(an excerpt from the Novena series)

by Katerina Ivanov



Why does it rain apocalyptic in the desert? We drive to Patagonia at the end of the world: Logan, Miranda, and I. The sky gets cazuela black, black as fat carpenter ants. The heat goes, slowly, and then all together. The clouds start dumping on Miranda’s Hyundai, aptly named Killer, and the rain eats away at the dirt road below us. 

I’m used to rain: in Florida, a daily thunderstorm, some big, stucco shattering thing that sweeps in for the afternoon. Why does the monsoon rain come down different, ready to destabilize? A rain that’s meant to wipe the landscape clean.


I am taught by a group of high schoolers, infinitely brighter than I ever was at eighteen, how to combat desert erosion. Stones carried and placed geometrically, cascading down gulches and slices in the land– not that one, it’s too small, will be washed away— packed into red soil. 

Is it clay? I ask one of the students. She smiles, wry. 

When the dirt gets red like that, after rain, it means there’s mine runoff there, she says, before directing me towards the next pile of rocks. 

The mining company here has carefully created a mine that is not a mine: they have erased the very word from their brochures, preferring to use “opportunity,” “base metal project,” “potential site.” It is harder to trace the red back to a place that has been erased on pamphlet. A place that, once minerals and metal has been extracted and there is just a shaft, maybe never existed at all.


Lifting rocks from one location and carrying them into a ditch–it feels a little like a penance, like I should be saying Hail Mary’s under my breath. The feeling of the sun, the sun, the sun–I cannot stress the sun enough– burns faces and hands and lips. I didn’t know I could burn in these places, didn’t know my brown skin, which has dutifully sucked up UV my whole life, could chap and turn pink. 

The land is disintegrating because of cattle brought by settlers, and foreign grass brought by settlers, and of course, settlers themselves. Without the additional rocks put in place, the dusty soil would be swept away, nothing for mesquite and desert scrub to dig roots into, nothing to hold them upright. Nothing remaining to brace the agaves that die after they bloom, sugar hearts sweetening and sweetening before going brown. 

This is a beautiful place, I have to remind myself. It’s hard to remember that with the unforgiving everything– the climate, the people, the earth militarized. A scorpion under every rock. For every creek, another stream, dried and reddened by sun-baked mine runoff. 

But to think of the desert in poison and poverty, in dust and chemical irritants, in white Border Patrol trucks, in fences, in walls– this is an erasure too. This is a violent place, but it isn’t only its violence. To erase the hawks overhead, and the way the volunteers remind each other to drink water, the way Spanish is used freely and sweetly at the convenience store– to erase that creates a caricature of a place, something false and cloying that is easy to mold, to use, to inspire fear. 


Why is there a new contamination spill on a reservation today? How is a new body found in the desert? How is there another child with a phone number written on their arm? There has been a quickening in how trauma builds and how swiftly it is dulled. Every photo, every think piece, meant to outstrip the last, a bleach aftertaste upon reading. I want to pace myself. I write about pain and I know there is more coming– another child, another mother, another place, stripped and left broken. I write about anger, and I feel it building: a cloud formation fed by the warm, wet air. 


How do Mexican mothers braid their daughters’ hair like that? How do Honduran mothers find a way to weave in those little bolitas? How do Nicaraguan mothers make tejidos of ink spill hair and glittering plastic? Who taught them to do that? Who taught me– certainly I learned from a prima or tia? Over under, strands of hair, into trensas. Butterfly clips, catching the light. 

I became a Mexican citizen when I was three. My mother, pregnant with my sister, took me to the consulate in Central Mexico. We filled out paperwork, and the registrar solemnly told me I could now own land in Guadalajara. My mother cried. This, my citizenship, a foot planted in each country, was something beautiful, something chosen– something good. 

When I talk about being a dual-citizen, being bilingual, being mixed race, I am expected to write about how my skin fluctuates, light to dark. Expected to be caught between two worlds: my body, a warzone. People expect me to be confused about who I am, as if my identity is a bundle of birch, a burden to carry slung over my back. I am not confused.

I am not a border. A border is a made-up thing. I am beautiful and chosen and good.


In the migrant comedor, they do the dishes after the meal, the mothers. I think about how news outlets would eat this up: migrant women washing dishes. Migrant women feeding migrant children. Migrant women praying rosaries. Good migrants. Migrants just like you.

They congregate with the soapy buckets, one for spoons, one for bowls, one for glasses. They get annoyed with my hovering. I feel useless. I need to do something with my hands.  I am too complicit to sit still. I want to be good. 

I feel like I will never be able to help enough, here, and I won’t. It’s a selfish sentiment, an American sentiment: how can I make this about my needs? How can I feel useful?

The Americans here tend to speak the word refugee, the word migrant, while thick-tongued with pity, and for some reason, it digs at me. These words themselves can act as an erasure– when will we stop losing complexity? Losing the individuality of so many lives, a specificity that gets swept aside like loose sediment when the border is viewed only as a crisis. When a person is viewed only as a migrant– only as a cause, a threat, a tragedy. 

The myth of the good migrant is a dangerous one; the myth of the good migrant means only the good, the desperate, the religious, the family-oriented, the persecuted should be allowed our attention. Our compassion. Should be allowed to cross. The myth of the good migrant allows us to make those distinctions, allows us to stand at the gates and play St. Peter. 

Te puedo ayudar? I ask a woman, elbows shiny with dish-soap.

Deberías preguntarme cuando el lavabo esta lleno, she chides back. You should ask when the sink is full. 


What were you doing in Mexico? Where did you eat? What did you order? Who did you come with? Who did you visit? Did you buy anything? Are you bringing anything back? What’s your job? What do you do with a degree in Creative Writing? 

I wish I could tell you that I told the agent to fuck right off. But I answered these questions. And I said, Have a nice day. 

You don’t have to tell them that, my friend Logan said. He looked at the agent straight in the face, like just try to fuck with me. I had to focus on a freckle, an eyebrow. 

I know. I say. It slipped out. 

I use my blue passport. My green one sits in a drawer, collecting dust. 

(I want to be better. I want to be good.)


When will they be held accountable (this is they as in, those who are responsible: the agents and leaders, la migra, los que tienen poder. But also they, as in those who are complicit? A they that includes you, reader, and me). How can you look away? How can I bear the sight of it?


Miranda, Logan, and I take Killer to the border fence by Lochiel and I think that’s it? Some chicken-wire and metal prongs? This place that has become mythic in my mind: a Hades town. There are cows grazing on either side. There is laundry strung up outside of crumbling homes on either side. On either side there are Gatorade bottles and candy wrappers. I touch the fence, the hot metal of it, and expect there to be sirens, or white pick-ups. I expect to disappear. 

Nothing happens. The border leans, lazy on metal posts. 


Why are the cicadas louder in the desert? They perch in the stubby trees, rubbing their wings together. Soon, they will shed their skins, leave exoskeletons crunching on the pavement. Maybe it is all the space, the absence of trees and apartment buildings, maybe it is the way Patagonia is framed by mountains, maybe there are just more cicadas here. They are deafening at first, but as they nights go on, they fade, or maybe I become accustomed to them. 

I am chosen. I am beautiful. I am complicit. I want to be good.

The cicadas repeat. Remember, remember? Again, again.

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