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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tunnel Kids

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Each day about 15,000 people try to cross the border between the United States and Mexico illegally. Many are led by smugglers under cover of night, some on foot, others hidden in vehicles. If they're lucky, they can elude the border guards. But there is another way to cross the border: under it. A maze of tunnels connect the two countries at Nogales and a band of about 20 children have made this labyrinth their home and their livelihood. The story of these children is told in the book "Tunnel Kids" by Lawrence Taylor and Maeve Hickey. The writer/photographer team spent two summers documenting the life of these children under the border. They join us from the BBC studios in Dublin, Ireland. Welcome to Living on Earth.

TAYLOR: Thanks very much. We're glad to be here.

HICKEY: Thank you for having us.

CURWOOD: Lawrence Taylor, tell me, what are these tunnels used for? Where do they go?

TAYLOR: Well, there are two big parallel drainage tunnels that go perpendicular under the border from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, to Nogales, Arizona. And they were built decades ago to drain water during the summer monsoon floods from the Mexican side out to the Arizona side and into a concrete wash, in a way. And in the 1990s. they became, as pressure was applied elsewhere, a place for illegal immigration and drug running.

CURWOOD: And by the way, fill in for us, what's the scene like above-ground on either side of that border there at Nogales?

HICKEY: Well, the two Nogaleses, referred to as Ambos Nogales , they'd be very different in appearance because Nogales , Arizona, is much smaller in size and in population and considerably smaller, and the Sonoran side is just crammed with people and places. So, things are quieter on the U.S. side and just, let's say, cooking on the Mexican side.

TAYLOR: It's probably best summed up by one man we met in the street, Who said of Nogales, Sonora, "No es un rancho es un coral." It's not a ranch, it's a corral. (Laughs) It's a chaotic place.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, in the middle of all this chaos, this border chaos, you both write about this band of children who not only live in, but also make a living off of, these tunnels that connect Mexico and the United States. What are their lives like?

TAYLOR: Their lives are complicated and interesting in a lot of ways. And the story of their lives is, in a way, the story of a group of kids with very fragmented lives, street kids, really, either orphaned or with partial families or no families, who try as best they can to put a life, a family, a home together, that's always in a way destined to fall apart.

CURWOOD: Maeve Hickey, you have a photographer's eye. And I'm wondering if you could just describe for us your first encounter with the tunnel?

HICKEY: Ah, that was a day, that was a day to remember. There are several entrances and we used an entrance which is near the old bullring in Nogales, Sonora, very close to the center of the city. And you just kind of hop down an embankment from the road, and you enter through an underpass, and there you are at the entrance, one of the entrances to the tunnel. It becomes dark very, very quickly. You're walking on sand, and the smell is terrible, it's overpowering. Because the tunnels are very, very contaminated. They're contaminated with everything: effluents, chemicals, and so on from the factories on the border, the illegal dumping that goes on and so on, human waste, everything. And also, there would be people in the tunnel. There'd be drugs and guns and knives and all kinds of things. And illegals are led through the tunnels by coyotes or poyeros . So, I was very afraid, but it was fascinating at the same time, I have to say. And I was trying to photograph as much as I could in the dark.

CURWOOD: What do you think the tunnel was to those kids?

TAYLOR: As we came out, one of them turned to me and said, I think, "You see," he said, "the other kids from the colonials, they have their places, their gangs that defend them. We have no place, we have nothing. For us there is here, the tunnel." Because they delighted in the fact that they could move at will from one country to another as nobody else could, which they were quite good at doing, I must say. They would have - I would be with them in the morning in Sonora, and one of them would tell me he had to go meet somebody in Tucson in the afternoon. And he would go as if he were going down the block, through the tunnel, up onto the Arizona side, evading all the border guards, jump on a freight train, and jump off in Tucson.

CURWOOD: Who owns these tunnels? The United States? Mexico?

TAYLOR: (Laughs) It could be an interestingly disputed element. I mean, both countries do, insofar as they are under the territory of one or the other. But apparently, some months ago, there was an actual armed confrontation that didn't turn ugly, but could have, between police forces on both sides who met each other trying to establish just where the line in the middle of the tunnel was. And when journalists started photographing kids and others coming up out of the big exit of the tunnel, the public demanded that the border patrol be there and stop it. So the border patrol started sitting right at the tunnel exit. And what happened is, the kids and everybody else just started going out all the side manholes. So, there's a constant kind of chess game going on in the border.

HICKEY: Cat and mouse, really.


CURWOOD: These kids knew the secrets of the tunnels. They knew how to get over to the United States and get back without getting caught or caught too often.

HICKEY: That's right.

CURWOOD: Yet, they keep coming back to Mexico.

TAYLOR: Yeah, I think that's a very striking fact.


CURWOOD: What do you think kept them coming back?

HICKEY: Well, I realized, and I also spoke with them about this, that those kids were proudly, proudly Mexican. And they had no interest at all in being in the United States for any period of time, any long period of time, because they just loved Mexico.

TAYLOR: Yeah, and when I was talking to the kids once, when we were actually in the tunnel, about their practice of robbing immigrants, which they would do periodically -- they would both guide them and sometimes rob them -- I asked them, didn't it bother them to rob people who were essentially like their own families? And they vociferously protested -- I didn't believe them, but they vociferously protested that they wouldn't rob Mexicans. That these people were all Central American, so that was all right, and showed me, by way of proof, a Guatemalan bill. All of which is to show that they had, at the same time they were doing this, a sense of whether it was right or wrong, to question it.

CURWOOD: There is a scene in the book where, Lawrence Taylor, you're watching the kids in the mouth of the tunnel just being kids. Could you read that to us, please?

TAYLOR: Sure. (Reads) Leaning over the guard rail, I looked down into the opening. Chocolate waters about a foot and a half deep were rushing through the rectangular opening, just big enough for a car to drive through. I saw a sneaker flash in the gloom, then the pale, smiling face of Chito of the flood. The others were there, too: El Boston, La Fanta, Jesus Becas, El Negro, La Negra, Umberto, Hilberto, and two little boys of about eleven and eight whom I did not yet know. They came grinning into the daylight, flashing Barrio Libre gang signs and Pushing a soccer ball through the churning rapids. They formed a circle in the open tunnel and began to knee, head, and throw the ball around, laughing and falling in the water. They were like any group of exuberant teenagers enjoying a summer rain.

CURWOOD: The scene seems in such stark contrast to what these kids usually do in these tunnels -- that is, holding up people or maybe leading through illegals. (Taylor laughs) Maeve Hickey, how did you reconcile these two faces of the kids?

HICKEY: Oh, well, easily, in this respect: They are children, they are kids, young adolescents and some are younger than that. But they have to work for a living, if you will, and so there is a very harsh reality to their lives. And so that's why it was, in many respects, very easy to work with them, to be with them for so long, and also so difficult. So we laughed a lot with them because they were kids, and we cried a lot over them because they were kids.

CURWOOD: Maeve Hickey is an artist and photographer in Dublin and Lawrence Taylor is a professor and head of the Department of Anthropology, the National University of Ireland. Their book is called "Tunnel Kids." Thank you both for being here.

HICKEY: Thank you very much for having us.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

(Music up and under: Acoustic Alchemy, "Spanish Guitar")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: In 1965, Michael Loftey bought a couple of tiny pet turtles at a department store in Maine. Minnie died in a couple of weeks, but 36 years later Moe is still kicking.

LOFTEY: He's been kind of a ninth wonder of the world. I mean, nobody ever expected Moe, most people go, "Do you still have that turtle?" I don't know, he's just happy.



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