The machine of death continues to roll on

Participatory art project Hostile Terrain 94 connects community with U.S. border policies and migrant fatalities


“The cold weather is terrible here,” Bertha Bermúdez Tapia says over Zoom from a refugee camp in Matamoros, a city in Mexico just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. “I was supposed to be at home today to have this interview, but I needed to come here because the temperatures are going down and down and we came here to bring some blankets, jackets, hand warmers, et cetera.”

During the bitter winter storm that brought below-freezing temperatures to the region and rendered most of Texas without power the week of Feb. 14, Bermúdez says the camp, where some 2,000 people have been living in tents close to two years, only has one gas heater in a common area. There are many elderly people living there, she adds, as well as six infants under 8 months old, at least one of whom was born in the makeshift conditions.

Bermúdez, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at CU Boulder, researches the violent effects of U.S. immigration policies, specifically deportations to violent areas and the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, often in dangerous conditions and camps, like the one described above, along the border. President Biden rescinded MPP in mid-February, promising to process 25,000 migrants with active claims in the coming weeks, but the future for many migrants remains unclear. 

This photo was taken as part of Bermúdez’ field work in the Matamoros migrant camp in Mexico just south of Brownsville, Texas.
Bertha Bermúdez Tapia

“It is good that these people are not going to be living here anymore, hopefully, but that’s not going to solve the problem,” Bermúdez says. “The problem goes way beyond that. … This is very intrinsic in the U.S government and goes beyond who is the president of the United States.” 

The tragic results of U.S. border policy can be traced back decades at least, she says, back to a Border Patrol strategy from the 1990s — known as “prevention through deterrence” — that has transcended Republican and Democratic administrations and coincided with thousands of migrant fatalities. It’s the deaths of some 3,200 people in the Sonoran Desert since 2000 in particular that are the subject of Hostile Terrain 94, an international participatory art project designed by anthropologist Jason De León and co-facilitated at CU Boulder by Bermúdez and Arielle Milkman, whose Ph.D. work in anthropology focuses on migration and labor. 

De León is an anthropologist by training, with his academic home at UCLA, but he’s also a filmmaker, photographer and exhibition artist whose work blurs the boundaries between art and data with the hope of making his social science research more comprehensible to the general public. Data, he says, often lives in spreadsheets hidden in some recess of the internet, without conveying the humanity of the people involved, or the gravity of each life lost.  

“For us, the exhibition work really is a way to take this kind of sterile database and have people help us breathe life into it,” he says.   

Prior to Hostile Terrain 94, De León created a large vinyl map of migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert, using an image from Google and red dots, each representing a recovered body since 2000. But it didn’t engage the audience with the reality of the situation or carry the same weight as he had hoped. So, he enlisted students at the University of Michigan to fill out toe tags representing each migrant and pinned them to a 20-by-16-foot map based on the geographic coordinates where they were found. 

Courtesy Undocumented Migration Project

He piloted the project in several locations in 2019, with plans for rolling exhibitions around the world into 2022, each installation created in local community workshops with partner organizations.

“I figured rather than us constructing a wall map that people can come and gawk at, what if we asked the audience to then commit themselves to making this thing and to being a part of it,” he says. “And that’s really the most crucial part of this whole experience.” 

It’s an expression of social practice, an art form where community participation is required, and the collaborative process is seen as equally — if not more —important than the finished work.  

With roots in the 1970s, social practice is used by artists to raise awareness and start conversations around certain political or societal issues, says Sandra Firmin, director of CU Art Museum, which will be exhibiting Hostile Terrain 94 in Spring 2022. 

“And it’s related to political activism, starting with artists that were looking at fair labor practices or artists that were engaged in a feminist-based practice,” she adds. “Often it really is trying to make visible or center people’s lives and experiences that are not part of or are often seen as invisible from the dominant perspective.” 

