Hostile Terrain 94 at Midd

    Reflections on the Installation


    By Emily Nagatomo

    Just outside Wilson Hall, little manilla and orange tags line the wall as the beginnings of the participatory art installation, Hostile Terrain 94 take place.  The project is part of the Undocumented Migration Project, an informative pop-up exhibition created by anthropologist Jason De León to humanize the data and statistics of migration across the US-Mexico border.1  The installation relies on participants and volunteers to handwrite over 3,200 toe tags, each representing a border crosser who has died crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into Arizona beginning in 1994.2  The toe tags are geolocated where the remains of the border crossers were found, and each tag contains the and have the biographical information, if available.3

    The installation aims to educate participants about the U.S. Border Patrol’s policy of Prevention Through Deterrence created in 1994 to restrict migration.4  Prevention Through Deterrence sealed off the accessible ports of entry to prevent the migration of undocumented border crossers because of the “hostile terrain” of the Sonoran Desert.5  The realization of the policy to disincentivize crossing failed.  More than six million people attempt the journey each year and continues to increase; however, the policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence” by the U.S. continues to be practiced because it effectively weaponizes the desert and allows the deaths of border crossers to be at the hands of the environment and not the U.S. government.6  The policy uses border crosser deaths as a measure of the efficacy of “Prevention Through Deterrence”.7   

    The exhibit calls attention to the systematic killing authorized by the U.S. as participants hand write the information of each border crosser.  The experience is simultaneously heart-breaking, daunting, and paralyzing.  I have participated in two writing events hosted by college faculty and students.  When I first participated, I was overwhelmed with grief and remorse.  I held my breath as I reckoned with the information about the lives of these people.  They had died in places I had visited for fun–for vacation.  They experienced the harshest elements, risking their lives in hopes of a better future while I had been sitting in a movie theatre, or at a restaurant, with no awareness of the devastation that was occurring around me.  New waves of grief came and went as I found similarities between those crossing and the people in my family and community.  My dad immigrated to the U.S. at 18, and I saw multiple tags of men of the same age who had the same goal of a better life for them and their families, but never had the chance because of Prevention Through Deterrence.  Growing up in the southwest, many family members of friends and community members had made the journey through the desert or knew of people who had.  I prayed when filling out the tags that I would not recognize any one with the same last name.  As I continued the writing, however, I found myself trying to mechanize the process and prevent myself from becoming too emotional as I filled in each blank field.  I was able to continue this way until I came across an orange unidentified toe tag.  I was forced to experience grief all over again.  It was shocking writing “unidentified” or “unknown” for the name, age, cause of death, and sex, as I realized the absolute brutality and power of “Prevention Through Deterrence” in completely erasing entire lives.  

    The powerful act of handwriting the information of the border crossers who died crossing the US-Mexico border is a harrowing experience that is an attempt to bring back the humanity that is erased via “Prevention Through Deterrence”.  If you would like to participate in a writing session, please visit go/ht94 for the installation schedule. 

    Footnotes

    1“Undocumented Migration Project,” Undocumented Migration Project, accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.undocumentedmigrationproject.org/.

    2León Jason De and Michael Wells, The Land of Open Graves Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

    3“Undocumented Migration Project,” Undocumented Migration Project, accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.undocumentedmigrationproject.org/.

    4 Ibid.

    5León Jason De and Michael Wells, The Land of Open Graves Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

    6 Ibid.

    7 Ibid.

    Just outside Wilson Hall, little manilla and orange tags line the wall as the beginnings of the participatory art installation, Hostile Terrain 94 take place.  The project is part of the Undocumented Migration Project, an informative pop-up exhibition created by anthropologist Jason De León to humanize the data and statistics of migration across the US-Mexico…

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