Shoes, backpacks and other objects discarded in the desert by undocumented immigrants have been collected by a team of anthropologists to document the difficult journey they make to get into the United States.
“For me these objects aren’t trash - they reflect the history of all the great migrations,” Jason de Leon, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Undocumented Migration Project, said in an interview with Efe.
Since 2008, De Leon and his team have managed to collect 10,000 objects which, he says, “are part of the heritage of the United States and also of Mexico. It’s important for Americans to understand the history of the Mexican migration.”
“I wanted to show Americans what the desert is like, what the trek across it is like, and I also wanted to show people’s faces, give their names, recount the experiences that for most people are horrible experiences, the suffering is so severe,” he said.
Approximately 1 million migrants try to cross the border into Arizona every year, and 90 percent of them are Mexicans. Some 200 people are estimated to die every year from what they suffer on the journey, hypothermia being one of the lethal ailments.
This American of Mexican and Filipino heritage does not want any of this to go unnoticed, so after working several years as an archaeologist in Mexico, he felt he ought to do something with a story being played out not so very far away.
During excavations in Mexico he listened to stories of local laborers helping with the field work about how they emigrated to the United States or about their intentions to do so.
“They told me how people suffer in the desert, the things they have to go through,” and he thought, after many years dedicated to archaeology, that he wanted to research something altogether different.
He subsequently took a trip to the desert to see what was happening at first hand.
Accompanied by Robert Kee, a member of the Samaritans organization that helps migrants in the Sonoran Desert, he found his first discarded items.
“It was very hard for me because it’s very moving to see things like children’s shoes, dirty clothes sometimes stained with blood or sweat, they’re hard to look at,” he said.
His goal was to collect data on the social phenomenon of crossing borders, “using the viewpoint of an anthropologist to create a window into the reality of this process.
For De Leon, the stories of people who cross the southern border of the United States are comparable to those that crossed the Atlantic to America a century ago, and the need that pushes them to do it is more powerful than “a wall or surveillance technology.”
He regrets that while “politicians talk a lot about immigration and many have very strong opinions about the border, most of them know nothing about immigration and what the experience is like. They have no idea how much people suffer.”
Among the objects found, the most painful are the photos and personal letters. Up to now he has not contacted any of the families because “I’m not ready,” though maybe he will do it “sometime in the future.”
The collection has caught the interest of the Smithsonian Institution, though the first exhibition is expected to be at the National Theater of Anthropology in Mexico City.