City of Dreams

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

You smell the Linda Vista dump before you see it. To get there you leave the small city of Tapachula — near the Guatemalan border, it is one of Mexico’s southernmost — and take an unassuming right off the highway. From there you drive several miles up a dirt road mired with potholes, the car lurching and knocking as the smell, rotten and sharp, begins to filter through the air vents. Linda Vista (Spanish for pretty view) opens up at the top of a hill like the split ribs of a carcass.

The dump is a massive pit about one football field in diameter where trucks of private and municipal origin come to jettison the detritus of human existence. Dozens of workers — so-called “illegal migrants” from Guatemala — rifle through the castaways in hopes of finding something to salvage and sell. The workers dip into the crater of garbage using ladders made of found wood lashed with rope, then plunge their boots and gloved hands deep into the mess in search of valuables like tin cans, glass bottles, electronics. Each day they hew away at the crater, cramming anything of value into tall burlap bags, and every so often trucks come to tip more garbage in. Linda Vista is a never-ending churn.

The migrants work among the buzzards, which sit like lazy spectators pecking now and again at the refuse and, at the smallest fright, rise all together in a walloping flap. There are dozens and dozens of dogs, too, mangy and languid, that steal into the workers’ shady spots and pick around for something to eat. In Spanish the word for a dump is also the word for a garbage man: the basurero is this city of waste, and also the men and women who rifle through it for their livelihood.

Nearly all of the workers come from the Guatemalan highlands, about three hours away if you drive by car. Though the workers are considered migrants, many have lived here for years (and each month more arrive), occupying makeshift villages on the perimeter of the basurero. The colony was uno;cially founded about twenty years ago by indigenous Guatemalans escaping persecution, deep poverty, and an increasing inability to make a living selling corn due to international trade policies.

There is work at Linda Vista, but the prices are fixed. The local government controls the dump and gives the management responsibilities to several family operations, private companies that have the say-so on what comes in, what goes out, and at what cost. Purchasers set pittance prices for the salvage, and workers are prohibited from shouldering their haul to the nearby town and selling it in an open market. With no competition, prices stay low. Sometimes, scavenging among the wreckage for several days beneath the sun and near the thick burn of a trash fire, a migrant might make only forty pesos in a haul — about two dollars.

“There’s a lot of illegal dumping here,” says Ramón Verdugo, a human rights advocate who operates a migrant shelter in Tapachula. When bribed, the management companies turn a blind eye to trucks dumping oil and illegal chemicals. Ramon knows where several older oil slicks have thickened like batter in an oven, bubbling and gleaming in the beating sun. These chemicals filter into the water table from which the migrants pump water to make their tea and coffee, to bathe and wash their trash-coated clothes.

Because they are paperless, however, because they speak indigenous Mam and not much Spanish, the migrants don’t complain. There’s the implicit fear — leveraged whenever needed by the powers that be — that they could all be deported in an instant. And so they quietly sift away at the ground amid the buzzards and dogs. The situation is not unlike that of the migrant workers in California, who pick pesticide-laden strawberries, say, or lettuce, hunched over in the sun and often underpaid and under-protected by labor laws. Around the world, being paperless on foreign soil often carries this sentence of exploitation
and silence.

A fish skeleton, an egg carton, the innards of a circuit board spangling in the sun: It’s one thing to see the dump as a singular entity, one big pile of trash. But it’s another to try to see it as the workers do, examining the refuse to identify singular items and, if they’re lucky, their value. A bra, a child’s shoe, a chewed up straw, a crushed Coke can — all were once worth something, but the job is to find the worth in what remains.

There’s a value to some of the things that can’t be sold, too, as the entire community around the dump is a spectacular architecture of repurposed trash. The migrants need shade, so they’ve fashioned small shelters out of found tarpaulins, seats from overturned leaky buckets. Houses are built of materials carted away from the dump, and, down the road, a community of parents recently built a school for their children: stained cardboard serves as a carpet over dirt floors, walls made of twined-together branches are rimmed with castaway billboards, and a door was once a street sign. A long piece of soft white plastic is stretched tightly across the wall with nails: an improvised whiteboard, where the day’s lessons are marked and children can practice their writing again and again.

The Linda Vista community is starting to organize to defend its basic human rights and to form a collective bargaining unit that, they hope, will give them fair prices for their recycling. They use their hand-built school to host community meetings, planning councils, and sessions on workers’ rights offered by lawyers from the city.

What clearer symbol of determination than a school and community center built from repurposed trash? There’s the hard work of work itself, and then the hard work of imagining what’s possible, incarnating some approximation out of whatever stuff you’ve got on hand.

Lauren Markham  is a fiction writer, essayist and journalist. Her work most often concerns issues related to youth, migration, the environment and her home state of California. Markham is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life (Crown, September 2017). The Far Away Brothers was the winner of the 2018 Ridenhour Book Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and a California Book Award Silver Prize. It was named a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection, a New York Times Book Critics’ Top Book of 2017, and was shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the L.A. Times Book Award and longlisted for a Pen America Literary Award in Biography.


  1. Great article. But I would like to know from where all of this trash comes from? How much of it is imported from the US? There are any data of how much is metals, plastic, recyclable stuff? Some pictures would have been great. Has there been any work done to make the trash disposal more managable?

    Thanks a lot.

  2. “all were once worth something, but the job is to find the worth in what remains” This line sent a dagger through my heart… It definitely has me raising more questions… Peace

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