Transcending the Wall; Guadalupe’s Wildflowers

Spring 2017

Published April 8, 2017

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”  Pablo Neruda

To Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and all displaced peoples everywhere we say:  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Each girl grabs a handful of wildflower seeds from a bowl of Bosque del Bac Habitat Restoration Wildflower Mix. The sisters, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, twirl in the wind, arms outstretched, open their palms and broadcast the seeds across the clay flat. It’s Spring in the Sonoran Desert and I am visiting my old homestead, a small ranch this young family now inhabits, located next to a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“I am remembering Guadalupe,” I say, throwing great arcs of seeds into the wind.

“Who?” the 5-year-old asks.

“Guadalupe. She’s a mother who can not be with her children right now,” I say.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well, that’s complicated but what’s important is she can’t be with her kids.”

“But why not?” the girl presses. Her three-year-old sister twirls in the wind, hay-colored seeds swirling around her like a little dust devil.

“Guadalupe is stuck in another country but her kids live here, near us in the United States. She must miss them very much.”

The 5-year-old squints in the sun and looks at me blankly. She’s never been without her mother. She’s never had to fear.

“When will the wildflowers come?” she asks.

“They might pop up at the end of this summer, after the monsoon rains or maybe they’ll wait until next year. You never know about wildflowers.”

“So, the wildflowers are coming?” she asks again.

“Yes, they always come back. Wildflowers are tough.”

“When we see the flowers with all their beautiful colors,” I added, “we’ll remember Guadalupe and all other mothers who could be separated from their children.”

We covered up the area with nearby plant litter to protect the seeds from hungry birds. Though it seemed like we had more rain than usual this winter, the desert was rocky and dry, no growth anywhere. I remind myself it’s still early in spring.

But walking back, we spotted wild honeysuckle growing next to the wash. Squealing with delight, the girls plucked the bright orange tubular flowers, one at a time and sucked out the nectar. The 3-foot tall shock of orange was a Justicia Desert Honeysuckle; specifically a Mexican Honeysuckle. Native to the Sonoran Desert and considered a botanical treasure, the wild perennial straddles the border of Arizona and Mexico.  In Spanish, it is known as Chuparosa, a nod to the hummingbirds that feed on its nectar.

I wondered if the wildflowers are out yet in Nogales, over the line in Mexico where Guadalupe stays at a shelter protected by nuns. I imagine she like me, is marveling at a wild flower’s off-handed elegance.

The Chuparosa; a Botanical Treasure

I don’t think I will ever be able to shake how she looked, as I witnessed in real time on social media, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayo’s detainment in Phoenix and subsequent transport to Mexico, played out in front of her kids.

Debased and humiliated, behind a gridded glass window in an ICE transport van, Guadalupe’s eyes were downcast, circled by exhaustion, her beautiful round face dulled in a slap of finality.

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos; Family Treasure

I remember her teenage kids huddled together on the curb at one point. Their eyes were fixed on the strip of asphalt stretched between them and their apprehended mother, like a long gray desert they could not cross. Their young shoulders hunched from the sheer weight of such a thing.

Yes, Guadalupe broke the law. Years back, she made a choice. She chose to work without papers to feed her family. Could she have made a different choice? Did she have the power?

Guadalupe: the picture of an abused woman. ICE: Abuser of the first order. Denigrate, dehumanize, then deport. Build the wall, slap the face of beauty.

For me, Guadalupe’s abduction brought back nightmares. The first nightmare had me in a car at night, pulled over by men in uniform, then arrested. In the dream, I knew the men were coming for me and I felt oddly calm, until the terror began, slowly like a tarantula lock-stepping across my chest until it was all I could do not to scream.

And Just like that, I’m back at the ranch, almost a decade ago, my neighborhood under siege, a new Border Patrol checkpoint 300 paces from my place, ICE agents in desert camo gear roaming outside my bedroom window, weapons drawn, ready to shoot even my Golden retriever, should she accidentally get loose and run outside.

In my dream, I was not surprised by their quiet efficiency, the way the officers in their sand-colored uniforms looked past me into the distance as they slapped the handcuffs on, for I had colluded with the “enemy.” Men like that, they never look you in the eye.

Occupiers and nightmares share a stealthy patience. They wait for the calm dark and the unsuspecting. They wait for the ordinary nights, the pauses in the forward march of just people and just laws. You can not tell me that they don’t know… If you remove a wildflower from the soil where its’ gently rooted, you risk its very life.

To Guadalupe and to all displaced peoples everywhere I say,  You belong among the wildflowers. You have the right to be free.

