Katheryn Ferguson: In My Own Words

Ms. Kathryn Ferguson is an Internationally recognized Dance Artist, Producer/Director of two award-winning film documentaries, author, and participating author, of two important memoirs regarding the ongoing Holocaust in the vast Sonoran  Desert south of Tucson.

Tonight she shares reminiscences and insights from her childhood experiences and her professional career and impassioned arguments in defense of Migrants’ Human Rights and Justice.

Ms. Ferguson provides a genuine, compelling narrative which needs to be heard by all Arizonans, and indeed, by all Americans.

Good evening.  Thank you for coming.

I am Kathryn Ferguson.  I am an artist – a documentary filmmaker – a writer –  a volunteer in the cause for human rights and justice, and a Tucsonan, born and raised.

Tonight I would like to speak with you about a journey – my journey – one I hope many of you will adopt as your own, and put your own unique stamp upon, because to journey is to live life with a purpose. Inevitably, a journey is life, and life is a journey, intertwined and inseparable. For the very fortunate ones, they live to tell their story.

My Journey Begins

As they say in Casablanca, “What happens in Bagdad stays in Bagdad.  In Cairo, not so much.”

An expert on Egypt, or on the complicated intrigues of Middle Eastern politics, I am not.  But if you’re looking for an expert on Egyptian Belly Dancing, I’m your gal.

Creativity is inherent in all humans, but some of us must do it, or we wither.  We are hardwired to it. As Emile Zola wrote, “If you ask me what I come to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live outloud.”   Nailed it!

I am a dancer.  My passion is dance.  I studied dance at the University of Arizona, then moved to Spain to study Flamenco, an ancient dance, serious, strong, passionate.

Then, in Casablanca, I discovered . . dynamite! Raw, sensuous musical energy in hard-driving 6/8 rhythm explodes into your senses – as the dancer enters – spinning as a precision gyroscope –  swirling miles of dazzling, colorful, beautiful lace, twisting wildly to that hard driving rhythm, always in perfect balance. I was hooked. Bring on the cotton candy, it’s party time. This is fun!

I  threw myself into mastering this hypnotic dance, and for the next nine years,  I lived, traveled, and danced extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, performing primarily the classic art of Egyptian Belly Dance.  Perhaps most of all, I love the natural intimacy the dance promotes between performer and audience. As with every true performer, I want to enjoy my audience as much as I want them to enjoy me.

If you can make it in Cairo, you can make it anywhere. That’s a tough town to play.  Of course, they’ve seen Belly Dancers come and go for over 2000 years. It takes a lot of nerve for a girl from Tucson to show off her moves in the land of the Pharaohs.

I perform in many, many cities.  As a performer, my engagements are usually for several days, which provides me the opportunity to get out in each city, see the sights and meet the people.

Life is about learning – loving – sharing – making new friends. You want to learn about the world . . go see it.  Go meet the people, as I was so fortunate to do. Hear their stories, share their food, learn some of their language.   Enjoy that feeling of goodwill. Life is a Celebration! Shoot off some fireworks.

People quite naturally want to be happy.  They want lovers, and partners, and children.  They don’t ask for much – just the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families – and get somewhere in life. That pretty much defines “the dream.” People are the same all over the world.

Yet, I find there is a disturbing undertow to the high tide of celebration.

I learn that, like with families in our country, it is hard for the poor to stop being poor.  As in the United States, putting food on the table is stressful. Working dawn to dusk, with almost nothing to show for it, is depressing.  Knowing that your children are hungry, that you cannot feed them, is heartbreaking for a parent. They know the pain of hunger. They have known it all their lives.

America is a popular brand around the world, especially among the poorest peoples of most countries.  When they meet an American, they see only a myth, an America of dreams, where no one goes hungry, where no one is homeless, where there is plenty for everyone, and everyone is welcome at the table.   Convincing them otherwise . . would be cruel. Why take away hope when that’s pretty much all they have?

