Red Bra, Anti-Archive; Object No. 8, Brownsville, Texas, Found 2008

These objects put a face on the migration crisis

I recently attended an exhibition featuring the work of University of North Carolina professor and visual artist Susan Harbage Page. Since 2007, Page has made yearly pilgrimages to the Texas – Mexico border to collect objects left behind by migrants, which she has now compiled into her exhibit, Objects from the Borderlands: The U.S.-Mexico Anti-Archive. The collection is made up of 867 objects including toothbrushes, shoes, backpacks, ID cards, and small Bibles, all meant to remind the viewer of the human face behind the politics of the U.S. immigration debate. 

Most striking to me were the objects that evoked the experiences of female border-crossers. Items on display included toiletries such as hair spray, a hairbrush, lipstick, and eyeshadow, painting a picture of women determined to maintain a semblance of the ordinary in the face of extreme insecurity and danger. By evoking the daily routines and pleasures of so many women, these objects remind us that while we hear about the Mexico – U.S. border as a place imbued with the power to give and take away a person’s humanity, crossing it feels as natural and simple as combing your hair in the middle of the desert. Humans have migrated as long as they’ve been able to walk – and no white guy yelling in a suit can change that fact.

But unfortunately, geopolitics can make that most natural border crossing extremely dangerous, particularly for women. A bra can remind us how treacherous the crossing can be. Bras found hanging from trees, the artist notes, are supposedly left by coyotes to mark that a woman had been raped there, sadly a very common occurrence. According to a 2014 Fusion Investigation, 80% of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped. In fact, the threat of rape is so prevalent that many women migrants receive preventative contraceptive injections before embarking on their journey.

Women are not only extremely likely to experience sexual assault, they are also more likely than men to die during their migratory journeys, due in part to sexism on the part of coyotes, who are quick to abandon women and children when they can’t keep up. Pregnant women are even more at risk.

The rise in the number of female migrants is what Carlota Ramírez, Mar García Domínguez, and Julia Míguez Morais refer to as “the feminization of international migration.”  Today, Latinas are increasingly leaving their families behind in Latin America to care for others as domestic laborers in the United States. Neoliberal structural adjustment policies introduced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – which I have written about previously – are also pushing women to migrate at higher rates than ever. O’Leary argues these policies have contributed to the feminization of poverty, where women represent a disproportionate percentage of the developing world’s poor, another push factor for female migrants. Both the rise in female migrants who travel alone and the cyclical nature of migration increase the chances that women will experience multiple apprehensions by Border Patrol and be victims of multiple incidents of violence.

The Anti-Archive, while speaking to the violent and traumatic nature of the border-crossing, also crafts an alternative narrative. While Page has come across border-crossers during her pilgrimages, and has seen many people chained and detained by border patrol, she does not take photos or document these people. Instead, she collects and photographs objects. Muddied, dirty, and rancid, these are often the only remaining physical traces of a person’s presence in the borderlands. They reveal much about the individual’s identity: who they are, what matters to them, what they chose to bring along with them, and what they were forced to give up before crossing over into “the land of opportunity.” Not simply a story about victimization and dehumanization; this is a story about survival and creativity.

Header image credit: Susan Harbage Page

Durham, NC

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

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

Read more about Barbara

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