The weekend before Christmas 2008, temperatures dropped sharply across southern Arizona. By midnight on December 21, the border town of Douglas was shivering in the low 40s. By the time a baby boy was born in the desert a few hours later, it was down to 34, so cold the soft earth had hardened and the cactus spines were crackling. The baby’s mother, Lilian Escalante Abrego, had been hiking the wilderness for three days, in a group of quince compañeros caminando, “fifteen friends walking”: five women,a nine-year-old girl, and nine men. Lilian had started out with a friend in their native Honduras, and the two of them had met the rest of the migrants along the way. The journey
lasted weeks, and the travelers had become close. That night they were in the foothills of the Perilla Mountains, ten miles east of Douglas, hoping to make it to a road and a ride. Lilian wasn’t expecting her baby until January. But in the wee hours of December 22, she went into labor.
Unlike those who walked with Josseline, Lilian’s compañeros didn’t even consider going on without her. They shook off their backpacks and spread a yellow blanket on the cold desert floor, trying, vainly, to find a spot free of rocks and prickers. “I lay down on the ground,” Lilian said later, and the wayfarers gathered around under the stars to await the birth of the child. They were in ranch country, and cattle were lowing. With Navidad on her mind, Lilian prayed to the Christ Child.
This was her fifth baby and the labor was short. After only two hours, Lilian brought her baby to the light, lo dio a luz, as the Spanish term for childbirth has it. At three thirty in the morning, near where Silverio Huinil Vail had died eight years before, Arón Jesús Escalante Abrego was born.
“One of the muchachas”—the women—“cut the umbilical cord with a knife,” Lilian said. Both the baby and his mother were in trouble. Arón Jesús was dangerously small and Lilian was bleeding vaginally. She had banged up her legs during the trip, and her feet were badly blistered. “I couldn’t run,” she said. “I couldn’t even walk. I wanted help from la migra.” So someone lit a fire. The birthplace was in lonesome country, and the agents never saw the flames blazing in the winter night. When no help came, ten of the migrants set out to find it.
“A man stayed with me in the desert,” Lilian said. “A Mexican compañero. He told me, ‘I’m not going to leave you alone.’ ” Nicknamed Capulina, he had already teasingly asked the widow Lilian to marry him. She’d teased him right back, saying he was too old, forty to her thirty-nine, but at her moment of crisis he was there at her side. “He cried when the baby was born.”
At daybreak, the others found a solitary ranch house and banged on the door. The owner peered out and, hearing of the birth in the desert, put in an emergency call to the Border Patrol. When la migra arrived, the migrants regaled them with the story of the Christmas baby. The agents hurried out, and in the morning light tracked the walkers’ footprints back to the yellow blanket. They found Arón Jesús and Lilian swaddled in sweaters and trembling in the cold…
On Christmas Eve, the upward arc of Lilian’s story—and the heartwarming tale of the Border Patrol’s rescue of a new baby in Christmas week—spiraled back down. In the early afternoon, I found her dressed and sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, discharge papers in hand. A new Border Patrol agent was standing by. Now that she was medically able to travel, the agent had orders to take her to the station. Never mind that she was a nursing mother with a newborn son in intensive care. And never mind that it was Christmas Eve…
From The Death of Josseline copyright Margaret Regan 2010. Published by Beacon Press.