Nov 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Humanizing the thousands who died at the border

Toe tags represented each migrant who died at the U.S-Mexico border.
Toe tags representing people who died in the desert as part of the Hostile Terrain 94 installation, currently showing in a San Diego museum. Photo: Undocumented Migration Project

Art exhibits are looking to reframe the narrative on migration and the reasons people make the perilous trek to the southern U.S. border.

Why it matters: The interactive and itinerant exhibitions aim to humanize the hemisphere's migrants in a year that saw a record number of people die trying to cross the border.

  • During the 2021 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the U.S. Border Patrol tallied 557 deaths at the southern border, the highest number since records were started and 50% higher than in 2020.

Details: One exhibit, “Ruta norte” in the Ciudad Juárez Museum, uses virtual reality to immerse visitors in a border shelter as they listen to the recorded stories of people who have trekked across the Americas.

  • Another, the pop-up style Hostile Terrain 94, references a Border Patrol policy from 1994 enacted to deter people from illegally crossing near urban or formal points of entry.
  • The result: People attempt the journey through inhospitable desert, where temperatures are dangerously high, over mountainous areas or through the Rio Grande, where drownings are frequent (its Spanish name, Río Bravo, references the fierce currents).

How it works: Hostile Terrain 94 features more than 3,200 toe tags at each installation. Some who died have been identified, others are Jane and John Does. All died between 2001 and 2020.

  • After a short workshop, visitors are encouraged to fill out the tags with the available information about each person: their name, where they were from, their reasons for leaving their country, where they were found and in what condition.
  • “The information is the same as what one might find in official databases, but presented differently” so that visitors will engage and reflect on the similarities they might have with those who’ve died, said Jason de León, UCLA anthropologist and director of the Undocumented Migration Project, the non-profit arts and education collective behind the exhibit.

What they’re saying: “When writing out the tags it becomes so real. Every detail makes you understand why they left their countries and what led to them dying of hypothermia, sun exposure, tiredness, dehydration and so many horrible things,” says Luis Valdez, a visitor to the Hostile Terrain exhibit in San Diego’s Museum of Us.

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