This Oasis Shows the Diverse History of the Mexico Borderlands. Trump’s Wall Threatens to Destroy It

Jared Orsi December 16, 2019

The waters of Quitobaquito in southern Arizona have attracted diverse visitors for thousands of years. Construction of Trump's border wall threatens the area.

A few hun­dred yards from the Mex­i­can bor­der in south­ern Ari­zona lies a qui­et pond, about the size of two foot­ball fields, called Quito­baquito. About 10 miles to the east, heavy machin­ery grinds up the earth and removes veg­e­ta­tion as con­struc­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump’s vaunt­ed bor­der wall advances toward the oasis.

I’m a his­to­ri­an and have stud­ied Quito­baquito for six years. When I first start­ed writ­ing about this area, it was remote and lit­tle known, even though the land is part of Organ Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment. But for the last few months, the park has head­lined nation­al news.

This spot is an occa­sion­al cross­ing point for trans­bor­der migrants, and some of the wall’s first stretch­es will tra­verse the nation­al mon­u­ment with­in steps of Quito­baquito. Many observers fear that the thir­ty-foot wall with night­time flood­light­ing will harm wildlife, low­er the water table and destroy archae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures. Crowds are vis­it­ing the site to protest the con­crete and steel bar­ri­er.

A few hun­dred yards from the Mex­i­can bor­der in south­ern Ari­zona lies a qui­et pond, about the size of two foot­ball fields, called Quito­baquito. About 10 miles to the east, heavy machin­ery grinds up the earth and removes veg­e­ta­tion as con­struc­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump’s vaunt­ed bor­der wall advances toward the oasis.

I’m a his­to­ri­an and have stud­ied Quito­baquito for six years. When I first start­ed writ­ing about this area, it was remote and lit­tle known, even though the land is part of Organ Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment. But for the last few months, the park has head­lined nation­al news.

This spot is an occa­sion­al cross­ing point for trans­bor­der migrants, and some of the wall’s first stretch­es will tra­verse the nation­al mon­u­ment with­in steps of Quito­baquito. Many observers fear that the thir­ty-foot wall with night­time flood­light­ing will harm wildlife, low­er the water table and destroy archae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures. Crowds are vis­it­ing the site to protest the con­crete and steel bar­ri­er.

Trump’s promise to build a wall began as a rhetor­i­cal flour­ish dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. But in May 2019, his admin­is­tra­tion announced that it would waive 41 laws to con­struct a high bar­ri­er. I believe this project could destroy an area with a diverse, mul­ti­cul­tur­al his­to­ry that chal­lenges today’s bor­der debates.

This pho­to shows bor­der wall con­struc­tion in Organ Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment in Novem­ber 2019. ( Pho­to by Jared Orsi)

Eras­ing cultures

In my research on Quito­baquito, I’ve noticed that while its waters have attract­ed a wide array of peo­ples for more than 10,000 years, each wave of new­com­ers tends to erase the evi­dence of those who came before them.

Begin­ning in the late sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, Span­ish mis­sion­ar­ies tried to entice native peo­ples in this area to aban­don their tra­di­tions in favor of Chris­t­ian agri­cul­tur­al life. Then, in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­cans con­fined indige­nous peo­ples to reser­va­tions. For most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice man­aged this swath of south­ern Ari­zona as an unin­hab­it­ed wilderness.

These actions have erased Quitobaquito’s his­to­ry. The bor­der project is the lat­est phase of this rewrite.

A farm that strad­dled the line

Here’s some back sto­ry on the diverse cul­tures that have occu­pied this oasis.

Around 1860, a new­com­er from Geor­gia named Andrew Dorsey dammed and enlarged the pond, and a small agri­cul­tur­al set­tle­ment grew at Quito­baquito. M.G. Levy, the Ger­man-edu­cat­ed son of a Jew­ish immi­grant, kept a small store there, employ­ing a French shop­keep­er and doing busi­ness with Amer­i­can and Mex­i­can sup­pli­ers. Chi­nese and Japan­ese migrants stopped there after cross­ing the bor­der from Mex­i­co to evade America’s Asian exclu­sion laws.

