Nogales, Arizona. I’m sitting next to the ac vent in my king-size room at the El Dorado Inn Suites, waiting for my clothes to dry. This hotel is pretty sweet. Not only is it really big and almost completely empty, it’s got faux marble slates in the bathroom and I have to leave the shower running to get cold water in the sink. But the room doesn’t stink and the manager is a nice old man who lives on the premises, above a row of rooms that he converted into a strip mall.
A word about our hotels. We’ve been in seven different ones already, and the whole “you get what you pay for” mentality is not proving to be true. For example, El Dorado has a ballroom, a restaurant and a bar—all closed. All you can get in the morning is hot coffee and some sweet and low. Econolodge in Tucson does indeed have breakfast, but only from 7 to 9, with the additional caveat that they toast their bagels ahead of time. I guess it keeps them from going stale too soon. In some hotels, such as the Zaragoza in Tijuana, we didn’t even get to test the food since we were out by 6 AM. El Norte in Mexicali was very thoughtful and gave me the only room with bedbugs out of the whole crew. Ironically, they kicked us out of the restaurant early on our first and only night, because they had to spray for ants and roaches.
We have not shared a room thus far and I intend to keep it that way. I’m pretty sure that if we did, the fragile balance holding together this production would collapse. Not only would we be over-worked, but we would have no freedom from each other, which would open up the way for the freedom to annoy and mutually frustrate ourselves.
All in all, with or without hot water or decent internet, there’s a certain fondness towards each hotel that cannot be helped. They’re our awkward refuge, the only place were we can literally shut the blinds on the making of this film.
Death smells like cotton candy
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office is unique in the entire world because it is overloaded with the largest numbers of unidentified migrant remains. For the last ten years, they have had the difficult task of trying to identify thousands of these deaths and return the remains to the respective family members.
When I contacted Dr. Hess, the Chief Medical Examiner, I knew very well that the subject had been covered many times before by many different media outlets. It was up to me to find a way to make our experience unique.
The visit started well enough. Dr. Hess is an intelligent, middle-aged man who has obviously dealt a lot with journalists and filmmakers during his short tenure. I suggested that we sit down in his office and talk for a while, without the camera on. This was just a way for me to get to know him and more importantly, to cover my tracks as I tried to figure out what to do in the actual interview. I basically asked all the questions I had read about or the ones you would expect, focusing on the politics and statistics of the border while trying to find something else.
We eventually moved into the huge outdoor freezer. The facility was installed a few years ago when the department became overwhelmed with unidentified remains. The inside is lined with racks full of corpses in body bags, each of them tagged with their name, if they have been identified, and the rest labeled Jane or John Doe. As soon as Dr. Hess opened the freezer doors, we were flooded with what I described as a bittersweet, tangy smell. In other words, I didn’t find it very unpleasant, just kind of heavy. One look at José and Justin proved to me that they didn’t share the sentiment. The doc looked at me with slight amusement:
“I guess you think it smells like cotton candy or something. Most people, however, find it very unpleasant. Don’t stay in there too long, the smell will stick to your clothes for the rest of the day. Trust me, it will offend people.”
Once again, as a credit to the work ethic of the crew, not only did they work in the outdoor freezer, but they also marched right into the larger indoor unit. We rubbed the smell in so good that we were smelling it for the next two days.
At the end of our visit we finally sat down for an interview. During the whole day I had been trying to lead Dr. Hess into what I thought were deep questions about life and death. Once we got to the interview I tried as best as I could to touch on these subjects. I felt a great fascination with this man who has a unique perspective on death. There is no one tasked with a similar challenge in the entire world. The doc has to solve complex scientific riddles posed by remains that have been ravaged and bleached by the desert. Often times, the only marker available is DNA. Which leads to the second part of the problem, waiting for family members to contact the department and aid in a positive identification. This is difficult because the migrants are moving across many cultures. Remember that Mexico has a large number of Indigenous communities, many of them with their own languages. Migrants coming from this background might not speak any Spanish and might have never left their village, further increasing the communication gap when it comes to identifying and returning remains. There are also migrants coming from Central America, where communication is even more difficult due to weak government structures.
