Waste LandFor Migrants, Water Bottles Are a Matter of Life and Death

Photography by Kris LaRosa

This article was published in Plastic Issue #91 | Summer 2021

During a prime-time segment in 2018, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson accused left-wing environmentalists of robbing everyday Americans of joy. Instead of banning helium balloons, plastic drinking straws, or rice at weddings, he said the country should turn its attention to the hazards of unauthorized migration. “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration,” Carlson insisted. Some wondered whether the newscaster meant that migrants themselves are litter, but he might have been referencing the objects migrants carry during their clandestine journeys north. Carlson would not be the first to make this association: Border-wall advocates have long linked migrants to litter, pointing specifically to the gallon-sized plastic bottles they scatter in the desert.

In his memorable 2016 ethnography, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, anthropologist Jason De León refuses to label these plastic bottles and other migrant belongings as trash. Instead, De León insists they are “material culture,” that they “form the archaeological record of migration.” He attributes the “little interest in preserving this ongoing historical record” to the object’s “political volatility and what it represents in terms of human suffering and government culpability.” The National Museum of American History seems to agree the items are worth preserving: On display in its current “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibition is a 12-by-6-inch plastic water bottle with a blue cap and burlap cover. Both De León and the Smithsonian Institution claim these bottles have much to teach the American public about the realities and limits of border enforcement. 

Plastic water bottles are a matter of life and death in the Sonoran Desert, especially since the Clinton administration implemented Prevention Through Deterrence in the 1990s. This border-enforcement strategy increased the number of Border Patrol agents and military technologies— including night-vision goggles, motion sensors, and stadium lighting—in ports of entry such as San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas, and redirected unauthorized migration to more remote and dangerous areas like the Sonoran Desert where drinking water is nearly nonexistent. The results have been deadly: The Pima County medical examiner’s office documented 227 migrant deaths in 2020 alone. In response to these genocidal enforcement methods, humanitarian groups, including Border Angels and No More Deaths, place plastic jugs of water and cans of beans along migrant trails, hoping they will save lives and alleviate suffering. The U.S. government has criminalized these actions, classifying the drops as littering on federal land—and volunteers like Scott Warren have stood trial for allegedly breaking this law. In The Land of Open Graves, De León asserts that “cleaning up” the water bottles actually disappears migrant material culture. “Physical evidence of border crossings is systematically removed,” De León writes, because the government considers water bottles and other objects “environmental blight.” But in reality, plastic bottles don’t pose a threat to the state because they dirty the pristine desert. The real problem is that they point to life that persists despite walls and barriers. They’re traces of people who poke holes in fences and outsmart surveillance technology. Cleaning up the plastic and criminalizing those who leave it behind is an attempt to erase the people the border cannot contain.

Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime

No More Deaths organizes daily water drops with volunteers who typically come to Byrd Camp—the organization’s humanitarian aid station—for monthlong stretches. Every morning the group fills milk crates with bottled water, stacking them onto pallets in the beds of their four-by-four pickup trucks. They caravan their cargo deep into the interior of the Sonoran Desert, searching for signs of migrant activity. Carrying as many gallons of water as physically possible, No More Deaths hikes gravelly hills, past thickets of mesquite and cholla cacti with hair-like spines. When they reach a “drop,” volunteers place milk crates under trees next to five-gallon plastic buckets of socks and beans, often finding slashed and emptied bottles nearby. Since not all water is safe to drink, No More Deaths volunteers use Sharpies to write messages of encouragement on their bottles. They draw monarch butterflies—symbols of transnational migration—and scribble “#AguaNoMuros,” which translates to “#WaterNotWalls,” and “la ayuda humanitaria nunca es un delito,” meaning “humanitarian aid is never a crime.” Part two of The Disappeared report series, a collaborative reporting project of No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, includes video footage of Border Patrol agents confiscating, stabbing, and pouring out gallons of water onto the ground. Some agents even urinated in the bottles.

Montana Thames, a humanitarian worker with No More Deaths, grew up in the California desert and moved to Tucson, Arizona, seven years ago on a whim. Given their own connection to migration, Thames felt a spiritual call to become involved in direct aid. As a Yaqui Indigenous person, and someone whose ancestral lands were cut in half by the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border in the 19th century, they have a “deep ancestral memory and spiritual relationship with the desert.” Thames says they have fielded criticism about placing water in the desert: “A random person at a bar once told me that their issue with No More Deaths is that we don’t pick up the trash in the desert. And I said, ‘Really, that’s your issue?’” As Thames sees it, trash is lifesaving. Humanitarian workers depend on wrappers, bottles, and other signs of migrant activity to identify active routes and to know where to place water. People who become lost in the desert use trash as a navigation tool. According to Thames, complaints about litter are, more often than not, cases of white supremacy masked as environmentalism. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, federally protected areas where many plastic bottles are found, are stolen land. That irony isn’t lost on Thames: “The United States is turning away people migrating as a result of colonial violence and then complaining that they’re leaving trash in an area stolen from Indigenous people?”

When American settlers and ethnographers occupied the Sonoran Desert—the ancestral home of the colonized Yaquis, Apaches, Tohono O’Odhams, and Pimas, among others—they depicted the land as empty, pristine, and desperate for colonization. While chronicling his two-and-a-half-year journey with the Mexican-United States Boundary Commission, John Russell Bartlett described fallow fields and abandoned Spanish missions. In his 1854 book, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Bartlett writes that the land is dotted by “nothing but stumps and a few miserable mesquite trees.” Despite this bleak scene, Bartlett saw the potential for riches and resources and encouraged the U.S. government to domesticate the frontier. The land was not fixed or static, and it was not doomed to be a wasteland. Rather, it could be tamed in service of the nation. The land, in essence, was plastic.

