'Living, Breathing Archeology' In The Arizona Desert

Mar 24, 2012
Originally published on March 25, 2012 6:42 am

If you walk through the desert in southern Arizona you can find evidence of a major migration. Water bottles, shoes, food wrappers — these are some of the things left behind by the thousands of people who try to cross the border between Mexico and the United States every year.

For some people, the items are trash to be cleaned up; for others, they offer a window into a perilous voyage.

Combing The Desert

In 2008, Jason De Leon began documenting and analyzing what migrants leave in the desert for a research project. An assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and trained archaeologist, De Leon sees the sun-bleached backpacks as artifacts that tell a larger story.

On a sunny day in February, De Leon parks his car and walks off a road north of Nogales, Ariz., into the cacti. He points out a blue backpack in the distance and a scrap of clothing on the ground. He says these are rest sites for migrants, places used to sleep, eat and change clothes.

"You know a lot of these sites are in the shade because people are trying to rest in the middle of the day and also try[ing] to hide," he says.

De Leon pulls open a zipper on a bag and pulls out matches from Chiapas, Mexico; cortisone cream; and cigarettes.

For him, these scraps are important. This place is important. He says one day it will be seen as sacred ground.

A few miles away there are at least 50 backpacks and as many water bottles scattered among the small trees. A bright green Army bag stands out. De Leon says migrants often leave items behind in an effort to blend in once they make it to a bigger road or small town.

"We've got some backpacks that are full of electrolyte bottles, packets of refried beans. Typically animals will get to that pretty quickly so that tells me it is pretty recent," he says, picking through one of the bags.

De Leon reaches into the front pocket of what looks like a high school student's backpack. He pulls out a roll of toilet paper and a small silver ring.

"This little tiny ring with a half moon and a star," he says, "I don't think this person wanted to leave this behind."

The items range from the sentimental to the ridiculous. De Leon has found a blow-dryer and even high-heeled shoes out here.

"A lot of times people don't know what to expect so they don't know how to pack for it or they want to bring their favorite things," he says, adding that he once found a set of hair curlers with a charger on it.

De Leon doesn't cherry pick what he collects; for him it is all "living, breathing archaeology."

Treasure Or Trash?

De Leon knows most people don't consider these things sacred. Most people would put socks or T-shirts in a garbage bag long before they'd put them on a shelf in a museum.

Clean-up of such sites is organized in part by Melissa Hayes, the project manager for the Arizona border trash project with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Hayes says the things migrants leave behind can be hazardous to human health.

"It can affect waterways," she says. "It also can pose a threat for potential wildfires and then also blight the landscape."

On a recent cleanup, Hayes says, volunteers collected around 10,000 pounds of trash north of Nogales. It's estimated half of what they bagged was left by migrants.

"A group will clean it up and you'll see a recurrence of trash in the same area, sometimes in different areas and a lot of the times the areas won't even be accessible easily, which poses a challenge as well," she says.

Most of what volunteers collect is typical trash, but sometimes, among the garbage, there are human remains.

It's a reminder of just how dangerous this trip is. In the '90s, a few dozen border crossing deaths were reported every year. But after 2000, that number jumped to a couple hundred deaths per year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Tougher border enforcement in states like California pushed migrants east, into rougher and more remote areas.

From The Desert To The Lab

The bodies found in this part of the desert end up at the Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson.

Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner, opens the doors to a huge refrigerator with racks and sliding shelves filled with body bags.

"It holds 142 remains, and 2005 was our first big year for migrant deaths, the first year we sort of ran out of space," Hess says.

The office doubled storage and hired a full-time forensic anthropologist to identify human remains. Decomposition happens fast in the desert, and that makes getting remains back to the right families tough.

The forensic anthropologist tries to piece together any bones or artifacts that might help identify the person. Sometimes the office gets lucky and finds a scrap of paper with a number or a name, but mostly it's a few coins or maybe a hair tie.

When the anthropologist can't figure out who the person is, the personal items are coded and stored away and the body is cremated.

Racing Against The Clock

De Leon worries that the evidence of this migration is going to disappear. He says most of it disintegrates in the desert in a few years, which is why he's in a hurry to document what's left.

Back in the desert, he walks toward another bag that's been bleached white on one side by the sun. He stops.

"This is a tiny little shoe. It's a worn-out, sun-dried child's shoe. But you know somebody wore this across the desert," he says. "Someone has walked a long distance, a very small person."

That little shoe likely belongs to one of the estimated half a million migrants who attempted to cross the border here this year.

Some make it into the United States, some are deported. Almost all of them leave something behind.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.

Every year, thousands of people try to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. If you walk through the desert in Southern Arizona, you can find evidence of their trip - the things they leave behind. To some people, it is simply trash to be cleaned up. But to others, it is a window into a perilous voyage. NPR's Lauren Silverman went to the southwest border and has this story.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: It's a typical day in Arizona for Jason De Leon. He's lacing up his boots, strapping on his backpack, and heading into the desert.

JASON DE LEON: We'll bring some water, some bags in case we need to take some stuff with us, a little bit of food, a compass.

