The Sonoran Desert is 100,000 square miles of punishing terrain stretching from Northwestern Mexico into Arizona and California. Since 1994, it has been the graveyard of thousands of migrants making their way to the United States. The exact number of casualties may never be known.
A 16-by-9-foot quilted map of the desert hangs in the Amplify Arts Generator Space to commemorate some of the deaths. On display through Nov. 28, the quilt is part of Hostile Terrain 94, a global and participatory art project documenting the human cost of immigration policy. HT94 Nebraska is one of 130 installation partners across 16 countries.
Thirty-two-hundred handwritten toe tags — the kind used in morgues — are pinned to the quilt’s surface, each in the spot where a migrant’s remains were found. Most are clustered underneath Phoenix and Tucson. The layers of hundreds of tags give the map a three-dimensional quality. Some tags list the victim’s name and age and cause of death. More than 1000 represent someone whose remains couldn’t be identified.
Cristián Doña-Reveco is a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He spoke at a virtual panel on Nov. 5 over migration and borders. Doña-Reveco is also the director of the UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies, also known as OLLAS, which partnered with Amplify Arts to bring HT94 to Omaha.
“In the last six years, more than 3600 people have died crossing the borders in the Americas. That is a minimum. We don't know the exact, complete account," Doña-Reveco said at the panel.
Hostile Terrain 94 is a product of the Undocumented Migration Project, an anthropological research project directed by UCLA professor Jason De León. HT94’s name refers to a series of policies enacted under the Clinton Administration in 1994 known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” These policies involved making it more difficult for migrants to cross into the United States through more forgiving regions like urban areas. Instead, they’re funneled through treacherous areas including the Sonoran Desert. The idea being that if the journey is difficult enough, potential crossers won’t attempt it.
Thomas Sanchez is a professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at UNO and an OLLAS faculty member. He spoke on the panel with Doña-Reveco.
“The whole purpose of this exhibit, that these are scare tactics to try to get people to not come, right?" Sanchez said. "And they said, 'Well, you know what, some people would die, and then it'll get back to their sending communities and they'll stop coming.' And that didn't happen. They kept coming.”
The Nebraska iteration of HT94 started in September at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where it was displayed at four locations on the UNL campus before coming to Omaha. An organizing committee of three faculty decided that, unlike other HT94 partners, they wanted their installation to be mobile, to not just be seen in one town or one location on campus. A quilt seemed like the perfect solution. Not only would it be relatively easy to transport; the immigrant story could be represented in the fabric.
Jonathan Gregory is assistant curator of exhibitions at the International Quilt Museum at UNL. He constructed the quilt for HT94 Nebraska. He, along with anthropology professors Claire Nicholas and Effie Athanassopoulos, headed the HT94 organizing committee in Lincoln.
“The lines of gold stitching, they're the quilting stitches, meaning that they hold all the layers together. Those are long parallel lines, and they're done with gold thread. And the gold is a reference to corn, which, we're the Cornhusker State here in Nebraska, but also, corn, or maize, is a staple of the diet of many peoples in Latin American regions for centuries," Gregory says. “There's also just the lines, long parallel lines, is reminiscent of the rows of crops in Nebraska fields, and alludes to the fact that immigrant labor has been essential for Nebraska agriculture.”
Each HT94 hosting partner receives a kit containing information about each victim, blank toe tags and instructions to involve as many people as possible in preparing them for display — that’s where the participatory nature of HT94 comes in.
HT94 Nebraska enlisted 300 volunteers — many of whom were students, faculty or members of the local faith community — to participate in a series of “Witnessing & Remembrance Workshops” in which the volunteers gathered to inscribe tags in small groups and reflect on the humanity of those who had lost their lives.
“This whole project was like really close to home in a lot of ways," says UNL graduate student Adria Sanchez-Chaidez, managed HT94 Nebraska’s social media accounts and helped develop the project’s design concept. She also assisted organizer Claire Nicholas with one of the workshops. "But participating in those workshops I feel like really forces you to take pause and, like, think about each individual person.”
It’s no coincidence that HT94 kicked off during election season. The Trump Administration has been heavily criticized for its immigration and border protection policies, especially for the “zero tolerance” policy that led to immigrant parents being separated from their children. The parents of 545 children still haven’t been located.
Organizer Effie Athanassopoulos says HT94 Nebraska reminds people that immigration-related human rights crises existed long before Trump was in office.
"The policies that we have experienced in the past four years, especially, have been very harsh. They have really criminalized immigration, they have militarize the border, much more than in the past," Athanassopoulos says. "And I think what we realized, especially with our Witnessing and Remembrance sessions, is that very few people know about all these deaths that are happening in the Sonora desert... They hear about the separation of families — which is a first and it's really disturbing — but nevertheless, very few people know that thousands of people have died crossing the Sonoran Desert. And when they come to realize it, they are numb."
Project director Jason De León says that even though a new president will be in the White House come January, it won’t be a panacea.
"Everybody's hands are dirty," De León says. "Parts of the system cannot, as far as I'm concerned, cannot be reformed, they're so broken, and so they have to be completely demolished and rebuilt. So I think there's a lot of work to be done."
"Hostile Terrain 94 Nebraska" is on display at the Generator Space by Amplify Arts at 1804 Vinton St. Reservations to see the installation must be made in advance online. Visit amplifyarts.org for more information.
The Undocumented Migration Project is also seeking volunteers for its "Moment of Gloab Rememberance," in which organizers compile video footage of indivuals reading the names of the dead. Visit undocumentedmigrationproject.org for more information and to get involved.