The Borderlands’ Human Stain

The Borderlands’ Human Stain

Photographs that capture the traces of violence that have plagued the US-Mexico border for generations.


“With a bright sun and an azure sky, or with every detail brought out by the intense light of the moon, this valley has seemed a paradise,” Raphael Pumpelly wrote, describing his 1860s sojourn into a mostly uninhabited valley in the US-Mexico borderlands; “and again, under circumstances of intense anxiety, it has been a very prison of hell.”

Pumpelly—a geologist, explorer, and mining engineer—had been sent west to take charge of the Santa Rita silver mines, south of Tucson. For an Easterner, the landscape was alien, and the journey near unbearable—reaching the end of the railroad in Missouri, Pumpelly undertook 16 days travel by stagecoach that provoked in him and the other passengers what he described as “a condition bordering on insanity.” Arriving in Tucson, he found “an extremely dry and transparent atmosphere,” as well as the desert that would be both his paradise and “prison of hell.”

Prisons are perhaps the most human of constructions. They reduce our modern notions of hierarchy and justice to their simplest and basest form. Pumpelly’s desert “prison” was not built by the landscape itself—home to indigenous tribes for thousands of years—but by the humans who came believing it was their destiny to dominate, exterminate, and extract.

Frequently described as deadly, unforgiving, or brutal, these Southwestern deserts are so only because we make them so. Every landscape has its extremes; it is human hate or human hubris that make them dangerous—that turn them into “prisons”—just as it is human hate and human hubris that has turned the US-Mexico borderlands into what author Jason de León calls a “deathscape.”

Borders, too, are an essentially human construct. There is nothing natural about the US-Mexico borderline between Arizona and Sonora. In fact, just a few years before Pumpelly made his trip, that national border was about a thousand miles north, and it wasn’t until 1853’s Gadsden Purchase (coming a few years after the US invasion of Mexico) that the modern US-Mexico border was drawn. The border remains an unnatural (and now militarized) line that provokes fear and hate; it is also cause for the death of thousands of migrants. It remains, as the Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa famously wrote, an “open wound.”

“Only those who have travelled in a country of hostile Indians,” Pumpelly wrote, “know what it is to journey by night.” Swap “Indians” for “US Border Patrol agents,” and Pumpelly could have been giving fair warning, in 2017, to migrants preparing to cross the US-Mexico border. Pumpelly, however, probably wouldn’t have given any advice to migrants. He consistently referred to Mexicans as “peons,” describing them as belonging to “the most degraded class.” Sadly, his stance towards Mexicans and Apaches—like the violence underlying all of his text—echoes, in many ways, American political discourse today.

El Camino del Diablo, (The Devil’s Highway), the latest photography book from Mark Klett, opens with a 60-page facsimile of Raphael Pumpelly’s 1870 account, Across America and Asia: Notes of a Five Years’ Journey Around the World and of Residence in Arizona, Japan and China.

Klett is a photographer of history, interested as much in who haunts the landscape as who currently peoples it. His 2011 book, The Half-Life of History (with William L. Fox), tells the story, in photographs and texts, of the Wendover Army Air Base, where the bomber Enola Gay was stored before it flew towards Hiroshima on its mission of annihilation. His photograph, in El Camino del Diablo, of an historical marker sign with the unfocused words “Today” and “Historic” pocked by bullet holes, brings the 19th and 21st centuries into the same coeval frame.

Klett captures how our contemporary gaze—through the violence of a bullet hole—changes how we understand the landscape: a distant desert mountain peak, a cluster of ocotillo branches, the hot desert floor. Pumpelly looked at those mountains and saw “metalliferous veins”—extractable profit. Today nativists and border hawks see those mountains as a land to defend from “aliens.” Others, migrants, see them as a path, however dangerous, toward reunification with family, security, and refuge. Klett captures these discrepancies and convergences, as well as the timelessness of the violence—his photography bending the through-line of history into a loop.

Klett seems to see through objects, not just at them. His photograph of a desert bighorn sheep, glimpsed through and seemingly garroted by the border fence, brings into focus that the bighorn sheep, protected under the Endangered Species Act, is one of potentially thousands of plant and animal species threatened by the construction of more segments of border wall. In the photograph the sheep seems to be inside its own “prison of hell” as its environment is walled off, overrun, and even bombed.

The Camino del Diablo (or Devil’s Highway) of the book’s title is a tract of desert traveled by ancient Tohono O’odham people to and from what is modern-day Mexico and the United States. Today the route traces a path that has become deadly for migrants, and a large part of the nearby desert region is the Barry M. Goldwater Range, a live bombing and gunnery range where Air Force pilots practice war. (A woman recently suffered from severe burns after she stumbled upon an unexploded Air Force flare near her home in Fort Thomas, Arizona. It is unknown how many migrants suffer similar fates.)