The Berlin Wall came down, and people climbed to the top of the rubble and danced in celebration.  It is a triumph of hope. For the desperate ones around the world, even though the event does not improve their lives, it is a joyous thing, because it proves that hope, like prayers, can be answered.

By this time I have returned home to Tucson, adopted an Airedale pup named Max, and opened my dance studio, Xanadu.  It’s great to travel; it’s thrilling to be home.


In my adolescence, growing up here in the desert, the big attraction for me was Old Tucson, Cowgirl-Western shows, and Spanish guitar. Although I am gringa, my parents loved the indigenous Mexican culture, and the remnants of the old cowboy culture, dying away then, but not dead.  Horse and rider had not yet become a quaint, uncommon sight. Their love for all things Mexican and “Old West” became my own.

Our home was along the south desert side of the city, where our neighbors were largely Mexican, or Mexican – Anglo families.  The spicy aromas from their kitchens, and the sweet, heavy mesquite smoke from their back-yard barbeques, or pits, was intoxicating.  Their music, the pure resonating notes played on old Spanish guitars, love songs and plaintive poems of loss and separation, and the festive songs of great happiness and celebration, seduced me – beckoned me to come over – to join in.  I always did. Even then, I followed my feet wherever they chose to go.

I remember times when skilled Mexican tradesmen would arrive at our house, or a neighbor’s house, to build a wall or ramada.  When the work was finished, they went home to Mexico; a few months later, they returned to do more work. That was normal then.  It was a long established custom in southern Arizona. The pace of life was slower, people were open and friendly . . “Bienvenidos Amigos” . . welcome friends!   That was the unofficial-official motto of Tucson. One year, we were in Nogales on Cinco de Mayo and watched as a parade crossed the border from Nogales, Sonora to Nogales, Arizona, and no one had to stop to show papers.  “Bienvenidos,” . . Welcome.

My family would drive often across the border into northern Mexico, do some sight-seeing and camping in the Sierra Madre Mountains, soak in the sights and smells.  Smoke. Mexico’s welcome mat. Delicious carne asada smoke, or pine-in-the-wood-burning-stove smoke. It’s the first thing we notice when we enter Mexico. Even today, the memory is strong, and vivid.     It triggers my smile, and can make me super happy for hours.

Some of my favorite childhood memories took place in the home of my godparents, Bill and Angie Eagle, whose family came here as immigrants.

I loved to hear Bill play the trumpet.  He played in the Army Air Corps Band with Zoot Sims, a Jazz saxophonist with the famous Woody Herman Band.  In Tucson, Bill arranged charts for Louis Leon’s Big Dance Band. At college, I would go to Gus and Andy’s Steak House on Miracle Mile to hear Bill’s jazz improvisations.  Live music of various styles and cultures became a permanent part of my life.

My mother and I often went to Angie’s Beauty Shop on Grande Avenue.  The shop was always busy. I remember listening to the beautiful Spanish language all the women spoke.  My godparents taught me the first Spanish words that I learned. I loved my godparents very nearly as much as my own, and have felt a lifelong kinship with their kids, Jim and Chris.

Well, now I am many years removed from those blissful memories of my youth, and I need a job.  Xanadu, my dance studio, does ok. It gives me the opportunity to work with several great and talented young ladies; teaching is very emotionally rewarding.  But Max likes to eat every day. And so do I.

The International performing jobs have dried up; the world isn’t so interested in the arts anymore.  It’s the era of Wall Street, corporate greed, insider trading, and ruthlessness. Oh, I forget – it’s always that era.

I landed a tremendous break when KUAT-TV, our PBS affiliate in Tucson, hired me as an entry level gofer on the studio production crew.  I trained in camera operation and technique and learned proper lighting. Finally, I moved up to assistant director in the booth and acquired the skills to plan and execute a complete program.  I’m ready to strike out on my own and produce my own independent documentary.

