Home > Recent Post > A Mile in Another’s Shoes on the U.S.-Mexico Border: “Being There” as a Form of Solidarity – Rachel Stonecipher

A Mile in Another’s Shoes on the U.S.-Mexico Border: “Being There” as a Form of Solidarity – Rachel Stonecipher

Rachel Stonecipher

As I walk through the Sonoran desert, my eyes move ahead to the next obstacle: another cluster of spiny branches eclipsing the way forward. The path ahead looks impassable, but I assume the people who left their discarded belongings strewn along the wash’s rocky bottom have pressed on. Maybe there are migrants here at this moment, too frightened to answer our calls in timidly pronounced Spanish: “Hola, somos amigos! Tenemos agua, comida, y ayuda médica! No tengan miedo![1] We’ve been walking for two hours, hacking through less forgiving plants and climbing up and down steep rock formations, to keep moving. Two hours into a four-hour loop, there’s no sense in turning around.

I am beginning to understand how people can die wandering around in circles. More than once, I panic that I am not holding our shared GPS device. When I am leading, I walk as briskly as I can following the dry, rocky creek beds, the only “paths” we can see, checking the GPS every few seconds. With cell phone signals out of the question, I imagine the fear of standing here with no compass but the sun.

Memorial in Arivaca, Arizona, to migrants who died crossing into the U.S. The memorial displays discarded items found in the desert by No More Deaths volunteers.
(Photo: Rachel Stonecipher)

Before I went to the southern Arizona desert, I knew the numbers. I knew that the northern Sonora desert on the American side of the border is the single most dangerous expanse of land through which migrants, many from as far as El Salvador, travel on their long journeys to the United States. But being there, confronted with my own fear and surrounded by the discarded Sesame Street backpacks of child migrants, gave me a small window into the experience of migration: walking in the desert is exhausting, confusing, disheartening, lonely, and frightening. Border Patrol may as well be an afterthought.

It was my second day of participant observation with No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization founded in 2004 in response to the increase in migrant deaths in the southern Arizona desert due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Operating from Tucson, No More Deaths maintains a semi-permanent “desert aid” camp in Arivaca, Arizona, where a rotating group of local and visiting volunteers provides medical assistance to migrants passing through the area. Extending outward from the camp, volunteers travel each day in two shifts, morning and afternoon, to remote trail heads in the Arizona desert, from which they hike to water drop points carrying two to four gallons of water per volunteer.

During my stay at camp in July 2011, the only four volunteers present were two veterans, Hunter and Jordan, and two visitors, Tomas and myself. Awaking with the sun on the second day, the four of us gathered at an outdoor picnic table near the kitchen tent, inhaling coffee so we could warm up and plan. Jordan assessed the camp list of water drop locations, picking out the areas that had been checked least recently.[2]  She selected our destination from a set of well-worn laminated maps of those zones, expressing some familiarity with the chosen trails. Hunter agreed to hold down camp while Jordan took Tomas and me on a hiking patrol.

It was summer in Arizona, when outdoor temperature exceeds body temperature by about 9 a.m. Again that morning, Tomas and I had carefully deliberated the merits of shorts versus long pants against heat and desert plants. Yet again, the heat won out; we wore shorts, by then accustomed to the scratches from local flora, affectionately known by veteran volunteers as “Arivaca pinstripes.”

The trip to the trailhead, over waves of monsoon-season dirt and rocks in No More Deaths’ impossibly sturdy Isuzu, took about an hour. At one point, we passed a sign beyond which trespassers were supposed to be shot. Jordan explained that the owner of the land is just a little crazy; he likes to put those signs up, but you never see him, and he’s never hurt anyone. Good enough for me.

When we reached the target wash, a creek bed made especially rough by recent monsoon flooding, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the ground long enough to regulate my footsteps. I had already visited the office of the NGO Humane Borders, where an unmarked box of items found in the desert contained a pristine Batman pajama set made for a four-year-old. That didn’t prepare me for the sea of abandoned belongings stretched all the way down our path.

