By Anabelle Garay
ALTAR, Mexico -- Along a northbound dirt road, a young couple clad in jeans and T-shirts jumps out of an idling van and walks toward the path's edge, making for a white concrete box with an ornate, wrought-iron cross perched on top.
Dozens of candles -- some lit, some melted, some broken -- are crammed inside the five-foot-high makeshift altar, along with statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.
As the couple kneels before the display with bowed heads, a little boy runs out of the van and kisses the ground.
The humble spot some 60 miles south of the Mexico-Arizona border serves as one of the last places where migrants worship before being shuttled to spots where they will attempt to slip illegally into the United States on foot.
On their trek for economic survival, migrants traveling through the treacherous Arizona desert also find themselves embarking on a religious journey. Many rely on faith to sustain them through the trip's perils, stopping to pray at icons or lighting votive candles to remember those who died along the way.
Before jumping aboard moving cargo trains during the trip north, 29-year-old Carlos Enrique Cano Vanega and other Central Americans he was traveling with would pray by the side of the tracks.
"We began to entrust ourselves to God and asked that he would keep us safe," said Cano, a Honduran man who had journeyed to this Mexican community recently in preparation for an attempted trip to the United States.
People everywhere will often seek spiritual comfort during troubled times. And culturally, Latin Americans identify themselves as religious, even if they don't attend services regularly, said Jacqueline Hagan, co-director for the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston.
In the case of poor immigrants, reliance on faith is even heavier because they have virtually no other resources, Hagan said.
"The only recourse they have is to turn to religion, and that's all they really have on the road as well," she said.
Before embarking on the trek into the United States, indigenous residents of the Guatemalan highlands seek counsel about whether to make the trip and when to go from evangelical pastors or the Black Christ, a dark-skinned depiction of Jesus common in parts of Latin America, Hagan said.
"Religion is their spiritual passport in the absence of authorization," she said. "They get sanctioned by God to do this."
While on the road, some turn to biblical passages that mirror their travels, such as those citing how the Israelites wandered through the desert under God's guidance.
For Cano and others on the train, reading the New Testament to each other brought comfort.
"You feel something ... you feel safer than being out there" without anything to sustain you, he said at a migrant shelter in Altar, a city that serves as a popular staging area for migrants planning to cross the border at Arizona.
Cross to bear
Fifty-six-year-old Ernesto Garcia Mondragon frequented the Catholic church in town to pray for his nephew, who left Mexico bound for the United States. Three months after 19-year-old Olaf Avila Gonzales departed, the family had yet to hear from him.
"I went to ask for the miracle that God and the Virgin can grant me," said Garcia, a shop owner from San Ildefonso. "More than anything, I hope that wherever he is, he is alive."
The family still clung to the hope that Avila hadn't become one of the hundreds of migrants who die each year making the same journey.
The names of some of those people are written on crosses nailed or tied to the tops of telephone poles along a route from Altar to the border community of Sasabe, serving as a reminder of the danger.
Migrants setting out on foot for the Arizona desert are often ill-equipped for the tough terrain and the lack of water, shade or roads.
They don't know much about the desert, the frigid cold in the winter and searing heat during the summer; the snakes and spiders; and the bandas de bajadores, or rip-off crews hiding in wait for victims.
Faced with such threatening reality, spirituality helps explain how they get through such a journey, Hagan said.
"It's divine protection on an otherwise life-threatening and dangerous journey," she said. "It allows them to endure this hardship."
In the desert, volunteers who maintain water stations on the U.S. side of the border for illegal crossers have found hymnals, bibles and rosary beads scattered among the plastic water jugs, food wrappers, backpacks and clothes migrants leave behind.
Some of the items hold sentimental value, such as the scapulars sometimes seen hanging on tree branches.
The cloth necklaces have a prayer and a saint stamped on them and are often given as a gift to young people for confirmation.
"Why was it there? Was it for the next group of people who came through? Was it a person in despair?" asked the Rev. Bob Carney, a Tucson Catholic priest who works with migrants.
Migrants who make it deeper into Arizona have left religious graffiti on interstate supports.
Those waiting to be picked up by coyotes, or smugglers, leave the messages and drawings, Hagan said.
Once they reach their destinations, many will again frequent a church or shrine to offer thanks for their safe arrival.