Carrying Capacity

The story of this desert is one of survival, and migrants survive—or succumb—because of what they can carry.

September 12, 2013

FeaturesIssue 2: September/October 2013

One green polo shirt. Five slices of Bimbo white bread in the bottom of a twisted plastic bag. Half a jar of McCormick’s strawberry jam. Two cans of Tuny-brand tuna, one of Rancherita refried beans. A liter bottle of Coke, five inches of dark fizz remaining. Two bottles of water. The bottles are full and the water is yellow.

Erica Loveland removes each item in this dusty black backpack and sets it carefully on a table. “It’s pretty typical stuff,” she says. There’s no compass, no map. There’s a cell phone charger, but no cell phone—the only object that likely remains with this backpack’s owner after a Border Patrol agent found him and two others walking through the mountains north of Arivaca, 60 miles southwest of Tucson.

De León and his students often come across arroyos filled with hundreds of abandoned backpacks.

De León and his students often come across arroyos filled with hundreds of abandoned backpacks.

If you’re crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States and you’re found by a Border Patrol agent, you’re told to drop your things—or you drop them so you can run faster. If you’ve been crossing through the desert and fatigue weighs you down, you drop your things and hope for the strength to take a few more steps. If you’re border archeologist Jason de León, or one of the 20 college-aged students enrolled in his five-week summer field school, you pick up those things and try to piece together the stories of this space, the desert south of Tucson, and the people that cross through it.

The story of this desert is one of survival, and migrants survive—or succumb—because of what they can carry.

Founded in 2009 by University of Michigan professor Jason De León, the Undocumented Migration Project is an attempt to tell that story through the archeological record of objects left behind from the hundreds of thousands of people who attempt to walk into the United States every year. The story of these objects—the story of this crossing—is supported by the interviews De León and his students conduct with recently deported migrants in shelters in Nogales and Altar, Sonora. The purpose of the interviews is to find out “what happens to them out here,” De León says. “We ask them: How are they preparing for the desert? What have they brought with them? Why are they migrating? If they’ve gone into the desert, what happened to them?”

De León grew up in the borderlands of south Texas before moving to Long Beach. His Ph.D. took him to the Northeast, to study archeology at Pennsylvania State University and then down to Mexico, where he spent eight years working on his dissertation—a study of ancient stone tools. One day in 2001, one of his friends, a guy about De León’s age, told him a story: of being robbed by border bandits, almost dying of thirst, getting kidnapped by a smuggler, being held for ransom in a Phoenix safehouse. As he continued to do excavations in other parts of Mexico, De León continued to hear the same kinds of stories, stories of movement, of migration and deportation, of suffering and resolve. And he started questioning his choice to study ancient stone tools.

A baby bottle, found in the field

A baby bottle, found in the field

After he and his wife moved to Seattle, his wife’s friend—another archeologist and a fellow University of Arizona alum—came over for dinner and told them about how she’d often come across arroyos full of discarded backpacks and belongings while hiking through the borderlands. “She said, ‘I bet someone could do some sort of archeological study of this stuff,’” De León says. “I bought a plane ticket and was down here a month later. I remember standing on this pile of backpacks and thinking, here’s a way for me to work on a contemporary social issue and use archeology to understand this really clandestine, hidden process.”

The hidden process he’s referring to is the mass movement of people through the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson. In 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended 120,000 people in the Tucson corridor, which means that many more, perhaps triple that figure, are making the trek every year. Although that number is half of what it was three years ago, “People are still coming,” De León says. “Today, some of the people coming through here are some of the most desperate migrants I’ve ever encountered.”

Desperate for water and deep into the desert, migrants will often drink from cattle tanks. De León has tested this water and found it full of harmful bacteria.

Desperate for water and deep into the desert, migrants will often drink from cattle tanks. De León has tested this water and found it full of harmful bacteria.

As increased border security in California and Texas has pushed migrants towards the Sonoran desert corridor—logic being that the inhospitality of the terrain would serve as a natural deterrent—those willing to embark on the journey have narrowed to the most determined subset of migrants, many coming from as far as Central America. “You’ve got people coming who can’t afford a guide, who have minimal equipment. There are people who go into the desert without water or food because they can’t afford to buy it,” says De León. “It’s gotten more dangerous. Apprehensions are down but fatalities are up, and I think it’s because people are getting pushed into deeper areas and walking for longer distances.”

According to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, more than 2,100 migrants have died attempting to cross the border in the Tucson corridor since 2001. In 2012, 179 remains were found in the Tucson corridor; as of June of 2013, that tally had already hit 129.

If you’re lucky, if you don’t get lost or sick or noticed—if you’re in good shape and your shoes, water, and food hold up—you can cross from Altar, Sonora to just north of Arivaca, Arizona in six days. What do you subsist on during those six days? “For the most part, it’s beans, sardines, tuna, tortillas, maybe a few limes, bread, chips, crackers,” De León says. “Lots of salty foods to retain hydration. People have gotten smarter over the years about what to bring and what not to bring. Beef jerky has become increasingly more common. Which is funny, because you don’t see people eating beef jerky anywhere else in Mexico.”

