Turning “Trash” into Treasure:

The Hidden Stories of Migrants in the Sonoran Desert Told in Items Left Behind


A “Cat in the Hat” toothbrush, a pair of women’s underwear, the lone sole of a man’s shoe. To many, these items found on remote desert trails would be considered trash. But to local humanitarian aid groups and artists, they are artifacts of migrant lives that tell of their harrowing journeys through the desert to start a better life in the United States.

Local aid groups and their volunteers take note of these items and try to find meaning in them. The Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian aid organization dedicated to alleviating suffering in the desert, formed in July 2002 in response to the rising migrant death toll in the Sonoran borderlands. Volunteers leave water and food on commonly traveled trails and provide medical assistance, regardless of where the people on the trails are coming from or plan to go.

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The Samaritans consider their work to be one small piece of the migrant journey. Many volunteers believe that important migrant stories, whether triumphant or tragic, live on in the items that migrants leave behind, in the bodies left under the sun. Samaritans volunteers, and local artists Alvaro Enciso and Debbi McCullough, hope to bring light to these stories. The lives lost in the desert are given dignity, context, a story, to emphasize their struggle, to empathize with human beings whose family members wished them safety on their trek and never heard from them again. They are on the walls of museums, presented in the form of melted cans and children’s thorn-soaked shoes. Sometimes they remain under the open desert sky, in the fields that they thought would lead them home- lost souls full of dreams, remembered with wooden crosses, red dot tins, moments of silence, flesh and bone.

“The Sonoran Desert, in all its beauty, has a secret,” says Enciso, who is also a Tucson Samaritans volunteer. “Very few people outside of Southern Arizona know it. I want to bring attention to the number of people dying out there. When will it stop?”

The groups of volunteers that walk the desert trails routinely take note of new or unusual items left on the path. They do not view these items as garbage; they see them as signs of life.

Into the Mountains

It is a brisk November morning when vetera­n Tucson Samaritans volunteer Bob Kee turns a bright red jeep off of Interstate 19. He and his four other passengers continue driving down a long, winding dirt road to a clearing deep in the Tumacacori Mountains, 20 miles north of Arizona’s border with Mexico.

It is Kee’s turn to lead a group of volunteers to a remote part of the desert mountains to aid migrants who cross the border by foot. The team loads their individual backpacks with as many liter water bottles and plastic bags of granola bars and fruit snacks as they can carry, turn on an emergency GPS tracking unit and begin to trek into the desert.

The trail is overgrown with weeds and tall grass, making its loose rock difficult to safely step on and its direction difficult to navigate. While the beauty of the desert radiates from cactus spines that glow in the morning light, pale yellow grass that grows over red pebbles and an open blue sky, it is also notably cruel. Jumping cholla spines pierce deep through skin. Ocotillo plants spread their tall, thorny limbs that poke at eyes and scratch at arms. The pale yellow grass hardens at the tips and slices ankles, latches on to shoes and sticks deeper into toes and heels with every step.

Keeping eyes on the ground leads to an ocotillo thorn in the shoulder. Looking up ends in stepping on baby cholla clusters whose vicious spines stab straight through even thick-soled shoes. North looks identical to south, as east does to west, and there are few trees large enough to provide a shady resting point. The writhing desert seems to attack from all angles, looking to trap those who enter it, gripping on to clothes and flesh from head to toe as if to say, You’re mine now. I’ve got you.

The American Dream

Since 2002, most migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation have come from Mexico and Central America, fleeing economic instability, violence, and poverty. They are commonly drawn to the U.S. in search of better opportunities, safety or family reunification.

Legal documentation to live in the U.S. is often not a plausible option due to a number of complicated circumstances, including federal policies that pose insurmountable financial barriers, long waiting times and skills-based requirements unattainable to those most desperate for opportunity. People still feel they have no choice but to migrate despite the only option being a treacherous clandestine journey where survival is notoriously not guaranteed.

“They come to get a piece of the American dream,” Enciso says.

For some, the dream is never realized. The harsh desert paired with scorching temperatures, long days of travel and little preparation leave many migrants dehydrated and injured, or in some cases, left to die, before reaching their U.S. destination.

Since 1999, over 3,000 migrant deaths have been reported, and over 2,000 migrants have been reported missing in Southern Arizona, according to Humane Borders. The death toll has climbed in recent years, partly because of increased surveillance by immigration enforcement that pushes migrants to cross in more remote corners of the borderlands. These routes are mountainous, deserted and difficult to navigate, putting migrants more at risk of needing aid and less capable of finding it.

