Cartographies of Insurrection (Letters at the Gate to Hell)

Sophia Terazawa


July 2, 2018

Dearest Sunflower,

Last night we saw the gate to hell and rows of children along the entrance of America. I thought about a conversation two nights ago with friends in Tucson. We spoke of Asian American mothers and their white porcelain teeth. I did not say my mother lost all of her rotting teeth on the ocean passage from Vietnam.

Last night some humans came over for dinner at our Airbnb in Patagonia to celebrate the launch of our journey into the Southwest Field Studies in Writing program, supported by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. We ate tamales, honeydew, and Lee Anne’s heavenly coleslaw. We spoke of World Cup wins and bee stings. I did not say my mother almost died inside a soccer field converted to a refugee camp in Malaysia. I did not say she ate the parts of human bone, feces, and degradation that our history could never face.

A young local human, Duke, recounted how he once passed a row of children sleeping at the border, and most notably, he murmured, looking at his hands, the air around them smelled like, you know, urine, and… Collectively, we winced, Emilio, Lee Anne, Susan, Francisco, Karima, and a red cardinal above us, watching. Duke and Caleb, who were visiting that evening from the local Borderlands Earth Care Youth (BECY) program, both looked down into their hands.

Did you ever notice, comrade, how our histories of passage, exile, and trauma, like palm lines, cross over then repeat?

Comrade, do you know the state of our emergency?

The moral crisis, that is, of empire and its lack of kindness, brings us at this moment of collapse. I mean, there is a price we pay beyond the gate to hell, America.

My mother found asylum in this country’s arms after its bombs, so let me say this clearly: All of this makes sense, browning bodies, daily, piling at the brutal ports of entry to a country that would rather kill, harvest, and shoot on sight, than ever love anything it deems much smaller than itself.

July 3, 2018

Dearest Sunflower,

Last night I saw my mother and ninety-eight other refugees burning in their boat. I woke to tiny Panda kicking in his sleep again. Indeed, this summer we had come to document the shadows of asylum in the desert, but never have we seen so many candles burning at its gate.

Panda, secondary witness

Last night a cardinal flew down the dream pipe of America and set itself on fire.

Last night Vietnam opened her palms again.

Inside the hold, the stench was incredible, almost eye-watering. The smell of urine and human waste, sweat and vomit. The black space full of people. Bodies upon bodies. Eyes and eyes and eyes.

                                                           —Matt Huynh, The Boat


Comrade, know this. We’ve been watching, silently and carefully, our Hosts since we first came upon their shores. These sites of passage carry voices of asylum, rippling, resurfacing, and diving under. Time slips, and we become some remnant of another horror moving forward.

Beds at the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter (Nogales, Mexico)

Hear how the story happened again; watch the scenario of disfranchisement repeat itself across generations; smell the poison taking effect in the lives of those who dare mix while differing. The predicament of crossing boundaries cannot be merely rejected or accepted. It has to be confronted in its controversies. There is indeed little hope of speaking this simultaneously outside-inside actuality into existence in simple, polarizing black-and-white terms. The challenge of the hyphenated reality lies in the hyphen itself…

                    —Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Bold Omissions and Minute Depictions”

Comrade, this is war.

In what she calls “imperial recycling,” the political scientist Victoria Hattam finds another hyphen between ongoing aftermaths of empire and its boundaries, in which the steel, portable helicopter landing mats used during Vietnam have been discreetly repurposed to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall. She notes, “As one military campaign ends, materials are redirected to the next imperial frontier.”[1]

Comrade, what overlaps?

Scientists discover lethal concentrations of carbon dioxide vapors, or the “deadly Hadean breath,” at the entrance of a cave, once known to be a temple to the underworld, in modern day Turkey. While perhaps holding their breaths, priests would sacrifice animals, ranging from birds to rams, inside its antechambers.[2]

“At any rate,” the Greek geographer Strabo once wrote, “bulls that are led into it fall and are dragged out dead.”

This temple, Duke informed us, was also called the “Gate to Hell.”

July 6, 2018

Dearest Sunflower,

In Nogales we could not avoid the wall, even if we wanted to. Yesterday, at noon, we met Alex LaPierre from the Border Community Alliance at a Burger King on the Arizona side.

Even there the sun multiplies in blue.

             —Chika Sagawa, “Departure” (translated by Sawako Nakayasu)

The wall’s monstrous spine seemed to snake directly out the parking lot and through a spotless window that separated us from sky. We would spend half the day like this, crossing over physically and emotionally, almost always behind a thicker wall of glass.

“People should know,” Alex explained, “that there is so much strength here, too, beyond what is reported in the news.”

