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Meet The Artist Making Crosses To Honor Dead Migrants

Every year, hundreds of migrant deaths go largely unnoticed and unreported. Alvaro Enciso, a Tucson-based artist and cultural anthropologist, wants to change that.

When Enciso began investigating border deaths, the first thing that caught his eye was the age of the deceased— mostly men and women in their 20s and 30s. “They are too young to be dying; there is something terribly wrong happening here,” Enciso shared with me. “I knew then that I needed to do something to bring attention to these secret casualties.”

The rise in “secret casualties” can be traced to 1994, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented. NAFTA displaced hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Mexico who could no longer make a living as they’d done before. Anticipating this would lead to a rise in migration, the U.S. government increased technology and surveillance along the border and pushed migrants to more dangerous areas such as deserts and mountains. By forcing migrants into these more dangerous – and hidden – routes, not only did the U.S. government directly cause more deaths, but those in power also relieved themselves of all blame. If these bodies are never seen or found, if they die and decay in the desert, who would be left to point fingers? Whose voices would call out those responsible?

Here’s where Enciso comes in. Through his art, Enciso points fingers. By making and planting crosses at the spots migrants have died, he not only calls out those responsible but also honors those who senselessly lost their lives. He and his team of volunteers use a GPS system to find the exact coordinates of where the migrant’s body was found, as well as the person’s name, age, and year and cause of death. They plant four crosses each week and are now close to reaching three hundred crosses placed in the Sonoran desert.

I spent last summer volunteering in the desert with Enciso’s team and had the opportunity to learn about his project hands-on. Digging holes and planting crosses for hours on end, we not only got to know one other but we also met and mingled with the ghosts haunting the borderlands – the migrants whose lives and deaths have, for the most part, been forgotten. We said their names. We imagined what their journeys to the United States may have been like. We stood in the spots where they drew their last breaths. We mourned their losses.

Because his crosses are for people his team never met, Enciso is asking volunteers “to mourn simply for lives lost, for deaths in our own backyard that should not have happened.” When Enciso speaks of these deaths as something that “should not have happened,” as tragic and avoidable, he challenges U.S. border policy. His project speaks directly to gender scholar Judith Butler’s questions when she asks: “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? … What makes for a grievable life?” Enciso argues that yes, migrant deaths count. Theirs are “grievable lives,” no matter how much the U.S. border regime tries to silence and erase their losses.

If you are touched by Enciso’s work, you contribute to this artwork’s purpose. Even though the artist believes most of his crosses will not be seen by anyone — apart from a rancher looking for a stray cow or a lost migrant wandering the desert — you bear witness to these migrant’s deaths. Enciso believes, “The people who know about my project, who help me plant them, who take pictures of the crosses, can perhaps be touched in some way by this project… and that takes it out of its anonymity.” You and I are a testament to this project’s potential.

When I travelled with Enciso and planted a cross for Maria del Carmen Perez who died of hypothermia in 2007, when I spoke her name, when I imagined this could have been my mother or my sister, since I am also a migrant and my family also came to this country sin papeles, I allowed myself to feel. I was connected to her; I embraced the haunting. This, in and of itself, has tremendous power.

As Enciso’s art gains visibility through the individuals who spread the story, we are drawn closer to something lost, something barely visible, something we were never meant to see. We are introduced to people who die and decompose secretly but whose stories challenge ideas of who belongs, who counts as human, and what it means to draw a line in the sand and condemn those on one side to death if they dare trespass. When we read and write about Alvaro’s project, when we tell others about these secret casualties, when we donate to organizations such as Humane Borders – which provides water stations for border crosses – when we volunteer with border organizations such as No More Deaths, we evoke the spirit of the borderland’s ghosts. We call them back into existence. That is an act of resistance.

You can read more about Enciso and his work here.

Header image credit: Barbara Sostaita

Durham, NC

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, transnational social movements, & intersectional feminism.

Barbara writes for Latinxs, immigrants, and brown girls. She is not here for white tears, white feminism, or white guilt.

Read more about Barbara

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