But hunger isn’t really the issue. “We know that there’s no way you can carry enough water,” De León says. “There’s really no way. If you’re going to do an intense summer hike and cover a lot of ground, you need to be drinking six liters of water a day.” A gallon and a half of water every day, and it’s a six-day hike—if you’re lucky, ten gallons of water would suffice. “The most you can possibly carry is four gallons,” says De León, “and it’s rare to see someone with four gallons.”

Most migrants set out with a gallon or two of water. When they’ve exhausted it after a day, when the severity of dehydration begins to set in, many turn to the cattle tanks scattered throughout the open rangeland. “Drinking this water will at least keep you alive for a little bit but the intestinal stuff it can cause can be pretty rough,” De León says. “If you get a stomach bug, and then all of a sudden you’ve got diarrhea and you’re becoming even more dehydrated.”

This desperation for water—and the impossibility of carrying all you need—has driven many humanitarian groups into the desert carrying clean water supplies for migrants. “During the summer, we’re typically distributing 1,000 gallons of water a month,” says Sarah Launius, a media volunteer for No More Deaths, a Tucson-based humanitarian organization. “For the last 10 years or so, we’ve had volunteers that go out and walk the remote desert areas of the Altar Valley to provide direct assistance to people in need.” Although these volunteers will leave food packs and water at designated stations, the goal is to actually find those in need. “We carry it so when we see them, we can give it to them,” Launius says.

In addition to water, No More Deaths hands out about 300 food packs every month. “The food packs that were assembled earlier today had a Capri Sun, fruit cup, two granola bars, a can of Vienna sausages, and a bag of chips,” Launius says. “Cans of beans are typically handed out with the food packs and also stashed in storage bins near water. We try to provide a mix between sodium and protein. But our number one priority is providing clean water.”

A migrant’s last stop before crossing the border is often a convenience store like this one; many have begun catering their wares according to migrants’ needs.

A migrant’s last stop before crossing the border is often a convenience store like this one; many have begun catering their wares according to migrants’ needs.

On a migrant trail north of Arivaca, near Lobo Peak, De León’s students eat individual bags of Sweet n’ Salty trail mix, cherry-red fruit roll-ups, Corn Nuts, and—the group favorite—Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. We’re hiking to a migrant shrine that the group built the summer before, across a wide wash speckled with spines and up a steep slope of loose, ankle-wobbling rocks. After five weeks of hiking together, the group moves quickly. Students slide seamlessly around the same palo verdes that detain me. I stop to take a picture and when I look up, I’m at the tail end of the group. I don’t see anyone until I do—a bobbing baseball cap—and then I don’t and so I jog, pulling aside mesquite branches and dodging prickly pear pads, until I see the hat again. The terrain is unforgiving, but more than that, it is vast, deceptive in its distance.

After we return to the cars, I ask a couple of the students what they’d carry, if they had to cross the desert, if they had to hike for six days instead of four hours. They pause, as if, after finding so many backpacks with the same thing, there would be an option besides tuna and beans and tortillas.

“Water,” says Olivia Waterhouse, an archeology student at Barnard College. “I’d know I could survive without food. I’d just carry some water. And maybe a jar of peanut butter.” Energy bars, electrolyte packs; not Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Of course, these students have studied the terrain and know what the human body can withstand.

The question of what exactly a body can withstand while walking through the desert piqued the interest of Kansas State graduate Emily Butt, who spent her summer compiling research about how many calories the average migrant woman or man usually consume during their crossing and compared this against how many calories that person might burn during a six-day trek. Using the artifacts collected in the field—backpacks found intact; food wrappers and trash—as well as the topography of six typical routes across the desert, Butt estimated that a 175-pound man would burn 18,417 calories on his journey and consume only 5,954.

“These people are starving, and it is severe,” says Butt. “It is not just that they are not eating enough, but they are hiking across an average of 70 miles of mountainous desert. Add that to carrying bags, wearing improper clothing, being dehydrated, and sustaining injuries. When we understand their level of suffering, we get an idea of how desperate these people must be in order to have taken on those dangers in the first place.”

Given this 12,000-calorie discrepancy, it might seem surprising that De León and his students find any intact food artifacts in the field. But, De León says, “The hunger usually doesn’t hit en route. You’re too thirsty. I think that’s why we find a lot of unopened cans. Because the weight becomes too much. It’s when they get here that they’re completely famished.”

Some migrants do forage for wild foods en route, says De León, especially if they’re fortunate enough to travel with a guide who knows the landscape. “But most of the time, these people have never even been to a desert, so they’re really unfamiliar with what they can and cannot eat.”

Many migrants are also unfamiliar with how to get to where they’re trying to go, as fewer and fewer are able to hire a guide to help them across the desert. Although there are many established migrant routes to follow, the reason most of the backpacks recovered in the field are absent of compass or map is because the Border Patrol has decided these navigational aids signify the presence of a drug smuggler. Waterhouse tells me that a water bottle company south of the border prints an image of the iconic—and easily identifiable—Baboquivari Peak on the front of their label to help orient migrants towards north.


