Nestled in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the Altar Valley Corridor spans the Mexican-U.S. border in two distinct portions in northwestern Sonora and southwestern Arizona. Despite its aridity, the Altar Valley Corridor hosts a variety of plant and animal life adapted to the desert’s summer heat and winter chills. It is here at the Tohono O’odham people (historically called “Papagos” by Spaniards and Mexicans) have their most sacred mountain – the bell-shaped Baboquivari Peak. Separated from the desert cities of Hermosillo, Caborca, Tucson, Phoenix, and their busy highways, the Altar Valley is still an important (and irregular) corridor for the movement of people and contraband between the two neighboring countries. It is in the remote Altar Valley Corridor that most of the land crossings into the U.S. by undocumented immigrants (as well as a significant amount of narcotics smuggling) took place in the first decades of the 21st Century. In this photo essay, we will take a tour of this corridor, from the town of Altar in Sonora to the forgotten bordertowns at Sásabe and the northern edge of the Altar Valley in Arizona as a way of understanding one of the most important settings in conversations about the U.S.-Mexican border.
Saguaro and other cacti watch over the Altar Valley throughout its length. The stark, quiet beauty of the valley becomes evident as does the heat, aridity, and peril the environment presents for humans. Long before the Altar desert corridor became the one of the most tragic settings for the desperate movement of migrants into the U.S., the area stretching from Altar, Sonora, to Robles Junction, west of Tucson, Arizona, was home to numerous indigenous groups, Spanish missionaries and settlers, and then Mexican and Anglo American ranchers. In the Arizonan portion of the Altar Valley Corridor all water flows north, mainly through the Altar Wash. On the Mexican side, all water flows south to the Gulf of California along the important Altar River which has its source in mountains along the U.S.-Mexican border near the Tres Bellotas Ranch west of Nogales.
The bell-shaped Baboquivari Peak and Mountains loom over the northwestern edge of the Altar Valley. Baboquivari Peak is an important regional geographic landmark and one of the most sacred sites for the Tohono O’odham (“Desert People”) of Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora. According to the traditional religion of the O’odham, humanity emerged into the world through this holy mountain after a flood. I’itoi, the creator of the world, is believed to live in a cave within the mountain from which he watches over his people today. The image of I’itoi – depicted in Tohono O’odham art as a man in the middle of a circular maze – is popular throughout the Arizona-Sonora border region. The maze represents not only the path to reach I’itoi within his cave at Baboquivari but also the decisions a person makes throughout their life path.
Let us reorient our exploration of this corridor with a visit to the southern end of the Altar Valley. About 100 miles (160 km) south of Baboquivari Peak, the little town of Altar, Sonora, Mexico, stands as an important regional crossroads linking northwestern Sonora (and the distant Baja California peninsula) with the more populated eastern half of the state and the rest of the Mexican interior via Mexican Federal Highway 2. Although a town of only 7,927 residents primarily focused on agriculture according to the 2010 census conducted by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI or National Statistics and Geography Institute), since 1997 Altar has played a big role in discussions over U.S. immigration and border control policy as thousands of potential border crossers from all over Mexico, Central America, and beyond either gather or pass through here on their journeys north. According to one long-time resident of Altar, the town became a “migrant waiting room.” Numerous media outlets ranging from The Guardian (Britain) to VICE have reported on the people of Altar and the migrants crossing through it. 
Altar was originally founded in 1755 as the Presidio (or fort) de Santa Gertrudis de Altar by 45-year-old Captain Bernardo de Urrea and 29 soldiers along the Altar River as a response to the 1751-1752 Pima Revolt. In November 1751, the indigenous Pimas Altos and Tohono O’odham people (who were historically referred to as Papagos in Spanish and Mexican records) revolted against the Spanish Crown and its Jesuit missionaries in the region starting at the mission of Sáric 43 miles (69km) upstream on the Altar River. The threat to regional Spanish colonial rule, fought as a race war between Pimas and Tohono O’odham against the mission priests and Spanish settlers, ended in a negotiated peace in March 1752 and a stronger military presence in the Sonoran Desert that led to the founding of the Presidio de Santa Gertrudis de Altar. The adobe fort – long since demolished – later changed its name to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Altar when a church of the same name was added to the small desert town. The 1767 map shown below shows the importance of the Altar River for the presidio (courtesy Tumacacori National Historical Park).
