In academic and art institutions across the world, exhibitions are popping up to acknowledge the plight of migrants who have died crossing the southern border of the United States. These exhibitions — assisted and advised by the global organization Hostile Terrain 94 — are diverse, spanning countries, cultures, and mediums. St. Olaf College’s chapter of this effort has been laser-focused on creating an exhibit that re-humanizes the narratives around migration and migrants. The group of students, faculty, and staff organizing the project has spent the last many months working on a mobile art exhibition featuring toe tags that represent migrant deaths, which will be available for viewing across campus in Spring 2021. The team has also spent time in classes, engaging students through filling out toe tags for the exhibition to raise awareness about the plight of migrants coming to the United States.
Two members of the Hostile Terrain 94 at St. Olaf Executive Team, Kgomotso Magagula ’21 and Tyreis Hunte ’23, spoke about the heartbreaking realities of immigration to the United States and how their organization is working to change the way we talk and think about privilege, suffering, and the brutal realities of the search for a better life.
What can you tell me about Hostile Terrain 94 and the work you do?
Kgomotso: Hostile Terrain 94 is a participatory art project that is sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project, a nonprofit media collective devoted to research, art, and education and directed by anthropologist Jason De León. The exhibition is composed of approximately 3,200 toe tags that represent migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2019. The name itself represents the United States Border Patrol’s term for the treacherous land that migration funnels through because of policies such as prevention as deterrence.
We are one of over 100 hosts for this project. A variety of institutions have requested to be a part of the team to create their own version of the exhibition, and we use the resources and information provided by the national network to build our version of the installation. Although Hostile Terrain 94 reflects migrant experiences in the U.S., there are hosts globally, with each exhibition promoting larger, broader conversations about migration politics and experiences through the construction and viewing.
How have you included students in this effort, and what have been the reactions?
Tyreis: Students have been quite engaged when they attend our virtual programming events, such as when they work to help us create toe tags. There’s generally a huge emotional takeaway from the activity, and students often request to join our team or support our efforts afterwards. We’re always growing as a result. For students at St. Olaf, it creates a sense of global engagement because these installations advocate for immigration laws internationally as well as domestically.
Kgomotso: I also think that we’re interested in making sure that people recognize they are not separated from these issues; we’re all complicit, in some capacity, in the structural and physical violence experienced by migrants. Our agenda is to raise awareness, but people can interpret that in any way they see fit. Our goal is to make sure that they know this is happening, and this is a reality for many of the migrants, so we’re committed to making sure we’re recognizing the systems in place that are particularly harmful to immigrants and can lead to death. The hope is that students, and all participants of our events, take the information we provide and use it as a jumping-off point to get involved in advocacy for migrants.
Tyreis: This is a process of re-humanization of the individuals who have died. We have students on campus with varying relationships to immigration, and this brings everyone together to commemorate the lives that have been lost.
What makes Hostile Terrain 94’s upcoming exhibit here at St. Olaf unique?
Kgomotso: Because art is such a powerful way of communicating the issues that are present in society, the exhibition is an opportunity for people to engage with migrant death in a tangible way. We chose to put our exhibition on wheels so that it can move around campus and outside, and so that the natural elements and human interactions with it can reflect how the campus community is engaging with the work.
Tyreis: Every host has a different way of creating their exhibition. For us, it made sense to make the exhibition mobile so that it can exist in a variety of spaces and have the most impact, so we’ve been collaborating with St. Olaf’s Facilities Department to create a movable wall. We just finished our first prototype, and after a lot of work, we’re making progress toward the finished product.
Having organized events about the plight of migrants near the Southern Border, what stands out to you?
Tyreis: Filling out the toe tags is always emotionally difficult for me. The first two victims whose toe tags I added to the exhibition had the cause of death listed as “asthma” and “lung collapse.” As a child growing up with severe asthma and knowing how scary an asthma attack can be, my chest felt so heavy. It was a very real and emotionally intense moment, especially as an international student living in the United States, to see a person looking for a better life die from a condition that is so common.
Kgomotso: Through this project, we’ve tried to humanize the statistics, but at the end of the day, the statistics are all we have. I have encountered toe tags of people that are my age, younger sometimes. These people had dreams, hopes, and families. They had full lives to live. There was more for them, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around the abruptness and violence that marked the end of their lives. There’s also a cluster of deaths you can see in the exhibit right along the border, but when I see tags far away from everyone else, I think about how these individuals might have died alone. I can’t get that out of my head, and that’s part of why this is important. People don’t just pack their bags and leave their home to travel knowingly through hostile terrain, but the rhetoric around migrants remains “Why are they coming here?” That only shows that we don’t understand what they’re going through or the role of countries like the United States in creating conditions in other countries which necessitate fleeing. It will always leave me unsettled, and so we dedicate our time to proactive advocacy. Hostile Terrain 94 has been an opportunity to memorialize those who have lost their lives and to help us generate energy and support for advocacy work for migrants living these experiences.
You can learn more about the St. Olaf Hostile Terrain 94 on the group’s website, Instagram, and Facebook. The organization is always looking for new students, faculty, staff, and community members to join their ever-growing team by emailing email@example.com. Their upcoming exhibition will feature toe tags for more than 3,200 migrants who died crossing the United States’ southern border and will be available for viewing in Spring 2021 in various spaces on campus.