No Roosters in the Desert

Margaret Regan

When Anna Ochoa O’Leary ’82 ’94 ’99 spent a Fulbright year talking to migrant women who’d been caught trying to cross the border illegally, the stories she heard were heartrending.

Azucena (a pseudonym), a 25-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, had been trying to get to her husband in California. She told Ochoa O’Leary of being terrorized by a Border Patrol helicopter in the Arizona desert. The chopper descended so low, so close to her and her companions, that they thought “it might hit them,” Ochoa O’Leary later wrote.

In the melee, Azucena’s group scattered. Her motherin- law fell and hurt her ankle and Azucena lost sight of her. Azucena was picked up by the Border Patrol, and then sent back to Mexico the next morning. Ochoa O’Leary met her in a shelter in Nogales, Sonora. Azucena had no idea where her mother-in-law was, or what she should do next.

Rosita was just 18 when she made a winter crossing with her husband and infant child. The family from Michoacán successfully made it through the chilly wilderness, but they got caught in a drophouse where their coyote — or smuggler — had stashed them as they awaited a ride.

Rosita had hoped to join her parents in Oregon; she hadn’t seen them in 10 years, since she was a little girl. They’d left her behind in Mexico to go work in America, because “A veces ni de comer teníamos,” Rosita told Ochoa O’Leary. (“At times we didn’t have anything to eat.”)

During nine months in 2006 and 2007, Ochoa O’Leary, now a University of Arizona assistant professor of Mexican American and raza studies, interviewed about 130 women who’d been repatriated to Mexico. Like Azucena and Rosita, they were taking temporary refuge in Albergue San Juan Bosco, a shelter up a hilly street in Nogales, Sonora, a few miles south of the Arizona border.

“I wanted to find out what happens to women after they’re apprehended by the Border Patrol,” Ochoa O’Leary says. “My research was to get a better sense of what was really going on.”

What she found was that the women had been forced by desperate poverty to leave their homes — and sometimes their children — and undertake the hazardous journey north. They were subject not only to the treacherous geography of the desert, but to bandits, rapists, and myriad other dangers. On the Arizona highways, their coyote drivers drove recklessly; the Border Patrol agents who arrested them were sometimes kind and sometimes cruel.

Their stories were so wrenching — and so dramatic — that a playwright has used them as a basis for a new play.

Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert, a drama by Kara Hartzler, is billed as “based on fieldwork by Anna Ochoa O’Leary.” It opened in August in Mexico City at El Circulo Teatral, and makes its Tucson debut with Borderlands Theater in October. It travels to Chicago’s Prop Theatre in spring 2011.

“It’s really exciting,” says Ochoa O’Leary. “How many times as academics do we say, ‘We must make sure we get this information to the community?’ This is a good way to get the information back to the community.” The unusual collaboration between an academic and an artist got its start through a series of coincidences. Raquel Rubio Goldsmith, a colleague of Ochoa O’Leary in Mexican American Studies, has a longtime interest in border issues. She was principal investigator for “The Funnel Effect,” a 2007 report on the deaths of undocumented migrants in the Arizona deserts and mountains.

Rubio Goldsmith happens to be married to Barclay Goldsmith, artistic director of Tucson’s Borderlands Theater. For 24 years, the scrappy bilingual company has been staging challenging plays about the sometimes volatile mix of cultures in the borderlands.

“For a long time, we wanted to do a play about people crossing the border,” Goldsmith says. “I found out about Anna’s work through Raquel. This is the first thing we’ve ever done that gets at their voices.”

Goldsmith needed to connect these rich stories with the right playwright. Enter Kara Hartzler. She had met Goldsmith several years before when Borderlands produced a play written by a friend of hers. And not only is she a produced playwright with a master of fine arts degree in playwriting, she’s an immigration lawyer who works with migrant women every day at the federal detention centers in Florence and Eloy, Ariz.

“It seemed like a good fit,” Hartzler says. So in 2008, Borderlands commissioned Hartzler to write the play, and the professor gave the playwright a “giant stack of interviews.”

“I read them, and tried to get a sense of the common themes,” Hartzler remembers. “One theme that struck me was that a lot of people start going through the desert, then because of injury, or age, they can’t keep going.

Sometimes other people in the group stay with them, and sometimes they leave.”

Those who remain with the injured out of compassion typically get arrested by the Border Patrol and sent back home, their own journeys a costly failure.

The moral dilemma faced by migrants in that situation — go or stay? — became the central drama of the play.

“It’s a universal theme,” Hartzler says. “What would we do? When do you give up everything you’re working toward and sacrifice yourself for someone else?”

The four fictional women in the play are going it alone in the desert after becoming separated from the rest of their group. They bond and tell stories and swear they’ll stick together, but when one is injured, the other three are suddenly faced with a moral choice.

“I didn’t want to use stereotypes and portray migrants as innocent, blameless victims,” Hartzler explains. “They’re human. Like anyone else, they’re susceptible to human nature. I wanted to honor them by portraying them as well-rounded people.”