This intense drive to cross such unforgiving terrain may be motivated by economics, but it’s also intensely emotional. “Increasingly, many more of the people we encounter are trying to reunite with people in the United States,” says No More Death’s Leunius. “With their spouses or parents or children. These are people who aren’t going to give up.” No More Deaths has started working in Nogales and Altar, Sonora, handing out dehydration kits before migrants become desperate in the desert. “It’s prevention work. People can use the materials to clean water while en route, if, say, they come across a cattle tank,” she says.

“At some point we need to decide how much suffering we will or will not permit on American soil, regardless of nationality or proper documentation.”

Those working on the Undocumented Migration Project see this desperation to cross in clear plastic bags—the Border Patrol-issue plastic bags given to migrants to store their belongings, if they still have any, while they’re being deported. “We find a lot of those bags,” says Waterhouse. “Which means they try to cross again almost immediately.”

“These are individuals who have recently pushed their bodies to the limit,” says Leuinus. “Part of our prevention work [in Mexico] is in understanding that if people don’t have an opportunity to recuperate before trying to come again, they’re far more likely to die.”

Often on their second and third attempts, with the knowledge of what awaits them, migrants will carry provisions better suited to their trek. Many of the markets supplying these migrants have also started tweaking the provisions they offer in response to this unique demand.

Border-Carrying-Capacity-Immigrants“Some companies have started producing tuna and beans in plastic pouches instead of a can, because it reduces the weight so much,” says De León. And, instead of carrying clear plastic gallons of water—which might catch the glint of the sun and so the eye of a Border Patrol agent—migrants now carry opaque black bottles.

“If you ask people today, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, they’ve always sold black water bottles,’” Waterhouse says. “But we know, from what we’ve collected, that only a few years ago, migrants were carrying water bottles wrapped in black bags, or covered in black grease. There’s a short social memory at the border.” A migrant’s discarded artifacts tell a story that isn’t susceptible to human memory and, more importantly, cultural erasure.

“This stuff is disappearing and I worry that we might sanitize this history a hundred years from now,” says De León. This is the history of demographic change, of the population movements that have occurred so many times before in U.S. history. “We’re assembling good, systematic, scientific data about what happened out here, and I think that’s hard to argue with.”

He says that the one goal of the Undocumented Migrant Project is to offer an alternative to the story issued by the government or mainstream media. “It’s either that the border is out of control and it’s chaotic, or it’s the simplistic portrait of the tragic migrant story,” De León says. “There are a lot of tragic migrant stories, but there are also a lot of stories that don’t get told.”

For some of his students, the project becomes about more than just storytelling. “I think the reasonable response is to take a step back and reconsider our trade, border, and immigration policies, to try to address the root of the problem rather than amp up the Border Patrol and make the dangers for migrants even more violent and traumatizing,” Butt says. “At some point we need to decide how much suffering we will or will not permit on American soil, regardless of nationality or proper documentation.”

In the last of the three backpacks being catalogued at the Arivaca Field Station, Erica Loveland pulls out a toothbrush and tells me they also often find razors packed in among food, water, and clothes. These artifacts puzzle the students. Why waste precious water on hygiene? “We talked about it in one of our group discussions and decided maybe it was a peace of mind thing,” she says. “Or maybe they’re bringing them for later.” Maybe the only way to cross the desert is to imagine that you’ll soon be somewhere where the water for brushing teeth and shaving stubble does not come from a cattle tank.

Border-Carrying-Capacity-ImmigrantsLast summer, De León was hiking with two students when they encountered one of the 179 remains officially registered with the Pima Country Office of the Medical Examiner. A woman was lying facedown on a hillside, collapsed from heat stroke or dehydration. “We found her clutching an electrolyte bottle,” says De León. “She’d been there for four days.” In the months following this discovery, De León and the students built a shrine for Marisela, carrying heavy bricks through the heavy terrain, leaving their own artifact in the desert to honor the life they found lost.

Of course, this story isn’t really about those who find a body in the desert—or those who catalogue that body’s belongings. But it’s the finders that keep that memory, that piece together that life. After interviewing her family back in Ecuador—a family that includes two young children—De León is working on a book that tells Marisela’s story. She’ll be one of three stories in the book, one of the three that stand in for the thousands that could be told.

“It’s only when archeology is used along with migrant’s stories does this become insightful,” said De León. “Only when we hear what they say can we understand what they left behind.”

Backpacks, ripped and faded to grey, strewn over rocks. Caught on cacti. Heavy with provisions, discarded in a valley. Shoes, little and big. Pharmaceuticals—caffeine pills and aspirin. Water bottles. A change of clothes. A baggy polo shirt. A tiny T-shirt, a rainbow swash of glitter across its front. “We’re just the collectors,” says De León. “We’re just storing their things for now. It’s their story.”

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Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.

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