SILVERMAN: Jason is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. And since 2008, he's spent his summers here - photographing and collecting discarded artifacts for a project. He wants to preserve the objects and possibly return them to the families they belong to.

LEON: And you can just kind of make out a blue backpack and maybe a piece of clothing that's laying on the ground.

SILVERMAN: He rummages through one of the bags.

LEON: Take a look and see what's inside. There's some foot powder, matches from Chiapas, some cortisone cream, some cigarettes, there are two black water bottles under that tree.

SILVERMAN: For him, these scraps are important. This place is important. He says one day, it will be seen as an Ellis Island. Off the trail, we spot at least 50 backpacks and as many water bottles scattered among the cacti. A bright green camouflage bag stands out.

Now, why would someone leave a nice backpack like that behind?

LEON: You've gotten this far, you're probably fairly dirty, you've sweated a lot, you've been in the desert for a long time and you get picked up. And so what you want to do is try to not look like you've just come through the desert. So you want to get rid of all the stuff that sort of marks you as an undocumented migrant.

SILVERMAN: Like extra jackets or black plastic sheeting used to make tents in the rain.

LEON: We've got some backpacks that are full of some things, electrolyte bottles, a packet of refried beans. It still has beans in them, typically animals will get to that pretty rapidly. So the fact that there's still food in there tells me that's pretty recent.

SILVERMAN: We find caffeine pills migrants take to stay awake and cloves of garlic. Jason explains.

LEON: And garlic is often rubbed on clothes as a way to keep away animals. I'm not quite sure if it works, but it definitely is a very common strategy.

SILVERMAN: Jason reaches into the front pocket of what looks like a high school student's backpack. He pulls out a roll of toilet paper, then...

LEON: And a little ring.

SILVERMAN: He brushes it off with his shirt.

LEON: This little tiny ring with a half moon and a star. You know, obviously, I don't think this person wanted to leave this behind.

SILVERMAN: And what they do leave behind ranges from the sentimental to the ridiculous.

LEON: Blow-dryer, high-heeled shoes. A lot of times, people either don't know what to expect so they don't really know how to pack for it, or they want to bring things that are, you know, their favorite things. I found a set of hair curlers once, like, with a charger on it.

SILVERMAN: Jason knows most people don't consider these things sacred. Most people would put them in a garbage bag long before a shelf on any museum.

MELISSA HAYES: My name is Melissa Hayes. I'm the project manager for the Arizona border trash project with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

SILVERMAN: Melissa Hayes organizes volunteers to clean up this stuff.

HAYES: It can affect waterways, pose a risk for wildlife and cattle, pose a threat for potential wildfires and then also blight to the landscape.

SILVERMAN: On a recent cleanup, Hayes says volunteers collected around 10,000 pounds of trash north of Nogales, Arizona. It's estimated half of what they bagged was left by migrants.

HAYES: A group will clean it up, and then you'll see a recurrence of the trash in the same area. Sometimes it'll be in different areas, and a lot of the time, the areas won't even be accessible easily, which poses a challenge as well.

SILVERMAN: Most of what volunteers collect is typical trash, but sometimes, among the garbage, there are human remains. It's a reminder of just how dangerous this trip is. In the '90s, a few dozen border crossing deaths were reported here every year. But after 2000, that number jumped to an average of a couple hundred deaths, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Tougher border enforcement in states like California pushed migrants east, into rougher and more remote areas. And even as the weak economy has led to a decrease in the number of people crossing the border illegally, the rate of border deaths keeps going up. The bodies found in this part of the desert end up here, at the office of the medical examiner in Tucson.

GREGORY HESS: This is our outdoor cooler, what's making the noise in the background.

SILVERMAN: Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner in Tucson, is standing in front a huge refrigerator with racks and sliding shelves filled with body bags.

HESS: It holds 142 remains. And 2005 was our first big year for migrant deaths. That's the first year we kind of ran out of space.

SILVERMAN: So the office doubled storage and hired a full-time forensic anthropologist to handle identifying human remains. Decomposition happens fast in the desert, and that makes getting remains back to the right families tough. The office's forensic anthropologist tries to piece together any bones or artifacts that might help identify the individual. Sometimes, they get lucky and find a scrap of paper with a number or even a name. Medical Examiner Greg Hess leads me to a small room lined with metal lockers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)

HESS: This is case 1,056 from 2010. It's a John Doe. And there is, you know, some paper with some numbers and foreign currency, kind of a distinctive little wallet-type thing.

SILVERMAN: When they can't figure out who a person is, the body is cremated and personal items are coded and stored away. Jason De Leon worries those items will be forgotten, or even disappear, which is why he comes to this desert every year, rushing to collect what's left. Back in the desert, Jason walks toward a bag that's been bleached white on one side by the sun. Then he stops.

LEON: I mean, this is a little, tiny shoe. It's a worn out, sun-dried child's shoe. But, you know, somebody wore this across the desert, and we're far from the border. So someone has gone - has walked a long distance, a very small person.

SILVERMAN: That little shoe likely belongs to one of the estimated half a million migrants who attempted to cross the border here this year. Some make it to the United States, some are deported, almost all of them leave something behind. Lauren Silverman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.