Some­time in the 1880s, Luis Oroz­co brought his fam­i­ly to Quito­baquito. They iden­ti­fied as mem­bers of the nomadic indige­nous group Hia C’ed O’odham, who had moved through­out south­ern Ari­zona and north­ern Sono­ra long before there was a bor­der. But their sur­name attest­ed to gen­er­a­tions of colo­nial His­pani­ciza­tion of the region’s native peoples.

The Oroz­co home­stead, which spanned the U.S.-Mexico bor­der in what became Organ Pipe Nation­al Mon­u­ment, was demol­ished by the Nation­al Park Ser­vice in the late 1950s. (Pho­to cour­tesy of Nation­al Park Service)

For three gen­er­a­tions, the Oroz­cos home­stead­ed a plot that spanned the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. They tend­ed live­stock, built struc­tures and dug wells. Using a net­work of ditch­es, they plant­ed and irri­gat­ed mel­ons, figs, pome­gran­ates and oth­er non-native species. Like every­one else, they cut trees for fire­wood, fenc­ing, and con­struc­tion and hunt­ed wild ani­mals for food and mate­ri­als. Nobody got rich, but they got by.

Whose land?

Over time, almost every­body but the Oroz­cos drift­ed away from Quito­baquito. But the fam­i­ly still lived there in 1937, when the U.S. gov­ern­ment des­ig­nat­ed Organ Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment. Luis’s son Jose Juan and grand­son Jim were farm­ing on pub­lic lands, but they could not prove title to the land or doc­u­ment their cit­i­zen­ship in either the U.S. or Mexico.

Nation­al Park Ser­vice offi­cials believed that the ram­shackle Oroz­co home­stead under­mined the wilder­ness ideals that had inspired des­ig­na­tion of the area as a nation­al mon­u­ment. They harassed the fam­i­ly for cut­ting wood, con­struct­ing build­ings and hunt­ing deer – long­stand­ing prac­tices that now vio­lat­ed park rules.

After an out­break of hoof-and-mouth dis­ease in the mid-1940s, the agency began to fence the bor­der to keep out Mex­i­can cat­tle. The bar­ri­er sev­ered the Oroz­co homestead.

Through a white ranch­er friend, Jim Oroz­co enlist­ed the aid of U.S. Sen. Carl Hay­den, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can, who bro­kered a com­pro­mise: The Park Ser­vice built a gate allow­ing the fam­i­ly to move back and forth across the bor­der. A decade lat­er, in 1957, the gov­ern­ment bought the Oroz­cos’ inter­est for $13,000 and then bull­dozed their buildings.

The grave site of Loren­zo Ses­ti­er, a French shop­keep­er who worked at M.G. Levy’s gen­er­al store in the late-1800s, over­looks Quito­baquito. (Pho­to by Jared Orsi)

By the 1970s, nation­al sen­ti­ment start­ed to place greater val­ue on his­toric preser­va­tion – espe­cial­ly of ordi­nary, or ver­nac­u­lar, land­scapes like the Oroz­cos’ home­stead. In response, Organ Pipe Nation­al Mon­u­ment began spon­sor­ing arche­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of Quitobaquito.

The park restored the graves of the Oroz­cos and oth­er indige­nous peo­ple who had lived at the oasis. Today it works with Hia C’ed O’odham and Tohono O’odham tribes to pro­vide access to Quito­baquito and the nation­al mon­u­ment for cer­e­mo­ni­al pur­pos­es and col­lec­tion of plants.

His­to­ry resists caricatures

Today, iron vehi­cle bar­ri­ers and the dust and rum­ble of Bor­der Patrol trucks intrude on vis­i­tors’ expe­ri­ence at Quito­baquito. The site lacks signs or his­tor­i­cal mark­ers, and the park’s vis­i­tor cen­ter does not detail the pond’s his­to­ry. The Oroz­cos’ sto­ry is hard to discern.

But I believe Quitobaquito’s his­to­ry is worth pre­serv­ing. It reveals an Amer­i­can past pop­u­lat­ed by peo­ple who do not fit into cur­rent rhetor­i­cal box­es – Indi­an home­stead­ers, fam­i­lies liv­ing on both sides of the bor­der, white ranch­ers who pro­tect indige­nous resource use and Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors defend­ing the rights of Ari­zo­nans who can’t prove their cit­i­zen­ship. These sto­ries are part of this site – and they are incom­pat­i­ble with a wall.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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