A back-strap loom helps one artist bring visibility to migrants who’ve lost lives in the Sonoran Desert.
by Maxie Adler
I am sitting in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, legs crossed, butt in the dirt, attached at the waist to a towering wall of steel bollards. Next to me is a cardboard box filled with tattered fabric, dusted in sand and spines.
I wind dozens of cotton strands, each the length of the 30-foot wall above me, to a wooden dowel tied to the steel and loop the other ends of the threads around my waist. Leaning back, my body creates tension against the wall. I am using a traditional portable technique known as back-strap weaving. I take a strip of fabric from the box and delicately move it over, under, over the yarn. I reach for another piece and do the same: over, under the yarn. The rows accumulate into a single, woven structure.
Sometimes to the clamor of construction workers but more often in complete silence, I weave a sleeve of fabric up one of the bollards—a tribute to those who have moved across this place, long before the border wall was here.
Through dozens of visits over many months, this becomes a ritual. A way to spend time on the land as witness, a way to engage with this metal divide, as it cuts across hundreds of miles of pristine desert.
As a fiber artist and weaver, I incorporate found objects and recycled fabric into my work as an exploration of material culture, archiving, and storytelling. I’ve long been perceptive to, and perhaps obsessed with, the porousness of fabric and the secrets held in the fiber of everyday objects.
Objects are the medium of our exchange. They bear witness and hold us through all we do. They help tell the story of who we were when we are gone.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “The story of our relationship to the earth is written more truthfully on the land than on the page. It lasts there. The land remembers what we said and what we did.”
In the Sonoran Desert, the land tells the story more truthfully than any headline could. The land holds remnants of the thousands of lives lost on migrations north, disappeared by U.S. border policy. The land remembers the stories of dreams and hope, of violence and trauma, of resilience and courage in the face of militarization and destruction. The land holds the physical and energetic remnants of these stories, decomposing, disintegrating, and re-forming them in a patient, unending process.
I grew up playing in this desert, as my family home is nestled up against the Santa Catalina Mountains on the north side of Tucson. I spent days and nights exploring the washes that crisscrossed my neighborhood, finding secret routes and hideouts that only us kids knew. My siblings and I built tree houses in the giant mesquite trees and came screaming home when we got too close to a jumping cholla cactus. Each season a new story. Summer meant monsoons and warm puddles of water to jump in. Fall meant daily shortcuts through the desert to my elementary school.
In recent years, I’ve become more perceptive to the crisis of death and disappearance unfolding across the land. I can no longer move through the desert without a constant awareness of the lives stolen here. The beauty is shadowed by inescapable loss, reminders of which strewn across the ecosystem. Between the human loss and the environmental devastation, it’s been hard to see the story of the borderlands as anything but in tatters.
In 2018, I began volunteering with the Tucson Samaritans, a humanitarian aid organization that leaves food and jugs of water along migrant trails in Arizona in hopes of saving even a single life. Every day of the week for the last two decades, a small group of volunteers has hiked into the desert to leave water and small bags of nonperishable food in areas where there have been signs of human migration.
These hikes feel heavier than just the weight of the hot air. I know that at any moment we may encounter someone in distress. I’m used to looking out for red-tailed hawks atop the saguaros and desert critters running past my feet, but when I’m out with the Samaritans, I keep my eyes peeled for signs of other people, my ears tuned to the wind that may carry a voice.
On some of these trips, I’ve helped Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso place crosses at the coordinates where human remains have been found. “Making the invisible visible,” as Alvaro puts it. It’s painfully inadequate, but doing something, anything, to honor these lives lost feels necessary. There are far more coordinates than there are crosses, and far more undiscovered deaths and unrecovered remains than there are coordinates.
It is on these trips to drop water and place crosses that we’ve found objects—thousands of objects—left behind by migrants, sometimes as far as 100-miles north of the physical border.
A torn sleeping bag under a mesquite tree, miles from the nearest road. A shredded plaid blanket draped over thorny branches. A pair of children’s shoes buried in a sandy wash deep in the wilderness.
Each object tells a story of immense loss.
On my first trip out with Alvaro and a small group of Samaritans, we navigated mostly in silence through agave and cacti, following GPS coordinates to the place where we’d plant a wooden cross. Towards the top of a hill, we came to a thorny tangle of desert plants, to find a blanket draped over the skeleton of a teddy-bear cholla, a sleeping bag tucked under a mesquite tree, and a small box of medicine in the dirt. I felt like I was encroaching on someone’s home.
I didn’t want to touch anything, and I surely didn’t want to take anything, as these belongings were not mine to take. But Alvaro reminded me that if we don’t show the items to the world, the stories they hold remain invisible.
So, I checked for scorpions, put the blanket and shreds of sleeping bag in my backpack, and we continued on to plant the cross.
On each trip, I gathered more fabric.
I returned to the desert on my own time, carrying boxes of jeans, shirts, jackets, blankets, and my back-strap loom to the places where new the border wall was rapidly being built. I wove together these discarded fabrics at different construction zones along the border while attached to the steel wall.
I wove in the company of border wall builders as they bulldozed the earth. I wove in the company of jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and hacked-apart saguaros. I wove as quickly as I could until some Border Patrol agent would order me to leave. I did this in dozens of construction areas along the border in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico.
Weaving connects a single strand or scrap to a communal structure. Each thread is reliant upon the other, like an ecosystem. Woven together, these threads become strong and resilient. Weaving the wall is my way of piecing back together what has been frayed and forgotten. Every piece of fabric I find is a tactile reminder of someone’s sorrow, someone’s joy, someone’s suffering, and someone’s courage.
I continued this practice for over two years, until the woven piece stretched as tall as the wall itself. My way of making the invisible visible.
Weaving the wall, I’m reminded that even amidst the loss and tatters, beauty and resilience are alive here.
Maxie Adler was born and raised in Tucson and received her Honors BFA in Fibers in May 2015 from Arizona State University. Her work incorporates weaving, dying, screen printing, and painting. Her project, “Weaving the Wall,” is on display at Tubac Center for the Arts in Tubac, Arizona, February 25-April 3, 2022.