LOS ANGELES — In the story of undocumented migration through the arid southern border of the United States, two objects I’d not thoroughly considered stand out. The first is the water bottle. Water is a necessary part of surviving the southern desert, and black water bottles are now manufactured in Northern Mexico to reduce reflectivity. The second is the tire. Dragged along the back of Border Patrol vehicles, they smooth out dirt and sand along the many roadways and paths that migrants might take. This makes it easier to spot fresh footprints along the surface.
Both the water bottle and the tires are among the items in Hostile Terrain ’94: The Undocumented Migrant Project, on view until July 9 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. The show takes its title from a 1994 US government policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” which discourages migration through urban ports of entry and into the hostile terrain of the desert.
The policy name comes from the first National Border Patrol Strategy document, which states:
The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.
Hostility comes across in various forms throughout the show. At the entrance are 3,816 toe tags, each one representing someone who’s died crossing the border between the mid-1990s and 2021. Constructed with the help of volunteers, the installation lays bare the scale of loss, effectively serving as a memorial for those who’ve passed.
Objects that were abandoned, discarded, or simply left behind form an additional hall of memory. Embroidered tortilla warmers, baseball caps, shoes, underwear, and toys are presented from the Undocumented Migration Project. While not technically a memorial — it’s unclear whether these objects belong to people still living or not — they function as a record of humanity.
Converse All Stars, a church t-shirt, candy wrappers, and a copy of the New Testament give a glimpse into the lives of the people who might have owned them. “These artifacts,” the exhibition notes, “are both the material representation of the experiences of millions of border crossers, as well as a crucial archaeological record of the often violent social process of undocumented migration.”
Uncertainty is one of the most painful aspects of the undocumented migration experience. Sometimes, as in the case of a disappearance, families are not even afforded the certainty of death. The Undocumented Migration Project, with the support of the Colibri Center for Human Rights (Colibrí means “hummingbird” in Spanish) also collects missing persons reports and DNA samples from family members. A look at these reports reveals the names, faces, and nationalities of the missing persons, alongside the date and location they were last seen.
The toe tags return toward the end of the exhibition, where visitors are invited to write about what objects they would take with them on the long journey. One writes that they’d take a picture of their family, “because I want to feel like they are there with me in my journey.” Another says they’d bring their hopes, dreams, faith, and will.
One visitor who appeared to have taken the journey was more philosophical, writing in Spanish that they would take all the feelings, not just the positive but also the negative ones: “No hay en realidad nada muy especial porque cuando yo vine aqui no traje nada. Pero las memorias y el camino siempre se quedan.”
(“In reality, there’s nothing very special because when I came, I brought nothing. But the memories and the path always remain.”)
Hostile Terrain ’94: The Undocumented Migrant Project continues at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (501 North Main Street, Los Angeles) through July 9. The exhibition was organized by Jason De León, executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project, Inc. (UMP), Michael Wells, UMP co-curator and photographer, and Austin Ella Shipman, UMP assistant director and co-curator, with LA Plaza’s curatorial team led by Karen Crews Hendon.