The title, she says, refers to the biblical story of St. Peter betraying Jesus. Peter had sworn his loyalty to Jesus, but by the time the cock crowed on the morning of Good Friday, Peter had denied him three times.

Ochoa O’Leary is “very pleased” with the play. She and Hartzler had agreed that the playwright would fictionalize the work, drawing on multiple stories in the interviews.

“The stories are composites,” Ochoa O’Leary notes. “I can pick up where they came from. The four characters are a combination of many stories.

“It’s not scholarly. It’s not a history book, but it gives us pause to reflect.” Two of the auxiliary characters in the play — an immigration attorney and an academic researcher — mimic the real-life professionals. The attorney displays the “compassion fatigue” that Hartzler says she sometimes experiences as legal director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. And the play’s academic struggles to bridge the economic and cultural divide that separates her from the women she’s interviewing.

“Researchers have to work at it,” Ochoa O’Leary acknowledges. “You don’t want to act ‘official.’ You don’t want to give the impression you can fix things. You’re not one of them.”

Ochoa O’Leary’s own background helped connect her to the desperate women in the shelter. She’s a native Spanish speaker for one, born and raised in Clifton-Morenci, the copper mining towns in eastern Arizona.

“My mother is from Mexico,” she says. “My father was born in the U.S., but his parents were from Mexico. I would tell them about my mother and father, as a way of understanding that migration is a history we are all part of.” She found generally that the women were eager to talk.

“They were surprised anyone would want to know about them. They have internalized the sense that they don’t mean a lot to a lot of people. It was cathartic in many ways (for the women) to talk about their personal tragedy and trauma.”

Ochoa O’Leary has weathered difficulties in her own life. She acquired her Irish surname when she married Jorge O’Leary, the son of an “off-the-boat” Irishman who wed a Mexican woman. O’Leary is a folk hero of the 1983 strike against Phelps Dodge, an epic struggle that tore Ochoa O’Leary’s hometown apart. O’Leary was the company doctor, and he was fired when he insisted on treating the miners after they went out on strike.

The couple, parents of five children in a blended family, migrated to Tucson for new opportunities. Ochoa O’Leary eventually enrolled in grad school at the UA, and earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. In 2002 she was hired as an assistant professor of practice.

After writing her dissertation on women living along the border, Ochoa O’Leary turned her attention to women in the great migration that ensued after the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in 1994. NAFTA devastated rural communities in southern Mexico, she says. The cheap corn newly imported from the United States undercut the price of local corn, and small farmers were rendered destitute.

“We are responsible for what is happening, but we don’t take responsibility,” she says.

Before NAFTA, it was mostly men who migrated to work in the U.S.; they hailed primarily from the northern Mexican states and they returned home regularly. Now, with greater border enforcement, men can’t get home easily and women have joined the migration. In 1993, some 92.4 percent of migrants passing through Nogales were men; 7.6 percent were women. By 1998, the percentage of men dropped to 62.9 percent, and the proportion of women skyrocketed to 37.1 percent.

“This is not the kind of immigration we’ve had in the past,” she says. “Women from agricultural areas have been hardest hit by NAFTA.

“Before, the movement was cyclical. With more enforcement there’s less ability to come back and forth. Women are sometimes abandoned now.”

The “overwhelming majority” of women she interviewed consider themselves single mothers. They’re the sole support of their children. They might have had a husband for many years, but they’re not divorced. They were left and they can’t support their families.

“These individuals are highly motivated. They have whole families and they’re trying to find a way to support them.”

Ochoa O’Leary found that the women already knew a lot about the dangers of the desert and the difficulties of Border Patrol detention, courtesy of friends and relatives who had already made the trip. But she also found that the polleros — the guides who lead migrants into the desert — routinely lie about the time they’d need to walk.

“I’d ask, ‘Did you know you could possibly die?’ One answered, ‘We are already dying. We already don’t have enough to eat.’”

In the final months of her study, Ochoa O’Leary noticed an uptick in women being left behind in the desert by their coyotes. With increasing border enforcement, she found, migrants had to walk ever longer distances to avoid the Border Patrol and National Guard, and women were having trouble keeping up on the longer, more difficult treks.

Ochoa O’Leary has written up her results in three or four scholarly articles, but so far she’s hasn’t written a book. “If I had time to write a book, I would! But I’m writing articles for now.”

And then there’s that play. Besides the English versions that will run in Tucson and Chicago, Borderlands hopes to mount an all-Spanish-language Roosters in the Desert to take to neighborhood centers in Tucson’s heavily Mexican southside, bringing the work to the people it’s about.

Says Ochoa O’Leary, “They own it as much as I do.”

The Tucson production of Arizona: Roosters in the Desert will run from October 7 to 24, 2010, at ZUZI! Theater, 738 N. Fifth Ave. For more information, visit or call 520-882-8607.

For information on the Chicago production, visit or call 773-539-7838.

Margaret Regan is the author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands (Beacon Press, 2010), out in paperback in October 2010.