But beyond all that, what interested me the most was the doc’s own views about death. Is he scared? Does he think about it often? How does he avoid getting depressed? But perhaps the question I really wanted to ask was whether there was a point to all this suffering. Had he found some sort of overarching insight behind the hundreds of migrant deaths that he investigated every year?
“I honestly don’t think about it too much. I guess I am like everybody else. Most people go about their lives acting like they’re invincible, and I pretty much do the same thing. I do not spend too much of my time outside of work thinking about death. It’s inevitable, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Waiting for the coyote
There are moments in life where you have to stand up for yourself, no matter how awkward and painful, and way too long the experience may be. Tuesday the 4th of October will linger in our memories as one of these moments.
We had got off on a great start. According to me, Monday had been a half-day (read below), and Justin and I had spent our afternoon scouting locations in Heróica Nogales, Mexico, while José finally accepted that it was a good idea to wash his clothes in his hotel room. When we set out Tuesday morning, we felt rested and ambitious, ready to get some amazing material. But our plans soon began to fail in what would become a nearly-catastrophic chain of events that could have ruined our entire shoot.
I blame a certain Catholic charity for getting the ball rolling. Nogales, Mexico, has only one center that provides actual sit-down breakfast and lunch for migrants, and it is run by this charity. We arrived early in the morning and there was already a few dozen migrants waiting outside, but we were not allowed to film anything until we had direct permission from the head priest. They gave us the usual confusing and vague directions you get in Mexico, failing to clarify that the office we were looking for was back in the US side of the border. When we actually found the address, it turned out to be a liquor store. By the time we got a hold of the leader of the organization, breakfast was long over, which meant that the migrants were scattered around the city while they waited for lunch time. That’s when we had the bright idea to drive out into the hills.
Both of the cities of Nogales are basically glorified towns, small with not much to do. Literally two-hundred yards from the border crossing the hills begin, vast rolling landscapes of cattle and shrubs. The interesting thing is that if you follow the border for a few miles, the 20 foot fence disappears and the rusty pillars give way to a simple barrier made with barbed wire, the kind you find on any old ranch anywhere. This is where most of the migrants cross. The desert does not dissuade them, and this is where almost half of all yearly detentions have been made lately.
Our goal was to get some footage of the transition between this massive barrier and the cattle fence. We will have to console ourselves with our imaginations because we never made it. On our way there we got stuck in a sandy creek-bed for over 5 hours.
Obviously, since I’m telling this story, we’re all alive and well. But the experience was grueling. To get a sense of the danger hanging over our heads, consider that during the day the sierra is empty. We never saw a soul. But during the night, the entire countryside is crawling with drug dealers and human smugglers going about their business. These people have absolutely no scruples and they are territorial to the extreme. There’s no telling what would have happened to us if we didn’t make it out.
Allow me another short digression to explain that by this point in our general journey our van has a name: la wreck. I think it’s the best combination of the affection and basic lack of faith we have in the vehicle.
Anyway, there we were in that fateful ravine snuggled between two hills, with the rear left wheel of la wreck buried deep in the sand. I had been driving her along just fine, full of confidence and keeping mostly to the rocks. We were suddenly jolted as the rear end sank with that awful grating and spinning we would hear for the rest of the day. Nature had just been biding her time, waiting for us to get far away from any help. As soon as we got stuck I tried to create a positive atmosphere by loudly declaring to the crew:
“Hey, don’t worry about it. There’s no way that three dudes can’t take care of this.”
Of course, an hour later we had met with no success; in fact, things were worse. I had the bright idea of using dry branches together with rocks, which almost lead to la wreck catching fire. The wheel spun in place, the friction created heat and little chunks of tire burned off. We can only imagine what we would have done if la wreck would have caught ablaze with all our film equipment inside.
