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