Lost and found: Making art from migrants' trash

Some artists are exploring the desperate stories of undocumented migrants through the objects they dropped along the way

Most people would toss aside the items Valarie James collects, but for the 61-year-old artist, they represent a valuable glimpse into history.

“I look at something like this, and I see the journey,” James said as she pulled a beat-up old jacket out of the dirt near her home in Arivaca, Arizona, just three miles from the U.S-Mexico border.

Over the past decade, she has found countless other items, left behind by undocumented migrants who walked dozens of miles through the sparse Sonoran Desert. But when James and fellow artist Antonia Gallegos came across the contents of a sun-bleached diaper bag, they were struck by the story that must have lain behind it.

At the beginning, Valarie James just wanted to protect and archive the things she found. Then, she decided to make something more.

“All this material was strewn about across the bluff. A baby bottle, the shampoo bottle, the diapers,” James recalled. “There were little dresses, tiny little dresses for a toddler. And I remember this feeling of panic. I felt frightened for this woman.”

They wondered who owned the bag and whether that person made it out of the desert alive. From then on, everything changed.

“They were no longer just objects we were picking up. They took on a life of their own,” Gallegos told “America Tonight.”

The pair began taking the dirt-encrusted items they found — medication, perfume, children’s backpacks, shoes, family photos, ID cards and  bras, to name just a few — and turning them into art that tells a complex story of desperation, family and survival. 

A dangerous journey

On the basis of arrests, U.S. Border Patrol officials say the number of undocumented migrants crossing through the Arizona desert has fallen significantly in recent years, after the construction of a 700-mile border fence in 2010 and heightened border patrols. At the same time, however, the number of people who died crossing the border each year has remained relatively steady.  At least 194 people died along the Arizona border last year, according to the Border Patrol. In 2009 there were 212 deaths recorded.

These deaths can be long and painful. With deep canyons and rocky slopes, the desert is harsh. Windy nights can bring bitter temperatures, and the summer sun can be unforgiving.

I feel like my job is, as an artist, is to reveal the sacred in what’s been deemed profane. We have to remember that all of us, our culture, it’s in what’s left behind.

Valarie James

James said she once found a man in the desert, barely alive.

“He was diaphoretic but cold and clammy to the touch. And I didn’t know if he was going to expire the next moment,” she said.  

She called an ambulance for him, and he survived.

Gallegos, who also lives near the Arizona border, often came across migrants on her property.

“You hear the same stories over and over. They told us it was just over the hill. They told us one gallon of water would be enough,” she said.

The stories they tell

On a long table in the back room of James’ Arizona studio, there’s a makeshift shrine to the migrants who have lost their lives in the desert. It’s surrounded by the various items that she found — faded family photos, pill cases and a small cluster of women’s perfume.

Just beside it, a dusty backpacks are carefully hung from the ceiling. Farther down a small hallway, two dozen black gloves are pinned to a board.

It’s all part of an installation that James and Gallegos made with things they found in the Arizona desert.

“People carry perfume so that after three, four days in the desert, you want to be human again,” said James.

“When we relegate that material to trash, we diminish it,” said James. She felt compelled to place the material in a different light. 

“I feel like my job is, as an artist, is to reveal the sacred in what’s been deemed profane. We have to remember that all of us, our culture, it’s in what’s left behind.”

For the pair of artists, some of the most moving stories are those of mothers.

“You know that if your children are hungry, you want to feed them, and you can’t because you earn maybe $3 a day," said Gallegos. "You know that if you get across that desert and you get across the border, there’s a chance that you might make $5 an hour. If your children are hungry, you will do anything to feed them.”

The Arizona artists’ work culminated in a public memorial to commemorate not only the migrants who died crossing the desert but also the mothers who lost them.

Made a decade ago, “Las Madres” has begun to deteriorate. That was intentional; the artists said they wanted the sculptures to break down like a body in the desert sun.

They made three life-size sculptures of mothers — “Las Madres” — out of material they found in the desert. They used the material like papier-mâché.

The first mother was made out shards of jeans. The second was made out of khakis and had an off-white hue. The third one was made out of burlap bags, which the women said migrants use to carry marijuana.

They wanted the entire process to be organic.

“The idea of making it out of their clothing, the clothing that we found, the clothing that carried their DNA, that carried the sweat, the tears, the blood,” explained Gallegos, “we wanted them to break down the way the bodies do in the desert when they’re left behind.”

The sculptures are on display at Pima Community College in Tucson, where they have begun to deteriorate. James and Gallegos’ work has also been shown in galleries and churches across the country. Some items are on display at a museum in Switzerland. 

A growing movement

Backpacks, used to carry clean clothes that migrants hope to wear as they start their new lives in America, are just some of the artifacts Jason De León has collected along the border.

As the debate over U.S immigration reform has intensified, others have begun doing similar work and attempting to bring more understanding to migrants’ journeys.

At Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the work of anthropologist Jason De Leon, who also picks up things that migrants leave behind in the desert, is on display as part of the Undocumented Migration project.

In the gallery, viewers can get up close to a wall of backpacks found in the desert. Twisted water bottles, toothbrushes and men’s shoes are assembled in glass cases.

Amanda Krugliak, the curator and a co-creator of the State of Exception exhibition, said it has elicited varied reactions from onlookers — and that is exactly the point.

“It shows something they haven’t seen before. It offers a way of thinking that maybe they hadn’t thought of before," she explained. "And then wondering, ‘What are the stories behind all these objects?’”

For the artists behind these projects, as long as people continue making the trek across the desert, they will continue their work. To them, it’s American history in the making. 

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