Traces of Identity

Trash left behind by migrants offers a lesson in humility

A group of us fanned out along the well-beaten trail system that follows a dry wash, near mile markers No. 3 and No. 4 on State Highway 286. Each of us carried plastic trash bags; all of us wore protective masks. The cleanup party consisted of a handful of volunteers from Samaritan Patrol, two men from Spanish language television, an anonymous Hispanic businessman and representatives from the Mexican Consulate in Tucson. While their motives may have varied, picking up the trash left behind by migrants was a lesson in humility for all. Like forensic evidence, it gave clues to events that could only be imagined.

Piles of empty water jugs, backpacks and discarded personal hygiene products were everywhere. A pair of men's combat boots, placed neatly beneath a mesquite tree; an unfinished game of solitaire, the cards face-down, as if the player expected to return at any minute. Nearby, a cheap candle was wrapped with an image of Christ. From the refuse, one could surmise the travelers were religious, eager to make a good impression and, for the most part, naïve about the life ahead.

In a recent presentation to the Arizona-Mexico Commission plenary session in Phoenix, Mexican Ambassador Carlos de Icaza said that Arizona's Sonoran Desert is an area of major concern, and pointed out that 50 percent of the total migratory flow from Mexico to the United States comes through this area. Icaza said that more than 400 deaths occurred in this region between 2002 and mid-June 2004.

Most people think all migrants cross the border to look for work--that this is the only motivation driving migrants to such a dangerous extreme. But a UA doctoral candidate (who did not want to be named), who teaches English to new arrivals by never asking questions, tells a story about a transsexual male who had been beaten up outside a disco in Mexico City. Unable to face the shame, he made the trek through Organ Pipe National Forest in full drag. He says he was treated kindly by the crossers and never wants to look back.

Like these interviews, the things left behind can provide clues to who these people crossing into the United States really are.

Meanwhile, like a metronome, the media keeps track of the body count:

No. 141: Death of a Michoacan man, Friday

No. 145: Decomposing Body of a Woman Found

No. 186: Skeletal remains found on Barry Goldwater Range

No. 191: Pair of Batman pajamas found.

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