thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

migrant trash

ernie rheaume (columbia university)

Scattered across the desert. As if hiking into Arizona is some kind of mystical journey. A pilgrimage, and along the way you shed your past, your old friends, and your old life. And by the end you even shed your shoes, and your socks.

And you walk barefoot into the promised land.


-- Bill Brown, The Other Side



The deserts of southern Arizona are filling up with migrant trash; water jugs, bicycles, food cans, clothing, diapers, and personal mementos can be found throughout the most remote canyons, washes, and basins. Left behind by Mexican migrants walking north, this trail of trash has been decried by ecologists, government officials, and private citizens alike. While it may indeed pose a threat to the local ecology, to dismiss this trash as just that, trash, risks discarding potentially valuable material culture of a current migration in progress. For some, a can is just a can, for others it is an artifact.

This study therefore does not focus on a single “object,” but the collection of objects discarded by migrants in the desert. In considering these objects using theories present in archaeology and material culture studies, we can begin to ask questions about the objects themselves and the migration process as a whole. These questions can include:

• What types of materials/objects are brought into the desert? What are the most commonly found artifacts and how can they be classified (ex. objects for desert survival vs. personal/sentimental objects)?

• What do the materials/objects tell us about the physical process of migration and the journey across the desert?

• What do the materials/objects left tell us about the process of deciding what to bring versus what to leave behind?

• Why were certain materials/objects discarded in the desert? What do they tell us about the preparation for the migration, the expectations the migrants held, and the realities they faced?

• How do these materials/objects relate to the construction of identity and memory as the migrants pass through the borderlands?

• How are these discarded materials/objects interpreted and used by current society and other migrants (tracking migrants, art exhibitions, collecting)?

• How are these discarded materials/objects affecting attitudes and relations towards migrants?

• Where does this current migration fit within the larger framework of historical movement of people and objects?

The answers to these questions will not presently be found in this object study. Not enough research has been conducted on the migrant trash to make any conclusive statements. This study draws on a small sample of migrant trash recovered in recent years, and uses that as a starting point for further research. Presented here are general expectations of what may be discovered and various ways in which to approach the subject of migrant trash.

To begin, some background information in necessary to explain the circumstances under which this trash ended up in the desert. Trash in the desert is nothing new; the desert floor is littered with historic and prehistoric trash left behind by earlier people moving through the landscape. In this sense the current migrant trash can be easily connected to the larger story of desert migration overtime. The process of crossing the U.S. – Mexico border illegally has become more difficult, both physically and financially, overtime. In the mid 1990’s under the Clinton administration, a series of Border security programs were put into place at major crossings such as El Paso/Juarez and San Diego/Tijuana. Known by names such as Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Blockade, and Operation Hold the Line, the goal of these programs was to curtail illegal immigration through the urban corridors and force it out to the remote deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Illegal immigration was practically halted at the crossings with the increased border patrol, but the flow of immigration remained constant, now directed through the punishing deserts. Instead of crossing directly into a major U.S. city, migrants now face an almost three day walk through the borderlands (Ellingwood, 2004). As a result, discarded objects trail across the landscape marking out the movements of the migration.

Turning towards the objects themselves, the discarded migrant trash can generally be grouped by objects brought along for survival and those brought as personal effects. Survival items are the most common items found on the migrant trails and include objects such as empty water bottles and empty food containers. Personal objects found in the desert are also abundant and include photo IDs, religious artifacts, letters, dress clothing, and hygiene products. Some objects encountered on the migrant trails were not discarded as trash, but taken out there and placed purposefully. An example of this is a shrine what once existed along a known drug smuggling route. The shrine consisted of a large ceramic bust of Jesus Malverde, patron saint of the Mexican drug smugglers, with candles and offerings left around the site. The way migrants are altering the landscape should also be considered as objects of migration. Included here are the footprints migrants leave behind, as well as graffiti carved into cacti and spray painted on rocks. 

