Stronger than any tsunami or river of lava, the hollow surge of hunger stretches the baby birds’ necks, pries their beaks wide, angling at the empty sky, urgent. Simple.
This force, hunger, that shapes the lives of migrating birds and animals across the globe, inhabits humans, compels enactment of ritualized customs of migration before borders— customs whose origins are long forgotten, or willed by gods or spirits seen in visions.
Another hunger results from sudden or corrupting forces, after borders—natural disasters, land acquisition, resource extraction, religious conflicts, gangs, political machinations, no legal protection—creating rifts over resources. Rifts, which zigzag like cracked cement, divide populations into factions with competing interests, though the empty belly lies beneath real danger of drones and bombs or bigotry and hate.
I heard nomads one night in Northern Kenya by Lake Turkana near the Sudanese border. I floated on their rhythmic chanting as I lay, mouth wide in awe, eyes unseeing, body still, every note lifting me higher than deep sleep orgasm memories of lovers in the dark. They took me across a divide before recorded time, into cellular memory of stars—my ancestors—who gave me this heart, this common prayer, filling everything, before the voices trailed off to nothing.
I remember the days before that, the nomad wives, with goatskins hanging off boney hips, lean black ripe young breasts over tight knit fingers crushing bugs and berries and shriveled maize to mix with milk from emaciated cows, and the mostly naked children, stomachs starting to bulge, losing interest, merely sitting or standing close to their mothers, playing with sticks or digging holes with tiny fingers or staring at nothing, and the hunter-warriors sitting on cracked bare feet sharpening spears for nothing.
That was when the elders consulted with each other, the shamans, with the spirits in the bushes and the gods of thunder strayed too far. And they all dance with the rhythms of the moon to ancient, ritual chants down millennia of nomadic wanderings.
In full-moonbeam shadows, they packed up their camels, herded their cows, gathered their goats, abandoned domed branch and leaf huts, turned their backs on withered cornstalk patches, gathered under a white circle of light through a pinhole in an indigo sky that cast a blue aura on a cool desert night, and they walked, chanting, looking for pastures where leaves live on shrubs or seeking dried riverbeds for wells—their haunting chants floating, dispersing, disappearing leaving barely a trace of themselves on a wisp of wind or a flick of flying foam on a stormy sea.
The Nomads through millennia vanishing, their deserts shrinking in climate disruption, civilization encircling, strangling the last utterance of chants—silenced. The leathered skinned elders all sinew and bone lie down, sink into forgetfulness, and the children migrate not through full-moon shadows on cool desert nights, but to the cities, disappearing down alleys, squatting on sidewalks, listening for even a trace of themselves, of their wisdom, in the din of forgetting in a click of a mouse showing a conservation group saving giraffes in a sickly green flickering on a screen of images, a reality of the mind.
When world powers compete with their hungry, salacious, mouths chewing and spewing people and blood, like Dante’s circles of hell, when nations compete for diamonds or oil, cheap labor or for land for military bases, hegemony in the region, launching pads for dominance or war, societies are upended.
When world powers arm and advise leaders of dependent or coerced nations, these leaders trade their heritage for filled coffers, demonize their own dissident population, commit genocide over politics, race, religion—then begins the migration.
The hollow surge of hunger calls for risk. That hunger—complicated with obstacles, social disintegration, desperation, violence—calls for action. That imperative for survival—food, safety, stability, children, dreams in a momentary flicker of sun in a burned out building that used to be home—begins an ancient re-enactment of migration.
And they flow like rivers across the landscape and seas, once for a fertile pasture, a dried river well, then down through history across continents seeking freedom to find their pasture or well in the form of stability to feed their families, keep them safe.
Gregorio, the Mexican man I married, and his friends told me of their migration from southern Mexico where they lived with no shoes, lived on illegally captured iguana, chickens scratching in the dirt, pigs lapping up their garbage, tar paper shacks with leaky corrugated tin roofs, slept on dried mud floors crawling with scorpions and absence of law, just miles from five star resorts where each hotel room had its own swimming pool on cliffs over the beach. They had no access to ever be a guest with the breach between. They knew there had to be something better.
They crossed the border together with a coyote. Ten nights they walked. They slept in the day, shed the weight of the things they carried, hid when one of the women, spooked by branches breaking, yelled “La Migra,” sending them scrambling into a clump of trees where they hid for hours as they watched big border guards zip over the hills in heavy vehicles. When the shoe of a four-year-old in the group slipped off onto a ledge just below the cliff’s edge, they almost lost her father.
One of them told me, “When we were out of food and water and little 3-year old Josefina was screaming with hunger and thirst, their Coyote (guide) was gone.”
But as opposed to many, the Coyote stuck to his bargain and came back the next day with water and food.
They walked through the hills, freezing, crossing into San Diego. They boarded separately on planes with fake IDs and new clothes or they hid in back seats and trunks of cars headed up Highway 5 to San Francisco.
One of them told me, “On that trip we glanced back to see who was watching, cast our eyes down, talked to no one, waited for an unwanted hand to grab our shoulder, send us back.”
Over the years as I grew fond of them, shared births, baptisms, god parenting, parties, feasts, weddings, funerals and dreams, I watched as their paths diverged.
Some stayed. My husband’s brother Ricardo won the immigration lottery that made him legal, so he brought his girlfriend from the village, married and made her legal. He founded his own garden supply company that grew so big, he became a millionaire, with his children heading for ivy league colleges.
Some were caught while working at hard labor jobs, were locked up for years as if not being a citizen is a crime. No one could find them, their wives and children fractured, fell into poverty, even with everyone rallying around to assist. They moved back to Mexico.
Some died, prosperous with small gardening or construction businesses, but still illegal. They died of an accident, a disease, a heart attack—displaced, invisible here, no longer there— migrated. The community pulled tight, sent them to lie with their ancestors in the small villages of southern Mexico.
Immigrants aren’t other, they migrate because they have to, out of Dali-esque landscapes of the earth or the mind.
Walls against migrants are against humanity, are against eco systems, are barriers migrants crawl under, climb over, go around. Walls divert attention from constructive real solutions. Cages for babies, children, separation of families, calling them illegals and criminals when they cross legally asking asylum—this treatment is barbaric and inhumane and a deep wound on our democracy, a stain on each of us.
All over the world not rescuing drowning people, not letting boats land solves nothing, is tantamount to murder, exposes the desperate to tragic exploitation by preying groups like pirates, slave traders, kidnappers, and the like. Herding displaced migrating people into ill-equipped refugee camps, barren of dreams for the future, intended to be temporary, turning into squatters squalor for generations only creates insurmountable suffering.
When one heart bleeds, all hearts bleed, whether we realize or not. The loss we bestow upon others, we bestow upon ourselves.
Migration begins with the hollow surge of hunger—human beings stretching their necks, mouths gaping—if only we’ll feed them, show compassion, open our hearts and our doors, help them spread their wings, become us.