 La Lina .. The Line

There is always a place the heart calls home.  For me, it is the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico, and its sister, the Sonoran Desert that lies at its feet.  I am called to the Sierra for its wildness, the desert for its silence.

I decided my film would be about the Mexico I had known and loved all my life.  My Sierra is changing. My city also has grown – and changed. The “Bienvenidos Amigos” signs have largely disappeared.  Travel across the border is no longer so free – so open. I want to capture the story of old ways yielding to the new while there is still time.

I traveled frequently from my home in Tucson to the cities and towns of the Sierra and made many friends in the Barranca del Cobre, the canyons where I would film.  The project took seven years.

Understandably, over seven years of crossing and re-crossing the line- the invisible, magical line –  I became more keenly aware of the true border situation.         

In the early 1990’s, fourteen bodies were recovered about every year along the U.S. – Mexico border.   People were aghast at the large number – fourteen.

The times they are a’changing.  After 1994, in the span of a decade, three thousand bodies were recovered.  And those are only the bodies that were seen.  Bodies lie secretly at the bottom of canyons, or on trails that go nowhere. Or in plain sight to buzzards but never to be seen by human eyes.  The desert is big.

What – in the name of god – has happened ..and is happening?  This is the story of death – slow, cruel, agonizing, sad ..and lonely lonely death. Not bandits, murderers, drug dealers, rapists, or terrorists. These are families:  men, women, children, sons and daughters, babies. These are good people who, except for “new rules” in our immigration policy would be living still, maybe next door to me, cooking great food in their kitchens and on their mesquite barbeque, playing wonderful music on old guitars, or jazz trumpet in local clubs, styling hair in their salons. Perhaps they would simply come and work, build walls and ramadas, then return to their homes and families in Mexico.  Why!

No one is interested.  We hear of no politicians attempting to stop this tragedy, and the media is bored with the subject.  Death is no longer sexy. “We covered that last year,” journalists say.

I have seen many changes, lived through many changes, but one change I cannot accept is the absolute dehumanization of my friends and neighbors, our friends and neighbors.  I refuse to accept the inevitability of each tormenting, agonizing unjust crucifixion in the desert..innocents condemned by a society that dismisses their story as ‘boring’ .. that dismisses each death with an uncaring, unconcerned shrug, as if to say,  “good riddance to bad …”. This is not the past we have known here. It is most certainly the sad, tragic present. Let us pray it is not the future.

It takes, at a bare minimum, 1 gallon of water to sustain a person for 1 day in the desert.  A gallon of water weighs over eight pounds. It is an impossibility for anyone to carry enough water to survive the journey, a journey which will take several days.   It is a suicide mission. If the person carries a child, it is a suicide and a murder. The child will die in your arms, if in fact you will even know, through the deterioration of your mental state as you are driven on by sheer willpower, until your heart stops beating, and you collapse.

I read in the Arizona Daily Star about a dedicated group of volunteers, the Samaritans, organized by the Reverend John Fife, retired pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, and legendary co-founder of the modern Sanctuary movement in America.

The Samaritans are persons who by conscience object to the government policy of deterrence, officially termed “Operation Gatekeeper”, a ruthless plan to turn migrants away from our border cities.  Migrants are presented with Hobson’s Choice: apply for a visa ..stand in line in Mexico and survive for 20 or 30 years because you will never get a visa (they are too poor to qualify) . .  or die trying to cross the desert. Either way – you die.

I joined the volunteers – doctors, nurses, teachers, business men and women, persons from all walks of life – who devote what time they can, make plans together to meet up in groups of two, three, or four and drive out to remote locations near the border.  We set out on foot, or drive slowly if the trail we take will permit a vehicle, along paths known for migrant activity.

As we walk, we call out, “Somos amigos.” We are friends.  We bring water, food, and emergency medical supplies. We offer what humanitarian help we legally can.

