California News

The tragic stories of immigrants are told in a new exhibition in Los Angeles


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

A water bottle wrapped in a piece of old clothing to keep it as cold as possible is crucial. Tennis shoes are ideal for trudging along dirt roads, if there are roads. A wide hat can repel the sun’s rays and the blinding wind.

The path is mined with dangers: scorpion sting, snake bite, betrayal by a smuggler.

And there, for many, the journey ends. A wrecked pair of shoes or a discarded backpack full of personal documents and photos of loved ones may be the only sign the trek ever happened.

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

(James Carbone / For the Time)

Since the 1990s, nearly 4,000 migrants have died trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and the number is growing daily. Knowing the names of some of the dead and being able to see the items they left behind can be shocking. But immigrant rights advocates and academic researchers say it’s essential knowledge for American citizens and elected officials who make politics — and political expediency — about what’s happening at the border.

At LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, next to Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles, a new exhibition gives voice to many migrants trying to cross this adverse 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 its doors on September 17 and will continue until July, records the journeys and testimonies of immigrants trying to cross this dangerous stretch, 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 hanging tags representing people who died crossing the border between the mid-1990s and 2022. The tags are geotagged to indicate the exact locations where the remains were 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 to never have to plan such an exhibit. Its existence testifies to an ongoing calamity.

“We’re talking about thousands of deaths that have happened,” said De León, who worked on the exhibit alongside co-curator and photographer Michael Wells; Austin Ella Shipman, associate director and co-curator; and Perla Torres, Director of the Family Network of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. The exhibition is curated in partnership 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 becomes polarized, it becomes political, and yet no one really understands what’s going on in these places,” De León said.

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

Designed to discourage immigrants from attempting to cross the border near urban entry points, the policy has had the effect of funneling migrants to more remote and dangerous gateways such as the Sonoran Desert, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number annual deaths. Most of the victims died of dehydration and hypothermia.

“This policy was nothing more than a weapon against migrants,” De León said. “They weren’t deterred and continue to die.”

De León began in 2009 making forays into the desert to recover abandoned artifacts that shed light on the social and economic phenomena driving migration. He recovered everything, including clothes and tires from Border Patrol vehicles. Some of these artifacts ended up in the exhibit.

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

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

“The goal is to show different angles and perspectives so that there is a complete immersion of the community, because there are those who have only heard of the subject, but do not really know how visuals and stories are sad and surprising,” says Wells.

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

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

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

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

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


California Daily Newspapers

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button