A toe tag with a desert and cactus background reads "Hostile Terrain."
Illustration by Nicole Lewis

Art exhibit at Watzek bares border tragedies

In addition to providing this year’s keynote speech, anthropologist Jason de Leon’s participatory art project “Hostile Terrain 94” will be making an appearance at the 17th annual Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies. This exhibition is one of 94 installations around the globe, each composed of “3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent the migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert.” These tags are geolocated onto a map of the Arizona/Mexico border and show the specific locations where remains have been found over the past two decades. However, these numbers are only representative of those who have been reported and identified; there are likely  thousands of deaths that have not been recorded. 

In his novel “Land of Open Graves,” De Leon cites the 1994 U.S. immigration policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence” as being responsible for the current humanitarian crisis occurring throughout these borderlands. By closing off historically frequented crossing points located near urban points of entry, those attempting to cross the border illegally are funneled through the most remote and dangerous parts of the desert. This policy was created in an attempt to both absolve the U.S. government of responsibility for migrant deaths and deter crossing by increasing its difficulty. Since 2000, over six million people have tried to cross through the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. The timing of this installation was deliberately chosen to precede the 2020 U.S. presidential election, as a method of raising awareness for the mass injustices presently occurring and intentionally being exasperated through the militant presence at our country’s border. 

“The most powerful participatory element of this project involves the time and effort required of volunteers to meticulously fill out the ~3200 individual toe tag cards that include the name, age, sex, cause of death, condition of body, and location of recovery for each person,” De Leon said on his website. 

Those who are interested in filling out toe tags can contact the Aubrey R. Watzek Library circulation desk or email hostileterrain94lc@gmail.com. In addition to providing a biweekly virtual space for folks to share in the filling out of these tags, the Ray Warren Symposium will also be contributing to the “Hostile Terrain 94: A Moment of Global Remembrance.” For this project, volunteers are asked to record a video of them reading out loud their toe tag, with the end goal being a video of 3,200 individual voices speaking the names of each documented person who has lost their life. For more information, visit the Ray Warren Symposium website.

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