It was a cold saturday morning in January when Miguel Rivera Zurita woke his sleeping sisters and mother just as the birds were starting to wake. Miguel was going to make the perilous and long trip back to the United States.
About a month earlier Miguel had made the trip from Oregon to Oaxaca Mexico to visit his mother, Julia, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He thought that it would be his last chance to spend time with her and the rest of his family because the doctors had informed the seven siblings that there was no cure and that the only option was to make their mother comfortable for the remainder of her life. After spending a few weeks with his family in Oaxaca, Miguel needed to go back to the United States. His brother knew of a smuggler, a “coyote”, who could get him back safely into the United States. Although Miguel’s mother protested, he would not change his mind. “Mama, we need money for your medications,” he had said. “The coyote said we will only be walking four days. Getza and Rodrigo are going with me as well,” he said referring to his nephews.
That cold morning in January Miguel’s youngest sister, Teresita, hurried to a store to buy some candles for her brother and nephews. Miguel concentrated in loading his backpack with necessities. He filled three gallons with water for the trip. When Teresita had gotten back from the store she packed dried meat, a bag of salt, and 20 totopos (dried tortillas) in an embroidered handkerchief she had made for him. The last thing she packed was Miguel’s medication because he was diabetic. At last, there was nothing to do but say goodbye. Frail as she was, Julia took the three candles her youngest daughter had bought and prayed over grandchildren and son. Her lips trembled as she held the candle aloft. When she was done, she made the sign of the holy cross over them. “May God guide you, and may our blessed Virgen Maria watch over you,” she said as she hugged her son and her grandchildren. Tears streamed down her face as she looked at Miguel. Julia had a feeling she would never see her son again. Miguel swallowed hard, but held back his tears for the sake of his mother. Then he turned to Teresita. “Sister, take good care of Mama.” “Be careful brother.” She hugged him tightly and started to cry too. Soon everyone was crying. After the last hugs were given, Miguel’s second youngest sister, Maclovia, said she would go with her son, nephew and brother to meet the coyote. As he left, Miguel turned one last time to his mother. “Do not worry Mama, I’ll be fine. I will send you money as soon as I get there,” he promised. Teresita and Julia watched the light of Miguel's flaslight bobbing up and down as it disappeared along with the four figures in the darkness of early morning.
Four days went by without word about Miguel and his nephew’s whereabouts. On the fifth day Maclovia was summoned to the community telephone. As she was leaving she saw her mother raising her hands to the heavens in grateful relief, thinking that her son was safe and he was calling. Two hours went by and Maclovia still was not back. Teresita decided to go see if anything was amiss. When she arrived at the telephone house, she saw her sister still on the phone. When she got closer she saw that her sister was crying. When Maclovia finished talking on the phone, Teresita rushed to her and asked her what was wrong. Sobbing, Maclovia told her that their brother was lost in the desert. That was all the information she had received. The thing that everyone had feared had come true. As the sisters held each other in their grief, an alarming thought came to them: What would they tell their mother? Their mother who was so sick? Their mother who had thrown up her hands in joy, thinking that her son was safe? They decided not to tell her anything until they could figure out what to do. Not knowing what else to say or do, Teresita called her husband who lived in Oregon.
Two months after Miguel got lost in the desert Teresita’s husband, Santiago Ventura, organized a search party for Miguel’s remains. Rodrigo and Getza gave all the information they could about their uncle. They said that after four days of walking, Miguel’s legs had begun to cramp. Their water supply had run out and they had all been dangerously dehydrated. Rodrigo and Getza had carried Miguel for one night, but on the second night, he told them to go on. He said he would catch up when he felt better. When he did not, they all knew he was lost. The only lead the search team had was a man claiming to have come across Miguel’s body. He had taken Miguel’s identification card. The search team took him along when they went into the desert. They searched in vain.
Somewhere out in the vast stretch of the Arizona desert lays Miguel Rivera. The night that he got lost, six children lost a father. Miguel was only forty-five years old, a man with the hopes of being able to send money to his sick mother in Mexico, a man whose final resting place is unknown to the devastated family on both sides of the Mexican American border. He lies in a land in which he gambled for his life, and lost. Miguel was one of many who brave the perilous journey in order to give their family a better life. Miguel was just one of many, but he is not the last who walked with death in the desert.