People of the Border

When talking about the border it is easy to turn it into a conceptual political issue. However, there are so many people living this reality and they are the ones who make this issue so compelling. They are the ones who humanize this issue. These are some of the people we met…

Jim and Sue own the Chilton ranch in Arizona. This is a 50,000-acre ranch. Jim, in 2003, won the title ‘Rancher of the Year’ and has testified in front of Congress six times. Sue, spent five years on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Jim and Sue are a ranching power couple.

I went with the first group, with Jim, to set up the interview at the ranch. We quickly learned Jim was a jokester. On our way into the ranch, with a while to drive still, Jim pulls over, saunters up to our van and says he is glad we made it through all the congestion. We were in rural Arizona and had not seen a single car on the drive. He then immediately, walks back to his truck and we finish the drive to his home. Jokes like this continued throughout the day.

Jim and Sue’s house was beautiful. Honestly, like no other house I have ever seen.  The master bedroom was circular room made of 16 windows, which Jim designed himself. In the foyer of their house sat a stuffed cougar. Jim told us the day he got the cougar he placed it in the door to scare Sue when she came home.

Jim referred to Sue as Super Sue, and it is apparent why. Sue was buzzing around whether she was preparing and cleaning up the potluck at the church, leading the choir, getting ready for the interview, or just making us feel at home. It was clear Sue rarely stopped moving. Sue couldn’t be more than a couple inches over five foot and wore bright blue cowboy boots. This couple was just so genuine a few times throughout the day I had to remind myself I was not meeting my own grandparent’s friends in rural Iowa.

Jim and Sue are on either side of the man with the cowboy hat on (Father Neeley)

I talked to a man for only a couple minutes after church in Arivaca, Arizona (a small town), but I managed to find out he was originally from Sioux City. Sioux City is a small town in Iowa my grandma was from. This was a nice reminder how small the world really is.

Father Neeley is a Jesuit who led us around Nogales for a couple of days. He has a commanding bass voice, a full white beard, mustache, and a cowboy hat. He learned Spanish in his 30s over a bottle of alcohol and before working at the Kino Border Initiative he was a professor of marketing. He taught a class about wine marketing because of his connections in the wine industry and was the faculty advisor for one of the school’s fraternities. I do not think I have seen such pure excitement as when Father Neeley got to see the drone fly in rural Arizona.

Father Neeley with Daniela
Father Neeley looking at the drone

We were given a tour of Nogales, Mexico by a lawyer and his historian friend these two would contradict and passive aggressively argue about the real history of Nogales. One would tell one story and then the other would explicitly tell us all that the other was wrong, then telling us his version of the historical event. This went on until we were late for our dinner reservation and had to say goodbye.

The arguing historians are the two men in the middle of this image

John was our tour guide on the desert walk. He had long white hair, shorts, and sandals. He was a Quaker and the most peaceful person I have ever met. He quickly climbed a rock wall, told stories of casual conversations with border control, and slyly dropped that he had to be back in Minnesota for a court date due to a protest he had participated in. The most telling encounter I had with John is when he told us that shoes were optional on our desert hike. The desert hike was filled with cactus, thorny bushes, and we walked on gravel, yet shoes were only recommended.


We went to Saguaro National Park where we met Cecil and Carol. Cecil was an Arizona biologist who studied the horticulture and amphibians in the park. Carol used to be an editor at National Geographic, yet sat back and let Cecil have his moment as he informed us about all the wildlife in the park, which included instructions on getting high by licking the backs of frogs.

Father Neeley and Ivan a Jesuit in training (which is not the official title) came over to dinner one night. With them was a man who casually mentioned, half way through dinner, his career as a UN ambassador. He then retired to work in the Vatican before actually retiring to his new home in Spain. He worked in Pakistan, Bosnia during the war, Geneva, Spain, and the list goes on. He worked in the Vatican and told us about his nice photo with the pope. He shared stories of his time in Europe and Africa over pizza sitting in a plastic Adirondack chair.

We ended up going through border checkpoints almost every day. Every experience at these checkpoints was a little bit different. However, the best experience I had at one of these checkpoints was just quintessentially Midwest. Our vans had Creighton University printed on the side. On seeing this a border control agent from another lane jogs up to our car and tells us he is also from Nebraska. We small talk about why we are in Arizona and our mutual knowledge of the somewhat small town he was from.

Ultimately, the people we met on the border were why this trip was such a good experience. They helped add complexity and a human face to this highly politicized issue. 



1 thought on “People of the Border

  1. Liz, I love this post I feel we were so lucky to meet so many different people. This is why I love Backpack Journalism and “vacations” aren’t nearly as interesting.

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