Hostile terrian 94 toe tagging events continue virtually

Hostile Terrain 94 is a national and global project directed by anthropologist Jason De León, who focuses on the material effects of humans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Undocumented Migration Project, an organization that uses art to educate people about the deaths of migrants trying to cross the Arizon’s Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019, sponsors toe tagging events across the U.S. and the world.

St. Olaf’s Hostile Terrain 94 team currently consists of Kgomotso Magagula ’21, Jimena Maida Colindres ’23, Emma Milinovich ’21 and Kelly Figueroa-Ray, visiting assistant professor of religion.

The idea of starting the conversation surrounding immigration at the border through Hostile Terrain 94 began in 2018 in Figueroa-Ray’s “Religion at the U.S. Mexico Border” course. During Interim of 2020, Hostile Terrain 94 became a “student-faculty-staff project where we all organized together,” Figueroa-Ray said.

The original plan to open the project on campus in the fall of 2020 was postponed by the College’s COVID-19 restrictions. Other international and domestic exhibitions are also waiting to open in 2021 and 2022 as the situation regarding the coronavirus continues to change.

Now, St. Olaf is holding toe tagging events virtually. The events consist of writing handwritten toe tags identifying migrants who have lost their lives crossing the border. The toe tags will then be compiled and placed on a map displaying the locations where remains were found.

The team plans to install the project in person next fall. Through this project, community members have filled out a total of 3200 tags, 800 of which have been filled out digitally.

“The results are beyond what we expected and we have worked a lot, but every part of that was well worth it, and we have each other,” Jimena Maida Colindres ’23 said.

The most recent virtual toe tagging event took place on March 2. Participants learned about “Prevention Through Deterrence” and other policies as they filled out toe tags for deceased migrants. “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a policy enforced and instituted by the U.S. Border Patrol in 1994, funnels migrants through treacherous land when crossing the border. The policy is designed to discourage undocumented migrants from crossing the border near urban ports of entry. According to De León policies such as “Prevention Through Deterrence” lead to the deaths of migrants because of a lack of provisions and safety in the land they cross, causing many deaths from dehydration and hypothermia.

After participants learned this information about migration, filling out toe tags for migrants who had died became more personal. While some migrants were identified by the Undocumented Migration Project, others were listed as unnamed, and the information about these people was reduced to their cause of death.

The participants within the project “help to rename and give humanity back to those who have died and it awakens a need to do more,” Figueroa-Ray said.

After completing the tags, students gathered to process and discuss the personal impact of the activity. Common words used by attendees to describe the experience of learning about the border corssing violence were “jarring,” “upsetting” and “saddening,” and many students expressed feelings of anger.

Student participants also noted that the events happening at the border affect the Northfield community.

“The border is not separate from what we experience as international students, and it impacts everyday existence at St. Olaf,” Magagula said.

Maida Colindres, a student from El Salvador, said that she feels a “responsibility to raise awareness because immigration is something we had talked about as a kid but didn’t know how violent it was.”

“The project embodies borders that exist right here and how we choose to cross those every single day,” Figueroa-Ray said.

Hostile Terrain 94 considers how to foster connection during a time when people are feeling so disconnected from each other and how to get others to care about events and experiences outside of their own community. 

“Raising awareness is crucial to stopping the silence and starting conversation because whole populations are disappearing. It is not a partisan issue, and we need to do something about it,” Figueroa-Ray said.

Two more toe tagging events will occur on April 3 at 12 p.m. and April 14 at 6:30 p.m. To get involved in the project and learn more about Hostile Terrain 94, follow their instagram @hostileterrain94stolaf


esterl1@stolaf.edu