Arivaca and the Undocumented Migration Project

My friend has aunts and uncles who live in Arizona, and she travels to the state every summer. When I mentioned I was going to Arivaca, I was surprised she hadn’t heard of it. I figured it was a sizable place along the border.

Much to my surprise, Arivaca has about 500 residents, explaining why my friend didn’t know where or what it was. I always say my hometown is rural, but Arivaca makes DuBois, PA, seem like a major city. There’s only one store in Arivaca nicknamed “The Merc.” Here you can pick up groceries, some of which used to be on Costco’s shelves, and touristy apparel, like baseball caps and T-shirts sporting Arivaca’s name. Located right across the street from “The Merc” is Arivaca’s bar and restaurant, La Gitana Cantina. There’s also a coffee shop, but we didn’t get to check it out.

I spent the night in this small community with my supervisor this past Friday to learn a new way to look at water bottles, clothing, and food wrappers found in the desert. A group of students from the University of Michigan and other northeastern schools are spending five weeks in Arivaca hiking eight miles a day in the rough desert terrain to clean up migrant sites. Each of these students has an independent research project to work on; one girl is interested in woman’s garments, another in first-aid items, etc. Most environmental groups view items migrants leave behind in the desert as “trash” that needs to be picked up and thrown away. These students, on the other hand, look at “trash” as artifacts that should be cataloged and studied.

The Sierra Club has traditionally agreed with other conservationist organizations when it comes to “trash,” but my supervisor has welcomed this innovative way of thinking about these items. We had the chance to go out with the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) students to a known site to see what their work is all about. I’d been wanting to go hiking since I’d arrived in Tucson, so I didn’t mind waking up at 5:30 in the morning to start our adventure.

I quickly discovered that sneakers are not the shoes to wear in the desert. A sturdy pair of hiking boots would have made walking over the cobbles easier, and long, light-colored khaki pants would have spared my legs from some of the mean plant life. It seems that everything growing in the desert is sharp or coarse. I watched my footing, and staring at the ground proved fascinating because toothbrushes, backpacks, and water bottles began to appear along the foot trail. When we reached the large site where my supervisor had done previous cleanups with No More Deaths, backpacks were scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, wasps were nearly as prevalent as the belongings that had been left behind, so we went to a smaller site that hadn’t ever been cleaned up before.


 Tubes of toothpaste were found along the trail.

We divided into three or four smaller groups to plunge into the brambles where migrants had sought shade and rested. Hundreds of cans, bottles, backpacks, and clothing items were pitched down the embankment. Later, we sorted these items and counted how many of each we’d found. The recyclables were bagged separately from the clothing, backpacks, and the food wrappers to be disposed of once we got back to Arivaca.


 UMP students sorting the collected artifacts.

Items left by migrants in the desert are most certainly not “trash” in the traditional sense, and I was able to see this firsthand. Tubes of toothpaste, combs, eyeliner, basketball jerseys, and sticks of deodorant belonged to people. It’s easier to call water bottles and empty energy drink cans “trash,” but they represent the fundamental need of survival and make me think about how a person could not carry enough liquid to make it through the desert hydrated. And many of the items disintegrate in the scorching sun quickly, so worries about these objects not breaking down seem moot. Still, it’s cool that we were able to recycle the plastic, glass, and aluminum bottles.


Our group hauled over twenty bags out of the desert.

Climbing up the hillside to collect artifacts was really uncomfortable because thorns and branches jabbed me and got stuck in my hair. I couldn’t fathom sleeping in this area. And the insects were bothersome, too. The wasps followed us to this site, landing on us and our water bottles. We took a snack break, and a granola bar wrapper placed beneath a backpack so it wouldn’t blow away attracted hundreds of ants within minutes. The desert is a beautiful place, but if I was wandering around lost in it, I wouldn’t see it that way at all.


One of the fresher water bottles found contained this wasp-attracting sludge. Yuck!

We made it back to the rental cars just as the sun began to peep through the cloudy skies. We’d been lucky, I thought. Clouds in Arizona were a new experience for me, and the overcast morning had helped make the hike bearable. The temps ended up reaching 110 or 111 degrees that day, reminding me again of the desert extremes. We left a few unopened bottles of water we’d found for anyone else who may take a break on the trail.


Our group posing with the items we hauled out of the desert. The white bags contained recyclables.


2 thoughts on “Arivaca and the Undocumented Migration Project

  1. It is interesting to expand an ecological effort into a socio-historical project. It reminds me of a presentation that I saw several years ago at UNC-CH from an artist that used the “trash” from the migrant trail to create art. She discussed the philosophical and ethical aspects of using these “found” objects in her art. She said that she actually tried to find the family of a migrant to return a lost passport because she did not feel comfortable keeping that item. You say that some of the artifacts are clearly trash but others are more personal. Do you see any ethical problems with taking these items out of the desert or do the positives outweigh them?

  2. That’s an interesting point to bring up. I’ve been seeing it as a positive to collect the items because they can be studied and used to educate a broader audience, but they are personal belongings, and I’m wondering how I would feel if I was walking through a museum and saw my long lost rosary or family photograph displayed in a glass case. Maybe I should do more research about contemporary archaeology to see how these issues are being navigated!


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