The current Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church was built in 1886 and now ministers to prospective undocumented border crossers headed toward the United States. Under Pastor Prisciliano Peraza Garcia, the parish provides numerous services for migrants, including dropping off supplies for migrants in the desert. The parish manages a mostly volunteer-run migrant and deportee shelter in western Altar, the Centro Comunitario de Atencion al Migrante y Necesitado (CCAMYN, or Community Center for the Attention of the Migrant and Needy). Posters and informational displays within the parish reflect the presence of the northbound immigrants who have redefined Altar’s history in recent decades.
Near the church’s altar (with its portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe), a prayer printed on a standard exhorts parishioners to pray for their “migrant brothers.” The text reads: “Heart of Jesus, full of love and mercy, I pray for my migrant brothers. Have mercy on them and protect them because they suffer abuses and humiliations in their journey, they’re marked by most as dangerous, and marginalized for being foreigners. May we respect and value their dignity. Touch with your mercy the hearts of as many as we see pass by. Protect their families until they return to their homes, not with broken hearts, but with their hopes fulfilled.”
(ABOVE) Towards the rear of the church, bulletin boards warn potential immigrants of the dangers ahead in the Sonoran Desert (“desierto de Altar”) alongside information on the nature of the Holy Eucharist and the ordination of diocesan seminarians. The migration-related posters encourage migrants, quoting Pope Francis saying “Migrants are not a danger-they are IN danger” while still warning about dangerous conditions of the desert. Across the church, underneath the Stations of the Cross depicting Christ’s passion, a map shows the sites migrant deaths have occurred in the desert north of Altar (BELOW). Circles emanating from the border show the distance – in days walked – the migrant deaths occurred. For many prospective undocumented border crossers, walking a few days towards pre-arranged U.S. pick-up sites might not seem challenging, but the desert environment is formidable. Most of the deaths shown in the map occurred west of the Altar Valley within the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation.
Adobe homes and structures – many of them decades old – line the historic center of Altar and reflect the town’s deep roots. Many older adobe houses, formerly private residences, are now guest houses for prospective Mexican and Central American migrants heading northward, such as the Casa de Huespedes de Altar. Many migrants – comprised of men and women and sometimes children – rest in Altar after completing the first part of their journey through Mexico and then continue north towards the international border 73 miles (117 km) away. Besides guest houses in the older adobe homes of old Altar, more modern motels line other areas of town. As Jesus, a long time Altar resident stated in a newspaper interview, “As the migrants came, service infrastructure increased. Altar is not a tourist destination, there’s nothing to see here, no beaches, no culture, yet today we have 14 hotels, one of them 4 stars, and 80 guest houses.” 
Around the town plaza in Altar, a hand-painted phone service advertisement displays rates in pesos for calls to the U.S., the rest of Mexico, and Guatemala. Nearby, the Mexican Red Cross’s mobile clinic offers services to migrants. Across from the plaza, shops sell food and clothing, including various camouflaged articles and special hand-made shoes designed to obscure tracks left in the desert (image above right courtesy VICE News). Electrolytes and caffeine are some of the most sold products in Altar’s stores and pharmacies, as well as contraception purchased by female migrants as some level of protection against potential rape in the dangerous cross-border journey with human smugglers (coyotes). The movement of migrants through Altar profoundly defines the desert community’s economy, but agriculture and ranching are still important economic sources.
Behind the Church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and just off Mexican Federal Highway 2, another shelter serves the needs of migrant people, but a macabre mural painted on the center’s outer wall also warns migrants passing through Altar. Painted in 2006, the mural depicts the dangerous journey of migrants in the hot Sonoran (Altar) Desert north of town. The Virgin Mary weeps as heat-weary migrants pray to her for intervention.
