LBCC Seeks to Honor Lost Immigrants With New Art Exhibit “Hostile Terrain 94”

Hostile Terrain 94: A prototype of the Toe Tag Wall exhibit designed by Jason De León on display at the Phillips Museum of Art in Lancaster PA. (Photo Courtesy of

In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol implemented a new immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” The design of the policy aimed to discourage undocumented migrants from making the journey across the U.S./Mexico border. Several entry points were closed off, specifically those with historically high travel rates, so migrants would have to travel through what the Border Patrol called “hostile terrain.” The Sonoran Desert of Arizona was deemed “hostile terrain” and the Border Patrol predicted that the difficulties of the journey would deter immigrants from traversing the border in the first place. Unfortunately, their predictions were wrong.

Since 2000, it’s estimated that more than six million people have attempted to traverse the Sonoran Desert, causing 3,200 deaths among the migrants that we know of so far. Many of these migrants died of hypothermia and dehydration, while many others were never located. Of the adults and children who were never located, the only evidence found of them were their possessions, which consisted primarily of blankets and backpacks. These findings are recorded and discussed in a book titled The Land of Open Graves by anthropologist Jason De León. The book details the lives of several individuals who perished while traversing the Sonoran Desert.

Social Science Instructor Lauren Visconti teaches an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class at LBCC where she utilizes The Land of Open Graves as an educational resource. It is also available in the LBCC library for anyone in the community to read.

Yulissa Gonzalez, president of Estudiantes Del Sol, learned about De León’s work through reading his book in one of Visconti’s Anthropology 110 classes. One day in class, Visconti mentioned De León’s latest work, The Undocumented Migration Project, to Gonzalez. As a fan of the book and interested in taking an active role in the project, Gonzalez reached out to De León to see how she could help. De León pitched the idea of a “Hostile Terrain 94” exhibition. With the combined efforts of Estudiantes Del Sol, the Anthropology Club, the Institutional Equity Diversity and Inclusion (IEDI) Center, and the Art Gallery staff, LBCC will be one of the three colleges in the state of Oregon to be displaying Hostile Terrain 94. Although the date and plans of the project are still being discussed, the construction of Hostile Terrain 94 is estimated to begin during the second week of Spring Term.

Hostile Terrain 94 is an exhibit consisting of approximately 3,200 handwritten toe tags describing the information of each person who perished attempting to traverse the Sonoran Desert. It is constructed by the purchaser with the materials sent to them. LBCC students, faculty, and volunteers will be writing on these toe tags and arranging them to create the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit. Each toe tag is handwritten and placed in the exact location where the person perished in relation to the U.S/Mexico border, which is represented by a large black line. There are also two major cities represented by dots on the exhibit, Phoenix and Tucson, to show the distance of the journey and how far each individual made it. The exhibit is intended to educate people about the events leading up to the 3,200 deaths that occurred in the Sonoran Desert and represent the magnitude of this loss of life.

The Anthropology Club is reaching out to similar clubs from other colleges to assist with constructing Hostile Terrain 94. Estudiantes Del Sol is spreading awareness about the events that took place and coordinating the materials necessary for the project. The IEDI is advertising the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition and developing events associated with the The Undocumented Migration Project. The Art Gallery is providing the space necessary for the exhibition as well as providing several volunteers for the construction of the exhibit. Although constructing and displaying Hostile Terrain 94 is the primary goal of this project, it is only the first step of what these four departments have planned.

There are plans being developed by the students and staff members involved with the project to hold events tied to the exhibit and the Undocumented Migration Project. Ideas such as live viewings of a documentary on De León’s research, holding a vigil for those who lost their lives, discussions or forums about the events and practices represented by Hostile Terrain 94, and more. Several events and ideas are being discussed in weekly meetings held by the Anthropology Club and Estudiantes Del Sol, and the IEDI staff are also available and more than happy to provide more details about the project.

Story by Logan Helm-Williams

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