Immigrants’ tragic stories are told in new L.A. exhibition

Many immigrants traveling through the desert along the US-Mexico border know they must be prepared to survive and even die.

A water bottle wrapped in a scrap of old clothing to keep it as cold as possible is crucial. Tennis shoes are best for trudging endlessly down dirt roads if roads are present. A wide hat can ward off glaring sunlight and blinding wind.

The path is full of dangers: a scorpion’s sting, a snake’s bite, a smuggler’s betrayal.

And that is where the journey ends for many. A discarded pair of shoes or a discarded backpack stuffed with personal documents and photos of loved ones may be the only sign the trek ever happened.

A man looks at a collage of missing persons posters

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

(James Carbone / For 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 items they left behind can be shocking. But immigrant rights advocates and academic researchers say it’s essential knowledge for US citizens and the elected officials who make politics — and political opportunism — out of what’s happening at the border.

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

The multimedia exhibition, which opened September 17 and will run through July, chronicles the journeys and testimonies of immigrants attempting to traverse this perilous route through testimonies, film and photographs, abandoned objects and other materials.

Also on display is a 16-foot wall map of the Arizona-Mexico border, with hanging signs depicting people who died crossing the border between the mid-1990s and 2022. Signs are geolocated to indicate the exact locations where remains have been found.

Jason De León, a UCLA anthropologist and executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, said his ideal would have been never to have to plan such an exhibition. Its existence testifies to an ongoing catastrophe.

“We’re talking thousands of deaths,” said De León, who worked on the exhibition with Michael Wells, a co-curator and photographer; Austin Ella Shipman, assistant director and co-curator; and Perla Torres, Head of the Family Network at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. The exhibition is being hosted in collaboration with the LA Plaza curatorial team, led by Senior Curator Karen Crews Hendon.

“There’s a lot of talk about border security and the issue gets polarized, it gets political, and yet no one really understands what’s happening in those places,” De León said.

A crucial turning point in US immigration policy came in 1994 when the United States Border Patrol officially implemented the immigration enforcement strategy known as “prevention by deterrence”.

Policies designed to discourage migrants from crossing the border near urban ports of entry had the effect of channeling migrants through more remote and dangerous gateways like the Sonoran Desert, leading to a huge 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,” said De León. “They were undeterred and keep dying.”

De León began forays into the desert in 2009 to recover abandoned artifacts that shed light on the social and economic phenomena behind the migration. He collected everything, including clothing and tires from border guard vehicles. Some of these artifacts found their way into the exhibition.

Wells said one of the most impressive features of the exhibition is its diverse content. It includes not only photos, but also videos captured by drones of the various hazardous environments migrants must navigate to reach the United States.

The exhibition also allows visitors to hear the migrants’ stories in their own words.

“The goal is to show different angles and perspectives to keep the community fully immersed, as there are those who have only heard about the topic but don’t really realize how sad and surprising the images and stories are,” Wells said .

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

LA Plaza’s Crews Hendon said the project aims to raise awareness and provide an opportunity for healing for families who have suffered the painful loss of loved ones to an inhumane system.

“We are talking about a humanitarian crisis and a political issue that is affecting thousands of families. If we don’t see it and don’t talk about it, there can be no change,” Crews Hendon said.

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

Hostile Terrain ’94: The Undocumented Migration Project, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 North Main St., Los Angeles, 90012. The exhibit on the second floor of the museum runs through July 9, 2023. Immigrants’ tragic stories are told in new L.A. exhibition

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