Kathryn Fer­gu­son

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Casey Sanchez

Kathryn Fer­gu­son has been trav­el­ing the north­ern bor­der­lands of Mexico since the fam­ily road trips of her child­hood. In her thir­ties, the Tuc­son film­maker ven­tured far­ther, whiteknuck­ling her Nissan pickup through the ravine roads of Chi­huahua’s Cop­per Canyon. In the re­gion’s re­mote moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties, she met and be­friended fam­i­lies of Rará­muri In­di­ans for her de­but 1998 doc­u­men­tary, The Un­holy Tarahu­mara. The film por­trays her en­coun­ters with a peo­ple who have fended off cen­turies of as­sim­i­la­tion at­tempts and still live largely with­out elec­tric­ity in the un­for­giv­ing Sierra Madre of north­west­ern Mexico. “I stepped into a whole dif­fer­ent world. The big­gest thing I had to learn was to be quiet. We talk a lot in our cul­ture,” Fer­gu­son said. “They can be friendly peo­ple if given time to trust and open up. They are hard work­ers, and they are tough peo­ple.”

As she ex­plains in her new book, The Haunting of the Mex­i­can Bor­der: A Woman’s Jour­ney (Univer­sity of New Mexico Press), it has now been years since Fer­gu­son has set foot in Tarahu­mara coun­try. Mex­i­can narco vi­o­lence and U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol mil­i­ta­riza­tion have made the Ari­zona-Chi­huahua bor­der a hos­tile, un­cer­tain ter­ri­tory for mi­grants and trav­el­ers alike. “We’ve lost a lot of free­dom in what is sup­posed to be open sky coun­try,” Fer­gu­son said. “What hap­pened here is that the beau­ti­ful desert has be­come a grave­yard.” Fer­gu­son reads from The Haunting of the Mex­i­can

Bor­der on Thurs­day, Sept. 17, at Col­lected Works Book­store. The book mixes be­hind-the-scenes de­tails on the mak­ing of her films in the 1990s and 2000s with more re­cent ac­counts of her ser­vice with the Tuc­son Sa­mar­i­tans, de­liv­er­ing front-line sur­vival as­sis­tance to cross­ing mi­grants. Over the book’s fi­nal chap­ters, Fer­gu­son also ex­plains how the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has ag­gres­sively scru­ti­nized her mar­riage to a Mex­i­can man, search­ing for proof that the cou­ple sought to evade immigration laws.

Cul­ture clashes, both funny and se­ri­ous, run through ev­ery page. She strug­gles with Span­ish. The so­cial eti­quette of the Rará­muri (the tribe’s name in their own lan­guage) elude her. To help or­ga­nize a tes­güi­nada — a re­gional blowout of tra­di­tional dance and sa­cred fer­mented sour corn beer that will fea­ture in her doc­u­men­tary — she buys ex­or­bi­tant amounts of maize and two head of cat­tle. But on a re­turn visit to prep for the party, two of her Tarahu­mara hosts flag down her bus and stage some­thing just short of a kid­nap­ping, de­mand­ing that she travel on horse­back to their re­mote moun­tain val­ley home. It turns out Fer­gu­son has com­mit­ted a se­ri­ous faux pas. She has bought cat­tle from a non-Tarahu­mara mes­tizo, and from a man at that — only women can own and sell cat­tle ac­cord­ing to tribal cus­tom.

Some of the book’s best mo­ments come from Fer­gu­son’s mus­ings about the films she never made in Mexico. She rec­ol­lects her coastal Mex­i­can flights with Sandy, an Amer­i­can pi­lot who flies Mex­i­can bi­ol­o­gists on wildlife track­ing runs. Land­ing at re­mote airstrips, the bush pi­lot runs the dan­ger of be­ing robbed, out of a mis­per­cep­tion that she is an in­de­pen­dent drug run­ner. To shock the nar­cos and se­cure her own safety, she dolls up her Cessna land­ing gear with glit­tery, painted red toe­nails. At one point, the pi­lot re­counts to Fer­gu­son an old say­ing that “fly­ing is hours of bore­dom, punc­tu­ated by mo­ments of sheer terror.” She could just as well have been talk­ing about Fer­gu­son’s life as a film­maker in ru­ral Mexico.

