Tropical Storm Octave, September 28, 1983. Photo in the public domain by U.S. NOAA
This Was No Ordinary Rain
The children of Villa Coronado darted outside as soon as there was a break in the storm. It had been quite a deluge. The morning clouds had dropped so much rain that the street gutters were overwhelmed and streams flowed through the neighborhood. These were desert kids, so the temptation of it all was too much to contain. Ignoring the snapping fingers of mothers and abuelas, the children burst out into the streets. They threw off their shoes and danced in the muddy flows that came up to their ankles. They floated toy boats and threw sticks into the currents to see how far they could travel. They splashed each other and delighted in the fantasy of living on the banks of a river.
Trailing behind the children were the adults, standing on the sidewalks looking up and down the street to survey the situation. They waved to neighbors and gathered in huddles to compare notes with each other. Had anyone ever seen this much rain before? Cars drove through slowly, passengers waving and leaning out of open windows.
“Adónde van?” the sidewalk folks asked the drivers.
“Al arroyo! Se está viniendo todo el agua del otro lado!” they shouted as they passed by with friendly honks.
Parents herded children and grandparents into their family cars. They headed around the corner to Grand Avenue where the whole town seemed to be out and cruising the strip like teenagers on a Friday night. The traffic came to a snail’s pace near the Morley Bridge where there was a full-frontal view of the arroyo. People on foot lined up on the bridge, wide-eyed and entranced by the raging waters surging up from the south.
In this corner of the world, the waters traveled from south to north. That’s how the washes and rivers, the drainage systems and sewage, ultimately flowed. The waters didn’t care that they had to cross the international boundary between Mexico and the U.S. in order to follow their course. They only heeded the call of gravity, honoring an elemental pledge to seek the heart of the earth by any means necessary.
This place where the waters surged was called Ambos Nogales—the two Nogaleses. On one side of the international border was Nogales, Arizona, and on the other side was Nogales, Sonora. This line dividing these sister cities was an imaginary one. Everyone had to be reminded of the line with taller and taller fences, patrols, then barbed wire, walls, and floodlights that lit up the night sky. Still, no matter how hard they tried, no one could ever convince the waters of this line. After all, the waters were among the original architects and engineers who shaped the valley and mountain passes. They did not report to governments or international commissions.
So, on the afternoon of October 1, 1983—when the wind started to kick up again and the clouds began to rumble—the people of Ambos Nogales shook their heads and gave each other knowing looks. Everyone knew which way was downstream. The people scrambled into their cars again and made U-turns back to their neighborhoods. Pick-up trucks loaded with sandbags and shovels began to make their way down the streets. Neighbors helped each other fortify driveways, building little walls against the currents. Mothers and abuelas called all the children inside.
“Sálganse de la calle! No se me vayan al arroyo!”
The waters came. They swirled and cavorted. They danced into each other, colliding in foamy leaps and sprays. The waters breached the arroyo walls and spilled out into the streets with a fervor that rattled even those with the steeliest nerves. The flows stirred up the dirt, gathering particles from the far reaches of time and place. Volumes of history mixed and mingled in the currents. This time the waters were big enough to carry the collective souls of plants, animals, minerals, and people who’d been turned upside down, inside out, patas arriba for 500 years—maybe even longer.
Inside their homes, the people crossed themselves and lit their candles to the Mother of all Mothers. The abuelas sat down with their rosaries. They whispered their prayers into the turbulent currents of the arroyo—hoping as they did so, that their loved ones could withstand the torrent of tiny drops of water and particles of dust that no one could stop now. This was no ordinary rain.