These objects are best understood in light of previous work done on the role of material culture in immigration and identity construction. Judith Boruchoff’s doctoral dissertation focuses on issues of transnationalism between Guerrero, Mexico and Chicago. In it she includes a discussion on the role of objects serving “as points of conjuncture between geographically distant people and places” (Boruchoff, 1999: 150). She concludes that objects of migration:

…serving as mementos allow for the creation of continuities across space and time within the biographies of individuals and communities; they facilitate the incorporation of diverse experiences and localities into a coherent conceptual order… objects become associated with geographically distant people and places, enabling them to maintain a presence within locales and social circles from which they are physically absent… objects contribute to the telling of ‘spatial stories’ through which people acquire and express shared knowledge of distant sites and their inhabitants. (Boruchoff, 1999: 153).

Boruchoff’s summation falls in line with similar studies done on the identity creation aspect of material culture in Mexican migration and studies on memory work in general. George Sanchez, in his book Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, devotes a section to the exploration of how music and consumer goods, moving across borders and cultures, aided in the construction of the Mexican-American identity (Sanchez, 1993; 171-207). Similarly, Pablo Villa, in Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders, conducts interviews in El Paso and Juarez to identify specific narratives people use to construct their identities. Villa determines that in multiple cases people utilized narratives that were dependant on the possession or lack of material goods (Villa, 2000; 129-166).

David Parkin weighs in on this discussion in his article “Mementos a Transitional Objects in Human Displacement.” Though concerned mostly with the material possessions to war-torn refugees, his concept that the “…composite body-mind can be regarded as enmeshed in social trails created by the movement of objects” (Parkin, 1999: 303) can be directly applied to the desert migration. In choosing what to bring on their migration north (or back south), the migrants carry “…mementos of sentiment and cultural knowledge and yet also bases of future resettlement…” (Ibid).

Alfred Gell took up the issue of indexing and distributed personhoods in his book Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Gell puts forward the notion that certain objects, through creation or representation, have the ability to become indexes of individuals. As indexes, the objects can extend and project the “self” beyond the normal physical boundaries of the human body. This is similar to his notion of distributed personhood, which states that not only do objects index their creator, but also that representations of an individual are in fact extensions of that person (Gell, 1998; 66-154). Gell’s theories are important to this study of migrant artifacts due to the types of objects found. As noted in Boruchoff, Sanchez, Villa, and Parkin, many objects moving in the migration process prove central in the construction of transnational identities and the continuation of social relations over time and distance. Indexing and distributed personhood allow for these migratory objects to stand in for the people and places now far removed.

If this proves to be the case, it raises the question of what to make of items discarded in the desert. Water jugs, cans, and diapers may be discarded after they no longer serve a purpose, but what are we to make of photo ID cards, personal letters, and religious artifacts to name a few?  Migrants may make it to their destination in the U.S., but do pieces of them forever remain in the desert? There is also the issue of how future groups of people interact with the migrant trash they find. Border Patrol can use it to track and capture groups after gaining detailed information from the footprints and condition of the trash. Artists have begun taking the trash and incorporating into their works of art, and some local citizens have collected some of the more personal artifacts they come across. Then there are the new groups of migrants who come across the trash. How do they understand and interact with the traces of those who walked before them?

Considering the rising toll of migrant deaths taking place in the Arizona’s deserts and the difficulty in recovering the bodies, what do these objects tell us about the violence of migration and the sense of absence it creates? Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey touch upon this subject in Death, Memory, and Material Culture. They contend it is through materials that a connection is formed between the living and the dead. Therefore, those materials associated with the dead, the objects where their personhood extends and continues to exist, are instrumental in the process of remembering the dead (Hallam & Hockey, 2001: 101-127).

Journalist Ken Ellingwood, who spent time following the Pima County coroners, wrote about the conditions of the bodies found throughout the desert. Often mummified or decomposed to skeletal remains, the coroners have little to go by in identifying deceased migrants and returing them to their families. As one coroner described it:

Some toted ID cards, despite the smugglers’ urgings. Migrants had also been known to sew birth documents, along with carefully folded Mexican peso notes, into the waistband of their pants…one desert case where the hiker, apparently certain he was near the end, took off his boots and tucked his ID card in the laces before lying down to die. Sometimes a slip of paper was enough to make an identification; other times it was a description of the clothing. (Ellingwood, 2004: 207)