Our hope is to find migrants alive, which we often do. But as often, we find bodies.  We report the location of bodies, and wait for Border Patrol or County Sheriff to come and remove the bodies, or bones, whenever this is possible.  It is important to identify the bodies when we can, which helps grieving families find closure.

One story . . one among many hundreds, indeed many thousands . . .  We came around a turn in the path, and came upon a man, on his back in the scorching hot dirt, shallow breathing, severe cramps, delirious, not sweating.  We cooled his skin with water, and got him to take a few swallows. Regardless of the legal consequences to ourselves, we put him in our vehicle and drove in all urgency to the nearest hospital.  There he received two IV’s, and slowly came around. He said he had been walking for days, and passed two human skeletons. One was partially covered in dirt, with a hand reaching up out of the ground, a woman’s hand.  A child’s blanket was nearby ..but there was no sign of a child. Lost at some point perhaps, or dragged off by coyotes or such.

Many skeptics say, “No one told them to come here.  It is the responsibility of Mexico, or Honduras, or Nicaragua, or wherever they come from to take care of them.  They are not America’s problem. We have our own problems.”

This is the darkest argument of all.  For anyone who professes a religious faith, any faith, the safety and wellbeing of your fellow man is a core belief.  If it is not, you have no faith. Period. Many volunteers do not profess a religious faith as motivation for their service.  In a rational world, caring for one another, accepting all persons as equal members of the human race, equally entitled to all human rights, civil rights, and justice is natural ..a self-evident truth.

It must be clarified also, that the argument of ‘skeptics’ is factually inaccurate.  The USA pursued, and pursues, two equally devastating policies towards our American neighbors which have inflamed the core concerns of political stability, poverty, hunger, and safety.

Most Americans are sadly uninformed or misinformed about the behavior of our national government, since the earliest days of our republic, to intimidate and weaken our international neighbors to the south. The U.S. played a large role in the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836, the first major covert operation carried out by our government.  This was followed in 1846 by outright invasion of Mexico, launching a two year war against a very weak and vulnerable sister republic, and forcing the transfer, altogether, of 915,000 square miles of land to the USA. This land included Texas, and what became the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, parts of Wyoming and Colorado, and additional land of west Texas in dispute since the Texas Revolt. The land taken by the U.S. from Mexico was equal to 54% of the territory of the Mexican Republic.

Call it “Big Stick Foreign Policy,” or “Gun-Boat Diplomacy,” the covert operations and overt use of military power against our neighbors, either to secure land or assets for American use, or in support of Multinational Corporate financial interests, has destabilized regional governments for nearly 200 years, fostering a weak colonial culture of helplessness and hopelessness and setting the stage for modern day death squads and wholesale gang murder.  This has driven untold thousands of refugees to our border.

Secondly, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ruined Mexican small farmers by requiring that Mexico end farm subsidies for corn, rice and beans, and eliminate tariffs on all agricultural imports from the United States and Canada, commodities still heavily subsidized by our governments.  Nearly four million Mexican farmers and laborers have been driven off their land, unable to compete with cheap foreign (American) imports.

So yes, these immigrants have been driven to our borders because of American actions and policies, and most certainly their well-being is our legitimate concern.

The plight of millions of displaced persons/refugees at our doorstep in Mexico, and millions more around the world, will not go away soon, sadly enough.  This is a cause, a purpose for which I found my voice, and found again my legs .. to carry me further in this journey. This is where my soul “lives out loud,” to quote again Emile Zola.  This is Personal!

Goodnight, and Thank You for allowing me the opportunity to tell my story.



Editor’s Note: The narrative published here was assembled and edited from Kathryn’s writings.  All effort has been made to keep true fidelity with her works, her message and perspective. The decision to deliver the address “in her voice,” as we believe she herself would have delivered it, was based upon our desire to maintain her sincerity, passion, and deep commitment to her cause.