Sonoran State Route 43 starts its northeasterly journey through the Sonoran Desert from the center of Altar following the course of the Altar River. While Mexican Federal Highway 2 – an important connection in Mexico’s national transportation network – is an impressive, smooth, and 4-lane wide highway around Altar, Sonora-43 is a smaller, less-maintained 2-lane highway that connects Altar with the agricultural communities of Oquitoa, Tubutama, Atil, and Sáric upstream along the Altar River before continuing eastward along hill country as an unpaved road towards Heroica Nogales, Sonora. In the 1600s and 1700s Jesuit missionaries, among them the celebrated priest Eusebio Kino, founded numerous missions along this corridor (extending into the Tucson, AZ, area) to spread the Gospel to the Tohono O’odham, Pimas, and other indigenous desert peoples. Before drug cartels began asserting their power in the area, this highway – part of Sonora’s “Ruta de las Misiones” or Way of the Missions – allowed Mexicans and tourists from the U.S. to visit the historic missions and towns of northwestern Sonora.
An early summer season monsoon forms near the mission church at Oquitoa and its historic cemetery. The mission at Oquitoa – formally named San Antonio de Oquitoa – was founded in 1689 by Father Eusebio Kino and serves as a reminder of the intercultural exchanges that have occurred in the larger Altar desert corridor over the last four centuries. The meaning of “Oquitoa” is not known with certainty, with one theory holding that it means “next to” or “nearby” in the Tohono O’odham language, perhaps as a reference to the nearby Altar River. Oquitoa might also mean “jagged hills” similar to the village of Qujtoa located in the current-day Tohono O’odham Reservation in the U.S. Although not supported by O’odham or Piman speakers, local lore claims “Oquitoa” means “white woman” in Piman. The mission church survived the 1751-1752 Pima Revolt and still has an active congregation in the small village. Located just 7 miles (11 km) north of Altar, Oquitoa has just 372 residents as of the 2015 census according to the INEGI.
A distant storm cool off the hot desert day in Oquitoa. The grove of trees is along the Altar River.
Back on the highway outside of Oquitoa, Sonora-43 heads north to the agricultural communities of Tubutama and Sáric where a separate and winding highway – alternating between dirt and pavement – traverses the 31 miles (50 km) of hilly desert to the Altar Valley’s border crossing at Sásabe. Many media outlets refer to Altar as the last stop on migrants’ journeys north, but it is in the area around Sásabe, Sonora, that the crossing into the United States actually occurs. Throughout its length Sonora-43 is an isolated rural road with hardly any traffic.
El Sásabe, Sonora, emerges after journeying northwest on the desert route from Sáric. A small park (ABOVE) serves the children and residents of the town while a small Mexican Army garrison is located in the northern corner of town near the border. Far tinier than even Altar, Sásabe (which means “head valley” in the Tohono O’odham language) is situated right on the border across from Sasabe, Arizona (a pair of Arizona-Sonora bordertown twins like the San Luis/San Luis Rio Colorado, Ambos Nogales and….the Nacos). Mexican Sásabe is a quiet town far removed from the rest of Sonora. Many U.S. border enforcement agents in Arizona fear crossing into Sásabe, Sonora, and its surrounding areas due to the presence of mostly unchecked organized crime on the Mexican side of the Altar Valley corridor. Like in Altar, the small community is closely-knit and aware of people passing through to other destinations. El Sásabe's border location gives it importance as a base of operations for one of the busiest human and narcotics smuggling corridors into the U.S.
Dirt streets wind through little El Sásabe and at one point a sign outside of a public school warns migrants about the dangers ahead. Directed at prospective migrants, the warning posted by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reminds border-crossers of the dangers of this remote international border. Although at least 15 years old, the faded text on the sign advises migrants to not put their lives at risk as “temperatures in the desert can be fatal” while also making a grim request. “If you have seen any bodies or human remains along your journey, CALL US and provide us with detailed information on your findings. You call is free and can be anonymous.” The National Human Rights Commission’s warning ends saying “Only alive can you do something for your loved ones.”