Tucson Samaritan volunteers have made great efforts to find new trails and keep track of the areas where their water drops will aid migrants the most. They have also monitored what migrants leave behind and use these clues to paint the stories of their lives for the public to better understand that no one would put their life so at risk if they had another option.

The Things They Carry

The desert sometimes wins the battle of deciding who and what will stay for good. On Kee’s trip, backpacks of all colors and sizes, winter jackets, patterned blankets, toothbrushes, food wrappers and broken jugs of water are engraved into the dirt along the trail. Kee is quick to point out a backpack hanging from a tree, likely meaning it was recently left behind, since the wind is quick to knock down similar items. The bag hangs with its black pockets intact, a sharp contrast to the many old bags that show their age in rusted zippers and fabric full of holes.

Volunteer Laura Rambikur opens bags carefully after an experience of finding syringes.

“We ran into a guy at the shelter who had severe diabetes,” Rambikur says of a Mexican shelter for recently deported adults. “He was trying to cross with his insulin in an insulated lunch box. You have to be careful digging through bags.”

After hiking two to four times per week for the past five years, Kee is not often surprised by what he finds. He has seen ID cards, birth certificates, makeshift handcuffs, photographs, clothing for all ages and embroidered tortilla cloths likely made by a loved one from back home.

Even still, a few things stand out. “I think the oddest thing [I’ve found] was just above where we dropped the water. I found a crutch,” Kee says of that day’s water drop. “We’re 18 miles from the border and there’s a crutch. Why would they abandon it now?”

Kee also recalls finding a man carrying caffeine and amphetamine pills. The man was left behind by his group when he could no longer keep up after his heart began palpitating from the pills. Red Bull® cans seem to pop out at every corner on the trail. In past years, Jumex ® juice containers were often found on the trail, but they have been increasingly replaced by cans of energy drinks and dangerous pills like the ones the abandoned man had taken. Human smuggling reigns as an exploitative industry and migrants will be left behind if they cannot keep pace with the rest of the group. Being left behind is a sure way to get lost in the desert or found by Border Patrol.

Keeping a Low Profile

Clothing and other items left behind give intriguing details about the typical journey. Despite the heat, migrants are encouraged to wear camouflage clothing and carry black water jugs. These items lessen the chance of being found by immigration enforcement. Clear water jugs are too risky, as they reflect the sun and shine unwanted light toward migrants in hiding. In summer, black jugs boil water and burn skin, but hot water seems better than nothing when temperatures climb into the 100s.

Camouflage left behind in the form of what the Samaritans call “booties” are commonly found on the border line and sometimes even further into the borderlands.

“It looks like an Ugg ® boot slipper, but it’s carpet,” says Adrienne Kishi, Tucson Samaritans volunteer. “It wouldn’t be something you can walk in for a long time.”

So why the impractical footwear? To cover migrant tracks, Kishi explains. Border Patrol combs the dirt directly in front of the border wall to more easily locate footprints left by border crossers. The booties act as a form of camouflage, allowing the crossers to continue undetected.

In the past, horseshoes were even used as a disguise to throw off Border Patrol agents. Heavy and loud, they are no longer frequently found. But, according to Enciso, volunteer and artist, the migrants would stamp the horseshoes into the ground in hopes that their tracks would be mistaken for cowboys’ horses.

When Kee’s team reaches their water drop location, 2 miles from the jeep, they notice that the water and food left five weeks earlier is gone. The empty bottles and food container prove that migrants are still using the trail, a sign that today’s trip is worthwhile. Kee prefers to find the water bottles empty or gone than slashed open and intentionally wasted, as was the case in the last area where he left water on this trail. Vandalism continues to be a problem at different aid groups’ water drops, a mysterious issue considering the only people on the trails other than migrants are the occasional hunter and Border Patrol agents.


Artists, aid workers and anthropologists see the items from the trail as personal belongings left by human beings who have a story, a struggle, a whole life inside of them.

Debbi McCullough would be the last to call the items left behind “trash.” She uses them to make thought-provoking art. She began volunteering with the Samaritans in 2004 and within months began collecting items that she found. “To me, it was mementos that were being left, a statement that real human beings had gone through here — people that had a lot of things in common with us,” McCullough says.

She felt called to turn the objects into artwork that would challenge the many misconceptions about immigrants crossing the border into the U.S., who are often dehumanized by quotes from politicians and interest groups that make their way into the headlines. “There was so much degradation in the way things were being written about the people,” McCullough says. “Rather than humanizing them or making it a humanitarian crisis or making it human in anyway, there were just numbers and statistics and degrading comments.”

