Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition comes to Lafayette, highlighting the plight of migrants

A+group+of+9+students+fill+out+tags+as+a+part+of+the+Hostile+Terrain+94+project.

Students gathered as a part of the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition to create tags that memorialize the lives of migrants in Arizona. (Photo by Shirley Liu ’23)

Tanushree Sow Mondal

A single tag can tell a migrant’s story.

Hostile Terrain 94 is a nationwide exhibition project composed of 3,400 handwritten toe tags. Each tag includes the name (if known), sex, age, cause of death, condition of body and location of a migrant who lost their life trying to cross the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. At the college, the tags are being placed on a wall map of the desert in Skillman Library, in the location where the migrant’s remains were found.

The exhibit is a part of the Undocumented Migration Project, which is directed by anthropologist Jason de León. His book “The Land of Open Graves” highlights the migrant experience and explores the consequences of border patrol and migrant policies.

The project was first introduced to Lafayette by Anthropology professor Monica Salas Landa. Initiated on Sept. 6, Landa and her team of students led toe tag sessions every Monday through Friday in Skillman Library’s Simon Room. 

In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol passed the Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) policy that fortified and militarized borders through which migrants would pass in an attempt to deter them from crossing the border.

“[de León] really emphasizes on how this policy is really just another method of extending surveillance, especially after what happened after 9/11 when we saw an immediate rise in surveillance, allowing for better facial recognition technology, more military equipment. We all know what the consequences of that are in practice, especially with people of color,” Alex Ruiz ’22, one of the students spearheading the project at Lafayette, said.

According to Ruiz, the installation in Skillman and the process of handwriting the toe tags forces people to be confronted with the reality of the migration process.

If a mistake is made when writing a tag, it has to be thrown away and restarted. “As I’m writing these toe tags, it’s hard for me to throw them away…their death is already left with so many more questions than answers,” Ruiz said.

Saide Singh ’23, an organizer of the McKelvy House toe tag session, highlighted how the Lafayette community is coming together to bring attention to the issue of migrant mortality.

“When you’re writing the toe tags, you’re really forced to see and think about the crisis and look at an individual standpoint. You’re writing the names and ages…how these people passed away. It’s really hard to look away and say, ‘it’s so far removed from me,’” Singh said.

According to Ruiz, there is little awareness regarding PTD and the migrant experience among students on campus, which makes the exhibition a crucial step towards spreading awareness. Ruiz believes the exhibit plays a pivotal role in fueling conversations around the deeper causes and implications of individual cases of migration.

“I feel like anybody who hasn’t taken [Salas Landa’s] cultural anthropology class and hasn’t read ‘The Land of Open Graves’ doesn’t really know what it is. You would think that a Hispanic would be in touch with this, but before I took that class…I had no idea about what was going on,” Ruiz said. “I always had questions regarding why we have to do all these extra things to come to the US, but [the exhibit] made these issues more concrete.”

Having filled more toe tags than expected and already being ahead in their schedule, the team will not be hosting any more tag-filling workshops. Instead, they will host sessions to map the completed tags.

More information about the Skillman exhibit and sessions can be found on the Instagram page @ht94lafayette, and the main page for the nationwide exhibit can be found on the account @hostileterrain94.