Linking arms with my fellow artists and writers on the border, I say, along with Frida Kahlo, “I paint flowers so they will not die,” and then like Frida, I lay my brushes down, open my journal and write.


Hiding in Plain Sight: Migrating Muses of the Sonoran Desert

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

There comes a time (usually later in life) and especially now given the rancorous affairs of men when one realizes that the most radical thing you can do is pay attention to wildflowers; small worlds of vivid wonder we are often oblivious to. There are essential lessons to be learned among them, and deep soul to imbibe in the spring in the Sonoran Desert.

Wild Desert Marigold; hierba amarilla

On a recent hike in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 100,000 plus acres of semi-desert grasslands, seasonal wetlands, and a mountain riparian canyon located between Tucson and the AZ/MX border, we found pockets of wildflowers half buried under winter deadfall and plant litter, bending up towards the light.

I suspected spring wildflowers were not going to make much of an appearance near the border this year. We haven’t had the field size blooms we have seen in the past. And wildflowers are wild after all, coming up when they want and where they want. Yet, there they were… right at our feet.

Spring wildflowers are native to a given region or they’re migrants, growing from seed cast by wind or water or carried in the bellies of birds or hitching a ride on a hiker’s boot. Wildflowers provide sustenance for other often weary migrants like butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterflies, especially Monarchs depend on wildflower nectar to survive. Restoring native grasslands, one of the ways the Wildlife Refuge protects vital habitat corridors, goes hand in hand with landscape connectivity. Migration + landscape connectivity = healthy secure populations.

When we first arrived at the refuge, we scanned the horizon with binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of rare Pronghorn Antelope. Miles of desert grasses waved in the Spring breeze like a magic carpet, ferrying our gazes all the way to the sacred Baboquivera Mountain range. It was when we dropped our binoculars that we realized what we really came to see. Like most good things, bright blessings were there all along, humbly hidden in front of us.

Wild Desert Hyacinth; cobena, coveria

One of the first wildflowers I saw sported tiny cupped petals, the color of fresh orange I could almost taste on my tongue. Luckily, I had with me local Arivaca resident Maggie Moe Milinovitch’s Wildflower Field Guide from the Refuge’s Visitors Center. It is considered the best Guide to identifying our border wildflowers and a book I’ve been looking forward to using for a long time. My first wildflower turned out to be a Desert Globemallow.

I was hooked. The next time we stopped the truck, I got out and walked through the wild grass to the top of a rise. I followed a trail of wildflowers, their colorful heads peeking out between the tall grasses. Respectful of snakes, particularly rattlers, I stepped carefully, but not unlike the Greek Goddess Persephone, enchanted in the spring, I foraged ahead.

“Oh my God,” I said out loud, “Look at this one and this one!”

Squatting at eye level, I could take in the whole hillside. Multiple varieties of wildflowers cathected together in clumps of naturally occurring diversity, communities of color, families of affinity.

Wild Mexican Poppy w/ Fairy Dusters; amapolita del campo huajillo, pelo de angel

The most ubiquitous were the Mexican Poppy A.K.A. the Gold Poppy. The Mexican Poppy, usually the first wildflower to come up in the spring, was already closing its petals on the shady side of the hill in preparation for sunset. The poppies were tucked into a cloud of magenta and white fairy dusters, a perennial native shrub. An important feed for butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and cattle, the ephemeral fairy dusters are easily mistaken for wildflower.

In the blue pages of the color-coded field guide, I matched purple spikes to Owl’s Clover, and a single lavender-blue lily to a Desert Hyacinth, and bunches of pinkish-violet flowers to Stork’s Bill Filaree, a member of the geranium family. The most striking of the magenta group seen were the tall tubular flowered Parry’s Penstemon.

I discovered Desert Marigolds, a member of the Sunflower family, attracting pollinators – a good sign – and then the most spectacular find: The Desert Mariposa, an Arizona Protected plant. The Desert Mariposa, the most beautiful of desert wildflowers is also referred to as the Star Tulip.


Desert Mariposa; cobena amarilla

 “In a rich moonlit garden, flowers open beneath the eyes of entire nations terrified to acknowledge the simplicity of the beauty of peace.” Aberjhani

© 2017 Valarie lee James

2 thoughts on “Transcending the Wall; Guadalupe’s Wildflowers”

  1. A wonderful essay and a reminder that beauty can help sustain us in the midst of peoples inhumanity to each other. And that it is easy to overlook the beauty around us.


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