Disrupting the Fantasy of Closed Borders

Today we tend to think of plastic as a synthetic polymer that can be made into solid objects. But the term—derived from the Latin word plasticus and the Greek word plastikos, meaning “molded or formed”—has broader implications. By the late 16th century, the word referred to something “capable of change or of receiving a new direction.” Plasticity refers to the capacity for transformation, and the history of the Southern border includes state agents seeking to transform the land for expansionist, capitalist ends. During the Trump era, that looked like blasting and bulldozing canyons and mountains to build a border wall, uprooting ancient saguaro and Indigenous burial grounds to create roads for border enforcement. Though many scholars have turned to plasticity as a way to destabilize and transform society, Kyla Schuller and Jules Gill-Peterson problematized the term in a 2020 issue of Social Text. They pointed out that plasticity has historically been denied to the racialized “whose bodies are seen as rigid, inflexible, overly reactive, and insufficiently absorptive, contagions to the potential growth of the population.” Whiteness is defined by plasticity, by the capacity for change and growth. The land is allowed to change and grow, but only when it serves the interests of the state. Walls, floodlights, and enforcement agents have been installed at the border to mold the land into a tool for capture. And though the government is desperate to portray the border as “secured,” “sealed,” or “controlled,” plastic bottles make their way into the country, disrupting the fantasies of closed borders, invading the pristine desert, and revealing the border’s plasticity—showing that it is both frequently changing and completely artificial.

The Southern border as we now know it is the result of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the 1853–1854 Gadsden Purchase, both of which were crafted and ratified without the input or consent of Indigenous people. Despite ideas that borders are fixed or natural, the land has never been completely sealed, and the border has always had to be reinforced through violent means. Indigenous people have historically resisted ideas of closed borders, and Apaches in particular have been seen as threatening because of their transborder migrations and refusal to stay put on one side of the line. Over time, multiple Mexican and U.S. commissions have surveyed the border, redrawn lines, and replaced boundary markers knocked down intentionally or by a gust of wind, meandering river, or monsoon. Like plastic, borders are man-made. And like plastic, they are malleable.

The plastic water bottles that appear near sandy arroyos and those that are pushed against the border wall by the free-flowing San Juan River allow us to imagine otherwise. They exist as a reminder that militarization is an incomplete project. Philosopher Jane Bennett has argued that “things” have power and agency. In her 2010 book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Bennett writes of the “strange ability of ordinary, man-made objects to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness.” Bennett suggests it’s dangerous to create fixed divisions between humans and the material world, insisting that inanimate things act in ways that affect humans, depend on humans, and challenge the agency of humans. Bennett writes of the 2003 Northeast Blackout, which highlighted societal conditions like the neglected state of public utilities and North America’s excessive energy consumption. “Thus spoke the grid,” Bennett notes. This is also the case with plastic bottles in the desert.

Like plastic, borders are man-made. And like plastic, they are malleable.

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The water bottles are often found grouped in a chorus with other migrant belongings, forming what Bennett calls “thing-power.” Typically, finding objects piled together indicates a pickup area where coyotes—people who smuggle migrants across the border—arrange rides to destinations further north. The objects reveal the resourcefulness of migrants and the strategies they have developed to survive the journey. Arranged in this way, the plastic bottles highlight what my friend and borderlands artist Alvaro Enciso calls “the triumph of third-world creativity over first-world technology.” Thames of No More Deaths contrasts border militarization with the “softness and gentleness of these water bottles and how they’re so thin and light.” They note the symbolism of “a very innocent, pure water bottle and people in complete war outfits, feeling threatened by them and slashing them so easily with their huge knives and weapons of war.” Border Patrol agents in riot gear poke holes in water bottles or empty their contents onto the desert floor. Government agents target volunteers who leave the bottles behind. And despite their best efforts to “clean up” the desert, the plastic bottles return, over and over again, with each group that makes its way north. The water bottles refuse to go away. After all, plastic is not organic; it is not biodegradable. And although plastic will break up into microscopic pieces with time, it will never decompose. The bottles remain as reminders of border-crossing bodies that refused to stay put.

I have written about water drops for Bitch before, describing them as a practice of mobile sanctuary in the militarized desert. But I have never taken the plastic seriously before now, instead seeing the synthetic material as a means to an end. The earliest settlers understood the land as plastic, capable of being molded and transformed for colonization and territorial expansion. This understanding of land continues today, with Prevention Through Deterrence and other strategies that, to paraphrase De León, enlist the desert as a partner in border enforcement. But to those who are listening, the plastic water bottles say something else. With their cylindrical shape, the water bottles resemble buoys—floating atop the desert floor, serving as navigational beacons for those lost in the desert and emergency aid for those on the brink of death. They refuse to decompose, reappearing time and time again. They are an unexpected kind of desert tumbleweed—blown by the wind, covered and uncovered by the sand, trapped atop a tree by a monsoon, refusing to disappear. The plastic bottles insist on making their presence known. Some insist on calling them litter. But I prefer to listen to the bottles, and they speak to life that cannot be contained
by borders.

Barbara Sostaita, a Latinx woman with short, brown hair, smiles at the camera while standing in a green field
by Barbara Sostaita
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Barbara Sostaita is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches migration and religion. She’s currently obsessing over poems written by diaspora kids and anything Bad Bunny posts on Instagram.