UM exhibit to showcase human toll of U.S.-Mexico border crossings

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León stands in his office with boxes of artifacts of things migrants left behind after crossing the Sonoran Desert.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León and a few students were doing field work in Arizona's Sonoran Desert seven years ago when the group stumbled upon the corpse of a woman.

For years, De León had been studying undocumented migrants crossing the Mexico border into the U.S. through the desert, so he was aware of the thousands of people who died in the desert because of the perilous terrain.

A map made of toe tags representing undocumented migrants who died in the Sonoran Desert is part of the museum exhibit  Hostile Terrian 94, created by University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León.

But this was the first time he saw the fatal journey firsthand through the death of Carmita Maricela Zhagui Pulla, who was 31 when she died, after leaving her husband, three children and a one-room shack in Ecuador. 

"She migrated because she couldn’t put food on the table, her kids were starving to death and they were living in dire circumstances," De León said. "Like most parents, she was making the ultimate sacrifice to save her family. Its not an immigration story. It’s a human story that most people could recognize if they were in a similar situation."

Next week, De León will take a toe tag with Zhagui Pulla's name and pin it on a 25-foot long map, resembling the U.S.-Mexico border, for a pop-up exhibition in the middle of UM's campus. Five hundred students will join De León in assembling the exhibit by writing on toe tags the names of 3,034 undocumented migrants who have died in the desert, and putting the tags on the map.

The exhibit will be put up in a hallway of UM's Mason Hall on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, so that thousands of students and others will walk by it.

The hope is those who see it will consider the human toll of the border debate.

"When we talk about the U.S. Mexico border, and we talk about this supposed (security) crisis ... our real crisis is a humanitarian one, and nobody seems to want to talk about it," said De León, who in 2017 was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant." 

"This is a problem that has been going on a long time and this is a way to put it our there," he said. "We need to get people to think about these things more."

The exhibition, Hostile Terrain 94, is also coming next year to Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, and 94 other cities around the world including Seattle, New York and Mexico City. All will be erected mostly in public spaces in September 2020, weeks before the next presidential election, "to remind people of the depths of this horrible immigration crisis," De León said.

A map made of toe tags is part of the museum exhibit  'Hostile Terrian 94' University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León

"Filling out the toe tags by hand is a very troubling experience," he said. "What will happen if we get people to build an art installation that they're emotionally and physically invested in making as a way to connect with different audiences and communities around the globe? It's different than writing a book, or making a movie. What will happen if we ask people to commit to this and bear witness and be in solidarity with these 3,034 people?"

The exhibition, which will include about 1,000 people who were never identified, comes as President Donald Trump shut down the government earlier this year and declared a national emergency for funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"This exhibition is really important, especially in today’s climate,” said Nicole Smith, a UM anthropology major who is working with De León on the exhibition. “We hear all the time on the news about immigration and building a wall and child separation. While those things are very important, there are thousands of people dying due to our border policy, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”

A boy rides his bike along a razor-wire-covered border wall that separates Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Mexico on the other side Saturday, March 2, 2019.

De León said the humanitarian crisis at the border has been going on since the years of former President Bill Clinton, and neither political party is discussing it.

That's why he wants to raise awareness of a 1994 immigration enforcement policy, known as Prevention through Deterrence, which he believes has contributed to the deaths of migrants by forcing them to enter the U.S. through more remote, dangerous locations.

Entering the U.S. into Arizona through the Sonoran Desert presents migrants with some of the most inhospitable landscapes in the western hemisphere: a 50-mile hike with extreme heat, rattlesnakes and other hazards, De León said.  

"The federal government constructed this policy knowing full well that if we funnel people away from urban ports of entry, people will be forced out into the wilderness," De León said. "The idea is if they chose the path of least resistance, it's a very difficult one, and it's one that can kill them. The idea was at the beginning that if enough people die early on, people will stop coming because they know it's too dangerous."

But they haven't stopped coming, or dying.

"There is a reason that people still cross even though they understand it’s incredibly dangerous and there is a great risk of death, violence and injury,"  said Lucy Cahill, a resident of southwest Detroit who co-curated the exhibit. 

She said she hopes the exhibit will help viewers have a better understanding of the desperation of those who cross the border, and foster empathy and connection.

“We’d like it to be a call to action,” said Cahill said. “We hope it gets people a little more active in thinking about these policies that have been going on long before Donald Trump was voted into office and get people a little more informed about the history involved about the clandestine migration process.”

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De Leon stands next to a map of Mexico in his office.

For De León, the project is personal, and political.

A traditional anthropologist who studied ancient stone tools in Mexico for nearly a decade, De León shifted his career after he met people in Central America who were planning to make the trek into the U.S., or knew someone who had.

The stories he heard, some of them harrowing, prompted him to refocus his life's work in 2009 so he could better understand undocumented migration between Mexico and the U.S.

He centered it on the Sonoran Desert after a dinner party conversation with a fellow archaeologist who had done field work there and talked about the things she saw that undocumented migrants had left behind.

"These materials would really build up," he said. "In some cases, they were the size of a soccer field of backpacks and water bottles and ripped clothes and empty food containers."

His work, known as the Undocumented Migration Project, started with De León mapping, photographing and drawing the archaeological site of the desert, and collected thousand of objects from it. 

He currently has 6,500 objects in archival boxes at UM. Some are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He also uses forensics and ethnography, so he spends a lot of time talking with migrants, smugglers and border patrol agents.

His research led to a book, The Land of Open Graves. He was in the midst of writing another book about smugglers when he decided to put his focus on the global art installations.

It's De León's last project before he departs UM for his next post, starting in July, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Gabe Canter, a UM student anthropologist who is working with De León, said he lived in Italy for a year and saw that the Mediterranean Sea acted as a similar border for those who were trying to come to Europe from Africa.

"This is a issue everywhere," said Canter. "People should understand there already is a wall, along the U.S. Mexico border. But it’s not stopping anyone."

FILE - In this March 2, 2019 file photo, a razor-wire-covered border wall separates Nogalas, Mexico, at left, and Nogales, Ariz. President Donald TrumpÕs re-election campaign is urging supporters to contribute to a ÒWall Defense FundÓ as it seeks to cash in on opposition to the presidentÕs signature campaign promise.  But there is no separate fund or account to advocate for wall construction. Instead, the money goes right into the campaignÕs general coffers.

As part of the pop-up installation, a test screening of a documentary about the Undocumented Migration Project will be shown at 4 p.m. on Thursday in Auditorium A of Angell Hall, followed by a discussion. A round-table discussion about border security and migration will also be held from 12-2 p.m. on Friday in Auditorium B of Angell Hall.