NOGALES - An illegal immigrant who rescued a 9-year-old after the boy's mother died in the southern Arizona desert was honored for his actions Tuesday by U.S. and Mexican officials at a border crossing here.
Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes, 26, stood by shyly with his mother and stepfather as officials talked about his efforts to save Christopher Buchleitner on Thanksgiving Day.
"The desert has a way of rearranging priorities and to Manuel Jesus Cordova the priority was standing right in front of (him) that day," said Beatriz Lopez Gargallo, the Mexican consul general for Nogales. "And this man, this hero, did what men of honor do in all nations and in all cultures."
Authorities say if it hadn't been for Cordova, Christopher might be dead.
Cordova was two days into his journey to Arizona from Mexico when he spotted Christopher, alone and injured in the desert. His leg was scraped up, he was dressed in shorts despite the desert cold, and his mother had just been killed when their van went over a cliff. The boy crawled out and went looking for help.
Cordova said he gave the boy his sweater, fed him chocolate and cookies and built a bonfire. As the boy slept, Cordova kept watch and tended the fire.
"The only thing I was thinking about was keeping the boy warm," Cordova said Tuesday. "I was worried no one would come."
Christopher and his mother, 45-year-old Dawn Alice Tomko, had been in the area camping.
Cordova and Christopher were discovered after a long, cold night in the desert by a group of hunters, who called authorities.
Christopher was flown to a hospital and later reunited with family members.
Cordova was taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol and agreed to return to his home in Magdalena de Kino in the Mexican state of Sonora without going through formal deportation proceedings.
Cordova came to the border again Tuesday, where officials from both countries held the ceremony in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection building at the Nogales port of entry. His mother, Almalida Soberanes, looked on proudly.
"He did what he had to do," Soberanes said. "He took care of that little boy and protected him."
The district director for U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Cordova deserved the opportunity to come to America to work and that the congressman plans to introduce legislation that will let him get a special visa. Such legislation rarely passes, but Grijalva aide Ruben Reyes said it was the only way they knew of to show their thanks.
"We think he actually brings another tone into the discussion of immigration. Unfortunately the discussion of immigration is (mostly) negative but with his acts of heroism it counters so many of the other negative aspects," Reyes said. "It brings a face of dignity, humanity and a bond that the two countries can share and he's a shining example of that."