The art exists in each step of the process. With Hostile Terrain 94, it is in the workshop conversations, and the filling out of toe tags, and the discussions between museum staff and volunteers as the work is installed. It’s in the interaction between viewer and each handwritten tag, some with additional notes and personal thoughts on the back, connecting them not only to the migrant who passed, but also to the participant who filled it out. It brings together academics and artists, museum personnel with social justice and activist circles, while also engaging the community more broadly by inviting organizations, companies and other community groups to participate in the workshops with support from the Boulder Arts Commission.

“It decenters where the art is,” Firmin says. “With a painting, the art is the object on the wall, and it hopefully will illicit some sort of emotional or intellectual response. But here, the art not only exists in what we see, the object, the final product, but also in the conversations and the relationships that develop over time as the installation is made.”  

 As a partner, CU Boulder joins more than 150 museums and organizations creating similar installations this year across the U.S. and in countries around the world, many of which have their own controversial immigration policies. There will be Hostile Terrain 94 exhibits circling the Mediterranean Sea — Italy, Greece and Morocco — as well as in Australia, Germany, the U.K. and countries throughout Latin America — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil — all of whose governments have faced criticism over their handling of the migrant crisis. 

“This crisis that we’re living through right now, this migration crisis, is a global phenomenon and it’s not just the U.S.-Mexico border,” De León says. “And this project [is] a way to raise awareness about a particular geographic location, but then by installing it in these other places, it’s a way to connect with what’s happening in those locales to this larger conversation about migration.”

Overall, the partner exhibitions are self-sufficient, with support from De León’s Undocumented Migration Project, which ships a kit of toe tags and instructions to each location. It’s also developed an augmented reality experience through a phone-based app to accompany the final piece.  

But it’s up to each partner to decide how best to involve the community and install the exhibit. They also develop their own programming to figure out how to connect their own communities with the effects of national immigration policies.  

“Because the Undocumented Migration Project is doing this in this decentralized way,” Milkman says, “we have a chance to have conversations with our communities about what’s happening in migration in our state, in Colorado, for example.”

Milkman and Bermúdez have already held some virtual workshops with students and faculty at CU, with plans for several more around the community throughout the year. In each, they introduce the project, talk about their own research, and then give participants time to fill out assigned toe tags before coming back together for a closing conversation. Manila tags are used for identified bodies, and include the person’s name, sex, age, where the body was found, cause of death, the entity that found the body, condition of the body and the GPS coordinates, which determines where the tags are hung on the map. 

Courtesy Undocumented Migration Project

“Orange tags are devoted for people whose bodies were under certain conditions that nobody could identify the body. So we don’t have the name or the age mostly for these tags,” Bermúdez says.

Even virtually, the workshops are a collective space for people to process the data in personal ways, Milkman adds, as they help create an interactive memorial of migration. It can be emotionally taxing for participants, she says, but most say it’s worth it, asking afterwards how they can get more involved with immigration reform and migrant aid. 

“This formulation of memorializing these people really gives us a chance to think about the people beyond these large datasets or numbers that we might hear about in the news,” she says. Whereas Ellis Island commemorates European migration to North America, “We know that millions of people have actually crossed in this area of the desert borderlands. And we don’t have any sort of official reckoning with that.”

While many tags on the wall have very little information on them, some come with extensive backstories. Whenever De León participates in a workshop, he always chooses one name: Carmita Maricela Zhagui Pulla. 

De León described finding her body to Radiolab a few years ago; as he was hiking through the desert with a group of students in 2012, they came upon a woman lying face down, with long black hair, wearing running shoes and camouflage, a scrunchy on her wrist. They covered her with a blanket and waited five hours for authorities. De León traced her life from the desert to New York — where she was headed — and back to Ecuador where she’d left, chronicling his conversations with her family in his 2015 book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. She was a 31-year-old mother, in search of work to feed her children.  

