to make the dangerous trek to the US. Sad to see how our country has been treating economic and political immigrants.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Barbara Ruth MacKinnon de Montes March 1, 2019 — 1:52 pm

    Evan – you really made good use of your writing ability and knowlege of nature to make an importante social statement. Hopefully we will see you back in Yucatán some day!

    Like

    1. Thank you, Barbara. I hope so too!

      Like

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your experience, seeing your photos, and thinking about the question you raise. Many thanks, Liz from New Zealand

    Like

    1. Thank you, Liz. Glad you enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa Morgen-Barrientos March 2, 2019 — 9:30 am

    Evan,
    Thank you for your eloquent and thought-provoking blog to hopefully open the eyes, minds and hearts of many.

    Like

  5. Update: since publishing this I’ve heard three folk beliefs about the garlic from two Mexican friends. 1. It brings good luck. 2. It repels animals. 3. Eating it can treat scorpion stings.

    Like

  6. Karen Hemberger March 2, 2019 — 7:40 pm

    A beautiful well-written post, Evan. Thank you

    Like

  7. Tuve muchos sentimientos encontrados al leer esta historia. ¡Es increible! Sólo el pensar en la persona que estuvo ahí. ¿Por qué nos arriesgamos a tal aventura?, ¿Vale la pena hacerlo?, ¿Alguien lo espera?, ¿Quería perder peso para acelerar el paso?, ¿Tenía dificultades y fue su última alternativa?, ¿Dónde está ahora?, ¿Cómo decides salir de casa encomendarte a tu Dios esperando que todo sea para bien y pones lo que puede ser el resto de tu vida en una mochila?. Si los políticos y religiosos fueran empaticos no pondrían fronteras e ideas para dividirnos y así compartir este hermoso planeta como hermanos. Me atrevo a decir que estas cosas se evitarían. Pero el hubiera no existe, está es una realidad latente en nuestro día a día. Atreverse a cruzar fronteras para buscar una “vida mejor ” en un lugar al cual “no perteneces”. ¡Gracias Evan por está historia!

    Like

    1. Gracias por tus excelentes preguntas y reflecciones, Lupe.
      For my English-reading audience, here’s a translation of Guadalupe’s comment, which is worth reading:

      I had a lot of mixed feelings reading this story. It’s incredible! Just thinking about that person. Why do we risk such an adventure? Is it worth it? Is someone waiting for him? Did he want to shed weight to gain speed? Was he in trouble and it was his last resort? Where is he now? How do you decide to leave your home and hand over your life to God, hoping that everything goes well and you put what could be the rest of your life in a backpack? If politicians and religious people were empathetic, borders and ideas couldn’t divide us and we could share this beautiful planet like siblings. I dare to say that this kind of thing would be avoided. But that “if” doesn’t exist, this is a latent reality in our day to day. Daring to cross borders in search of a “better life” in a place where “you don’t belong.” Thank you, Evan, for this story!

      Like

  8. That is beautiful Evan. While other animals are also territorial, we have the capacity to see beyond boundaries if only we would arise to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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