FARMINGTON — During the fall semester, students at the University of Maine at Farmington participated in Hostile Terrain 94, a visual anthropology exhibit developed by the Undocumented Migration Project. The project maps out the location of 3,200 people who perished between the mid-1990s to 2019 in the Sonoran Desert while trying to cross the Arizona-Mexico border.

Hostile Terrain 94 is an international traveling exhibit based on anthropologist Jason De León’s ethnographical work of recovering the identities and stories of undocumented migrants. The exhibit is rebuilt at every new location by engaging local community members to fill out toe tags for the recovered bodies. The tags are then arranged on a wall by the longitude and latitude of where the correlated bodies were found.

“I knew immediately that I needed to incorporate his ethnography and get my students involved in this project,” UMF anthropology professor Gaelyn Aguilar said in a Zoom interview. 

Aguilar teaches a course on borderlands and Hostile Terrain 94 provided a collaboration opportunity outside of UMF and the potential for her students to develop an emotional connection to those experiencing a very different reality.

Hostile Terrain 94 is a visual anthropology project consisting of toe tags that outline where people have perished in the Sonoran Desert as they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The 3,200 mapped tags are on display at 150 Main St. in Waterville. Ciera Miller photo

“Here in Maine, we live very far away from this border; it’s a really critical border and it’s a border that can live in our imagination,” Aguilar said. “It lives in the sound bytes that we hear and we do hear in sound bytes, and we don’t often know what we’re biting. So being a part of this project was part of a larger strategy I had for opening up some gaps in our awareness and trying to foster some empathy in our students, and the only way to foster empathy is to create proximity.”

UMF International Global Studies student Ciera Miller filled out 20 orange and white toe tags with orange tags representing people whose identities were never retraced.

“I know that it’s happening, that deaths are happening, human rights violations, but I had never really thought about it because I am so far away from the issue, as a white person, as race is in America, as well as in Maine,” Miller said in a Zoom interview.

For Mariella Passarelli who teaches science at UMF and is from Guatemala, Hostile Terrain 94 was a project that hit close to home.

“For me it was personal — these are my people. I am too familiar with the motives that drive them away from home and what they go through during the journey,” she said, in an email.

Passarelli had her forensic science class filled out 170 toe tags to illustrate the process of documenting a body, which includes checking the location of where a body is found and the cause of death. She said her students worked professionally like forensic scientists.

“When you do work to help the cause, you have to focus on the work. In a sense, you build a protective wall so the emotional does not interfere with the work,” Passarelli said. “This is probably how my students reacted, they noticed, but they did the work.”

Out of the 170 tags that Passarelli’s class was responsible for, there were causes of death that ranged from gunshot wounds, trauma and hanging, with hyperthermia or exposure being the primary causes.

The name of the exhibit reflects the harsh realities of surviving the Sonoran Desert crossing, but the name is directly derived from the 1994 border patrol strategy Prevention Through Deterrence. This still-active policy funnels people to difficult terrains by closing down traditional ports of entry.

“It hasn’t been a deterrent,” Aguilar said. “But what it has been, it has contributed to the number of deaths crossing while at the same time, this idea of ‘prevention through deterrence’ sets the desert and the mountains, the hostile terrain, to become the victimizer so that the state can say, ‘well it’s not us, it’s the terrain.’” 

According to a 2010 report issued by Congress’ think tank, the Congressional Research Service, the success of the Prevention Through Deterrence policy has been difficult to determine with fluctuating increases of Southwest migrant crossings since the mid-1990s.

“The impact of the ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ strategy has been difficult to gauge,” the report states. “There is considerable evidence that it has made border crossing more challenging, expensive, and dangerous for illegal aliens. However, the total number of aliens apprehended increased steadily from 1994 to 2000, even as the number of personnel and resources deployed along the border more than doubled.”

For Cassie Donald who is an anthropology major at UMF, Hostile Terrain 94 added a more personal narrative about the people affected by this border patrol policy. Aguilar’s class read from De León’s ethnography “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” which includes firsthand accounts of those who survived crossing the Sonoran Desert. These accounts helped Donald imagine what people went through as she filled out the toe tags.

Hannah Binder stands in front of the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit at 150 Main St. in Waterville. University of Maine at Farmington students contributed to the visual anthropology project by filling out 1,370 of the 3,200 toe tags that are on display. Ciera Miller photo

“Sitting down and filling out the toe tags, writing the names and getting to know the exact details, it was very emotional and it allowed for that sense of connection and understanding that I didn’t get in reading articles,” Donald said. 

Both Donald and Miller expressed that Hostile Terrain 94 will have lasting impressions on them as they continue with their studies.

Donald wants to continue on to a graduate program that focuses on migrant health and the complexities and issues of border crossings.

Miller wants to incorporate her second major, creative writing with her interest in borders by working for organizations that tell the stories of migrant experiences.

Hostile Terrain 94 is hosted by the Oak Institute for Human Rights at Colby College and is exhibited at 150 Main St. in downtown Waterville. COVID-19 restrictions may prevent indoor viewing, but the exhibit is visible from outside.

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