McCullough’s work captures the message of migrant death and despair in the borderlands. Her art varies from labyrinths of items found in the desert to framed women’s shoes punctured with cactus thorns painted various colors. Her pieces often contain the names and stories of the deceased.

Various found items demonstrate the different obstacles that migrants face in their journeys. “There have been times when we come across women’s underwear,” she says. “What had happened to this woman in this place that her bra would be displayed here on this fence post or hugging that tree? That speaks to the violence against women.”

One of her most striking pieces is a statue of a woman who died in 2005 after being separated from her group while trying to reunite with her husband in Texas. Her young son, who was also abandoned by the group, held his mother while she died of dehydration and was deported when he sought help. He and his grandfather were determined to find his mother, whose body was still lost in the Arizona desert. The boy was unable to get a humanitarian visa, but local aid groups walked the desert with the boy’s grandfather. The boy guided the search by looking at pictures of the landscape that the groups brought back.

After six weeks of searching, his mother was found. All that remained were the bones of her hand and three rings on her fingers.

Despite prominent dangers like cartels and the elements of the wilderness, people continue to migrate. Items like embroidered tortilla cloths with parts of tortilla still inside, pillowcases abandoned mid-stitch while still connected to the needle and yarn, and well-worn cloth carriers for babies serve as constant reminders to McCullough of the humanity and sacrifice of those who endure the journey. She tries to convey this sense of humanity in each of her works, showcasing the often selfless sacrifices that migrants make in the quest for survival and a better life.

“I’ve never had the impression that anybody is doing it for themselves,” she says. “They’re just generally doing it on behalf of someone, on behalf of their family, to better somebody else’s life. They’re helping their parents. They’re helping their children.”

Abstractions and Understandings

McCullough is not the only one to transform found objects from the trails into art. Alvaro Enciso, a cultural anthropologist by education and a Samaritans volunteer and artist, also makes art from found objects, but he describes his work as more conceptual than McCullough’s. He learned about the deaths in the desert after moving to Tucson from New Mexico in 2011 and volunteering with the Tucson Samaritans. An immigrant himself, the Colombian native felt compelled to share the stories of people like him who came to the States in hopes of education and opportunity but were not as lucky in finding it.

Looking at his art without context, one would not likely determine that it represents the death of migrants and the myth of the American dream or that it is made from objects on the trails. Many of Enciso’s pieces are built on rectangular slabs filled with migrant items, such as tin cans and bottle caps, that take a new form after being melted down and molded into something new. His art is colorful and vibrant, sometimes complete with the shape of a heart or Spanish phrases such as “maldita pobreza” (“damn poverty”). Each piece is complex and unique, representing each individual and complicated migrant life.

“I try to work with tin cans, transforming them and cutting them and using grinders and all kinds of tools to try to tell the stories that the migrants have, because every can that you find out there has a story behind it,” he says. “We don’t know what it is. It could be tragic or a good ending or a compromised ending, but it has a story to tell.”

Enciso is struck by the concept that each tin can he finds contains the DNA of a person who walked on the trail.

The Red Dots Project: Dignity in the Desert

Not all migrants survive the journey. They leave their hopes of a better life or reuniting with family floating somewhere between rolling mountains and the big, blue sky that they rest under before they close their eyes and their final breath escapes them. Tucson Samaritans volunteers have discovered many human remains. Kee once discovered two sets of remains on the same day on the trail he visits that November morning.

When bodies are discovered, GPS coordinates are recorded to mark their location on a map constantly updated by Humane Borders, another Tucson-based aid organization. Red dots show the location and any identifiable information of the deceased.

Enciso initiated the Red Dots Project to call attention to the deaths found on the map. He creates wooden crosses about 2 feet high dotted with tin cans and specks of red paint. He makes weekly trips into the desert to leave the artwork on the ground where the map shows a migrant has died to honor that life and bring attention to the circumstances that left the migrant deceased in the desert.

He initially hoped to photograph the land at each red dot on the map, but he transformed the project once he realized that the pictures did not capture the individuality of the person who died there or the suffering endured. He decided to make crosses not because of their religious affiliation but because of their history as a tool used to crucify and kill.

“Each cross points a finger,” Enciso says. “It’s your policies that killed this person. How many more crosses do I need to put up before you change your immigration policies?”

Enciso has installed over 600 crosses to date.

Kee’s group stops to visit two of the crosses on the way back to the jeep. After Kee tells the story of finding each set of human remains, the group falls silent for a moment before finishing the trip, with thorns clinging to the sides of their tall socks and hiking shoes.

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Kate Chis

Doctorate in Public Health. Passionate about reframing the narrative around sexual violence and immigration. Health & Fitness. Runner, Traveler.