Outside Room 2436 in Mason Hall, thousands of orange and beige tags consume the wall in an exhibition titled “Hostile Terrain: Exploring Border Security and Migration in 2019.”

The exhibit is a prototype of a project by Jason De León, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies of anthropology at the University of Michigan; Los Angeles-based photographer Michael Wells; artist Lucy Cahill, a U-M alum and a team of six University of Michigan students.

“I would say that this project is just one of many translations of the anthropological work that we do,” De León said. “We’ve taken the data on migrant deaths and we’ve just translated it for a public audience.”

“Hostile Terrain” is composed of over 3,000 toe tags, which are tags morgues use for the identification of deceased bodies. The toe tags sit atop a map of the Arizona-Mexico border, in the exact location where the remains of the individual they represent were recovered.

The current exhibition in Mason Hall is a prototype of the pop-up installations that 94 communities will host for one week in late September 2020. The number of toe tags featured in these installations will reflect the projected number of deaths in the Sonoran Desert in 2020.

The tags in the exhibit reflect the names, locations and conditions of the people who died in the border crossing — beige tags denote identified remains and orange tags denote unidentified remains. They represent the bodies of migrants who will have died between 2000 and 2020 in the process of crossing the border between Mexico and Arizona. Their bodies are sometimes found only after bodily decomposition has made them too difficult to identify.

“I would hope that for those folks (who have a direct connection to this issue) that we’re doing this (exhibition) respectfully, that we’re raising awareness, and that with what we’re doing, for those folks we can memorialize those who have been lost,” De León said. “But we’re also doing this for the people who have never even thought about this issue, so we can emotionally connect with an audience, also, that has never thought about this issue previously.”

Though the first iterations of the exhibit featured tags filled out by the project’s team members, hundreds of University students were involved in filling out each tag’s information by hand in the days preceding the exhibit’s opening.

LSA senior Daniel López is one of the project’s team members and has worked as an undergraduate research assistant with De León for two years. Some of López’s responsibilities include photographing and videoing the installation of the exhibit, documenting its process and publicizing the project online and through social media.

He said De León’s approach to communicating the stories of undocumented immigrants through photography and multimedia distinguishes the project from written research.

“I think I have a personal connection to the project, just because I am undocumented myself,” López said. “He (De Léon) humanizes immigrants in a way that other researchers don’t — he talks about them, he provides a platform for them to have a voice, and I think that that’s what, like, drew me to work with him.”

One of the intentions of the exhibit is to raise awareness of the deaths and suffering that have been occurring along the Mexico and United States border for more than 20 years.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol enacted a policy that redirected paths of migration between Mexico and the United States toward extremely dangerous terrains. The policy, titled “Prevention Through Deterrence,” entailed militarizing the traditional points of entry along the border. With these points of entry cut off, migrants had to to seek out paths in more remote areas, where it was hoped the dangers of the natural environment would discourage migrants from undertaking the journey.

“One of the understandings was early on was that if enough people died from this policy, that they would stop coming,” De León said. “But what has happened is that a lot of people have died, but they still have not stopped coming.”

This policy was put into place in 1994, which is the reason 94 communities will host the exhibit in the future.

The Sonoran Desert, which blankets the area where Arizona, California and Mexico intersect, contains one of the hostile paths that migrants travel along when crossing the border. Thousands of people have died on this journey since 2000 due to dehydration, hyperthermia and other consequences of the natural environment.

“The implication of the full policy is knowingly putting people in harm’s way, (and) it knowingly leads to the death of a lot of people,” De León said. “And yet it’s still in place, and no one seems to want to keep talking about it.”

De León is the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, based at the University of Michigan, a “long-term anthropological analysis of clandestine border crossings” between Mexico and the United States. “Hostile Terrain” is a smaller project within the UMP.

The UMP uses “a combination of ethnographic and archaeological approaches” to study the process and experience of these border crossings. De León’s research focuses on the material culture of border crossings, which refers to the material items such as clothing and water bottles that migrants leave behind on their journeys.

López said he thinks the exhibit will encourage viewers at the University to think about the realities of undocumented migration outside of popular contexts.

“I feel like we don’t humanize people, you know,” López said. “We just talk, like, about policy and stuff like that, but what about the people who are suffering, what about the people who are dying, for example?”

LSA senior Moncerrat Llamas first heard about the exhibit through friends on social media who are involved with the project. She said that in her experience, discussion about undocumented migration has been mostly concentrated within the Latinx community.

“I feel uncomfortable talking about it with someone that, like, I don’t think would understand,” Llamas said. “I’m assuming they wouldn’t understand cause it’s, like, a very sensitive topic and subject, so I don’t really like talking about it outside the Latinx community as much.”

Llamas said she is excited that the exhibit is in a public space, where it will hopefully bring awareness to the students who pass by it.

“Hopefully it creates empathy, (for) people that maybe have different political opinions about immigrants,” Llamas said.

López said he thinks the exhibit provides an opportunity for University viewers to think more extensively about conversations related to migration policy.

“We’re literally building a wall of tags, if you think about it, you know,” López said. “You get people talking about it, you get people thinking about it in a different way than they’ve thought about immigration before.”


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