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Hostile Terrain 94 raises awareness of migrant deaths and U.S. immigration policy

On Sept. 21, Hostile Terrain 94 at St. Olaf held a toe tagging event in the Lion’s Pause from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. in remembrance of migrants who have died as a result of the U.S. government’s migration policies at the southern border.

Hostile Terrain 94 is

a national and global project sponsored by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a non-profit-research-art-eduction-media collective and led by anthropologist and author Jason De León. The installation combines art and activism into a map composed of  3,200 toe tags of migrants who died crossing the Sonoran Desert in Arizona from the 1990s to 2019. 

It is a participatory art project because it requires community involvement in filling out the toe tags. Each one includes information about the age, sex, reporting date, and cause of death of the migrants. Once all of the toe tags are completed they will be organized onto a map of the desert, with each tag placed at the site where the body was discovered.

The name of the project comes from the 1994 “Prevention through Deterrence” strategy enforced by the U.S. Border Patrol in an effort to stop undocumented migrants from crossing the U.S. and Mexico border. By closing off common points of entrance to the United States, border enforcement channels migrants through what they consider “hostile terrain,” the most dangerous section of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, due to the intensity of the natural environment. 

At St. Olaf, the project was started by former religion professor Kelly Figueroa-Ray and two of her students, Bronwyn Woodsworth ’21 and Maeve Atkinson ’20. Current Chair of Student Organizations and Support Jimena Maida Colindres ’23 first got involved when she was a first year. As an international student from El Salvador, she expressed why the project is important and meaningful to her.

“I cannot vote, I have basically no power in migration policy, I have basically no voice here, like in terms of politics, but I know I’m appealing to a lot of people who do have it. I think my goal is to have at least one person who thinks about these people whenever they can use that power for something whether that is voting, that is activism, however you can use your power,” Maida Colindres  ’23 said. “Go and use your power in a way that you’re not forgetting about the people that are on that wall unfortunately and the people that have not been found who are still being added to those numbers people that are leaving their countries today. Just to keep them in their mind.”

Alongside Maida Colindres, three other students including Chair of Marketing and Communications Marco Bibriezca ’23, Chair of Exhibition Installation Tyreis Hunte ’23, and Chair of Administrative Logistics Atong Mawien ’24, and their faculty advisor Spanish professor Gwendolyn Barnes-Karol run the project.

Since the start of the project in 2019, about 500 people have filled out toe tags. Some virtual, some in person. After a year of holding online events, Bibriezca spoke to the emotional impact of the project and what it is like to see people coming to in-person events.

“It is always touching and it always amazes me when people can fill out more than five tags in one sitting because for me, at least, I have such a personal connection with immigration, just being a son of immigrants. I am unable to fill out more than two because I start thinking about the causes of death,” Bibriezca said. “So for me, it is always touching when people can come in and help us do those because if we relied on just our team, I know we would not be able to do it because we are so attached to the project it would just be too much of an emotional toll.”

Chloe Pak ’23 attended one of the online sessions last year and came back for the in-person event. She expressed why she continues to come.

“We wouldn’t have been there for them when they passed away, but we can support migrants who are coming in now so it’s easier to understand if you participate in the toe tag events just to show your support,” Pak said.

Once the installation is complete, it will first be presented in Groot Gallery in the Center for Art and Dance. Since that map will be organized on a movable wall, it will be displayed in other spaces around campus as well.


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