Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The debris left by migrants in the desert is more than trash - for one archaeologist, it tells a story

A few years ago, while retracing the believed last steps of a woman who perished in the Imperial Valley desert, I accompanied a few of Mexico's Grupo Beta border agents along a well-known human smuggling trail. One of the most striking things about it - aside from how difficult it is to walk in coarse sand - was the debris strewn along the way. Not only the expected empty water bottles, but entire backpacks discarded by exhausted people trying to lighten their load.

There were cowboy boots, brand-new jeans with the tags attached, lingerie, all of it half-buried in the sand. I wondered about who had left it there, and whether they were stil alive. As it turns out, this debris is archaeological valuable. Miller-McCune magazine has an interesting profile of Jason De León, a University of Michigan anthropologist and archeologist who has been studying these left-behind items as part of his Undocumented Migrant Project, using them to tell the story of illegal immigration as human traffic moves across the border. From the piece:

...some archaeologists who were working in southern Arizona mentioned to De León that they frequently had to dig through piles of what they saw as trash that migrants had left behind. "They said that I should do an archaeological study on that stuff," he says. "They were probably joking."

But he took their advice seriously and headed to the Coronado National Forest. He found sites littered with a few plastic water bottles under bushes or cactuses, and then others with hundreds of discarded shoes, clothes, backpacks. What was trash to others was, to him, the archaeology of undocumented migration " the visible remnants of a largely invisible phenomenon.

So he launched the Undocumented Migrant Project in 2009. Combining ethnographic research (in the form of collecting oral histories) and archeological research (combing through modern-day sites), it would be a long-term study of people and their cultures, through their artifacts. "I needed to find a way to get back to archaeology that I found personally meaningful," De León says. "This was also a way for it to be relevant to contemporary issues."

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