As the 2000s rolled around, the once-wel­com­ing bor­der coun­try Fer­gu­son had loved for decades turned cruel and hos­tile. The U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol beefed up its ap­pre­hen­sions and de­por­ta­tions with mil­i­tary­grade weapons and he­li­copters. A turf war be­tween Mex­i­can drug car­tels would leave thou­sands dead in the bor­der states. It was a mood re­flected in Fer­gu­son’s next film, Rita of the Sky. The 2009 doc­u­men­tary pro­vides a re­con­struc­tion of the life of a Tarahu­mara woman who walked from her home in Mexico’s Sierra Madre to Topeka, Kansas. Author­i­ties mis­took her in­dige­nous lan­guage for the vo­cal­iza­tions of se­vere men­tal ill­ness, med­i­cat­ing and in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing her for over a decade.

Mak­ing the film in both Kansas and Chi­huahua ex­posed Fer­gu­son to the in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous paths Mex­i­can mi­grants were brav­ing to en­ter the U.S. She started work­ing with the Tuc­son Sa­mar­i­tans. She also be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with a Mex­i­can man, whom she later wed. Be­tween her mi­grant ac­tivism and the heavy le­gal scru­tiny of her bi­na­tional mar­riage by the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, Fer­gu­son felt like the friendly fron­tera she once knew was gone. In its place was some­thing dystopian, like when she wit­nesses a dust­ing, a ma­neu­ver that takes place when

Bor­der Pa­trol he­li­copters fly low over mi­grants, kick­ing up de­bris and plants. The en­su­ing chaos forces the mi­grant group to scat­ter, mak­ing it eas­ier for sur­round­ing agents to ap­pre­hend them.

Immigration pol­icy be­comes the core of her fam­ily and re­la­tion­ship. Af­ter a year of mar­riage and thou­sands of dol­lars in le­gal fees, her hus­band gets a green card. But it of­fers lit­tle se­cu­rity. Ac­cord­ing to Fer­gu­son’s ac­count, he can still be de­ported at an agent’s whim. Immigration of­fi­cials en­ter the cou­ple’s house at dawn just to make sure they are sleep­ing in the same bed. They train their ag­gres­sive in­ter­ro­ga­tion on her hus­band. Is he gay? Is he a narco? To Fer­gu­son, the in­tru­sive ques­tions be­gin and end with the as­sump­tion that he is any­thing but a com­mit­ted, lov­ing spouse. It oc­curs to her that this isn’t a pass­ing prob­lem but a new way of life to which she must adapt. “I am mar­ried to this man, and to all that he brings with him. I am mar­ried to the bor­der, to the Bor­der Pa­trol. I am mar­ried to fear, to cross­ings, green cards, pass­ports,” writes Fer­gu­son. “I am mar­ried to in­ter­ro­ga­tions, the bomb of de­por­ta­tion, and gov­ern­ment agents look­ing in my bed.”

In a for­mer life, Fer­gu­son was a stage per­former and dancer. She brings the same the­atri­cal­ity to her nar­ra­tive style, and her prose is marked by a deep ki­netic aware­ness of how her phys­i­cal pres­ence as an Amer­i­can, a woman, and a trav­eler af­fects the mi­grants and in­dige­nous tribal mem­bers she en­coun­ters dur­ing her film­ing ex­pe­di­tions. Though she has cur­tailed her once-ro­bust travel to Mexico, she is still on the road and in the air a lot, con­fer­enc­ing and net­work­ing with other mi­grant ac­tivists in the U.S. and Europe.

“I travel a lot. I talk to peo­ple in Philadelphia, Seat­tle, Bos­ton, and lots of other cities who don’t know any­thing about the bor­der, about what it once was or what it has now be­come,” Fer­gu­son said. “As a girl, you could take off to Mexico and have a good time and feel com­pletely safe, whether alone or with friends. The world is not that way any­more.”

Kathryn Fer­gu­son on the street where the Bor­der Pa­trol fired from Ari­zona to No­gales, Sonora, shoot­ing six­teen-year-old José An­to­nio Elena Ro­dríguez ten times in the back, photo Barry Gosling; op­po­site page, top, Tu­tuburi cer­e­mony, photo Bill Yahraus; bot­tom left, Kathryn Fer­gu­son film­ing; all im­ages cour­tesy UNM Press

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