Migrants crossing the Arizona desert commonly discard water bottles, clothing, bags, and other encumbering items.
(Photo: Heide Castañeda)

As we began to walk, I spent at least ten seconds taking in each individual item – each Elmo or Dora the Explorer backpack, each toothbrush, each T-shirt. But to complete the route on time and avoid an emergency response from Hunter, we would need to move.[3] I crawled through the piercing limbs of a desert bush, over objects that had for days accompanied families—children—who had either passed through this wash or left these companion objects on the hills to either side, only to be swept down to the rocks during the monsoons.[4]

As we walked, I began to accept these items as part of the landscape. Personal reflection on each one could only impede our mission: delivering water to people who had yet to make it this far. I had to assume the owners of these things had long since passed by, and that others were on their way.

The sight of potentially treasured belongings in the sand made immediate the experience of the desert and proved to me why “being there” is such a powerful research methodology. Representing the migration experience as ‘other’ or ‘distant’ veils the fundamentally human sensations of migrating. To fully understand migration, social science must engage the embodied dimensions of experience and strive to produce “an adequate account of human being-in-the-world”[5] in order to bring these experiences alive for those who cannot – or will not – ‘be there’ themselves.

In the desert, activists as much as academics tug at the bounds of intersubjectivity. Inhabiting the same space as migrants is a way to pursue knowledge, and to do activism, that involves “standing in solidarity” through accompaniment in the desert. It is an accompaniment that requires imagination, as migrants are often personally invisible and unreachable. For No More Deaths volunteers, however, the shared experience of the desert landscape and the inherent act of imagining can create a brief but tangible sense of solidarity and momentarily bridge the gap.

Of course, declaring solidarity with another implies comparative privilege. In the desert I had the safety nets of the GPS, of people who knew where I was headed, of a car waiting at a predetermined location—and I only spent two days there, after all. Yet the experience of shared space felt new. Even without any indication of human presence other than discarded backpacks, toothbrushes, purses, and shredded clothing, I felt a grounded closeness to the political problem that my experiences among pro-migrant NGOs in Tucson did not produce. As proof of migrants’ presence in spaces now shared, these objects refuted their invisibility in public discourse and transformed “the border” into the concrete location of their pasts, presents, and futures.[6]

These sights are powerful, but volunteers’ time at each way point is brief. Moments of felt connection with migrants last for no more than a few minutes for volunteers whose prime directive is to keep moving, cover more ground, and make themselves available to more people than they could ever find. Even volunteers’ longest encounters with migrants in the Arizona desert, typically involving the medically compromised, usually last no more than a few hours.

Activists and ethnographers will never experience border-crossings as migrants do, but the experience of directing oneself through the desert — that is, following a busy route through a barren landscape just abandoned by real children and families — is unforgettable. Whether activists offer direct services to migrants from water trucks or fight for their social inclusion from the neighborhoods of Tucson, “being there” where others have walked can help distill complex issues into something graspable – into opportunities for tangible solidarity. One silent snapshot of life passing through an uninhabitable desert may be the most eloquent argument for immigration reform of all.

[1] “Hello, we are friends! We have water, food, and medical assistance! Do not be afraid!”

[2] No More Deaths keeps excellent records, noting which water drops were checked, observed changes in water consumption at every drop, and gallons added.

[3] Cell phones have little reception in the desert, so volunteers must agree upon an exact time that they will return. Those who stay at camp are prepared to search for any parties more than 30 minutes late.

[4] Discarded items are often regarded as worthless trash — and migrants as careless litterers — by voices in the southern Arizona popular press. Yet most of the objects in this wash appeared to possess personal or practical significance. The assortment of plastic bottles, one of the most-discussed forms of trash, included baby formula.

[5] Willen, Sarah S. and Don Seeman. 2012. “Introduction: Experience and Inquiétude.” Ethos 40(1):1-23.

[6] Archaeologist Jason De Leon of the University of Michigan collects and analyzes items discarded in the Arizona desert as evidence of the migration experience.

Rachel Stonecipher is a senior double-major in Anthropology and Film & Media Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. After college she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology with a focus on medical anthropology, im/migration and health, the anthropology of experience, and public anthropology. She is currently engaged in the second phase of a two-year research project on the practice and experience of migrant advocacy work on the U.S.-Mexico border, supported by the Engaged Learning program at SMU.

Cite this:

Stonecipher, Rachel. 2012. “A mile in another’s shoes on the U.S.-Mexico border: “Being there” as a form of solidarity.” Accessed [date] at https://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/a-mile-in-anothers-shoes-on-the-u-s-mexico-border-being-there-as-a-form-of-solidarity-rachel-stonecipher/.

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