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Shocking reality of border deaths on display in new art project

University of Michigan exhibit to travel globe, bring awareness to immigration

Contributed photo/Lucy Cahill

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As a way to highlight the number of immigrant deaths at the border between the United States and Mexico, Jason De Leon and his students have created an exhibit featuring 3,034 toe-tags.

De Leon, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Michigan, actually has two exhibits that highlight the plight of immigrants who try to cross into the U.S. from Mexico in a desert near Tucson, Arizona. One of these is on display for the public, and another is in the more private setting of his office.

For 10 years, De Leon has studied immigration and the experiences of those who try to cross the border.

University of Michigan students fill out toe tags as part of an immigration exhibit that was on display at the school last week. The exhibit is scheduled to go on a worldwide tour in 2020. Keith Dunlap/GMG

For three days last week, the toe-tags were displayed on a wall of the second floor of Mason Hall on the University of Michigan's campus.

The display resembles the U.S.-Mexico border.

On each toe tag is the name of an immigrant who has died in the desert near Tucson.

De Leon said the names come from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, with roughly 500 students contributing to the project by writing down the names and helping to build the exhibit.

“The filling out of the toe-tags is an act of witnessing -- it’s an act of solidarity, even if it's only for a half-hour,” De Leon said.

The exhibit, called Hostile Terrain 94, is scheduled to be taken to nearly 100 cities around the world in 2020, including Detroit, Seattle, New York and Mexico City. 

The tour is being timed with the 2020 presidential election to bring awareness to immigration without specific political lines or affiliation.

Each year, De Leon sees firsthand the scene in the desert at the border where immigrants try to cross, as he takes a group of students there for a multiple-day excursion.

The trips have mostly happened in the summer when it’s the hottest, primarily because that is when the students are out of school.

“I had been working on this project for more than a year before going out there,” U-M senior Nicole Smith said. “I feel like you can’t really understand the depth of it until you are out there and see how people are risking their lives. I don’t know (how) these migrants have crossed through those entire desert. I was out there for three hours and it’s so hot. You are so dehydrated and the terrain is so hostile out there.”

Those trips have led to the second and more private display, showcasing the challenges immigrants face when crossing the border in that area.

In his office, De Leon has boxes stacked from the floor to the ceiling filled with artifacts left behind by those migrating through the desert.

Boxes of artifacts left behind by migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have been collected by University of Michigan assistant professor Jason De Leon, who stores them in his office. Keith Dunlap/GMG

Whether it's water bottles, bandages, food wrappers, Bibles, dresses or hair curlers, there is much left behind for De Leon and his students to analyze.

“I’ve been collecting (things) and trying to analyze them and understand what these materials tell us about the history of this process,” De Leon said. “This process, despite the fact that people may or may not like it, is highly polarizing, politically. It’s an important part of American immigration history. We can make an argument that these artifacts that come from the desert are as important as the things recovered in places such as Ellis Island. For the longest time, we’ve been pushing to get people to think of this stuff not as trash or as unimportant objects, but things that represent this difficult and troubling social process.”

The most painful finding came in 2012, when De Leon and his team found the body of a 31-year-old woman from Ecuador, Carmita Maricela Zhagui Pulla, who left her family to try and find work and a better life in the United States.

But she died while hiking and De Leon said the body was fully fleshed.

After that, De Leon said he reached out to her family, got to know them and wrote about Zhagui Pulla in his book, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.”

When the exhibits are produced, the only name De Leon writes himself on a tag is the name of Zhagui Pulla. 

He hopes the exhibit will have the same impact on people as finding Zhagui Pulla’s remains and the other objects have had on him.

“We figured this is a test run to see if (we) can do this around the globe -- to get people to connect with this issue in a physical way, instead of going to an exhibition and seeing this map of the dead,” De Leon said.