Life & Death Converge on the Border

Photo essay and personal account by Jessica Lutz

We had barely settled into base camp—a ranch owned by Octaviano Parada on the border with Mexico—when we received a call that a man had gone missing.

Parada, then tending his bar in Van Horn, explained that relatives of the missing man were coming to borrow horses for the search. Minutes later, three men and a woman from Artesia, New Mexico, pulled in with a shredded tire and despair on their faces.

The story was muddled. It sounded like two men had been brought over by “coyotes” and left for dead. One of the men, their relative, was very sick—hung-over and dehydrated. The other had continued on and was picked up by the border patrol.

I was the crew photographer, assembled for an archeological survey in the Sierra Vieja lowlands, basically in the middle of nowhere. Crew members David Keller and Danielle Acee, familiar with the harsh desert terrain, discussed potential routes with the distraught visitors. But the day was late, they would have to return to town for the night. “Early tomorrow morning,” they said, “at the crack of dawn.”

An hour after daybreak, a border patrol helicopter flew low overhead, in what appeared to be a search pattern. The family showed up late, with two more flats and a destroyed rim. But the ranch hand didn’t show. Without horses, their search effort was abandoned.

That night we learned the man had been found dead. Presidio County Justice of the Peace, David Beebe, had been notified to file paper work and was en route from Marfa. But he had lost his way. Luckily, he ran into Parada, who was coming in from Van Horn. Beebe, surprisingly still rolling with tires intact on his old Mercedes sedan, trailed Parada back to the ranch to get his bearings and use the phone.

According to Beebe, Isidro Barrera Velador, was found face-down in a pool of water. His wallet contained a Mexican drivers license, a Mexican voter ID card, and a Texas ID card with a Dallas address.

We may never know the details about Velador’s life straddling the border or why he tempted fate in the desert and lost. What is certain is the event assembled an unlikely array of characters—a crew of scientists, a ranch owner, a family from Artesia N.M., and a public official—to converge on a quiet ranch in the desert outback. To me, it pulled into focus the borderlands and its rash of issues. For days, thoughts about death, the border, the human condition lingered in us all.

That’s how it is with the Mexican border. It’s sometimes less a boundary than a melting pot, a place of convergence, a place that magnifies both our differences as well as the plight of our common humanity.

Jessica Lutz is a citizen reporter for KRTS, Marfa Public Radio.

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