HomeWorldPoignant stories of immigrants are told in a new LA exhibitSEDI...

Poignant stories of immigrants are told in a new LA exhibitSEDI News

Traveling across the desert along the US-Mexico border, many immigrants know they must be prepared to survive and even die.

- Advertisement -

A water bottle wrapped in an old scrap of clothing is crucial to keeping it as cool as possible. If roads exist, tennis shoes are best for uninterrupted walking on dirt roads. A wide-brimmed hat can block sunlight and blinding winds.

The path is paved with danger: scorpion sting, snake bite, smuggler’s treachery.

And there, for many, the journey ends. A pair of shoes or a discarded backpack filled with personal documents and photos of loved ones may be the only sign that the trek ever took place.

A man looking at a collage of missing person posters

Abelardo de la Peña Jr. looks at a collection of posters depicting missing people.

(For James Carbone/The Times)

Since the 1990s, nearly 4,000 migrants have died trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and the number is rising by the day. Knowing the names of some of the dead, and being able to see the things they left behind, can be shocking. But immigrant-rights advocates and academic researchers say it’s essential knowledge for U.S. citizens and elected officials who make policy — and political opportunism — out of what happens at the border.

At the LA Plaza de Cultura y Arts, next to Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles, a new exhibit gives voice to the many migrants trying to cross this hostile terrain. But the curators of “Hostile Terrain ’94: The Undocumented Migration Project” wish they didn’t have to keep revisiting such deadly terrain.

The multimedia exhibition, which opened on September 17 and will run until July, records the journeys of immigrants trying to cross this dangerous area through testimonies, films and photographs, abandoned objects and other materials.

Additionally, a 16-foot wall map of the Arizona-Mexico border is on display, with hang tags depicting people who died crossing the border between 1990 and 2022. Tags are geolocated to indicate the exact locations where the remains were found.

Jason de Leon, a UCLA anthropologist and executive director of the Undocumented Migrants Project and Colibri Center for Human Rights, said it would have been his ideal to never plan such a demonstration. Its existence testifies to an ongoing calamity.

“We’re talking about thousands of deaths,” said De Leon, who worked on the exhibition in concert with co-curator and photographer Michael Wells. Austin Ella Shipman, Assistant Director and Co-Curator; and Perla Torres, Family Network Director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights. The exhibition is organized in partnership with the LA Plaza curatorial team led by Senior Curator Karen Kruse Hendon.

“There’s a lot of talk about border security and the issue becomes polarized, it becomes political, and yet nobody really understands what happens in those places,” De Leon said.

The US A critical turning point in immigration policy came in 1994, when the United States Border Patrol formally implemented an immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention through Deterrence.”

Designed to discourage immigrants from attempting to cross the border near urban ports of entry, the policy had the effect of funneling migrants through more remote and dangerous gateways such as the Sonoran Desert, leading to a drastic increase in the annual death toll. Most of the victims died of dehydration and hypothermia.

“This policy was nothing more than a weapon against migrants,” de Leon said. “They were not deterred and continued to die.”

De Leon began venturing into the desert in 2009 to recover abandoned artifacts that highlighted the social and economic phenomena behind migration. He collected everything, including clothes and tires from Border Patrol vehicles. Some of those artworks made it into the exhibition.

Wells said one of the exhibit’s most impressive features is its diverse content. It includes not only photographs but also videos shot by drone of various dangerous environments that migrants must overcome to reach the United States.

The exhibit also allows visitors to hear the stories of migrants in their own words.

“The goal is to show different angles and perspectives so that the community can be fully immersed, because there are people who have only heard about the subject, but don’t really know how sad and surprising the scenes and stories are.” Wells said.

As part of the exhibit, visitors can make tags to pinpoint the location of bodies found this year.

Crew Hendon of LA Plaza said the project aims to raise awareness and give families who have suffered the painful loss of loved ones a chance to heal because of an inhumane system.

“We are talking about a humanitarian crisis and a political issue that has affected thousands of families. If we don’t see it and we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to change,” Crews told Hendon.

“Policies and laws can also cause a lot of pain, and as we see here, death,” she said. “These deaths could have been prevented.”

“Hostile Terrain ’94: The Undocumented Migrant Project” at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 North Main St., Los Angeles, 90012. The exhibition on the second floor of the museum will run till July 9, 2023.