We were fortunate, indeed blessed, to have known Kathryn.  At the time of her sudden, tragic death, she had developed a truly unique and authentic voice for Tucson, become an important champion for the cause of displaced persons/migrants and refugees here and around the world, and stood at the threshold of international recognition and influence. 

In the final analysis, we felt that she deserved the opportunity to have her say, and both our community and our world deserved the opportunity to know her as we have.  Anonymity was never “her thing,” and so, for as long as the Sunday Evening Forum lives on, Kathryn’s enormous voice will never be stilled..


For further works of Kathryn Ferguson, see:

Crossing with the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail

(University of Arizona Press; 2010)  /

Kathryn Ferguson, Norma A. Price, and Ted Parks; with forwards by John M. Fife and Claudia Aburto Guzman.

The Haunting of the Mexican Border: A Woman’s Journey (University of New Mexico Press; 2015) Kathryn Ferguson

Film Documentary:  “The Unholy Tarahumara”  and “Rita of the Sky.”


Public Notice:    April 11, 2017

Kathryn Ferguson died Sunday, April 9, 2017, after an unexpected cancer diagnosis last week. By the time of the diagnosis, the cancer had already spread, said friend and fellow dancer Michelle Morton. Morton has set up a GoFundMepage to help fund the medical – and now funeral expenses – in support of Ferguson’s husband.  She is survived by her husband, sister and nieces. Morton and others plan to put on a final dance show in Ferguson’s honor.

(notice reprinted from 4-11-17 article by Johanna Willett appearing in Tucson Life/Tucson.com)


Message on  Fund Me Page  .. posted by Michelle Morton:

It has been a difficult day today, so I am just now sharing this update.  I wanted to make sure everyone was able to read this beautiful post that Kathryn’s wonderful husband Baldemar wrote this morning.                                                                                                                                                     ______________________________________________________________________________

10:50 pm April 9, 2017

I believe I have reached my destination.  Finally my soul and spirit have left the dimension where I have been my previous life, place where I had my last dance.  I have peace, I can see clear, I don’t have pain anymore.

I describe my journey as magic, interesting.  I am glad I have the chance to see all those faces before I left, most of them sad, others resigned.  I want to thank you all for being with me on my last and final jornada. I will miss you all.

It was nice and wonderful all the way here.  I crossed the places where I found joy, places where I was free.  Now I understand the joy of Rita when she mentioned me where she was coming from.

It was sad to see how my Sierra Madre has changed, how the paths and trails of my dry Sonoran desert look tristes.  The fences, the walls are stopping the natural walk of El Jefe and friends.

I am happy, I am excited to be here.  Love you sister, nieces, Love you husband, love you friends. Miss you already.

Always me…                                                                                                                                                     Kathryn


Sunday Evening Forum

The new edition of Sunday Evening Forum shall, as did the founders’ edition, and more recently the Mayor’s revival edition, focus on people – knowledgeable, accomplished people with unique voices and perspectives to share. We are committed to bringing to our readers a variety of voices – on the Political spectrum, within the Arts, to Authors, Journalists and Doctors, and perhaps a Scientist or two.  Lest we forget, some Preachers and Teachers as well. And maybe a Business man (or woman, naturally), and quite likely a few that simply defy classification.

We are committed to taking the time necessary to “get it right.” Ms. Bruce’ public forum (Mary Jeffries Bruce, first Chairperson for Sunday Evening Forum, 1942 – 1976) rose from humble beginnings to become the great Tucson tradition so many of us recall fondly, and so proudly.

In the months ahead, we will be recruiting supporters, and developing a community corporation to sustain the program long into the future. Live public events, in the forms known previously, will be under consideration. However, such events can be prohibitively expensive, on our modest budget, and challenging to produce, and are not considered our priority at this time. And honestly, how do you hope to compare or compete with Sandra Day O’Conner and Linda Ronstadt?   The thought is humbling.

The hallmark for our efforts will always be serious, deliberative discussion on matters affecting human lives and democratic principles, on matters of state, national and global importance.

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