July 18, 2010

The Desert to the East

Four summers ago I was working on an archaeological survey project in the deserts of eastern California. It was mid July, probably the hottest time of the year to be trudging through that area. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning to get started as early as we could, before the sun rose high enough to starting pulling the water and salt out of our systems.

We walked for miles and miles looking for remnants and signs of people who once lived in those deserts--or passed through them. But sometimes we found evidence of more recent travelers. The above photograph was taken on one of my many days out in the field that summer. Overall, there wasn't exactly a ton of evidence of the migrants who crossed into the US by way of these harsh, hot, bleak desert routes. But there was some. This backpack was just sitting there, partially open, a frozen reminder of a recent event. Alongside, there was a plastic sleeve with some photographs of young children inside--home. I doubt someone would leave those memories willingly.

In a broad historical or archaeological sense, people have been crossing through these kinds of places for thousands of years. Maybe some of the reasons have remained the same in one way or another. I'm sure some of the concerns are similar: finding water, food, a place to stay for the night. The heat. The cold at night. But the specifics of each migration change--they always change. What were the primary issues that people faced 1000 years ago when they walked through these places?

Today, many people cross these deserts to find work in the United States. They cross to make a living, to send money back to family, to find a way. Each individual story, each personal desire is interwoven with larger political machinations: immigration politics and policies, trade agreements, agricultural subsidies. Larger political forces ebb and flow, of course. The politics of international agreements and state power manifests in these kinds of places, these margins. ICE vehicles patrol looking for tracks in sand. Officers check water stations. It's their job to police the edges of the political boundaries of the state--it's as simple as that. They find the social edges of the body politic. Out here there are no man-made fences. There are the sharp distant mountains. There is the bright, infernal sand. And the patient cholla cacti, waiting between gusts of oven hot air. Still, people cross, step by step.

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