The majority of literature on modern migrants deals with the material culture at the beginning and end of the journey, while the focus here is to examine the material in transit and then discarded. Fortunately, there has been a wealth of literature in the past two decades specifically detailing the desert crossings of migrants. While this literature consists of journalism and travelogues that do not specifically deal with issues of material culture, a close reading reveals details about the objects migrants bring and interact with. One of the better books detailing illegal immigration is Coyotes by Ted Conover. For over a year starting in 1985, Conover traveled between the U.S. and Mexico with several groups of illegal immigrants. In one passage, Conover relates that seven of the six migrants he was traveling with all possessed wallet sized laminated pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When questioned about the purpose of carrying these cards, one of the migrants answered “…She protects us from La Migra!” (Conover, 1987: 141). Another sarcastically replied, “It was Mexican travel insurance” (Ibid: 197).

The group Conover traveled with were seasoned border crossers. However, during one crossing, a member brought along his girlfriend who had never been north before. Upon departing for the border she was dressed in …a royal blue chiffon dress and clutching a small whit purse- her Sunday best… even in high heeled shoes that matched her dress…” (Ibid: 193). She carried no suitcase; those were her only clothes she had to cross the desert. Her explanation was that “‘…All you said…was that we were going to America!’ In a nice place like America, obviously, you had to look your best” (Ibid). Fortunately, they were able to secure her appropriate clothes before they met their coyotes and crossed. This however, gives a possible insight into what some migrants expect the crossing to be like, and how they prepare for it. It’s not uncommon to find high heels and dresses scattered on the desert floor.

Conover and the migrants were also faced with the possibility of being harassed by corrupt local and federal police forces as they started north. As a precaution, they hid their money and valuables around their bodies and carried government issued ID cards such as military ID’s. In deciding what to bring, one migrant explained that they should… pack light, luggage could be taken as evidence that you were planning to stay away for a long time. Cops would accuse you of trying to cross the border. Of course, there was no Mexican law against this, but few rural Mexicans knew the law , and if the cops came up with some pretext for arresting you, you had to pay them off to keep them from doing it. (Ibid: 199)

Conover then briefly describe the items they would attempt to bring across: flashlights, food, gallon jugs of water, a small personal sack, and pliers for pulling out cactus spines. (Ibid: 204)

All of the objects discussed here are directly related to the US – Mexico border. Stepping away from Gell’s indexing and other studies on material culture and memory work, a more Latourian approach towards these border objects may shed a new and interesting light on them. The “border” itself can be considered a quasi-object, providing a point at which other hybrid border objects are produced and gravitate around. Current discourse surrounding the border has trouble dealing with these hybrid objects. Through purification we discuss the border as a political concern, a law enforcement concern, an environmental concern, an economic concern, or a humanitarian concern. By doing this, the border and its objects (including humans as objects) become unstable and liminal. They are neither here nor there, they exist and they don’t. However, if we follow Latour’s call for a nonmodern Constitution in where translation occurs out in the open, we will be able to recognize the autonomy and agency of these border hybrid objects.  This step may prove the key, not in “controlling the border” as politicians like to say, but in reestablishing symmetry among collectives and achieving a new democracy between humans and border objects (Latour, 1991: 10-11, 138-145).


Boruchoff, J. (1999). Creating Continuity Across Borders: Reconfiguring the Spaces of

Community, State, and Culture in Guerrero, Mexico and Chicago, Volume 1& 2. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1999).

Brown, B. (2006). The Other Side [Motion Picture]. USA: Available from Microcosm Publishing, P.O. Box 14332 Portland, OR 97293.

Conover, T. (1987). Coyotes: a journey through the secret world of America's illegal aliens (1st ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Ellingwood, K. (2004). Hard line: life and death on the U.S.-Mexico border (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Gell, A. (1998). Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Clarendon Press, New York.

Hallam, E. and J. Hockey (2001).  Death, Memory, and Material Culture. New York: Berg.

Latour, B. (1991). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Parkin, D. (1999). “Mementoes as transitional objects in human displacement”. Journal of Material Culture 4(3): 303-320.

Sanchez, G. (1993). Becoming Mexican-American, 1900-1945.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Vila, P. (2000). Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors, and Narrative Identities on the US-Mexico Frontier.  Austin: University of Texas Press.