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Walls: An Excerpt

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The Huffington Post Canada is delighted to once again be partnering with the Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In the weeks leading up to the March 6 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Marcello Di Cintio:

For Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, I visited some of the world's most unfriendly edges where people live in the shadows of walls, fences and other physical barriers. I travelled to the Western Sahara, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Israel and Palestine, the divided capital of Cyprus, India's fenced frontier with Bangladesh, Belfast, the US-Mexico borderlands, and Montreal's infamous l'Acadie fence. At each barricade, I sought out the personal stories of those who lived there and tried to answer the question: 'What does it mean to live against a wall?'

I met some incredible people during the course of my travels. Saharan refugees who'd walked across minefields. African migrants who'd torn their flesh climbing barbed wire fences. Palestinian and Indian farmers walled out of their own land. Peace activists in Belfast and poets in Nicosia. One of the most compelling people I met, however, was Ofelia Rivas. Ofelia is an elder with the Tohono O'odham, a Native American nation whose ancestral land spans the US-Mexico border across the Sonora Desert. I visited her home on the reservation, only a few hundred metres from the frontier, and she told me about the Wall.

Ofelia sat across from me and folded her hands, knotted with arthritis like tree roots, on the tabletop. She wore a thick flannel shirt against the November breeze and a floral orange skirt. Her hair was straight and black, and when she started to speak, I had to lean forward to hear her. Like all the O'odham I met, Ofelia spoke in soft, reverent tones, as if she was continuously occupying sacred space. And she was. According to O'odham him'dag -- the canon of beliefs, stories, and rituals that governs O'odham life -- all O'odham territory, from the northern reaches of the desert to the Cortés seashore, is holy land. "We are directed by Creation to maintain the area by doing our ceremonies," Ofelia whispered. "By doing our prayer offerings. Doing our songs to specific mountains. Gathering medicine."

Because their land spanned beyond the international line, the Wall not only divided the territory, it desecrated it.

Some of the traditional ceremonies occur on the other side of the border. Before the increased security along the border, the O'odham passed freely back and forth across the line, following their traditional routes. Now the keepers of the O'odham faith need to face those who hold the line. The Department of Homeland Security has ordered two of the ceremonial routes closed, and forces O'odham to make long detours to checkpoints enforced by the Border Patrol. The agents now insist on searching medicine bundles for drugs and contraband. According to O'odham belief, only the celebrants of the O'odham rituals are permitted to handle the sacred items. The border searches pollute the sanctity of the bundles and, according to Ofelia, violate treaty rights of the Tohono O'odham.

The Tohono O'odham do not oppose a secure border. They even campaigned for one. In the 1990s, Mexican narcos used the reservation as a highway to run drugs. The cartels recruited young O'odham girls into their gangs, broke them with drugs, and sold them for sex. Then they used the girls to carry drugs into America. "These O'odham girls were the first drug mules," Ofelia said. The Tohono O'odham Nation pleaded with the federal government to secure the border against the smugglers, but the government showed little interest in stopping the drug trade. A delegation from Washington came down to visit the border. Afterwards, they told the O'odham that the reservation was sovereign land and therefore the responsibility of the tribal council, not the federal government. After 9/11, though, the border became their business. The government declared the reservation U.S. property and the frontier a vulnerable infiltration point for terrorists. Abused Indian girls could not inspire the feds as effectively as Osama bin Laden had.

Ofelia sat silent for a moment and looked down at her hands. When she raised her eyes, she asked if I would like to see the Wall. We got into my car and she guided me along the paths to the border. It was late afternoon, and shadows extended from the fence across the dirt road on the American side. Aside from the occasional gust of the November wind that shook the cholla cactus and swept dust into our eyes, the borderline was quiet. Ofelia was quiet too, and her presence lent the scene a kind of sacred stillness. She told me we were lucky -- the silence was too often punctured by helicopters and Border Patrol ATVs.

A row of steel posts, linked with three strands of wire cable, stood along the borderline. The posts were sunk five feet into the ground and filled with concrete slurry to stop trucks from barreling through. The posts were spaced far enough apart, however, that anyone on foot could step through the Wall. The DHS originally wanted to build a solid wall here, something akin to the post-and-mesh barrier along Bill Odle's property. Environmentalists and members of the O'odham Nation objected, but Ofelia figured the DHS was deterred by the cost, not anything else. Besides, the DHS kept their options open. She pointed to metal clips on the tops of the posts where the government could hang steel panels and seal off the border to foot traffic.

"They did it in Yuma," she said. "The National Guard came in with plates of metal and put it together like Lego. It could change at any time. I feel like they are preparing for war."

The Wall travelled straight along the border except where it abruptly veered off the line and curved around a tall saguaro to place the cactus on the south side of the barrier. The diversion around the cactus baffled Ofelia. "How did the Border Patrol decide this cactus was a Mexican cactus?" she
laughed. Then she stepped across the border to pose for a photo in front of the saguaro. She invited me over the line and I squeezed past the posts to join her on the other side. I stood south of the line for a moment before stepping back into the United States. Stories of remote drones and omniscient Border Patrol spooked me. I live across America's other border and know how easily one can find his name on a border-crossing black list. I didn't want to risk being forever banned from the United States for the thin prank of pushing past some fence posts into Mexico.

"People have to realize that the barrier is permanently there," Ofelia said. "And because it is permanent, it changes forever who we are."

Before I said goodbye to Ofelia, she told me about the elders who died the year the Wall went up. "That year we lost eleven elders. One after another, they passed away. It just seemed like they couldn't comprehend what was happening." Seeing their sacred land bifurcated and dishonoured poisoned them somehow. The Wall Disease can be terminal. "Almost every month we were having death ceremonies. I had longer hair back then, and I kept cutting it to honour the elders who died. By the end of the year, my hair was gone."

Excerpted from Walls: Travels Along the Barricades © 2012 by Marcello Di Cintio. Reproduced by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Marcello Di Cintio is currently shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The winner will be announced in Ottawa at the Politics and the Pen Gala on March 6.