“I think about her quite a bit when talking about these exhibitions, when I’m helping to install them, because I know that you can just multiply her story by thousands of times to get a better sense of what the human costs of these border policies actually are,” he says.

Hostile Terrain 94 centers around the lethal effects of Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” strategy, which increased enforcement and resources at urban points of entry, shifting the geographical flow of migrants into remote areas like the mountains east of San Diego, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and the South Texas backwoods, in the hopes of slowing migration across the border. It has been the driving force behind border policies since it was instituted in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, with the prediction that “with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain” — hence the name of the art project — where migrants can easily find themselves in “mortal danger.”  

If successful, the Border Patrol said at the time, the policy would “reshape migration to become more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught,” according to the Tucson-based NGO No More Deaths. By 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the policy had come at a great cost to migrants. “In particular, rather than being deterred from attempting illegal entry, many aliens have instead risked injury and death by trying to cross mountains, deserts and rivers,” the agency reported. Still, Border Patrol has historically refused to claim any responsibility or culpability, blaming the mortality rates on smugglers, and their unrealistic and exploitative promises of safe passage. 

“Migrant death at the border is something that has happened on both Democratic and Republican watches,” De León says.“This machine of death continues to roll on, and it’s up to all of us to be aware of this and find ways to push for change.” 

Courtesy Undocumented Migration Project Anthropologist Jason De León (right) designed Hostile Terrain 94 as a way of engaging the community with the tragic results of U.S. border policies.

Before prevention through deterrence, there were maybe a dozen recorded deaths a year across the border. Now there are hundreds. In 2020, there were 227 documented deaths in the Sonoran Desert alone, a record high since 2013 when the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, along with human rights group Humane Borders, first started publishing an online database mapping migrant deaths in Southern Arizona. Around the world, Hostile Terrain 94 partners use this public database — and the more than 3,200 names in it — to create the installation. In each location around the world, participants use the same list of names, rewriting the same information on toe tags again and again. 

“There’s power in repeating these names, in writing them out, even if it’s the same name over and over again; just to remember that one person who in many ways has been completely ignored and marginalized by federal governments, by America at large,” De León says. “And so this project is a way to kind of reclaim those names. And I hope, in some way, reclaim the lives of those that are still unidentified.”

It’s also a way of remembering those still alive, those still attempting to migrate, those still facing precarious and life-threatening circumstances, all along the U.S.-Mexican border and national boundaries across the world. 

“What’s happening in the Sonoran Desert is not exclusive,” Bermúdez says. “It’s not that prevention through deterrence is just focusing on one area on the border, but it’s something that has been built up over the years and it’s shifting to different policies that are damaging more and more and more people and putting a lot of people at risk.” 

At the camp in Matamoros, there is still a lot of uncertainty around the end of MPP, she says. People have already started packing, but they’ve been given no guidance as to what they can carry with them. Many are nervous they won’t be able to bring what they need and are asking volunteers to take some of their belongings and even medications across the border for them, she says. Still others don’t know if the end of MPP will help them at all, as half of the camp has already been denied asylum under stricter requirements instituted by the Trump administration, or they don’t yet have an open immigration case as a result of Border Patrol’s metering policies, which have created long waitlists to request asylum in the first place.

While many have applauded Biden’s immigration agenda, especially in comparison to the rhetoric and policy of the Trump administration, both Bermúdez and De León caution against too much optimism.  

“I worry that post-Trump, whatever Biden does will never come close to how terrible it was under the Trump administration. And I think in a lot of ways, people might just start to get kind of complacent about this whole thing again,” De León says. “And so [Hostile Terrain 94] is a way to remind folks that this is a very long-standing practice that has killed thousands of people, continues to do it, and we need to hold whoever is in the White House accountable.”  

ON THE BILL: If you are interested in having a Hostile Terrain 94 workshop at your class or community organization, please fill out a workshop request form here or email Hostile Terrain 94 will be display at the CU Art Museum in Spring 2022. 

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