Trash Nationalism or How to Construct a Nation Out of Trash


The national imaginary of the United States is constituted and contested by trash. Each year, thousands of tons of objects—often dismissed as garbage—are left behind in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands as a result of migration. From water jugs to backpacks to toothbrushes to clothing to birth control packets, the panoply of things in the borderlands reflects a lived struggle for survival in both physically and symbolically harsh terrain. The material relations that arise because of this “trash” also evidence and reproduce the embodied dynamics of belonging and exclusion negotiated in the discursive production of the nation.

The so-called trash that gets discarded by the tons in the borderlands forms a critical node within the network of spatial and material relations that constitute understandings of citizenship, the border, and the nation in the U.S. Because trash is, as in anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous definition of the dirty, “matter out of place,”[1] the association of objects in the borderlands with garbage and the subsequent conflation of migrants with disposable trash plays a critical role in the rendering of migrant bodies as themselves “out of place” and therefore disposable. Thus, the constitution of national space through the exclusion of migrant bodies as “out of place”—a process that happens extensively (though not at all exclusively) in the borderlands—has intimate links to material garbage at the border.

More than being an identity, citizenship status is, as communication theorist Aimee Carrillo Rowe argues, “a function of space and power.”[2] In the borderlands, trash marks the (absent) migrant bodies it represents as fundamentally in the wrong space; because the objects left behind evidence an “inappropriate bodily comportment,”[3] the migrants who leave them behind are rendered excludable from formal acceptance into the U.S., a move that then justifies the immense violences migrants experience at the hands of the state. The objects left behind often represent those violences, as well. In the first half of the 1990s, increased militarization at traditional points of border crossing funneled migration into the most dangerous region of the border: the Sonoran Desert.[4] While these policies did little to achieve their stated aim of deterring migration they did succeed in raising the death toll of migration into the thousands by forcing migrants to contend with the deadly topography of the desert.[5] Evidence of the immense risks of migration in the borderlands can be read in the objects left behind, which often indicate material strategies to survive the desert.[6] Border “trash” thus serves to both render migrant lives disposable and evidence that disposability by representing migrant death. These deaths are always already justified by migrants’ out-of-placeness, which is reinforced by the disposability of the objects left behind.

Within this necropolitical web of material relations, however, ambiguity and excess play a critical role in rupturing the totalizing logics of exclusion and disposability enabled by the so-called garbage. In addition to representing the risk of death in the process of migration, the objects left behind also evidence tools of survival. Ambiguity, indeed, haunts the objects; not every person who traverses the borderlands dies, and the objects invite the viewer to imagine a variety of possible outcomes for the now-absented people that they represented. While death is one very real possibility in the borderlands, there are myriad others, all of which relate to migration as an embodied practice.

Found objects in the borderlands represent embodiment, even in the absence of bodies. Though the migrants they represent are not present, the objects invite their viewer to contemplate migration as embodied practice. Discarded black sweaters might suggest an attempt to remain unseen by the Border Patrol, as well as ill preparation for the deadly heat of the desert. A backpack left behind could signify the apprehension of a migrant, or their successful arranged pickup by a smuggler who will transport them elsewhere. The connections go on, but the premise remains the same; migrants, though absent, forever haunt the discarded objects, prompting their viewers to make connections between objects and migrants’ bodily practices, tools, and strategies of migration. These material strategies at once evidence the precarious interplay between potential death and continued survival. Another crucial way in which the objects left behind interrupt logics of migrant disposability is through excess.

In Arizona alone, migration results in an estimated 2,000 tons of “trash” per year.[7] While anti-immigration advocates use this statistic to suggest that migrants literally and symbolically trash the U.S., thus rendering them excludable from the nation (as described above), the sheer excess of the objects also ruptures the national imaginary of sovereign borders in the face of increasing neoliberal flows of both goods and people.

Excess is manifest throughout the Sonoran Desert. At various points along the paths of migration, objects strewn on top of one another fill arroyos in a seemingly endless stream of discarded things. The “trash” often extends as far as the eye can see, its continuous production showing no sign of ceasing. Its temporality stretches into the past, as well; while the generation of the objects represented extends into the foreseeable future, there also exists evidence of their previous creation, as the layering of the objects—new on top, old on the bottom—suggests that these spots have been used over time as places to discard things. The “trash” takes on a sort of permanence; its production has long occurred, and will continue to occur.

Border “garbage,” by inviting connections to the embodied, excessive dimensions of migration, thus commits a crucial rupture in U.S. state discourse about the border. As communication scholar Anne Demo argues through a reading of visual representations of the border in official government discourse, by directing militarized border enforcement resources like fencing and surveillance technology to certain areas of the border, the border militarization policies implemented in the early 1990s fashioned a “look of deterrence” that “symbolizes sovereignty by producing order out of chaos.”[8] Found migrant objects, in their representation of the embodied act of border crossing, interrupt the narrative of a secure border closed to those that the United States has a right, as sovereign nation-state, to exclude. Migration clearly still happens, and happens in chaotic, excessive fashion.

The moment of seeing that the “trash” creates thus ruptures state narratives of the U.S. as a contained sovereign nation that exercises its right to exclude through complete control of migration at the border. The excess represented by found migrant objects, an excess that signals its own occurrence in the past and extension into the future, pushes the literal and figurative boundaries of dominant imaginaries of the U.S. as complete in its sovereignty, and of migrants as inherently excludable. The very existence of found migrant objects also highlights fundamental contradictions within U.S. policy, which creates the conditions of migration through neoliberal trade policy and makes a spectacle of border enforcement at urban points of crossing, but leaves vast swathes of the border open to migration with the belief that the desert will do the work of deterrence, resulting in the very tools and strategies of migration that can be read through found migrant objects.

Found migrant objects’ representation of strategies of survival and excess ruptures dominant understandings of the border and migration. This interruption problematizes the use of “garbage” as evidence of migrants’ inherent disposability. The national imaginary of the United States is, therefore, both constituted and contested by trash. While the symbolic borders of the nation are constantly redrawn, through material relations, to exclude those who are considered as “out of place” as the objects they leave behind, those same same material relations highlight the inconsistencies, violences, and excesses that the U.S., as a nation-state, can never completely contain.



[*] La versión en español de este texto puede ser consultada en: / The Spanish version of this text can be found at

[1] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 2002): 50.

[2] Aimee Carrillo Rowe, “Whose ‘America’? The Politics of Rhetoric and Space in the Formation of U.S. Nationalism,” Radical History Review 89 (2004): 124.

[3] Juanita Sundberg, “‘Trash-talk’ and the Production of Quotidian Geopolitical Boundaries in the USA-Mexico Borderlands,” Social and Cultural Geography 9.8 (2008): 876.

[4] Amnesty International, “In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southeast,” Amnesty International (2012): 16-20.

[5] Amnesty International, “In Hostile Terrain,” 16.

[6] Jason De León, Cameron Gokee, and Ashley Schubert, “‘By the Time I Get to Arizona,’: Citizenship, Materiality, and Contested Identities Along the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Anthropological Quarterly 88.2 (2015): 456-457.

[7] Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), “Arizona Border Trash,” accessed March 23, 2016. <>

[8] Demo, Anne. “Sovereignty Discourse and Contemporary Immigration Politics.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91.3 (2005): 303.


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