TUCSON — She probably never imagined things would go so wrong — that she’d end up here, on a scuffed metal gurney in a coroner’s office far from home.
Still, at age 22, she was old enough to know the dangers of stealing across the U.S. border from Mexico onto a lethal desert landscape, where she would have to take crazy chances amid the heat, cold and rattlesnakes to avoid capture by la migra, the U.S. Border Patrol.
Her body was found in early 2009 near a service road, a two-day walk from the border. She had died of exposure: Her system simply shut down in the high desert’s frigid winter temperatures.
Within days, workers at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an inventory of the left-behind fragments of her short life. Inside her backpack were family photos, a Spanish-English dictionary, lip gloss, four pens, pink-and-white socks and an ID from Oaxaca that described her as a preschool teacher.
Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Arizona, studies such possessions like pieces of a puzzle. Most important, she said, the belongings can help determine the crosser’s identity. They also tell the story of a very human decision — what personal effects to take on a possibly fatal expedition.
In the young teacher’s case, Reineke likened her to a teenager heading off to college, carrying the expectations of her entire family.
“Her possessions reminded me of exactly what I would carry to college,” said the 30-year-old Reineke, coordinator of Pima County’s Missing Migrant Project. “She probably picked out her favorite things because she wanted to look good. Her items, all of them, just screamed of hope.”
Paid by federal and private grants, Reineke is helping to chronicle what is a mass human exodus across Arizona’s remote Sonoran Desert, an unforgiving environment that delivers an almost daily whiff of death.
“People find the bodies under trees, near rocks, in the brush and in the open,” said Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner. “Often people die very close to the road they were trying to reach.”
Since 2001, more than 2,035 bodies of illegal border crossers have been discovered in the desert south of Tucson. The highest toll comes during summer, when temperatures soar past 120 degrees and as many as 60 bodies a month are pulled from the sagebrush and sand. Some remains have been there for just days; others are scattered skeletons.
Dying of hyperthermia is excruciating: Victims become confused and delusional, Hess said. Border crossers might insist to companions they can’t go on. Some tear off their clothing before collapsing. Often, the only items found are those they carried in their pockets.
Over 700 bodies remain unidentified. Reineke and others rummage through the possessions to try to match the dead with 1,300 missing persons reports that arrive from across Central America and Mexico through local consulate offices, from families and human rights groups.
In a row of orange lockers near Pima County’s autopsy room, officials keep plastic sleeves labeled “Personal Effects” and a stark designation: “Doe, John” or “Doe, Jane.”
Each sleeve reveals a story to the practiced eye: religious relics such as tattered rosaries and laminated cards bearing the names of patron saints, some that suggest a region where the person lived; photographs of wives, children and grandparents left behind; slips of papers carrying the names and numbers of people on the other side, such as a relative in Los Angeles, in one case identified only as “mi mama.”
Jonathan Hollingsworth also has pored over the material, for his new book of photographs titled “Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border.” He looked for the telltale signs of an individual’s story, or narrative, like the ticket stub that read “buena suerte,” or good luck; the wristwatch, its face so faded the numerals are indecipherable; the tube of Old Spice body spray. He was most fascinated by a tiny yellow pencil stub, the type almost no one would keep, saying it suggested the desperation and poverty of the person who carried it.
One file contained a red comb caked with dirt and a pen that had exploded in the heat, the leftovers of a migrant who — presumably delusional from exposure — hanged himself using his shoelaces.
“Each sleeve represents a life lost — one that ended in a really horrific way,” he said. “They put a face on something that transcends politics or national identity.”
For Reineke, the sleeves are crucial in identifying bodies often so mummified that fingerprints are impossible to obtain. Because the journey is illegal, ID cards are often forged. But some items bring matches, like a ring or dress a mother might recall buying her daughter as a gift. Others are cultural artifacts: A migrant from Guatemala, for example, might use a cheat sheet to study Mexican slang as a way to go undetected there. One body carried a paper with a sentence handwritten three times: “Soy de Tabasco” — I am from Tabasco.
Other possessions suggest loss. One man carried a small backpack bearing the “Cars” movie logo, rigged with elongated straps, suggesting he may have carried his child’s bag as a memento. Inside, investigators found several crayons.
A wrinkled letter in another crosser’s pocket was adorned by a child’s version of a pony. “Dear Papa,” it began. “Don’t forget me. I’ll miss you. I’ll think of you every day.” Another note drove home the personal price of the trek. “My Dear,” it read in part. “I know I’ll never see you again, but I’ll cherish our memories together. I only want the best for you.”
Alfonzo Salas Villagran had been dead for two days. Activist Shura Wallin recalls that the slightly overweight 64-year-old man looked like he had sat back for a rest and never gotten up.
Wallin, who co-founded the group Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, was hiking the desert north of Nogales, Mexico, when she stumbled upon the corpse in 2006, not far from a popular smuggler pickup spot.
The body carried an address book, compass and a Mexican voter ID card that Pima County officials used to contact family. Villagran had worked construction in Atlanta for 18 years but had returned home to Mexico City. Without a way to support himself there, he made the perilous crossing a second time.
Six years later, Wallin crouched at a memorial to Villagran — a small pile of rocks topped by a yellow flower, near a copse of mesquite trees. At least Villagran’s family knows his fate, she said.
“Please tell the people who found him how much this means to our family,” Villagran’s son, a cabdriver near Los Angeles, said following the notification. “My father was a good man.”
But Wallin finds little consolation. Illegal immigration remains a polarizing issue in Arizona and elsewhere, and there are numerous critics of Wallin’s cause. One local man has carried a picket sign outside a church attended by many of Wallin’s fellow volunteers, reading “Good Samaritans: Bad Americans.”
At Villagran’s memorial, a letter tells his life story in both English and Spanish. Alongside is another note, presumably left by a vigilante seeking to intercept illegal immigrants, suggesting incidents in which families are separated by the crossing.
“I have patrolled this desert for years,” the note read, “and have never been thanked by a mother when I find the child she abandoned out here.”
Reineke is falling behind in her work: For every migrant identified, it seems, two more bodies are found.
She has seen so many keepsakes on corpses and has memorized how bodies on the autopsy tables are dressed. She recalls the image of the 22-year-old teacher as she lay on the gurney — her pretty face and impossibly white teeth. Pima County authorities eventually contacted the teacher’s mother, based on a photo found with her.
While in Nogales researching missing person cases, Reineke often spots people preparing to cross that infernal desert — carrying the same types of clothes and mementos she has witnessed on the bodies of the most luckless crossers. “I feel like I’ve seen a dead person,” she says.
Still, she finds peace in her work: “Nobody deserves to rot in the desert. And the families of the dead shouldn’t be left to wonder years about their fate.”