A block from the international border crossing into the U.S., the dirt streets of Sásabe, Sonora, become paved near private homes and the town cemetery. In the distance, the bell-shaped Baboquivari Peak watches over the Sonoran Desert and Altar Valley and serves as a visible point of reference. Upon closer look, one can see a small bright pink restaurant on the way to the port of entry.
The Cafeteria Disney welcomes individuals, particularly children, interested in a Disney-inspired meal.
The Altar Valley Corridor continues northward across the international border. Our tour will resume in Part II (coming in late November 2017) beginning with an exploration of El Sásabe’s neighbor – the ghost town of Sasabe, Arizona.
 “Altar,” Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México: Estado de Sonora (https://web.archive.org/web/20081201232501/http://www.e-local.gob.mx/wb2/ELOCAL/EMM_sonora); “Un amplio reportaje sobre la migración Altar-Sásabe,” Ariete Caborca, 23 de abril 2013 (http://www.arietecaborca.com/?p=41556)
 “Altar,” Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México: Estado de Sonora https://web.archive.org/web/20081201232501/http://www.e-local.gob.mx/wb2/ELOCAL/EMM_sonora; Henry F. Dobyns, “Chapter V: The Pima Revolt of 1752,” Tubac Through Four Centuries: A Historical Resume and Analysis (http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/tubac/cpt5-int.htm); “Santa Gertrudis del Altar,” Tumacacori National Historical Park (https://www.nps.gov/tuma/learn/historyculture/santa-gertrudis-del-altar.htm); Michael R. Hardwick, Spanish and Mexican California: Presidios of the Frontier Line (http://www.militarymuseum.org/PresidiosoftheLine.html)
 “Mexico’s Immigrant Oasis,” VICE News, June 25, 2014 (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kwpydv/mexicos-immigrant-oasis); Rory Carroll, “Altar, Mexico: how the 'migrant oasis' for would-be border crossers became a trap,” The Guardian, Oct. 14, 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/14/altar-mexico-how-the-migrant-oasis-for-would-be-border-crossers-became-a-trap); Alex Storen Weden, “Deadly human trafficking business on Mexico-US border,” Al Jazeera News, January 26, 2016 (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/deadly-human-trafficking-business-mexico-border-160117073423022.html)
 Judd Joffe-Block, “Mexican Border Town Hit Hard As Migration Patterns Shift,” Fronteras Desk, April 18, 2014 (http://www.fronterasdesk.org/content/9596/mexican-border-town-hit-hard-migration-patterns-shift)
 “Un amplio reportaje sobre la migración Altar-Sásabe,” Ariete Caborca, 23 de abril 2013 (http://www.arietecaborca.com/?p=41556)
 “Altar: el último pueblo antes de la frontera” VICE News, 25 de junio 2014 (https://www.vice.com/es_mx/article/7by99q/altar-el-ultimo-pueblo-antes-de-la-frontera); Judd Joffe-Block, “Mexican Border Town Hit Hard As Migration Patterns Shift,” Fronteras Desk, April 18, 2014 (http://www.fronterasdesk.org/content/9596/mexican-border-town-hit-hard-migration-patterns-shift); Catherine Holland, “Smuggling fuels Mexico town's economy,” AZFamily.com, January 18, 2017 (http://www.azfamily.com/story/34287523/smuggling-fuels-mexico-towns-economy)
 “Sonora: Población,” INEGI (http://cuentame.inegi.org.mx/monografias/informacion/Son/Poblacion/)
 Javier Solórzano, “De El Sásabe a Phoenix,” Informador.MX, (http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:puoWtHY9SRgJ:www.informador.com.mx/mexico/2010/199408/6/de-el-sasabe-a-phoenix.htm+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us); Jesús Ibarra, “Narco en Sonora cambia rutas de migrantes,” Jesusibarrablog, 8 de julio 2016 (https://jesusibarrablog.wordpress.com/tag/el-sasabe/)
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U.S.-Mexican, Latino, and Border Historian