Perhaps he wanted us to write into the wall and not around it. There were ethics, too, that constantly insisted for our words to tell the truth as the people speaking this truth intended, and from behind that wall, my mind fell flat against the sun, multiplying blue.


The gate, multiplying blue

After crossing the port of entry, which, I had whispered to Susan, loomed over us like the entrance to Disney’s Epcot, we met Alma Cota Yanez, Director of the NGO Fundación del Empresariado Sonorense A.C. (FESAC), and together with Alex, she would whisk us on a tour across the city of Nogales, Mexico.

“To see,” Alma explained, “how much work is being done already.”

First, we visited Desarrollo Integral Juvenil de Nogales (DeiJuven), a community center buzzing with children for the summer. In one corner of its large gymnasium, a group of bigger boys were teaching little ones to Double Dutch. Next, we passed some classrooms, where, Alma explained, the older girls were learning new practical skills like cutting hair and sewing. I asked if we could take some photos.

“Please,” she said.






Classrooms at DeiJuven






Everyone who braves the ordeal, the geographical self-flagellation, prays for the migrants’ brand of redemption at their journey’s end: to be delivered from the evil of the border into a land of promise. For this they pray. And for this they are willing to bleed.

                                           —Marcello Di Cintio, “Pilgrims at the Wall”

Next, we visited ARSOBO, a non-profit organization at the border committed to affordable access and training opportunities around the creation of assisted devices, ranging from wheelchairs and prosthetics to hearing aids, for people with disabilities.

“This is the epitome of social investment,” declared Alma for emphasis.

These tools for rehabilitation had perhaps become another route to deliverance, this, our guide Francisco “Kiko” Trujillo said as much during the tour. Of migrants who had come with missing arms and legs, amputated on their passage toward the “land of promise,” Kiko slowed his words, “The solution is to stay here [in Nogales] to work.”

Throughout our trip, we heard such powerful messages of human dignity, resilience, and community-centered determination. Every person we met would seem to say, “We were never helpless to begin with.”

And often we would hear, “So, tell your President… So, tell your government officials…”

“That we are here,” whispered my tiny Panda clenching both his fists.

Back inside the van, I told our guide, Alex, another story. In Saigon during the war, my grandmother’s knee was taken out. She was rushed to the hospital, and, according to my mother, in the chaos that surrounded that violent day in 1966—the year my mother saw her father set on fire, the year bombs broke a dam of blood over the city, the year entire families and even their family dogs were dragged out of their homes and executed, too—yes, in that ensuing chaos, it was said, according to my mother, that a doctor rushed out in the street and found a metal pipe in a stroke of luck, that would, in haste, become my grandmother’s new knee.

At ARSOBO, I could not bring myself to take a photo of the new prosthetic feet and knee joints, lovingly made by its dedicated staff. Most of them were also wearing their own prosthetics like one would wear a memory of war.

Here, we saw a young man from Honduras who had fallen from The Beast and lost his leg. We saw him sit down for a fitting, and the fitting took its time. If anybody spoke, they spoke with tenderness and slowness, time slowing to cushion something deeper than redemption.

Hearing-health program at ARSOBO

Back inside the van, everyone had fallen quiet. I wanted to apologize for always bringing up my mother and for bringing Vietnam to the border, but I couldn’t help it. All I saw, again, were signs, overlapping and refracting. All I saw was empire dragging another bull into its gates.

July 9, 2018

Dearest Sunflower,

An hour before karaoke at Patagonia’s Wagon Wheel this Saturday, the poet Gabe, who participated in last year’s Field Studies program, shouted, “Fuck, yes!”

Lee Anne, Emilio, and I had told him stories of our visit to Nogales, Mexico, where, we saw incredible resilience and children filled with laughter, tenderness, and communities of people caring for each other in ways not often shown by foreign, especially the U.S., media about the crisis at the border.

Like Gabe, I neither wanted to seek nor weave a narrative of grief. This was not my place. Like Gabe, I witnessed dignity and self-reliance across landscapes and wars, but my gates had broken with the sky.

“Maybe,” my tiny Panda whispered, as I tucked him into bed for the night, “we could listen to some Whitney Houston on the YouTube after you finish writing today’s letter for Sunflower.”

Yes, Panda, I’d like that very much.


[1] Victoria Hattam, “Imperial designs: Remembering Vietnam at the US–Mexico border wall,” Memory Studies 9.1 (2016), p. 32.

[2] Hardy Pfanz, et al. “Deadly CO2 Gases in the Plutonium of Hierapolis (Denizli, Turkey),” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2018).


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