Joel Smith is the operations manager for Humane Borders • Fronteras Compasivas, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Tucson.
The Sonoran desert is a key crossing point for immigrants coming over from Mexico and other Central American countries. It is one of the hottest places in North America. Many who attempt the journey become dehydrated and die along the way.
Joel is responsible for filling strategically-positioned barrels with fresh, cool water in the desert. He goes out every two weeks all year long, even in the middle of the summer, when the temperature can get as high as 112 degrees.
Joel shows me a plastic bag filled with food that he carries with him in the event that he runs into traveling immigrants at the water sites. He is not allowed to leave food behind, but can hand it directly to them. Joel says he never knows when that’s going to happen, so he carries these bags with him at all times.
The bags contain non-perishable items that will last during a long walk in the desert. They are filled with things like peanut butter, granola bars and canned goods that are easy-open.
He tells me that even if he could, he wouldn’t want to leave food behind because he worries that anti-immigrant groups will contaminate it to retaliate against those crossing the border. A group who call themselves “The Minute Men” roam the desert armed with rifles and other weapons, have been known to urinate in water cans or add chemicals to the food left behind to harm or kill immigrants crossing the desert.
More about Joel ➤
⬅︎ South Tucson
Melissa is a fellow National Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC) Leadership Institute alum, who I met in San Antonio in the summer of 2014. She and I spent the first day and later the last day of the NLI driving around the city on a fun adventure. I knew that she and I would get back together some day.
That time came when I chose Tucson as one of my destinations during my Fellowship.
I contacted Melissa and without hesitating, she insisted I stay in her home. Once I told her about my Fellowship, she offered to put me in touch with anyone I needed to see while in Tucson.
Melissa is an accountant by trade and volunteers her time and talent to organizations like the Derechos Humanos and the Safos Dance Theater.
On my first evening in Tucson, Melissa and Mel drove me to local organizations and we spoke about what I might want to do while I was there. I learned how well liked and respected she is among the people to whom she introduced me.
At the end of the first night, Melissa insisted I try some local food (the best hot dog I would ever eat, she says), so she takes me to El Guero Canelo to try a Sonoran Hot Dog.
Wao - it’s very tasty! I was definitely not disappointed.
In May of 2015, I arrive in Tucson, Arizona. My friend, Melissa, is still at work and is not able to join me until after 4pm, so she gives me directions to her home where her partner, Mel, is waiting.
As soon as I arrive, Mel is so warm and inviting. She invites me to sit in the living room for a spell. To open the conversation she announces that we have something in common: her family was raised in El Paso.
Mel is a wonderful artist. She shows me a painting of a mariachi group that she painted and tells me that her grandfather was part of a traveling mariachi group as a young man. She often uses him as inspiration for much of her artwork.
And then — feeling comfortable, as if we’ve known each other forever — she begins to tell me about her life.
It goes like this . . .
Mel began her artistic career as a graffiti artist. As a teenager, she would get up late at night to spray-paint walls and buildings around the city. For years, no one knew she was one of the tag artists that City officials had been complaining about, and who spent days and weeks looking for ways to catch “these taggers” in the act.
One night while tagging a large wall, Mel was almost caught by local police and had to hide undetected while they searched the area. She lay still, not able to move a muscle for fear of being caught. At one point, Mel feels mice scurrying across her back, but manages to hold still so as not to be caught.
When she returned home in the wee hours of the morning, her mother was waiting for her. As Mel walked in the door, her mother asked her only this before she went back to bed: “Do you want to pay the city or do you want the city to pay you?”
It was this moment when Mel decided to change her life course. Who was she kidding — it seems that even her mother knew all along what Mel had been trying to hide. The next day, she went to the City officials, turned herself in, and then offered to clean up the graffiti and replace it with a beautiful mural.
Eventually, the City hired her as a youth mentor to help young people make positive change in their lives.
Today, she is often called upon to speak at local events and serves as a role model and inspiration to young people across Arizona and neighboring states.
Mel’s paintings often depict what she sees around her in Tucson, and they reflect what I experienced in the Sonoran desert during my trip to Tucson. Her art and the messages she shares through her creative expression are what will keep me connected to Mel for a long time, across many borders.