The Devil’s Highway was brought to national attention by Luis Alberto Urrea’s 2004 book, which describes the harrowing walk of 26 migrants through the desert that left 14 of them dead. Urrea gives context to the present-day horror: the “rout of the natives serves as the preface to the story of death.” The land itself, he reminds us, isn’t the threat, but the humans who inhabit it. Urrea writes, “Stories burn all along the borderlands of Border Patrol men taking prisoners out into the wasteland and having their way with them. Women handcuffed, then groped and molested. Coyotes shot in the head.”

Mining—what brought Pumpelly to Arizona—didn’t just draw scars into the land, it also (like all stages of conquest and occupation) wreaked havoc on the natives. According to archaeologist John Welch, the Pinal Apaches (a tribe Pumpelly describes as “hostile,” and whose “extermination” he considered to be “for the advantage of the world at large”) lived in some abundance near the areas where the Ray, Pinto Valley, Christmas and Carlota Mines were eventually dug. Welch traces the tight correlation between the rise of mining in Arizona and the decimation of the Apache and Yavapai. “They occupied the Superior-Globe-Miami mining districts up until the 1870s, and then they didn’t. They were extirpated,” Welch said.

The lopsided fight between miners and Apaches continues today, as executives from Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto plan to dig another massive mine on sacred Apache land. Mining magnates in the 19th century, Welch explained, “wanted clear and unencumbered access” to mineral rights—a desire that translated into the killing and relocation of Native people in order to entice essential capital investments from Europe.

Though the weapons may be different, the results today are much the same. Rio Tinto’s mining operation will likely completely drain the groundwater beneath Superior and Queen Creek—traditional Apache and Yavapai land—affecting another elimination—of the humans, plants, and animals who rely upon the Oak Flat region and have for countless generations. Karl Jacoby, author of Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History, quotes an 1864 article in the Arizona Miner: “Extermination [of the Apaches] is our only hope, and the sooner the better.”

Two of Klett’s eeriest photographs are of what look like vast, empty landscapes (Pumpelly described these mountains as “awful in their barrenness”), in which, after careful study, you may notice that there is a lone soul standing half behind a rock, or next to a bush, or that there are tire tracks on the desert floor: human presence made insignificant in the immensity of the land. Considering the history, however, you wonder who is the greater threat to whom—the landscape itself, or the solitary figure?

I found myself searching Klett’s other photos for human evidence; you can’t walk through the borderlands backcountry without doing the same. The remnants of struggle, of suffering—empty mine shafts, drained water bottles, broken soles, bullet casings, emptied bean tins—are common.

Klett captures the delicacy of the purple scorpionweed flower blossoming next to the rocket fragment. Or the seeming quiescence of unexploded ordnance, covered in rust, resting next to the sun-crippled thornbush. Karl Jacoby writes, “Unlike almost any other object of historical study, violence simultaneously destroys and creates history.” Klett’s photographs run along that knife edge.

In one photograph, under a startling starry sky, the headlights from a Border Patrol truck searching for migrants illuminate a stand of saguaro and ocotillo in a beautiful snatch of desert. We know what follows in this scene. The migrants drop their bags, they drop their water, and they run. They scatter. They sprint through the thorns, the cactus, the shindaggers, and the catclaws. They get lost. And they die. Or, perhaps, the armed agents hunt them down, tackle or subdue them, cuff them, confiscate their property, jail them, and deport them.

The scene is reminiscent, again, of Urrea’s Devil’s Highway: One of the surviving migrants he profiled, Mendez, claims that it was the headlights of the Border Patrol vehicle that first sent the group scattering into the desert. Confusedly, however, Urrea gives credence to the BP’s insistence that it wasn’t them who frightened the migrants to their death. Urrea writes, improbably, and without evidence: “There was no Border Patrol agent in the world who could make Mendez try to commit suicide—and running headlong into the desert was certainly a suicidal gesture.”

We know, however, that this is a common occurrence—agents frightening migrants (and then not pursuing them) into the remote desert. The humanitarian aid group No More Deaths (which I volunteer with) has termed this action “Chase and Scatter,” the results of which are suffering, death, and the ultimate disappearance of thousands of migrants.

El Camino del Diablo “has an occupied feel that registers a lengthy history of violence and surveillance along an increasingly militarized border,” Klett writes in the book’s afterword. “There’s a legacy of human presence, sometimes tragedy, left only in traces.… It is a place located at the compelling intersection of transience, potential danger, and constant beauty.”

The violent ecocide and genocide in this land—mining companies ravaging mountaintops, new developments draining watersheds, federal agents and armed militia harassing residents and hounding migrants, and the US military practicing dogfights in the skies—is nothing new. What is new is the degree: Though we have imprisoned ourselves and each other in this land for centuries—acts truly “bordering on insanity”—as we increasingly wall off and militarize the border, we are also imprisoning the land itself.

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