Time continued to pass by, you could almost feel it smirking at us condescendingly. The little folding shovel I bought in case we had to dig a toilet, was a godsend. crawled under the chassis to place the jack and pumped it to lift the tire while José and Justin placed rocks under it, repeating the process several times. We used our famous tarp and our floor mats to reinforce the rocks, and I would drive while the crew would push with increasing desperation. There was a point where I had to lay on my stomach and use my walking stick to tediously clear a space between the ground and the undercarriage. We resorted to digging with our hands, with a large oil pan and a piece of the dashboard. I even started to simply kick the sand away with my feet until my ankles were sore.
All in all, we failed 4 times before we actually got la wreck out and into more solid ground. The sense of joy and gratitude was universal and delicious, the way any meal tastes great after you’ve gone hungry for a good while.
Now unknowingly, we were facing that very special moment, that hidden gem in any potential disaster when you think you made it and things manage to get worse. I was busy cutting down a couple of small pines with my leatherman, which is a task that can only be accomplished with blind conviction. My plan was to drive la wreck through the terrain right next to the creek bed and I had to clear the way. At some point, José asked me to let him drive and I fumbled about with my answer and let him do it without clearly communicating the strategy. I’m not faulting him for his confidence and overwhelming desire to get the hell out of there, but within one minute la wreck was stuck again. The right mirror had fallen off and José couldn’t see well enough, plus my directions were confusing. He missed the path and drove her back into the creek bed.
It was worse than before. Her rear axle was lying in a harsh diagonal, with the same troublesome wheel a good 2 to 3 feet below its partner. The situation started to become unhinged pretty quickly. José and I were shocked to see Justin authentically flustered, with a wild look in his eyes pleading for some sort of sanity to remedy the madness we were in. We worked feverishly. At one point, Justin was digging out the wheel when a small scorpion crawled out. I shuddered and froze for a moment before yelling at Justin to get away. He promptly smashed it with the jack. This incident happened over two hours before we finally got out of there for good, and every minute before that I was expecting to get stung. I later found out that what we saw was a bark scorpion, which according to Wikipedia is the most poisonous scorpion in North America. Oh well.
The sun was setting when we finally got out of the sand once again. I literally jumped up and down and we awkwardly hugged and high-fived each other. We had passed some sort of important test, even if it was with a D-.
I firmly believe that if we had failed in our last attempt, we would have had some sort of a collective nervous breakdown. We would also have had to spend the night shuddering with fear hidden somewhere in the woods, clutching our gear and whatever poor weapons we could muster. At dawnbreak we would crawl back to find la wreck beat up and broken into, a sad monument to our failure.
When we got back to the hotel we gave ourselves 30 minutes to shower before heading out to eat a huge Italian dinner. I remember looking at all my clothes floating in my bathtub, including my shoes. I opened up the faucet as much as possible and watched as the laundry detergent started bubbling. The loud noise, the fizzle of the soap and the dirt stains in the water were all somehow very gratifying. I felt like I was looking at the landscape of glory.
A day and a half
Here’s a fragment from a usual conversation. This took place two days before we tried to start filming again and got stuck in the sierra:
Me: I think we need a break. You guys look pretty tired.
J&J: We agree. There have been too many long days and too little sleep.
J&J: And without regular meals.
Me: Hey, we do the best we can.
J&J: Today for example, we started hiking in the desert at 4 AM.
We had no breakfast and didn’t eat until evening.
Me: Don’t worry, tomorrow you get a half day.
J&J: What does that mean?
Me: It’s a half day, that’s what it means!
J&J: But we have to be at the Air Museum at 9AM and at the Titan Missile by 1PM!
Me: Yeah…but, you have to subtract the lunch break. That’s going to be like 2 hours.
J&J: Ok. But that’s still a 6 hour day.
Me: No, remember that if you have fun at the museums it doesn’t count. You have to subtract all the fun parts.
J&J: But what if we don’t have fun? Then it’s all work.
Me: Don’t worry, you’ll have fun.
J&J: And what about the car ride?
Me: Hey, that’s part of the half day. You can do whatever you want during the car ride.
J&J: As long as we stay in the car.
Me: That’s right.