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Planting Crosses to Remember Migrant Lives Lost in the Arizona Desert

Sister Lucy and Deacon Gabriel plant crosses in the Arizona desert where the remains of migrants who died on their journey have been found.

“It’s a very Christian thing and human thing to remember people — not a political thing,” Sister Lucy shares.

Video Transcript

Sister Lucy and Deacon Gabriel: Remembering the Dead

Sister Lucy Nigh: We all yearn for comfort. It’s got to be one of the greatest pains: to be alone and know that you’re dying.

Deacon Gabriel Saspe: And so when they’re gone, they’ll say, “I wonder whatever happened. I’m surprised that he never called, never wrote,” because they don’t know that he dropped in the desert.

Since 2000, the remains of nearly 4,000 migrants have been found in the deserts of Arizona. Volunteers memorialize these deaths, which would otherwise go unpublicized and unremembered.

Sister Lucy: We place or plant crosses in the desert where remains have been found in order to honor the memory of that person’s life, their story, their desire, their dream for a better life.

To memorialize migrants of Native descent, volunteers combine elements from Catholic and Native prayer practices.

Deacon Gabriel: I like to bring Catholicism and my experience in Native American circles, and I like to extend an invitation to everybody that’s here, the spirits that are here. We put our prayers down into the fire, and then the incense burns and the smoke goes up to our Creator, carrying our prayers. And actually the Holy Spirit is in the fire of the charcoals I’m burning.

Sister Lucy: It’s important for everybody just to be there, to be there in this place that has a connection to a life that was lost tragically, and somehow their memory or their story is in the earth there.

Deacon Gabriel: We were very fortunate today that it had the name of the person that fell and has the date that they think he passed. When you have a cross and the cross bar has no identificado, “not identified,” that really breaks my heart to see that.

Sister Lucy: Not always do these men and women know what they risk when they start crossing the desert. It had to be their love for their family, their concern for trying to raise their children. I think we are connecting them to that story.

Deacon Gabriel: We want to be sure that our prayers reach the family and that they accept what has happened and understand that their son or daughter is not forgotten.

Sister Lucy: Remembering these people who we never knew, I think is a ministry that gives witness to the fact that we are all one people. And in the spirit of trying to become one world, I have to believe that our prayer and that our action, our witness, adds something.

Deacon Gabriel: It’s not just about politics. It’s about being human and treating people with dignity.

Sister Lucy: Jesus said, “Welcome the stranger.” So it’s a very biblical and Christian and human thing to remember people, not a political thing.

I like to think of planting more than a cross because it is going to grow something after this. This something in the desert can live on to memorialize a life and a story and a dream. This person’s life lost in the desert is a seed for some kind of hope.

Margarito Tepo Prieto died of exposure on the outskirts Douglas, Arizona. He was 36 years old. 

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